No art form is so fleeting and so subject to the dictates of fashion as opera. lt has always been the plaything of fashion, and suffers from its changes. Today the stilted figures of Hasse, Pergolesi, Rameau, and even Gluck, seem as grotesque to us as the wigs and buckles of their contemporaries. To Palestrina’s masses and madrigals, Rameau’s and Couperin’s claveçin pieces, and all of Bach, we can still listen without this sense of incongruity. On the other hand, operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, Matheson, and Porpora would bore us unmitigated. They have gone out of fashion. Even the modem successors of these men, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi, in his earlier years, have become dead letters musically, although only as late as 1845, Donizetti was at the very zenith of his fame.
Of all the operas of the past century, our present public has not seen or even heard of one, with the exception of ” The Magic Flute,” and less probably ” Don Juan.” This is bad enough; but if we look at works belonging to the first part of the nineteenth century, we find the same state of affairs. The operas of Spontini, Rossini, most of Meyerbeer’s, even Weber’s ” Freischütz,” have passed away, seemingly never to return. Even ” Cavalleria Rusticana,” of recent creation, is falling rapidly into oblivion. Thus the opera comique early disappeared in favor of the romantic opera and the operetta. The former has already nearly ended its career, and the latter has descended to the level of mere farce. ln the course of time, these opera forms become more and more evanescent; for the one-act opera of miniature tragedy, which is practically only a few years old, is already almost extinct.
And yet this art form has vastly more hold on the public than other music destined to outlive it. The fact is, that music which is tied down to the conventionalities and moods of its time and place can never appeal but to the particular time and mood which gave it birth. (lncidentally, I may say the same of music having its roots in the other peculiarities of folk song.)
Now the writers of these operas were great men who put their best into their work; the cause of the failure of these operas was not on account of the music, but the ideas and thoughts with which this music was saddled. What were the books which people read and loved in those days (1750-1800), that is, books upon which operas might be built? ln England we find ” The Castle of Otranto,” ” The Mysterious Mother,” etc., by Horace Walpole. Now Macaulay says that Horace Walpole’s works rank as high among the delicacies of intellectual epicures as the Strasburg pie among the dishes described in the Almanach des Gourmands. None but an unhealthy and disorganized mind could have produced such literary luxuries as the works of Walpole.
France had not yet recovered from the empty formalism of the preceding century, Bernardin de St. Pierre was a kind of colonial Mlle. Scudery, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, one of the sparks which were to ignite the French Revolution, writes his popular opera to the silly story of ” The Village Soothsayer.” Had not Gluck written to the classics he would have had to write à la Watteau.”
In Germany, conditions were better; for the so-called Romantic school had just begun to make headway. ln opera, however, this school of Romanticism only commenced to make itself felt later, when we have a crop of operas on Fouque’s ” Undine ” as well as ” Hofmann’s Tales.”
It is as though opera had to dress according to the prevailing fashion of the day. The very large sleeves of one year look strange to us a little later. Just so is it with opera; for those old operas by Méhul, Spontini, Salieri, and others all wear enormous crinolines, while the contemporary instrumental works of the same period, unfettered by fashion, still possess all the freedom which their limited speech permitted them to have. Thus we see that opera is necessarily a child of the times in which it is written, in contrast to other music which echoes but the thought of the composer, thought that is not necessarily bound down to any time, place, or peculiarity of diction.
In Germany, ltalian opera was never accepted by the people as it was in France. ln the latter country, opera had to be in the vernacular and practically to become French. Lully’s operas were written to libretti by Quinault and Corneille; and while, as early as 1645, Paris imported its opera from ltaly, this art form was rapidly modified to suit the public for which it was secured. Even with Piccini and Gluck, and down to Rossini and Meyerbeer, this nationalism was infused into the foreign product. ln Germany the case was entirely different, for up to the very last, Italian opera was a thing apart. Although German composers, such as Mozart and Paer, wrote Italian opera, the ” Singspiel ” (a kind of opéra comique), found its culminating point in Weber’s ” Freischütz,” which fought against Rossini’s operas for supremacy in Germany.
Gluck’s victory over the Piccinists gave to the French form of ltalian opera an impetus that caused Cherubini to proceed on almost the same lines in his operas, the ” Water Carrier,” etc. Cherubini was a pupil of Andreas Sarti, a celebrated contrapuntist and a disciple of the last of the ltalian church composers who looked back to Palestrina for inspiration. Thus the infusion of a certain soberness of diction, which we call German, fitted in with the man’s training and predilections.
The first names we meet with in French opera after Cherubini are those of Grétry, Méhul, and Spontini. The former was a Frenchman whose works are now obsolete, although Macfarren, in the ” Encyclopedia Brittanica,” says that he is the only French composer of symphonies that are known and enjoy popularity in France.
