History of Music – French Operatic Composers 19th Century

IN the earlier part of the nineteenth century the operatic stage of Paris shared with those of Berlin and Dresden the honor of producing brilliant novelties by the best composers. In France there had been a persistent cultivaiion of this province of musical creation, and many talented composers have appeared upon the scene of the Grand Opera and that of the Opera Comique. French opera has developed into a genre of its own, rhythmically well regulated, instrumented in a pleasing and attractive manner, and staged with considerable reference to spectacular display.

The oldest of these masters to achieve distinction, and the one most successful in gaining the ear of other countries than France, was Daniel Francois Esprit Auber (1782-1871). He was born in Caen, in Normandy, of a family highly gifted and artistic in temperament. Nevertheless, his father intended him for a merchant, and sent him to England in 1804, in the hope that the study of commercial success there might wean him from his love of music. But the boy came back more musical than ever. After composing several pieces, a little opera, a mass, etc., his first opera to be publicly performed was ” Le Sojour Militaire.” During the fifteen years next following he wrote a succession of light operas for the smaller theaters of Paris, most of them with librettos by Scribe. No one of these works had more than a temporary success, and the names are not sufficiently important to be given here. At length, in 1828, he produced his master work, ” La Muette di Portici,” otherwise known as “Massaniello,” which at once placed its author upon the pinnacle of fame. This was an opera upon the largest scale, and was the first in order of the three great master works which adorned the Paris stage during this and the three years following. The others were Rossini’s “Tell” in 1829, and Meyerbeer’s “Robert” in 1831. The subject was fortunately related to the spirit of the times, Massaniello having been leader of the insurgents in Naples. The work well deserved its success, since for melody and pleasing effects it has rarely been surpassed. The overture is still much played as a concert number, but the opera itself has nearly left the stage, excepting in Germany, where it still has a distinguished place. All his later works were lighter than “Massaniello.” They were “La Fiancée” (1829), the extremely melodious and popular “Fra Diavolo” (1830) and many others, for more than twenty years still. Among them were ” The Bronze Horse ” (in 1835), ” Le Domino Noir ” (in 1837), and The Crown Diamonds” (1831). Auber was elected member of the Institute in 1829, and in 1842 succeeded Cherubini as director of the Conservatory. He was an extremely witty and charming man, beloved by all.

Contemporaneous with Auber, but more allied to the genius of Boieldieu, was Louis Joseph Ferdinand Hérold, (1791-1833). After studying at the Conservatory and composing a number of operas which failed, or had but moderate success, he brought out “Zampa,” in 1831. This work had an extraordinary success, and its overture is still often heard. Another work “Le Pre aux Clercs,” (1832), is generally esteemed in France more highly than “Zampa,” but outside of his native country public opinion universally regards the latter as his best work. Hérold’s operas are extremely well conceived from a dramatic point of view, and his melody has much of the sweet and flowing quality of the best Italian. His concerted numbers also are well made, and in all respects he is to be regarded as a master of high rank within the province of light opera, verging indeed upon the confines of the romantic type, like that of Weber.

The true successor of Boieldieu, with perhaps some-what less of originality, was Adolphe Charles Adam, (1802-1856), son of a piano teacher in the Conservatory at Paris. His most lasting work was “Le Postillon de Lonjumeau” (1836), in which the German tenor Wachtel made himself so famous. Most of the other productions of this clever, but not deep, composer, are now forgotten. In their day they pleased.

The most important work of the last half century of French opera was the “Faust” of Charles Francois Gounod (1818-1893), produced in 1859. Gounod was born and educated at Paris, took the prize of Rome in 1837, after composing quite a number of works of a semi-religious character, in which direction he has always had a strong bias. His first opera was produced in 1854, “La Nonne Sanglante.” In 1852 he was made director of the Orpheonists, the male part singers of Paris, numbering many thousands, somewhat answering to the organization of the Tonic Sol-fa in England. “Faust” made an epoch in French opera. Its rich and sensuous music, its love melodies of melting tenderness, and the cleverness of the instrumentation, as well as its pleasing character, combine to place it in a category by itself. This was the beginning and the end of Gounod, for in his other works, while there is much cleverness and melodiousness, there is also much reminder of “Faust.” Perhaps the best of his later operas are “Romeo et Juliette” (1867), and Mireille ” (1864). Among the others were “Cinq-Mars,” “Polyeucte,” “Le Tribute de Zamora.” He has also written an oratorio, “The Redemption,” produced at Birmingham in 1882, many numbers in which are truly imposing. As a whole the work is mystical and sensuous, rather than strong or inspired. A continuation of this work “Mors et Vita” was given at Birmingham in 1885, and the following year several times in America, under the direction of Mr. Theodore Thomas. In this work, a part of the text of which consists of the Latin hymn “Dies Irae,” Gounod contrives to repeat certain of the sensational effects of Berlioz’s work. Both these oratorios belong to an intermediate category in oratorio, sensational effects possible only in the concert room intervening with others planned entirely in a devotional and mystic spirit. As a composer, Gounod has two elements of strength.

He is first of all a lyrical composer of unusual merit, as can be seen in his ” Oh that We Two were Maying,” ” Nazareth,” ” There Is a Green Hill Far Away,” etc. His second element of greatness is his talent for well sounding and deliciously blending instrumentation, in which respect he is one of the best representatives of the French school. This quality is happily shown upon a small scale, in connection with the other already mentioned, in his famous “Ave Maria,” with violin and organ obligato, superimposed upon the first prelude in Bach’s “Well Tempered Clavier.” Unfortunately his structural ability is not equal to-the strain of elaborate dramatic works, in which the interest greatly depends upon the music following the complications of the drama. In “Faust,” and in all his other operas, the songs are the main attractions the songs and the choruses. The finales are poorly constructed, with little invention and less progress of dramatic intensity.

