French Opera From Its Beginning

IN previous chapters we mentioned that numerous kings of France were patrons of music, maintaining bodies of musicians at court, or as attachés to their chapels, for the purpose of securing dignified performances of church music; Okeghem being with Charles VII, and Josquin de Près with Louis XII. Francis I and Henry II themselves aspired to be composers; Charles IX sang in his own church choir, and Marguerite de Valois gave concerts at Issy, all proving that the love for music was very common among French sovereigns.

Although political and religious struggles convulsed France during the latter half of the sixteenth century, court amusements were carried on with great gayety. The most popular of these were ballets, in which the high nobility took part, and which were staged with great splendor and at enormous expense. The queen and her sister, and even the king, at times took part in these; and in one of the favorite ballets, published in 1582, occurs the melody which was so popular in bygone days under the name of “Air or Gavotte of Louis XIII.”

As a result of Renaissance influence Greek mythology furnished the subjects for most of the ballets; but contemporaneous follies, fads and political episodes came in for their share, especially in the time of Henry IV and Louis XIII, gloomy and taciturn though the latter usually was. Louis XVI also loved to appear in these ballets. In one of them a concealed chorus of sixty-four, accompanied by twenty-eight stringed instruments and fourteen lutes, took part; while in another a chorus of ninety-two voices with forty-five instruments participated, each conductor having written the music for his chorus and its accompaniment; while still another musician wrote the dance-music.

The pastoral play had early been in favor with the French, for Adam de la Halle composed, in the thirteenth century, a little pastoral play called Robin and Marian, noteworthy for the charm of its songs, and written in what we should now perhaps call the light-opera style.

The dance, as a class of dramatic entertainment, was indigenous to France, and the ballet is even to-day an important adjunct of French Grand Opera. The early French ballets resembled the English “Masques” in form (see Milton’s “Cornus”), and contained dialogues, and vocal and instrumental music; thus they were, in a way, the precursors of French Opera.

The Renaissance spirit, having reached France, exercised great influence in the reconstruction of French literature, and the poet Malesherbes (1555—1628) promptly established the form of French dramatic verse along the lines of the Greek drama. When the edict of Nantes was issued in 1598, it seemed as if art would flourish under the reign of Henry IV; but his career was cut short by the dagger of Ravaillac.

We mentioned this king’s marriage to Catherine de’ Medici, which occurred at Florence in 1600, and the performance of Peri’s Euridice as, a part of the wedding festivities. By this union France became consolidated and comparatively peaceful, a condition favorable to artistic development. The French ladies and gentlemen who accompanied Henry to Florence were not only entertained by the performance of the little music-drama, but it made a deep impression upon many of them. The seed thus sown did not, however, “flourish and bring forth fruit” until nearly fifty years later, for the ballet continued the favorite form of amusement at court. But after the death of Henry IV, Cardinal Mazarin, fearing the capricious moods of Anne of Austria, queen of Louis XIII, sent to Italy for a company of singers in the new art (le nuove musiche), and in 1645 there came to Paris such a company, which performed Peri’s Euridice. The musical ideas underlying this opera, and its musical forms of utterance, pleased; but a nation that had learned to appreciate and enjoy such strong intellectual food as Corneille’s “Cid,” and the dramas of Molière, which had so stimulated and elevated French literature, could not feel satisfied with a performance dramatically so weak as Peri’s Euridice. It was agreed, therefore, that the music-drama must be altered, if it was ever to correspond to French national art-ideas, and that it must be sung in the French language. But how could this be done? The very form and construction of the Alexandrine verse, in imitation of that of the Greeks, the accepted form of French dramatic utterance, with its every line having the same number of syllables, was considered by musicians to be incapable of operatic adaptation. Two or three lines from one of the great French poems will illustrate this:

“Je chante ce héros qui régna sur la France Et par droit de conquête, et par droit de naissance, Qui par des longs malheurs apprit à gouverner.”

Line after line with the same number of syllables, no pause, no stopping-place, none of that variety which the musician demands in order to give a poem a musical setting. But who would dare change the poetic mode of utterance, which be-cause of its stately grandeur was the admiration of all?

