By Camille Saint-Saens.
While Delsarte was preparing the way for the old French opera and above all for Gluck’s works, another pioneer of musical evolution was working to form the taste of the Parisian public, but with an entirely different power and another effect. Seghers was the man. He played a great role and his memory should be honored.
As his name indicates, Seghers was a Belgian. He started life as a violinist and was one of Baillot’s pupils. His execution was masterly, his tone admirable, and he had a musical intelligence of the first order. He had every right to a first rank among virtuosi, but this man, herculean in appearance and tenacious in his purposes, lost all his power before an audience.
He had a dream of giving to lovers of music the last of Beethoven’s quartets, which were considered at the time both unplayable and incomprehensible. In the end he planned a series of concerts at which, despite my age—I was only fifteen—I was to be the regular pianist. He planned to give in addition to these quartets, some of Bach’s sonatas and Reber’s and Schumann’s trios. I spoke of this plan to his mother-in-law one day as she was peacefully embroidering at the window, and told her how pleased I was at the thought of the concerts.
“Don’t count on it too much,” she told me. “He’ll never give them.”
When everything was ready, he invited some thirty people to listen to a trial performance. It was wretched. All the depth of tone had gone from his violin as well as the skill from his fingers.... The project was abandoned.
It was left for Maurin to make something out of these terrible quartets. Maurin had peculiar gifts. He had a lightness of bow which I have never seen equalled by anyone and a lightness and charm which enchanted the public. But I can say in all sincerity that Seghers’s execution was even better. Unfortunately for him I was his only listener.
Madame Seghers was a woman of great beauty, unusually intelligent and distinguished. She had been one of Liszt’s pupils and was a pianist of first rank. But she was even more timid than her husband—a single listener was sufficient to paralyze her. When Liszt was teaching Madame Seghers, he came to appreciate her husband’s real worth and entrusted his daughter’s musical education to him. This is sufficient indication of the esteem in which Liszt held Seghers. So it was not surprising that he gave me valuable and greatly needed suggestions in regard to style and the piano itself, for his friendship with Liszt had given him a thorough understanding of the instrument.
I first saw and heard Liszt at Seghers’s house. He had reappeared in Paris after long years of absence, and by that time he had begun to seem almost legendary. The story went that since he had become chapel-master at Weimar he was devoting himself to grand compositions, and, what appeared unbelievable, “piano music.” People who ought to have known that Mozart was the greatest pianist of his time shrugged their shoulders at this. As a climax it was insinuated that Liszt was setting systems of philosophy to music.
I studied Liszt’s works with all the enthusiasm of my eighteen years for I already regarded him as a genius and attributed to him even before I saw him almost superhuman powers as a pianist. Remarkable to relate he surpassed the conception I had formed. The dreams of my youthful imagination were but prose in comparison with the Bacchic hymn evoked by his supernatural fingers. No one who did not hear him at the height of his powers can have any idea of his performance.
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Seghers was a member of the Societe des Concerts at the Conservatoire. This reached only a restricted public and there was no other symphony concert worthy of the name in Paris at the time. And if the public was limited, the repertoire was even more so. Haydn’s, Mozart’s and Beethoven’s symphonies were played almost exclusively, and Mendelssohn’s were introduced with the greatest difficulty. Only fragments of vast compositions like the oratorios were given. An author who was still alive was looked upon as an intruder. However, the conductor was permitted to introduce a solo of his own selection. Thus my friend Auguste Tolbecque, who was over eighty, was permitted to give—he still played beautifully—my first concerto for the violoncello which I had written for him. Deldevez, the conductor of the famous orchestra at the time, did not overlook the chance to tell me that he had put my concerto on the programme only through consideration for Tolbecque. Otherwise, he added, he would have preferred Messieurs So-and-so’s.
Not only did the Conservatoire audiences know little music, but the larger public knew none at all. The symphonies of the three great classic masters were known to amateurs for the most part only through Czerny’s arrangement for two pianos.
This was the situation when Seghers left the Societe des Concerts and founded the Societe St. Cecile. He led the orchestra himself. The new society took its name from the St. Cecile hall which was then in the Rue de la Chaussee d’Antin. It was a large square hall and was excellent in spite of the prejudice in favor of halls with curved lines for music. Curved surfaces, as Cavaille-Coll, who was an expert in this matter, once told me, distort sound as curved mirrors distort images. Halls used for music should, therefore, have only straight lines. The St. Cecile hall was sufficiently large to allow a complete orchestra and chorus to be placed properly and heard as well.
Seghers managed to assemble an excellent and sizable orchestra and he also secured soloists who were young then but who have since become celebrities. The orchestra was poorly paid and also very unruly. I have seen them rebel at the difficulties in Beethoven, and it was even worse when Seghers undertook to give Schumann who was considered the ne plus ultra of modernism. Oftentimes there were real riots. But we heard there for the first time the overture of Manfred, Mendelssohn’s Symphony in A minor, and the overture to Tannhauser.
