Orphee

by Camille Saint-Saens


We know, or, rather we used to know—for we are beginning to forget that there is an admirable edition of Gluck’s principal works. This edition was due to the interest of an unusual woman, Mlle. Fanny Pelletan, who devoted a part of her fortune to this real monument and to fulfill a wish Berlioz expressed in one of his works. Mlle. Pelletan was an unusually intelligent woman and an accomplished musician, but she needed some one to help her in this large and formidable task. She was unassuming and distrusted her own powers, so that she secured as a collaborator a German musician, named Damcke, who had lived in Paris a long time and who was highly esteemed. He gave her the moral support she needed and some bad advice as well, which she felt obliged to follow.  This collaboration accounts for the change of the contralto parts to counter-tenors. It also accounts for the fact that in every instance the parts for the clarinets are indicated in C, in this way attributing to the author a formal intention he never had. Gluck wrote the parts for the clarinets without bothering whether the player—to whom he left a freedom of choice and the work of transposition—would use his instrument in C, B, or A. This method was not peculiar to Gluck. Other composers used it as well, and traces of it are found even in Auber’s works.

After Damcke’s death Mlle. Pelletan got me to help her in this work. I wanted to change the method, but the edition would have lost its unity and she would not consent. It was time that Damcke’s collaboration ended. He belonged to the tribe of German professors who have since become legion. Due to their baneful influence, in a short time, when the old editions have disappeared, the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, even of Chopin, will be all but unrecognizable. The works of Sebastian Bach and Handel will be the only ones in existence in their pristine purity of form, thanks to the admirable editions of the Bach und Haendel Gesselschaft. When Mlle. Pelletan brought me into the work, the two Iphigenie had been published; Alceste was about to be, and Armide was ready. In Armide Damcke had been entirely carried away by his zeal for “improvements”—a zeal that can do so much harm. It was time this was stopped. Not only had he corrected imaginary faults here and there, but he had also inserted things of his own invention. He had even gone so far as to re-orchestrate the ballet music, in the naive belief that he was bringing out the author’s real meaning better than he had done himself. It took an enormous amount of time to undo this mischief, for I distrusted somewhat my own lights and Mlle. Pelletan had too high an opinion of Damcke’s work and did not dare to override his judgment.

That excellent woman did not live to see the end of her work. She began the preparation of Orphee, but she died almost at once. So I was left to finish the score alone without that valuable experience and masterly insight by which she solved the most difficult problems. And there were real enigmas to be solved at every step. The old engraved scores of Gluck’s works reproduced his manuscripts faithfully enough, but they bore evidence of carelessness and amazing inaccuracy. They are mere sketches instead of complete scores. Many details are vague and vagueness is not permissible in a serious edition. It follows that the different editions of Gluck’s works published in the Nineteenth Century, however sumptuous or careful they may be, are worthless. The Pelletan edition alone can be consulted with confidence, because we were the only ones to have all extant and authentic documents in the library at the Opera to set us right. We had scores copied for actual performances on the stage and portions of orchestral parts of incalculable value. In addition, we had no aim or preoccupation in elaborating this material other than to reconstitute as closely as possible the thought of the author.

 

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Switzerland is a country where artistic productions are not unusual.  Every year we have reports of some grandiose performance in which the people take part themselves. They come from every direction to help, even from a considerable distance, thanks to the many means of communication in that delightful land. It is not surprising, therefore, to learn that a theatre has been built in the pretty town of Mezieres, near Lusanne, for the performance of the works of a young poet, named Morax. These works are dramas with choruses, and the surrounding country furnishes the singers. The work given in 1911 was Allenor—the music by Gustave Doret—and it was a great success.

Gustave Doret is a real artist and he never for a moment thought of keeping the Theatre du Jorat for his own exclusive use. He dreamt of giving Gluck’s works in their original form, for they are always altered and changed according to the fancies or incompetency of the performers or directors. They formed a large and influential committee and a substantial guarantee fund was subscribed. Then they gave a brilliant banquet at which the Princess of Brancovan was present. And Paderewski, one of the most enthusiastic promotors of the enterprise, delivered an eloquent address. No one should be surprised at either his zeal or his eloquence. Paderewski is not only a pianist; he is a man of great intellect as well,--a great artist who permits himself the luxury of playing the piano marvellously.