In the time of the Netherlanders and other polyphonic schools, poetry had often been “murdered” to suit poly-phonic development; but matters were now reversed, and it was universally conceded that music must be subservient to text in a music-drama. A change in the form of French poetry was therefore deemed absolutely necessary. No one ventured on such a change until Abbé Perrin, who for years had been master of ceremonies for Gaston, Duke of Orleans, brother of Louis XIII, made a heroic effort. Having a great deal of stage experience and possessing true dramatic instinct, he, awakening to an appreciation of the duties of his position, conceived the idea of a new form of poetry, in imitation of that of the Italians, and in 1661 published a volume of verses in the Italian style. He was immediately attacked by all the poets and littérateurs for his heretical innovation; but the musicians liked it because it gave them more freedom, and Cambert, the organist of the church of St. Honoré, set the verses to music. Now, in itself, this new poetry was not elevating, being merely a series of drinking-songs, although attractive because of their form and decided character. In his preface to these songs the composer praises the poet’s originality and regrets that his music is not as good as the poetry deserves a rather rare confession. Perrin immediately set to work to carry out his ideas in a Masque which would appeal to its hearers because it was based on life — not, like Peri’s opera, on mythology. With Cambert he prepared the first French musical comedy, called “Vaudeville pastorale,” which was performed in 1659 before the summer court at Issy. This work was in every sense an opera, not merely a song-play with incidental music such as had obtained previously in Masques; for recitative was substituted for speech in imitation of Italian opera, and the music was continuous.

The immediate success of this work is the more creditable because it lacked the usual accessories of the ballet, such as brilliancy of costuming, scenery, etc., and was performed upon an impromptu stage. It was equally successful when repeated at the court of Vincennes, and the authors hoped to be commissioned to write a similar work for the marriage of Louis XIV. In this they were disappointed, for Cardinal Mazarin sent for Cavalli, the direct successor of Monteverde, who brought out his opera Xerxes for the occasion. Shortly afterward Perrin’s protector, the Duke of Orleans, and Mazarin both died. Nothing, however, could restrain the poet’s ardor, and he conceived the idea that the general public, the masses, would be willing to support opera as a form of entertainment. He managed to secure a patent or permission for twelve years, granting him the privilege of establishing an Academy of “Opera,” or “musical representation,” as it was called, as the players of the Passion had done many years before. He succeeded in securing the support of a rich man, Champeron, and called to his aid Cambert, the Marquis de Surdeac, a nobleman who had a talent for stage mechanism, and Beauchamp, the imperial ballet-master, thus providing all the factors necessary to produce opera. A building was erected in the Rue Mazarin, and they went to work on the opera Pomone, which was produced in March, 1671. Though the libretto was dramatically rather poor, the music pleased, as did the splendor of the stage accessories, and the opera ran night after night for eight months. In our day that does not seem a long time, but in those days it was an enormous period of time for a “run” of a play or an opera. It was such a great popular success that the police had to be called out to control the crowds who clamored for admission. For various reasons the poet Perrin soon dropped out of this coterie of opera promoters, and another poet, named Gilbert, was substituted. In November of the same year they produced another opera, also a Pastorale, entitled “The Difficulties and Pleasures of Love.” This work might have been as great a success as its predecessor if in the meantime another and stronger character had not appeared on the scene. This was Jean-Baptiste Lully, an Italian, born in Florence in 1633, who came to France in 1646 in the suite of a French nobleman who had heard the boy play the violin in Italy. Lully possessed considerable ability as a violinist and versatile musician. He was also a good comedian, and these varied accomplishments gained him the favor of the king, who conferred on him the title of “Inspector of violins,” and also gave him the use of a small orchestra, for which he wrote special music which is said to have been extremely pleasing to the court. His first successes were due to incidental music written for the plays of Boileau, La Fontaine, and the great Molière. He seems, however, to have been a very unscrupulous chap, and ungrateful to those to whom he owed his success and opportunities, for he is known to have intrigued against Cambert at the time of that gentleman’s rupture with Perrin. By various means he succeeded in securing a revocation of the royal permission previously granted to the others, and in stopping the performance of Pomone. Having obtained his own patent, he determined to establish an “Académie Royale de Musique” for the purpose of giving opera. In this he was most successful, and together with his collaborator, the poet Quinault, inaugurated the golden age of French opera, which lasted a hundred years. Lully’s success was a popular one and due to the fact that he appreciated the wants and desires of the contemporary public. Being at home in tragedy, he gave up the Perrin form of blank verse, and tried to conform to the nature of Greek drama more closely than his Italian contemporaries. His music is therefore more like Monteverde’s, but he nevertheless strikes out for himself a path which is absolutely individual. His operas are inferior as musical art-works because his aim was musical rhetoric and declamation in dramatic expression — a union of tone with speech — rather than lyric song. His music, in consequence, was simpler in form than that of Scarlatti, but more expressive of dramatic spirit. For the poverty of his music he compensated by his knowledge of the stage and its accessories. In his intense earnestness to do his work well, he tyrannized over his librettist, his singers, his chorus, orchestra, and dancers — over all who were in any manner necessary to the successful production of opera. He taught the performers how to act, gave them better stage manners, and insisted above all on distinct enunciation, some-thing absolutely demanded in French opera to-day. We all know that, no matter how beautiful the voice, the effect is marred if the enunciation is not clear, and every one who aspires to be a singer must, therefore, acquire an absolutely distinct and clear delivery of the text. Lully’s insistence on this feature was all the more necessary because of the declamatory character of his music, even in the choruses, which, by the way, were much more prominent in the French than in the Italian operas, and had more to do, as in the Greek drama. The chief advance in musical form made by Lully was in the overture, which he perfected far beyond that known in Italy. Like Monteverde, he makes use of so-called “symphonies” to express dramatic action, employing them either as descriptions or as reminiscences after the manner of his Italian predecessor.

