THE short overture begins Andante, with a Lutheran chorale announced by the clarinets and bassoons and elaborated by the other instruments. It ends Allegro con spirito. The organ is wonderfully imitated.
The curtain rises on a hall in the Comte de Nevers’s castle in Touraine. At the back, through a large open casement, are seen gardens and a lawn, where young lords play ball ; to the right, a door ; to the left, a large window, closed by a curtain, looking upon an oratory ; in the foreground, noblemen playing dice, and cup and ball. The Comte de Nevers (baritone), Tavannes (tenor), De Cossé (tenor), De Retz (bass), Meru (bass), Thoré (bass), and other Catholic gentlemen are watching them. De Nevers sings in praise of the pleasures of youth, Des beaux jours de la jeunesse, in which the chorus joins. A short movement with a melody for flutes, clarinets, and bassoons ushers in Tavannes’s request to enjoy the feast. De Nevers explains that he expects another guest a Huguenot whom he hopes they will receive with good fellowship. His guests are sarcastic. Raoul de Nangis (tenor), entering, salutes De Nevers, he, a simple soldier, feels great honour at this reception. (Sous ce beau ciel.) The lords comment upon him. A table is brought in during the ritournelle of the next number. The guests seat themselves and sing a Bacchanalian song. Bonheur de la table. De Nevers proposes a toast to their ladies, and it is suggested that all shall relate an adventure. De Nevers calls upon Raoul, who describes his rescue of a lady from insult on his way hither, singing the romance, Plus blanche que la blanche hermine, in the accompaniment to which a solo is played by the viola d’amore, a mediæval instrument, of enchanting and dreamy effect. Raoul’s servant, Marcel (bass) now appears, introduced by bassoons and double basses. To the lords’ comments, he replies rudely, and Raoul offers apologies ; but, excited at seeing Raoul in this scene of dissipation, he stalks forward and solemnly chants a chorale, Seigneur, Rempart et seul soutien du faible, composed’ by Luther in 1530, and accompanied by Meyerbeer on the wind and brasses. De Cossé now offers wine to Marcel, and, showing him a wound that the latter inflicted upon him at Rochelle, asks for a jovial song. Marcel then gives them the Huguenot, Piff, Paf, Pif, Paf, descriptive of flying bullets and the Huguenots’ hatred of Catholics. The accompaniment is military in feeling, and the ophicleide and piccolo are used in an eccentric manner; two bassoons are also noticeable. De Nevers’s valet is seen conducting a veiled lady through the garden ; but he enters alone and addresses his master. At first, De Nevers will not go; but, learning that it is a lady who awaits him in the oratory, he excuses himself. Returning to the table, the nobles sing a morceau d’ensemble, L’aventure est singulière and each peeps through the window. Raoul recognizes the lady he has just saved. Horrified, he is about to rush into the oratory, when the knights laughingly stop him. De Nevers is soon seen escorting the lady through the garden and bowing a respectful farewell to her. He re-turns and informs his friends that she is one of the Queen’s ladies ; she came to reject his hand. The men taunt him.
Urbain, the Queen’s page (mezzo-soprano, enters, and in reply to De Nevers’s greeting sings the cavatina, Nobles seigneurs salut ! He gives Raoul a letter, which excites the jealousy of the lords and the anger of Marcel. Raoul reads the letter. The words, ” A coach will be ready this evening to conduct you blindfold,” astound him. ” I consent,” he says to Urbain. The lords laugh, but the exclamation made by De Nevers, to whom Raoul has handed the letter, creates amazement. It goes the rounds. The handwriting and seal are Queen Marguerite’s. Flattery takes the place of derision. De Nevers, seizing Raoul’s hand, begins the musical subject which the others take up in effective counterpoint. A long stretta follows, Les plaisirs les honneurs, in which they congratulate Raoul, and in which Marcel ironically sings a Te Deum. Raoul, meanwhile, comments on their change of feeling. Masqued men come for him with a bandage for his eyes. Marcel tries to prevent his going, but Urbain leads him away as the curtain falls.