As he knew that I had spent several years in studying Gluck’s works under the microscope, so to speak, Gustave Doret did me the honor to ask my advice. His choice for the opening work was Orphee, which requires only three principals, Orpheus, Eurydice, and Love. It has become the custom to add a fourth, a Happy Spirit, but this spirit is one of Carvalho’s inventions and has no reason for existence.

There are, however, two Orphee. The first is Orfeo which was written in Italian, on Calzabigi’s text, and was first presented at Venice in 1761. The role of Orpheus in this score was written for a contralto and was designed for the eunuch Quadagni. The Venetian engravers of that day were either incompetent or, perhaps, there were none, for the scores of Gluck’s Alceste in Italian and Haydn’s Seasons were printed from type. However that may be the score of Orfeo was engraved in Paris.  The composer Philidor corrected the proofs. He little thought that Orfeo would ever get so far as Paris, so he appropriated the romanza in the first act and introduced it with but slight modifications into his opera-comique Le Sorcier. Later on Marie Antoinette called Gluck to Paris and thus afforded him the opportunity for the complete development of his genius. After he had written Iphigenie en Aulide, performed in 1774, especially for the Opera, he had the idea of adapting Orfeo for the French stage. To tell the truth he must have thought of it before, for Orphee appeared at the Opera only three months after Iphigenie and it had been entirely rewritten in collaboration with Moline. The contralto part had been changed to tenor and so the principal role was given to Legros.

Though it may be true that the author improved this work in the French version, it is not true in every case. There is some question whether the overture existed in the Italian score. It is generally believed that it did, but there are old copies of this version in existence and they begin the opera with the funeral chorus and show no overture at all.  This overture, although the Mercure de France treats it as a “beautiful symphonic piece which serves as a good introduction to the work,” in reality does not resemble the style of the rest at all. It in no way prepares for that admirable chorus at the beginning—unequaled of its kind—which Orpheus’s broken hearted cry of “Eurydice! Eurydice!” makes so pathetic.

The first act of Orfeo ends in a tumultuous effect of the stringed instruments which was evidently intended to indicate a change of scene and the appearance of the stage settings of the infernal regions. This passage does not appear in the French Orphee and it is lacking in the engraved score, where it is replaced by a bravura aria of doubtful taste, accompanied by a single quartet. Whether the stage managers wanted an entr’acte or the tenor, Legros, demanded an effective aria, or for both these reasons, a reading of the manuscript indicates how absolutely the author’s meaning was changed. There is no doubt that except for some such reason he would have changed this aria and put it in harmony with the rest of the work.

For a long time this aria was attributed to Bertoni, the composer, and Gluck was accused of plagiarizing it. As a matter of fact, and to the contrary, this aria came from an older Italian opera of Gluck’s. Bertoni not only imitated it in one of his scores, but he had the hardihood to write an Orfeo on the text already followed by Gluck in which he plagiarized the work of his illustrious predecessor in a scandalous fashion.

This same aria, changed with real genius and performed with prodigious eclat by Madame Viardot, and re-orchestrated by myself, was one of the strongest reasons for the success of the famous performances at the Theatre-Lyrique. But it is well understood that it could not properly find a place in an edition where the sole end was artistic sincerity and purity of the text.

From this point of view it would seem that the best manner of giving Orphee would be to conform to the author’s definitive version. A tenor would have to take the part of Orpheus, since we no longer have male contraltos, and to keep to this kind of a voice in Orphee we would have to have recourse to what is called, in theatrical terms, a travesti. There are obstacles to this, however. The pitch has changed since the Eighteenth Century; it has gone up and it is now impossible, or nearly so, to sing the role written for Legros. The contraltos of the Italian chorus have become the counter-tenors, who, for the same reason, find themselves struggling with too sharp notes.