Grétry was born in Liége, about 1740. He walked to Italy, studied in Rome, and returned to France about 1770. None of his works have come down to us, but his name is interesting by reason of a certain contradiction in his operas. This contradiction consists in his being one of the first to revive the idea of the hidden orchestra; it is interesting also to note that in his ” Richard Coeur de Lion,” he anticipated Wagner’s use of the leitmotiv. His words on the hidden orchestra sound strangely modern:
PLAN FOR A NEW THEATRE. – I should like the auditorium of my theatre to be small, holding at the most one thousand persons and consisting of a sort of open space, without boxes, small or great; for these nooks only encourage talking and scandal. I would like the orchestra to be concealed, so that neither the musicians nor the lights on their music stands could be visible to the spectators.
Méhul was born about 1763 in the south of France, and is celebrated, among other things, as being a pupil of Gluck, in Paris. He was also noted for having, at the request of Napoleon, brought out an opera based on Macpherson’s ” Ossian,” in which no violins were used in the orchestra. ” Joseph,” another opera of his, is occasionally given in small German towns. Méhul died in 1817.
Spontini, the next representative of opera in France, was an Italian, born in 1774. He went to Paris in 1803, where, through the influence of the Empress Josephine, he was enabled to have several small operas performed; finally in 1807 his ” Vestal,” written to a French text, was given with great success. ln this, his greatest work, he followed Gluck’s footsteps, not only in the music, but also in the choice of a classic subject. In 1809, he branched out into a more romantic vein with the opera of ” Fernando Cortez.” His other works never attained popularity. After the Restoration in France, he was named director of the court music in Berlin by the King of Prussia, at an annual salary of ten thousand thalers (about $7,500), a position he held from 182o to 184o. He died in ltaly in 1851. Spontini may be said to have been the last representative of the Gluck opera; but he also brought into it all the magnificence in scenery, etc., that would naturally be expected by the fashion of the First Empire. He made no innovations, and merely served to keep alive the traditions of Grand Opera in France.
The next powerful influence in France, and indeed in all Europe, was that of Rossini. He may be said to have built on Gluck’s ideas in many ways. Born in .I792, at Pesaro, in ltaly, he wrote many operas of the flimsy Italian style while still a boy. At twenty-one he had already written his ” Tancredi ” and the opera buffa, ” The ltalians in Algiers.” His best work (besides ” William Tell “) was ” The Barber of Seville.” Other works are ” Cinderella ” (La Cenerentola), ” The Thieving Black-bird ” (La Gazza Ladra), ” Moses,” and ” The Lady of the Lake.” These operas were mostly made up of parts of others that were failures, à la Hasse. An engagement being offered him in London, he went there with his wife, and in one season they earned about two hundred thousand francs, which laid the foundation for his future prosperity.
The next year he went to Paris, where, after a few unimportant works, he produced ” William Tell ” with tremendous success (1829). Although he lived until 1868, he never wrote for the operatic stage again, his other works being mainly the well-known ” Stabat Mater ” and some choruses. He was essentially a writer of light opera, although ” William Tell ” has many elevated moments. His style was so entirely warped by his love for show and the virtuoso side of singing that the many real beauties of his music are hardly recognizable. His music is so overladen with fioriture that often its very considerable value is obscured. He had absolutely no influence upon German music, for the Germans, from Beethoven down, despised the flimsy style and aims of this man, who, by appealing to the most unmusical side of the fashionable audiences of Europe, did so much to discourage the production of operas with a lofty aim. ln France, however, his influence was unchallenged, and we may almost say that, with few exceptions, the overture to ” William Tell ” served as a model for all other operatic overtures which have been written there up to the present day. We have only to look at the many overtures by Hérold, Boieldieu, Auber, and others, to see the influence exerted by this style of overture, which consisted of a slow introduction, followed by a more or less sentimental melody, followed in turn by a galop as a coda.
So fashionable had this kind of thing become that even Weber was slightly touched by it. ln the meanwhile, the French composers were producing operas of a smaller kind, but, in many ways, of a better character than the larger works of Rossini, Spontini, and their followers. Had this flimsy Italian influence been lacking, doubtless French opera to-day would be a different thing from what it actually is. For these smaller operas by Hérold, Auber, and Boieldieu had many points in common with the German Singspiel, which may be said to have saved German musical art for Wagner.
What might have developed under better conditions is shown in a work by Halévy entitled, ” La juive,” in which is to be found promise of a great school of opera, a promise unhappily stifled by the advent of an edectic, the German Meyerbeer, who blinded the public with unheard of magnificence of staging, just as Rossini before him had blinded it by novel technical feats. Meyerbeer thus drew the art into a new channel, and, unluckily, this new tendency was not so much in the direction of elevation of style as in sensationalism.
To return to the French composers. Hérold was born in 1791, in Paris, and his principal works were ” Zampa” and the ” Pré aux clercs.” The first was produced in 1831, the latter in 1832. He died in 1833. Boieldieu was born in 1775, in Rouen; died 1834. His principal works were ” La dame blanche ” and ” Jean de Paris.”
Halévy (Levy) was born in 1799, in Paris, and died in 1862; his father was a Bavarian and his mother from Lorraine. He wrote innumerable operas. His most famous work, ” La juive,” written in 1835, was killed by Meyerbeer’s ” Huguenots,” and produced a year later. He was professor of counterpoint at the Conservatoire from 1831, among his pupils being Gounod, Massé, Bazin, and Bizet.