His operas held the stage for many years, the last being performed as late as 1778. During his lifetime his jealousy and the favor of the king allowed no one on the operatic stage but himself, but shortly before his death there was born, in 1683, one who was destined to be a many-sided genius, Jean-Philippe Rameau. He was one of the most versatile men of whom we have record among musicians, being a mathematician, a physicist, a profound theorist, and a virtuoso upon the harpsichord. His is one of the four great names of such virtuosi of the early eighteenth century, Bach, Handel, Scarlatti and Rameau. His education was very broad, and his talents were correspondingly great. He was intended for the profession of the law, but in 1701 went, instead, to study music at Milan. The sugared, florid, undramatic singing of Italian opera in the early eighteenth century was, however, not to his taste, and he considered it far inferior to the dignified declamatory style of Lully. He therefore returned to Paris and began to study seriously with the organist Marchand, who, however, soon dropped him as a probably dangerous future rival. After this he settled down in a quiet village near Paris, and devoted himself to the study of the works of Zarlino (the pioneer in the “tempered scale” movement) and other Italian and French theorists.

In 1725 he published a new system of Musical Theory in which he promulgates and gives rules with regard to the inversions of chords which had been in use in all forms of composition for centuries. While this work won him reputation as a learned musician, what he desired above all things was recognition as a composer. In 1730 he wrote the opera Samson, libretto by Voltaire; but it was declined at the “National Opera ” because founded on a Biblical story. In 1733 he tried again, selecting a classical subject, Hippolyte et Aricie. The first impression this work made upon the public was one of surprise rather than of satisfaction, and Rameau, disappointed at its lack of success, felt disposed to renounce further operatic composition. The public at first seems to have resented his views and innovations as insults to the genius of Lully, to whose style of dramatic music it was accustomed; but upon the production of his next opera, Castor and Pollux, the Parisian opera-goers divided into two camps, and pamphlets were circulated containing varied justifications of the positions which their authors took in championing, or opposing, the style of the new opera. Similar usage characterized all the struggles for the development of opera in France. The following is a free translation of one of the numerous slurs and epigrams leveled at poor Rameau:

If the difficult be the beautiful, What a great man is Rameau! But if the beautiful, peradventure, Be nothing but simple nature, What a small man is Rameau!

In his twenty-two subsequent operas he strengthened his hold upon the music-loving public, and became the acknowledged first French Grand-Opera composer.

His works so far surpassed those of Lully that many of his ablest contemporaries conceded that one of his operas contained enough new matter and material to make ten of Lully’s. He retained his prominence in the operatic field until his death in 1764, in spite of cabals and intrigues. At his funeral the world of art and letters united to do him honor, and the anniversary of his death is still observed with memorial ceremonies.

Besides his great advance in the domain of French opera, he is one of the four great musicians responsible for the general adoption of the tempered scale, which had already been in use to some extent in Germany because of the demands of Bach as far as the piano and organ were concerned, but which was now adopted for all instruments with fixed pitch, such as flutes, oboes, etc.

Rameau’s most remarkable French contemporary was that genius of many humanitarian and educational novelties, the father of the kindergarten idea, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This man’s importance in the history of music is not very great, but one thing that he did deserves our special notice. Having always found it difficult to read music at sight, he devised the system of the “movable do,” as we call it, with notation by numerals instead of notes. This had been suggested and even virtually taught by Guido d’Arezzo in 1050, in his hexachord scales, when he called each tonic ut and where mi-fa always represented a half-step. Rameau requested its adoption by the Academy of Sciences, but it failed, being considered “musically unworthy.” Nevertheless, in the last century, two men, Paris and Chevé, worked out this very idea of Rousseau’s, this reading by tonality, by key-relationship, and it is now in general use in France. Rousseau lacked musical education, but not genius. Rameau said of his compositions that some. of them sounded like the work of an artist, while others sounded like the work of a man unacquainted with the first principles of musical art. His best opera is Le Devin du Village, written in 1752.