In the Seventeenth Century the French pitch was even more flat, and it is a great pity, for it is almost impossible to perform our old music, on account of the insuperable obstacles. This is not the case in Germany, however, or in Italy, and that is the reason why the works of Sebastian Bach and Mozart can be sung. The same is true of Gluck’s Italian works.

This was the reason that Doret gave the part of Orpheus to a contralto, just as is done at the Opera-Comique. The poetic character of the part of Orpheus lends itself excellently to such a feminine interpretation.  But in resuming the key of the Italian score, it is necessary to go back, at least to a considerable degree, to the instrumentation. By a curious anomaly the beautiful recitative, accompanied by the murmur of brooks and the songs of the birds, is in C major in both scores. The author could not have changed them. On the contrary he modified his instrumentation greatly, simplified and perfected it.

We know that the authors, in utter defiance of mythology, wanted a happy ending and so brought Eurydice back to life a second time. Love accomplished this miracle and the work ended with the song “Love Triumphs,” which is exceedingly joyful and in harmony with the situation. They did not want this ending, which was in Orfeo and which Gluck retained in Orphee, at the old Theatre-Lyrique and the Opera-Comique, and they replaced it with a chorus by Echo and Narcissus.  This chorus is charming, but that does not excuse it. Joy was what the author wanted and this does not give joy at all. Gluck’s finale is regarded as not sufficiently distinguished, but this is wrong. The real finale was sung at Mezieres and it was found that it was not at all common, but that its frank gaiety was in the best of taste.

Gluck had no scruples about grinding several grists from the same sack and drawing from his old works to help out his new ones. So the parasitical aria attributed to Bertoni was written by Gluck in the first place in 1764 for a soprano. He wove this into his opera Aristo in 1769. This is also true of the trio, Tendre Amour, which precedes the finale in the last act. A serious-minded analyst might be tempted to admire the profound psychology of the author in mingling doleful accents with expressions of joy, but he would have his labor for his pains. The trio was taken from the opera Elena e Paride, where Gluck expressed strongly wrought up emotions. Doret did not keep these two passages and one can’t blame him. On the other hand, he retained, by making it an entr’acte, the Ballet des Furies. This was taken from a ballet, Don Giovanni o il convitato de pietra, which was performed at Vienna in 1761. This passage was used as the accompaniment to Don Juan’s descent into Hell, surrounded by his band of demons.

Many of Gluck’s compatriots came to Mezieres to see Orphee and they were loyal enough to recognize the superiority of the performance. Some even had the courage to say, “We murder Gluck in Germany.”

I discovered that fact a long time ago. In my youth I was indignant when I saw Paris, where Gluck wrote his finest works, quite neglecting them, whereas Germany continued to promote them. In those days I was frequently called to the other side of the Rhine to play in concerts, and I watched for a chance to see one of these masterpieces which had been forgotten in France. So it was with the liveliest joy that one day I entered one of the leading German theaters where they were giving Armide. What a hollow mockery it was!

Madame Malten was Armide, and she was everything that could be wished in voice, talent, style, beauty and charm. She spoke French without an accent and was as remarkable as an actress as a singer, so she would without doubt have had great success at the Opera in Paris. She was Armide herself, an irresistible enchantress.

But the rest! Renaud was a raw boy, and his shaven chin brought out in sharp relief enormous black moustaches with long waxed ends. He had a voice, to be sure, but no style, and no understanding of the work he was trying to interpret.

Hidradot is an old sorcerer tempered in the fires of Hell. He enters, saying:

“I see hard by Death that threatens me, And already old age, that has chilled my blood, Is on me, bowing me beneath a crushing burden.”

Imagine my surprise at seeing come on the stage a magnificent specimen of manhood, with a curled black beard, in all the glory of his youth and vigor superbly arrayed in a red cloak trimmed with gold!

The stage setting was also extraordinary. In the second act Renaud went to sleep at the back of the stage, forcing Armide to speak the whole of the beautiful scene which follows, one of the most important in the part, at a distance from the footlights and with her back to the audience.