ACT II. The entr’acte, beginning on the viola, flutes, oboes, and clarinets, with elaborate flute passages, is the introduction to Marguerite’s aria. The curtain rises on the gardens of Chenonceaux, with the winding river to the right, and a stone stairway leading to the garden from the castle ; Queen Marguerite is finishing her toilet; Urbain kneels before her, holding her mirror. With an ornate accompaniment, in which harps and flutes are conspicuous, Marguerite (soprano) sings her great aria, O beau pays de la Touraine, a song of love for her country ; she hopes the bloody quarrels of Luther and Calvin will not approach her court. Urbain and a maid of honour join to make a trio, the theme of which is repeated by the chorus.
Valentine (soprano) returns from her visit to De Nevers. Marguerite bids her hope ; Raoul is coming. A maid of honour invites the Queen to a shady spot. The Queen and Valentine recline under the trees whilst the bathers go to the river. A chorus, Feunes, beautés, succeeds, in which the violoncellos and harps make a lovely accompaniment, and the bassoons bear an important part. The violins and wood-wind play with the voices. Queen Marguerite reproves the peeping Urbain, the voices die away, and the bathers return. Urbain announces Raoul, who is led down the stairs, the chorus singing Le voici. Marguerite dismisses her suite and commands Raoul to remove his bandage. He is astonished. In the duet, Beauté divine, enchanteresse! he asks where he is, and offers his devoted service ; the Queen thinks, were she a coquette, a conquest would be easy. The rhythm changes many times and a martial subject, descriptive of ” Raoul’s sword and arm for her service,” is introduced. Urbain announces some noble-men, and Raoul learns that he is with the Queen. She tells him she wants to marry him to the daughter of the Comte de St. Bris. Notwithstanding St. Bris is his old enemy, Raoul consents. Upon the orchestral ritournelle, Catholic and Protestant knights enter. Marguerite presents Raoul to St. Bris and De Nevers, the chorus singing Honneur â la plus belle. A courier brings papers to Marguerite. She hands them to those two noblemen ; they are summoned to Paris by Charles IX. She wishes the lords to abjure mutual hatred. The finale begins with four voices : Raoul, St. Bris, De Nevers, and Marcel in octaves pianissimo, the chorus and full orchestra bursting forth on the words, ” Nous jurons.” A short Andante of four-part writing follows. Valentine is now presented by her father to Raoul, who, startled at recognizing De Nevers’s visitor, refuses her. In the terrible silence, Marcel, weeping with joy, runs and kisses his hands. In the stretta (one of the finest of Meyerbeer’s dramatic concerted pieces), St. Bris challenges Raoul; the Queen orders his arrest Valentine demands explanation ; the Catholics are furious ; and Marcel chants fragments of his Lutheran chorale, which we heard in the overture and in Act I.
AcT III. After a short entr’acte, the curtain rises on the Pré-aux-Clercs, extending to the Seine ; to the left, an inn, where are seated Catholic students and young girls; to the right, another inn, before which Huguenot soldiers are drinking and throwing dice. Further back, to the left, is the entrance to a chapel. In the centre stands an immense tree. The clercs de la Basoche and grisettes are seated ; merchants, workmen, musicians, marionettes, strollers, and citizens walk about. It is six o’clock and a Sunday evening in August. The chorus sing C’est le jour de dimanche. The Huguenots sing military couplets, their famous Rataplan, in which Bois Rosé (a soldier), takes a chief part. Each couplet ends with a coda in 9/8 time, in which there is an energetic passage in semiquavers, strengthened towards the end by the brass. A procession of white-robed Catholic maidens, singing a litany, Vierge Marie, with accompaniment of flutes, oboes, and clarinets a fragment of old Catholic music winds its way to the chapel, escorting Valentine and De Nevers to their nuptials. St. Bris is also with them. All the Catholics kneel; but Marcel, entering, refuses to remove his hat, and utters imprecations. Here the composer shows great ingenuity. He has three subjects : the litany, the military chorus, and the indignant exclamations ” Profanes ! Impies ! ” of the Catholics, which he combines with the rhythm and time of the ” Rata-plan” chorus. As the procession enters the chapel, the indignation of the people is diverted by the arrival of a troop of Bohemians with their tambourines. The latter invite the people to dance and have their fortunes told. A Ronde and Danse Bohémienne follow. The triangle is also used here.