In the same year Pergolese’s opéra bouffe La Serva Padrona was brought from Italy. Its appearance forms another episode in the operatic controversy which, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, had continued at intervals, and upon its production the theater became a field of oratorical battle. The king and Madame Pompadour defended national music, and their supporters ranged themselves on one side of of the opera-house in “le coin du Roi” (the corner of the king), while the supporters of Italian opera ranged themselves with the queen on the opposite side in “le coin de la Reine” (the corner of the queen). Pamphlets flew about. Every one who aspired to be anybody in musical or educational circles contributed to the literature on the subject, even Germany furnishing her share in favor of Italian opera. Rameau, recognizing that people were tired of the shackles of tradition, and that opéra bouffe (comic opera) contained the germs of genuine popularity, said, “If I were thirty years younger, I would go to Italy and study Pergolese; but I am now past sixty, and I cannot change.” The common people preferring opéra bouffe, La Serva Padrona was translated into the vernacular and given at the “Opéra-Comique,” the opera house which presented burlesques or parodies of the serious works per-formed at the grand opera. La Serva Padrona was exactly what the patrons of the Opéra-Comique wanted, and became so popular that a number of French composers began to write in this style. Among them we must especially mention Favart, Marmontel and Dauvergne; the latter’s opera Les Troqueurs was very popular during the early part of the nineteenth century (and is still given), because scenes and happenings from every-day life formed its subject. Thus originated the real French opera, opéra comique (comedy-opera), which is the expression of the popular taste and the popular life.

The greatest operatic mind of the eighteenth century, and one of the greatest of all time, was Gluck (1714-1785). The Italian opera, as we have seen, was reduced by the middle of this century to a mere collection of showy pieces for the singers, the arias having an excuse in the story, but the dramatic action being entirely lost because of the interminable length of these arias, and the many recalls of the singers, the whole being more like a concert than what we now call an opera. During these arias, dramatic action stopped, as may be observed in the mad scene of Lucia, where the chorus, representing the relatives and friends of poor, insane Lucia, stand around while she sings long cadenzas in alternation with the flute, in such trying relationship as to test all the vocal ability and technique of a sane person.

The efforts of Gluck were antagonistic to those practices, although he was educated at Prague, a stronghold of Italian opera, and studied music in Italy. To this fact, of course, is due his love for the Italian language. He wrote for Milan, Venice, Cremona and other Italian cities, was invited to England in 1746, and there produced two operas which met with but moderate success and made but a slight impression on Handel, who had already abandoned the operatic field for that of oratorio. Gluck’s visit to England was the turning-point in his career, for he became inspired by the choral works of Handel and impressed by their seriousness, while mortification over his own failures led him to. study the nature of dramatic music. On his way back to Vienna he passed through Paris, and heard some of Rameau’s operas, which also made a deep impression upon him. He struggled on for some years producing now and then an opera that was slightly better, but not of great note, until his Orpheus appeared in Vienna in 1762. This is his first master-work. It is conceived in the style of the Greek drama after the ideas of Monteverde, except that the chorus has also a prominent part in the dramatic action. His instrumentation was a revelation of the possibilities of the orchestra, and proved that he at last had found his true sphere. In 1767 he produced Alceste, whose music is excessively severe and tragic. The public was divided as to its merits. The more thoughtful, having conceived an idea of what music might some day become (we are now speaking of the eighteenth century), realized that probably only in a more self-forgetful future would such a lofty work be duly appreciated.

In his dedication of Alceste to the Duke of Tuscany, which forms a sort of preface to the work, he gives the reasons for his departure from the then recognized Italian opera-forms in the following words: “I seek to put music to its true purpose, that is, to support the poem and thus to strengthen the expression of feeling and the interest of the situation, without interrupting the action. I have, therefore, refrained from interrupting the actor in his fervent dialogues by little ritournelles; nor have I broken his phrase at a convenient vowel, so that he might exhibit upon it the agility of his voice; nor have I written phrases for the orchestra, that the singer may take a deep breath for such an exhibition; nor have I permitted myself to close an aria when the sense was incomplete, simply to give the singer a chance to introduce a long cadenza. In short, I have striven to abolish all these bad habits against which sound reasoning and true taste have been struggling for so long in vain.”