As for the orchestra, sometimes it followed Gluck’s text and sometimes it borrowed bits of orchestration which Meyerbeer had written for the Opera at Berlin. This orchestration is interesting, and I know it well for I have had it in hand. It is only fair to say that Gluck, from some inexplicable caprice, did not give the same care to the instrumentation of Armide that he did to Orphee, Alcesti, and the Iphigenies.  The trombones do not appear at all and the drums and flutes only at rare intervals. Re-orchestration is not absolutely necessary and Meyerbeer’s is no more reprehensible than those with which Mozart enriched Handel’s Messe and La Fete d’Alexandre. What was inadmissible was not deciding frankly for one version or the other. It was like a badly patched coat which shows the old cloth in one place and the new in another.

Afterwards I saw Armide treated in another way.

Did you ever happen to cherish the memory of a delightful and picturesque city, where everything made a harmonious whole, where the beautiful walks were arched over by old trees—and later come back to it to find it embellished, the trees cut down, the walks replaced by enormous buildings which dwarfed into insignificance the ancient marvels which gave the city its charm?

This was the case with me when I saw Armide again in a city which I shall not name. The opera had been judged superannuated and had been “improved.” A young composer had written a new score in which he inserted here and there such bits of Gluck as he thought worthy of being preserved. A costly and magnificently imbecile luxuriousness set off the whole piece. I may be pardoned the cruel adjective when I say that in the scene of Hate, so deeply inspired, and which takes place in a sort of cave, they relegated the chorus to the wings to make a place for dragons, fantastic birds beating their wings, and other deviltries.  This, of course, deprived the chorus of all its power and distinction.

But the best was at the end of the second act. The forest with its trees, grass and rocks entirely disappeared in the flies taking Renaud and Armide with it and the spectator was left, for some unknown reason, looking at a background surrounded by mountains. Then, by a marvel of mechanism, there appeared to the sound of ultramodern music, Renaud sleeping on a bed of state, with Armide standing at the foot and stretching forth her hand with a gesture of authority, declaiming in a solemn tone, “Rinaldo, I love you!” and the curtain fell to the applause of the audience.

 

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We owe much to Germany in music, for it has produced many great musicians. It can set off against our trinity of Corneille, Racine, and Moliere, the no less glorious Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But Germany seems to have lost all respect for the meaning of its own music and for its own glories. Instead of watching over the purity of the text of its masterpieces, it alters them at its pleasure and makes them all but unrecognizable. We abuse nuances but they were rare in earlier days. An orchestra conductor who performs symphonies by Haydn and Mozart, even by Beethoven, has the right to make additions. But it is intolerable that the scores should be printed with these nuances and bowings which are in no way due to the author and which are imposed by the editor.  Nevertheless, that is what happens, and it is impossible to tell where the authentic text ends and the interpolation begins. In addition, the interpolation may be the exact contrary of what the author intended.

This evil is at its worst in piano music. Our famous teachers, like Marmontel and Le Couppey, have published editions of the classics which are full of their own directions. But the player is forewarned; it is the Marmontel or Le Couppey edition and makes no pretence of authenticity. In Germany, however, there are supposedly authentic editions, based on the originals, but which superimpose their own pernicious inventions on the author’s text.

The touch of the piano used to be different from what it is to-day. The directions in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s works show that they used the execution of stringed instruments as their model. The touch was lighter and the fingers were raised so that the notes were separated slightly, and not run together except when indicated. The supposition is that this must have led to a dryness of tone. I remember to have heard in my childhood some old people whose playing was singularly hopping. Then, there came a reaction, and with it a passion for slurring the notes.  When I was Stamaty’s pupil, it was considered most difficult to “tie” the notes; that required, however, only dexterity and suppleness. “When she learns to ‘tie,’ she will know how to play,” said the mother of a young pianist. Nevertheless, the trick of perpetual legato becomes exceedingly monotonous and takes away all character from the pianoforte classics. But it is insisted on everywhere in the modern German editions. Throughout there are connections seemingly interminable in length, and indications of legato, sempre legato, which the author not only did not indicate, but in places where it is easy to see that he intended the exact opposite.

If this is the case, what shall be said of marking the fingering on all the notes—which often makes good playing impossible. Liszt taught hundreds of pupils according to the best principles, yet such erroneous principles have prevailed!