The modern French school found the doors in the Rue Bergere closed to them, but they were welcomed with open arms at the Chaussee d’Antin. Among them were Reber, Gounod, and Gouvy, and even beginners like Georges Bizet and myself. I made my first venture there with my Symphony in E flat which I wrote when I was seventeen. In order to get the committee to adopt it, Seghers offered it as a symphony by an unknown author, which had been sent to him from Germany. The committees swallowed the bait, and the symphony, which would probably not had a hearing if my name had been signed, was praised to the skies.
I can still see myself at a rehearsal listening to a conversation between Berlioz and Gounod. Both of them were greatly interested in me, so that they spoke freely and discussed the excellences and faults of this anonymous symphony. They took the work seriously and it can be imagined how I drank in their words. When the veil of mystery was lifted, the interest of the two great musicians changed to friendship. I received a letter from Gounod, which I have kept carefully, and as it does credit to the author, I take the liberty of reproducing it here:
My dear Camille:
I was officially informed yesterday that you are the author of the symphony which they played on Sunday. I suspected it; but now that I am sure, I want to tell you at once how pleased I was with it. You are beyond your years; always keep on—and remember that on Sunday, December 11, 1853, you obligated yourself to become a great master.
Your pleased and devoted friend,
Many works which had been unknown to Parisian audiences were given at these concerts and nowhere else. Among them were Schubert’s Symphony in C, fragments of Weber’s opera Preciosa, his Jubel overture, and symphonies by Gade, Gouvy, Gounod, and Reber. These symphonies are not dazzling but they are charming. They form an interesting link in the golden chain, and the public has a right and even some sort of duty to hear them. They would enjoy hearing them too, just as at the Louvre they like to see certain pictures which are not extraordinary but which are, nevertheless, worthy of the place they occupy. That is to say, if the public is really guided by a love of art and seeks only intellectual pleasure instead of sensations and shocks. Some one has said lately that where there is no feeling there is no music. We could, however, cite many passages of music which are absolutely lacking in emotion and which are beautiful nevertheless from the standpoint of pure esthetic beauty. But what am I saying? Painting goes its own way and emotion, feeling, and passion are evoked by the least landscape. Maurice Barres brought in this fashion and he could even see passion in rocks. Happy is he who can follow him there.
Among the things we heard at that time and which we never hear now I must note especially Berlioz’s Corsaire and King Lear. His name is so much beloved by the present day public that this neglect is both unjust and unjustifiable. The great man himself came to the Societe St. Cecile one day to conduct his L’Enfance du Christ which he had just written—or rather La Fuite en Egypt which was the only part of the work that was in existence then. He composed the rest of it afterwards. I remember perfectly the performances which the great man directed. They were lively and spirited rather than careful, but somewhat slower than what Edouard Colonne has accustomed us to. The time was faster and the nuances sharper.
In spite of the enthusiasm of the conductor and the skill and talent of the orchestra, the society led a hand-to-mouth existence. The sinews of war were lacking. Weckerlin directed the choruses and I acted as the accompanist at the rehearsals. Love of art sufficed us, but the singers and instrumentalists were not satisfied with that in the absence of all emoluments. If Seghers had been adaptable, he might have secured resources, but that was not his forte. Meyerbeer wanted him to give his Struensee and Halevy wanted a performance of his Promethee. But this was contrary to Seghers’s convictions, and when he had once made up his mind nothing could change him. Nevertheless he did give the overture to Struensee and it would have been no great effort to give the rest. As to Promethee, even if the last part is not in harmony with the rest of it, the work was well worthy the honor of a performance, which the proud society in the Rue Bergere had accorded it. By these refusals Seghers was deprived of the support of two powerful protectors.
Pasdeloup craftily took advantage of the situation. He had plenty of money and, as he knew what the financial situation was, he went to the rehearsals and corrupted the artists. For the most part they were young people in needy circumstances and could not refuse his attractive propositions. He killed Seghers’s society and built on its ruins the Societe des Jeunes Artistes, which later became the Concerts Populaires.
Pasdeloup was sincerely fond of music but he was a very ordinary musician. He had little of Seghers’s feeling and profound comprehension of the art. In Seghers’s hands the popular concerts might have become an admirable undertaking, but Pasdeloup, in spite of his zeal and skill, was able to give them only a superficial and deceptive brilliancy. Besides, Seghers would have worked for the development of the French school whom Pasdeloup, with but few exceptions, kept under a bushel until 1870. Among these exceptions were a symphony by Gounod, one by Gouvy and the overture to Berlioz’s Frances-Juges. Until the misfortunes and calamities of that terrible year the French symphonic school had been repressed and stifled between the Societe des Concerts and the Concerts Populaires. Perhaps they were necessary so that this school might be freed and give flight to its fancies.
This is taken from Musical Memories.
Copyright © Daniel McAdam· All Rights Reserved