Galled by the lack of appreciation and the criticisms of his high ideals by his countrymen, and noting the revolutionary tendency of French philosophy and art-tastes, he went to Paris, hoping to find recognition there. In this he was not disappointed. Through his powerful artist-personality and with the assistance of a stipend from Marie Antoinette, one of his former pupils, he was enabled to obtain the support of the Queen’s followers and to produce his Alceste in Paris. Iphigenia in Tauris followed in 1774, Armida in 1777. Here he shows himself equally at home in rich, sensuous music, and he succeeded so well that the Bouffonites, the King’s followers, in their opposition called Piccini from Italy to bring out the latter’s opera Roland.

Once again the operatic war broke out between the old elements, the partisans now styling themselves Gluckists and Piccinists, and volumes were written in praise of Italian music and in criticisms of Gluck’s so-called roughness; but, though he was accused of everything unmusical, and was compared with a music-hall composer, he had the support of the men and women who were representative of the literature which then ruled the intellectual life of fashion.

The rivalry between Piccini and Gluck, i.e., the struggle for supremacy between Italian and French opera (by a German), may be said to have ended when Gluck’s I phigenia in Tauris, succeeding an operatic setting of the same libretto by Piccini, was conceded to be superior, even by his rival, who promptly withdrew his own work and returned to Italy.

All the finest qualities of Italian and French music, and the beauty of the German orchestra, are united in Gluck’s later works and even to-day they are often produced in Europe and occasionally in this country. Gluck was in many respects a direct precursor of Wagner. He died at Vienna in 1787.

The history of French opera from the time of Gluck is, with few exceptions (and those only within the last fifty years), the history of the Opéra-Comique. During the Revolution of 1795 and the five years preceding, the theaters in Paris were crowded, but the composers were employed in glorifying the revolutionary proceedings by national hymns and other occasional works; so the musical productions of that time have had no influence beyond their own period. To this there is one exception, “The Marseillaise,” written and composed by Rouget de Lisle in 1792 as a “chant de guerre pour l’armée du Rhin,” and scored for orchestra by Gossec, which has retained its power from that day to this. To this period of bloody revolution belongs one very peaceful event, namely, the establishment of the great Paris “Conservatoire de Musique et de Déclamation,” which was designed originally by its founder, Sarrette, for the education of French military band players, that they might replace the Germans then employed in the French army. After the government assumed control over this institution, which had been supported out of Sarrette’s private means, its sphere was enlarged to include all forms of musical instruction.

That the German spirit for many succeeding years influenced the growth of French opera is proved by Méhul’s Joseph and Cherubini’s Wassertrdiger, both composers acknowledged as great musicians by Germany; the latter being called by Beethoven an unsurpassable master in this kind of composition.

Spontini, the genuinely Napoleonic representative of the musical drama of France, followed Gluck’s ideal very closely, but labored during the larger part of his artist life in Berlin, where from 1820 to 1841 he was general music-director.

The French spirit from the day of Gluck until the second half of the nineteenth century was expressed almost exclusively in comedy-opera, which, as we have stated, is quite different from what we call “comic opera,” having a much higher character, as exemplified in Boiëldieu’s Calif of Bagdad (1800) and John of Paris (1812) ; in Auber’s La Muette de Portici (1828) and Fra Diavolo (1830), works which in this country are often called grand opera. Hérold (1791-1856), with his Zampa (whose overture is so well known), and other operas, begins to reflect the vigorous romantic spirit then abroad in Europe; this was also the case with the works of Charles Adam (1803-1856), who produced his opera Le Postillon de Longjumeau in 1836.

The greatest, however, of all Gluck’s successors in the domain of French grand opera up to within the last few years was Gounod, whom we know best as the composer of Faust. He was above all a lyric composer of unusual merit, though somewhat deficient in dramatic power, even his Faust depending on the choruses and songs rather than on the dramatic action.

Other French opera composers of the last fifty years are Victor Massé, who wrote several operas; Massenet, with his Roi de Lahore and Thaïs; Saint-Saëns, whose Samson and Delilah is highly appreciated; Delibes, with Sylvia and Lakmé; Lalo, with Le Roi d’ Ys; Bizet, with Carmen; Thomas, with Mignon, Hamlet and Françoise de Rimini.

At the present time French opera is not so much French, except in language, as it is cosmopolitan, its distinguishing features being sprightly rhythms, clear melodic forms, and clever instrumentation. Among foreign composers who have contributed to French opera, we must mention Meyerbeer, who, although also a German, gave us Les Huguenots and Robert le Diable. The names of contemporary successful composers of French opera, and of their works, may be learned by reading the répertoire of modern Grand Opera companies.