De Nevers, with St. Bris and Maurevert (bass) come from the chapel. The former, who is now married, informs us that Valentine wishes to remain in prayer and that he will return to conduct her home with ceremony. He leaves, and while St. Bris talks of the marriage and of Raoul’s insolence, Marcel brings him a challenge to meet Raoul in the Pré-aux-Clercs this evening. He consents, and enters the chapel with Maurevert.
Night approaches; the curfew begins to toll to an ancient chant, ” Le couvre feu.” An archer and watchmen make their rounds, Rentrez, habitants de Paris. The people then quietly disperse, singing the same melody in unison. The Huguenots enter the inn on the right with their women ; the Catholics and grisettes enter the inn on the left ; the citizens withdraw before the watchmen ; and the Pré-aux-Clercs is dark and deserted.
St. Bris and Maurevert re-enter from the chapel, St. Bris speaking mysteriously. “In an our you may count upon our friends here, ” replies his companion, as they leave. The clarinets plays a short solo, accompanied chiefly by the viola and violoncello, pizzicato, to precede Valentine’s appearance from the chapel. She has heard her father’s plot to assassinate Raoul. How may she prevent it ! Marcel enters to await the duel, remarking : ” If Raoul falls I, too, will die.” A scene and duo follow, in which Marcel ex-presses his fear and Valentine her love for Raoul, and in which the instrumentation is especially rich. Marcel runs to warn Raoul, but returns, unsuccessful ; Valentine takes refuge in the chapel; and Raoul, St. Bris, and four others enter. Marcel, taking Raoul aside, tells him of the plot, after which the strings announced the theme of the Septuor du duel, be-gun by Raoul, ” En mon bon droit,” a bold, martial phrase. This is a very fine piece of seven-part writing, with an interruption of a few bars by Marcel, expressing his grief. The ground is measured and the swords chosen during the second part of the septour, in which the words” Chacun pour soi et Dieu pour tous” are constantly heard. Marcel is alarmed by a noise ; it is Maurevert, who enters with armed men. The Huguenots begin their ” Rataplan,” so Marcel knocks at their inn for help, chanting the chorale, differently harmonized. They rush out, while the Catholics are rein-forced from the other inn, for one student having looked out of the window has alarmed the rest. An intricate chorus follows, in which each faction has its own themes. Guards enter, and pages with flambeaux escorting the Queen on horseback to her palace. Urbain demands respect for the Queen, and Marguerite, an explanation. St. Bris and Marcel give conflicting accounts. ” Here is the lady now, who told of the plot to murder my master,” says Marcel, for Valentine enters from the chapel. St. Bris, furious, tears off her masque, exclaiming in surprise : ” My daughter ! ” Marguerite explains to Raoul that Valentine went to De Nevers to release herself. St. Bris triumphantly announces the marriage. Music is now heard from a distance, played on the stage and echoed in the orchestra. The Comte de Nevers is coming for his bride. A beautifully decorated and lighted barge moves over the river ; it lands, and De Nevers steps out, saluting Valentine. This finale is magnificent. The stage is crowed with dancers, lords, and ladies ; pages distribute gold at De Nevers’s command and offer flowers and sweets. The music is most elaborate. The score calls for a special orchestra in the barge, composed of twenty-four pieces, of wood-wind, brass, cymbals, triangle, and drums ; the two orchestras are used together, and the theme is splendidly worked up with ornate instrumentation. Although the wedding chorus, Au banquet que le del leur apprête, is joyous, the Catholics and Huguenots are muttering vengeance, whilst Marguerite tries to console Raoul and to restore peace. De Nevers and Valentine enter the barge, which pushes off, and Marguerite, mounting her horse, rides off as the curtain falls.
AcT IV. A few bars only, and the curtain rises on a large chamber in De Nevers’s castle; portraits decorate the walls ; a large door and window are at the back ; a mantel-piece, near which is a closet concealed by tapestry ; and a window overlooking the street. As Valentine, sup-ported by the strings, bewails her fate, Raoul enters to await the blow from her husband and father. She begs him to fly. He refuses ; but she persuades him to hide.