Among the better composers of the later French school was Felix Marie Victor Massé (1822-1884), who experienced the usual fortunes of the better class of French composers, having taken the prize of Rome in 1844 and produced his first opera, “La Chanteuse Voilée,” in 185o, which was followed by his “Galathéa” in 1852 and the “Marriage of Jeanette” in 1853. Encouraged by these successes he produced a large number of operas in Italy, of which the best were ” La Reine Topaze (1856) and ” Les Saisons (1855). In 186o he became chorus master at the Academy of Music, and in 1866 professor of composition at the Conservatory. In 1872 he was elected to the Institute as successor of Auber. In addition to the works already mentioned he produced ” Paul and Virginia” (1866), and several others, besides a number of songs. His last opera, “Le Mort de Cleopatre,” was written during his long sickness, and on the whole was not a success.

Another pleasing French composer is Jules Emile Frederic Massenet (1842— ), who took the prize of Rome in 1863, and in r867 produced his first opera, “La Grande Tante.” In addition to this he composed a number of operas, “Le Roi de Lahore” (1877), “Marie Madeleine” (1873), an oratorio, and ” Eve ” in 1875. He has also written a number of orchestral suites which have been very popular in all countries. His latest work, “Le Mage,” was produced at the Grand Opera, Paris, March, 1891.

One of the most brilliant and versatile of the French musicians of this generation is M. Camille Saint-Saens (1835- ), a virtuoso upon the piano and organ, and an orchestral tone-poet of very rare quality. – Educated in the Conservatory, he composed his first symphony when he was sixteen, and was organist of the Church of St. Marri at the age of eighteen. In 1858 he became organist at the Madeleine. He has produced a number of operas, of which “Le Timbre a’ ‘Argent” (1887), “Samson and Delilah” (1877), and “Etienne Marcel” (1879), “Henry VIII” (1883) and “Ascanio,” produced in 1890 at the Grand Opera. In addition to these, Saint-Saens has produced a large number of orchestral pieces, including “Le Mouet d’Omphale,” ” Le Dance Macabre,” and other symphonic poems of the programme character. He has also written several oratorios, of which “The Deluge ” is the most important, and a large amount of chamber and piano-forte music. He is a brilliant writer about music, and is favorably known in Germany and all the rest of Europe as a virtuoso upon the piano and organ. His second concerto for piano is one of the best virtuoso pieces for that instrument. In his “Melodie et Harmonie,” a collection of newspaper essays, he discusses many interesting questions. His fame with posterity is more likely to rest upon his orchestral pieces, which are extremely clever and interesting, than upon his operas. Person-ally he is said to be very witty and entertaining. He has been a member of the Institute since 1874.

Another French composer, versatile and well gifted in orchestral composition, is Clement Phillibert Leo Délibes (1848-1891). After his education at the Conservatory, and his service as accompanist at the Grand Opera, he received, in 1866, a commission to compose a ballet, La Source,” in which he displayed such a wealth of melody and such fortunate rhythm that his talent was henceforth unmistakable. He has since composed a large number of ballets, many of which are known in all parts of the world, such as ” Sylvia “; also a large number of songs. His principal opera was ” Lakmé ” (1883). He is a professor at the Conservatory, a member of the Legion of Honor, and the successor of Victor Massé at the Institute.

Still another very talented composer of orchestral music is Edouard Victor Antoine Lalo (1823-1892), who was originally a violinist in a favorite string quartette. He has composed a large amount of orchestral music, a violin concerto in F (1874), “Symphonie Espagnole” (1875), for violin and orchestra, a rhapsody “Norvegienne,” and many other orchestral works, besides several operas, of which the “Roi d’ Ys” (1888) is the most important. He received the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 188o, and is one of the best of the French composers. Many of his works have been played by Theodore Thomas.

Georges Bizet (1838—1875) is best known as the composer of “Carmen” (1875). He had previously produced a considerable number of smaller works, which had been-but moderately successful. In ” Carmen,” however, he showed qualities of rhythmic and harmonic coloration which promised brilliant results in the future. His career was prematurely cut short by death. He was a fine pianist.’

The Nestor of still living French composers is M. Charles Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), born at Metz in the same year as Liszt, and only one and two years after Schumann and Chopin. This venerable and highly gifted master early succeeded in catching the ear of the French public, and between 1837, when his ” La Double Echelle ” was performed at the Opéra Comique, until 1848, he produced a succession of charming light pieces in the taste of the day. There was a sort of middle period in which he wrote several very witty works for the same stage, but the time of his greatest career dates from the production of “Mignon” (1866), “Hamlet” (1868), and “Francesca da Rimini” (1882). He was elected to the Institute in 1851, and at Auber’s death in 1871 was made director of the Conservatoire, in which important position he has accomplished much toward systematizing and deepening musical education. M. Thomas is a highly cultivated man of the world; tall, slender, fond of physical exercise, he has retained the faculties of an active and very versa tile mind to an old age. His opera of “Mignon” is probably the one of his productions which will last longest.

Of French opera as a whole during this century, the general characterization may be made that it has gained in cosmopolitan quality, nearly all the composers mentioned in the present chapter having gained a world-wide fame. The distinguishing feature of this class of opera is its sprightly rhythm, and the clearness of the melodic forms. The instrumentation, also, is generally clever. The music is pleasing rather than deep, and the popularity of French opera in Germany, for example, is mainly due to its value as a relief to the often undue elaboration of the original German article.