Disciples of the ivory keys are numerous in our day. Everybody wants to have a piano, and everybody plays it or thinks he does, which is not always the same thing, and few really understand what the term “to play the piano,” so currently used, means.

The harpsichord reigned supreme before the appearance of the piano—an instrument which is beloved by some and execrated by others. To his utter amazement Reyer was considered an enemy of the pianoforte. The harpsichord has been revived of late so that it is needless to describe it. It lacks strength, and that was the reason it was dethroned in a period when strength was everything. On the other hand, it has distinction and elegance. As the player can not modify the intensity of the sound by a single pressure of the finger—in which it resembles the organ—like the organ, with its multiple keyboards and registers, the harpsichord has a wide variety of effects and affords the opportunity for several octaves to sound simultaneously. As a result, while music written for the harpsichord gains in strength and expression on the modern instrument, it often assumes a deceptive monotony for which the author is not responsible.

The players of the harpsichord were ignorant of muscular effects; there was nothing of the unchained lion about them. The delicate hands of a marquise lost none of their gracefulness as they skimmed over the keyboards, and the red or black keys emphasized their whiteness.

The introduction of the hammer in the place of the tiny nib permitted the modification of the quality of sound by differences in the pressure of the fingers, and also the production at will of such nuances as forte and piano without recourse to the different registers. This is the reason why the new instrument was first called the pianoforte. The word was long and cumbersome and was cut in half. When it became necessary to assault the note, they used the phrase “to hit the forte.” The papers which gave accounts of young Mozart’s concerts praised him for his ability to “hit.”

Nevertheless one did not hit hard. These keyboards with their limited keys responded so easily that a child’s fingers were sufficient. I first played on one of these instruments at the age of three. It was made by Zimmerman, whose son was Gounod’s father-in-law.

Later, the weight of the keys was increased to get a greater volume of sound. Then, when long-haired virtuosi, playing by main strength, produced peals of thunder, they really “toucha du piano.”

 

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To return to Orphee and end as we began, I have to make a painful confession. If the works of Gluck in general and Orphee in particular have had a happy influence on our musical taste, a passage from this last work has been a noxious influence,--the famous chorus of the demons

“Quel est l’audacieux—qui dans ces sombres lieux—ose porter ses pas?”

In the old days French opera was based on declamation and it was scrupulously respected even in the arias. There is a fine example of this excellent system in Lully’s famous aria from Medusa to prove what strength results from a close relation between the accent of the verse and the music. Gluck was one of the most fervent disciples of this system, but Orphee, as we know, was derived from Orfeo. The question was whether he could even think of suppressing this spectacular chorus with its amazing strength which was one of the principal reasons for the work’s success. Unfortunately the music of the chorus was moulded on the Italian text, and each verse ended with the accent on the antepenult, which occurs frequently in German and Italian, but never in French. And they sing:

Quel est l’auDAcieux

Qui dans ces SOMbres lieux

Ose porTER ses pas

Et devant LE trepas

Ne fremit pas?

As French is not strongly accented such faults are tolerated. Gluck’s theme impressed itself on the memory, so that he dealt a terrific blow to the purity of prosody. We gradually became so disinterested in this that by Auber’s time scarcely any attention was paid to it. Finally, Offenbach appeared. He was a German by birth and his musical ideas naturally rhymed with German in direct contradiction to the French words to which they applied. This constant bungling passed for originality.  Sometimes it would have been necessary to change the division of a measure to get a correct melody, as in the song:

Un p’tit bonhomme

Pas plus haut qu’ca.

In such a case we might say that he did wrong for the mere pleasure of going astray. But popular taste was so corrupted that no one noticed it and everybody who wrote in the lighter vein fell into the same habits.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Andre Messager for breaking away from this manner and setting musical phraseology aright. His return to the old traditions was not the least of the attractions of his delightful Veronique.

But we are wandering far from Gluck and Orphee, although not so far as we might think. In art, as in everything, extremes meet, and there are all kinds of tastes.


 


 

 

Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich [1919], edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


 

Daniel McAdam Guide to Classical Music