St. Bris, De Nevers, Tavannes, and other Catholic lords enter; St. Bris will reveal a plot of the Medici! He orders Valentine to retire ; but De Nevers permits her to remain. Now follows the Bénédiction des Poignards, a pompous and thrilling melody announced by the strings. The lords agree to St. Bris’s bloody proposal to exterminate the Huguenots, Des troubles renaissants. De Nevers is horrified. St. Bris replies that the cause is holy; Valentine voices her distress; De Nevers refuses to become an assassin and breaks his sword ; Valentine wishes to tell her husband of the other plot ; but the civil guards enter and lead De Nevers away. St. Bris details the plan for massacre. The signal is to be the tolling of the bell of St. Germain. Valentine (aside) calls on Heaven to protect Raoul. The doors open again and three monks enter with baskets containing white scarves, and followed by novices. They sing ” Gloire au grand Dieu vengeur.” During the richly instrumented music of descending thirds and sixths, the weapons are blessed. An Allegro furioso follows, in which ferocity is expressed in a most difficult ensemble, containing a notable crescendo aided by a terrific roll on the drum, with the addition of cymbals and the kettle-drum at the climax. The movement ends diminuendo, and all retire.
Raoul cautiously lifts the tapestry and tries one door. It is bolted. As he goes to the other, Valentine, entering, stops him. He replies to her questions that he will try to save his comrades. The duo, O ciel ! où courez-vous? changes its key and rhythm several times. The orchestration is very rich in this duo, which con-tains a fine example of the mixture of the low sounds of the cor anglais with the bass notes of the clarinets and horns during a tremolo of double basses, giving, as Berlioz says, ” a sonority as peculiar as it is novel, and well suited to colour, with its menacing impression, ideas in which fear and solicitude predominate.” Valentine pre-vents Raoul’s flight, and they vow mutual love. As Raoul begs her to escape with him, the bell 1 is heard and he tears from her arms. To his dismay, she faints, but recovers, and he then jumps from the balcony. Valentine tries to follow, but gives a cry, and faints as the curtain falls.
ACT V. The movement of the last duo, with the sound of the distant bell, is continued before the curtain rises on a ball in the Hôtel de Nesle, Paris, where the Huguenot lords and ladies are gathered to honour Queen Marguerite and King Henri de Navarre. During the minuet the tolling bell creates a momentary surprise. It is again heard, but the dancers are now engaged , in a gavotte, and are only interrupted by the entrance of bloody Raoul, who cries “To arms ! ” and relates the horrors now occurring, À la lueur de leurs torches funèbres. The frightened people draw their swords, and rush out.
The scene changes to a cemetery where there is a half-ruined Protestant church; to the right, a grille overlooking a public square. The orchestra plays until the wounded Marcel enters, seeking Raoul. Huguenot women, with their children, the aged, and infirm, seek safety in the church. Raoul finds Marcel, and Valentine rushes in with a white scarf for Raoul. He refuses to recant. Marcel relates that in trying to save him, De Nevers was assassinated. Learning this, Valentine wants to marry Raoul, who will not let her risk her life by becoming a Huguenot. At last he agrees to be united by Marcel. The Lutheran chorale is heard within. The lovers kneel, and Marcel gives his benediction, Savez-vous qu’en joignant vos mains, accompanied by a solo on the bass clarinet,’ An eloquent monologue,” Berlioz calls it. The other two singers respond. The hymn is again heard, but now the Catholics are attacking the church. Eleven brass instruments stationed within form a second band. The murderers sing Abjurez Huguenots; Valentine, looking through the windows, describes what is taking place. After a while there is silence. Look! Marcel is pointing to the sky : a Vision ! (trio, Ah ! voyez le ciel.) For the celestial music describing this tableau, ten harps are demanded by the composer for the two harp-parts. Murderers enter and offer the white scarf to these three, who scorn it ; singing the chorale, they offer their breasts to the daggers. The lovers are separated, but return to embrace. The Catholic chorus, supported by trombones and harsh in harmony, offers a contrast to the serene music of the Huguenots, whose piety saves them. Firing is heard, and they all disperse. The scene changes to the quais of Paris under a starry sky. Soldiers (chorus : Par le feu et par l’incendie) pursue the Huguenot women and children. Raoul, mortally wounded, is led in by Valentine and Marcel. Valentine will not let him speak. St. Bris enters, ordering his arquebusiers to fire. Valentine is killed. Urbain enters, crying ” Place à la Reine,” for Marguerite is on her way to the Louvre. She sees Valentine, and checks the Catholics, while the Huguenots implore her protection. The curtains falls.