Auber was born in 1782, and died in May, 1871. He was practically the last of the essentially French composers. His operas may be summed up as being the perfect translation into music of the witty plays of Scribe, with whom he was associated all his life. To read a comedy by Scribe is to imagine Auber’s music to it. No one has excelled Auber in the expression of all the finesse of wit and lightness of touch. What the union between the two men was may be inferred from the fact that Scribe wrote many of his librettos to Auber’s music, the latter being written first, Scribe then adding the words. His principal works are ” Masaniello ” or ” The Mute,” and ” Fra Diavolo.” He was appointed director of the Paris Conservatoire, in 1842, in succession to Cherubini.
In speaking of Grétry, I quoted his opinion (given in one of his essays on music) as to what opera should be and cited his use of the leitmotiv in his ” Richard Coeur de Lion ” (which contains the air, une fièvre brûlante). lf with this we quote his reasons for writing opéra comique rather than grand opera, we have one of the reasons why French opera has, as yet, never developed beyond Massenet’s ” Roi de Lahore ” on one side, and Delibes’ ” Lakme ” on the other.
Grétry writes that he introduced lyric comedy on the stage because the public was tired of tragedy, and because he had heard so many lovers of dancing complain that their favourite art played only a subordinate role in grand opera. Also the public loved to hear short songs; there-fore he introduced many such into his operas.
Even nowadays, this seeming contradiction between theory and practice is to be found, I think, in the French successors of Meyerbeer. The public needed dancing, and all theories must bend to that wish. Even Wagner succumbed to this influence in Paris; and when Weber’s “Freischütz” was first given at the grand opera, Berlioz was commissioned to arrange ballet music from Weber’s piano works to supply the deficiency.
In France, even today, everything gives way to the public, a public whose intelligence from a poetic standpoint is, in my opinion, lower than that of any other country. The French composer is dependent on his country (Paris) as is no musician of other nationality. Berlioz’ life was embittered by the want of recognition in Paris. Al-though he had been acclaimed as a great musician all over Europe, yet he returned again and again to Paris, preferring (as he admits) the approbation of its musically worthless public to his otherwise world-wide fame.
We remember that Auber never stirred out of Paris throughout his long life. lt was an article in the Gazette Musicale of Paris which was instrumental in calling Gounod back into the world from his intended priestly vocation. And this influence of the admittedly ignorant and superficial French public is the more remarkable when one considers the fact that it was always the last to admit the value of the best work of its composers. Thus Berlioz’ fame was gained in Russia and Germany while he was still derided and comparatively unknown in Paris.
The failure of Bizet’s ” Carmen ” is said to have hastened the composer’s death, which took place within three months after the first performance of the opera. As Saint-Saëns wrote at the time, in his disgust at the French public: ” The fat, ugly bourgeois ruminates in his padded stall, regretting separation from his kind. He half opens a glassy eye, munches a bonbon, then sleeps again, thinking that the orchestra is a-tuning.” And yet, even Saint-Saëns, whose name became known chiefly through Liszt’s help, and whose operas and symphonies were given in Germany before they were known in France, even he is one of the most ardent adherents to the ” anti-foreigner ” cry in France. ln my opinion, this respect for and attempt to please this grossly ignorant French. public is and has been one of the great devitalizing influences which hamper the French composer.
Charles Gounod was born in 1818, in Paris. His father was an engraver and died when Gounod was very young. The boy received his first music lessons from his mother. He was admitted to the Conservatoire at sixteen, and studied with Halévy and Lesueur. ln 1839 he gained the Prix de Rome, and spent three years in Rome, studying ecclesiastical music. ln 1846 he contemplated becoming a priest, and wrote a number of religious vocal works, published under the name Abbé C. Gounod. ln 1851 the article I referred to appeared, and such was its effect on Gounod, that within four months his first opera ” Sapho ” was given (April, 1851). A year later this was followed by some music for a tragedy (Poussard’s ” Ulysse ” at the Comédie Française), and in 1854 by the five-act opera “La nonne sanglante.” These were only very moderately successful; and so Gounod turned to the opéra comique, and wrote music to an adaptation of Molière’s ” Medecin malgré lui.” This became very popular, and paved the way for his ” Faust,” which was produced at the Opéra Comique in 1859. ln the opéra comique, as we know, the singing was always interspersed with spoken dialogue.
Thus, this opera, as we know it, dates from its preparation for the Grand Opéra ten years later, 1869. Ten months after ” Faust ” was given he used a fable of Lafontaine for a short light opera, ” Philemon and Bauds.”
In the meantime, “Faust” began to bring him encouragement, and his next opera was on the subject of the ” Queen of Sheba ” (1862). This being unsuccessful, he wrote two more light operas, ” Mireille ” and ” La colombe ” (1866). The next was ” Romeo et Juliette ” (1867). This was very successful, and marks the culmination of Gounod’s success as an opera composer. In 187o he went to London, where he made his home for a number of years. His later operas, ” Cinq-Mars ” (1877), ” Polyeucte ” (1878), and ” Le tribut de Zamora ” (1881), met with small success, and have rarely been given.
In his later years, as we know, he showed his early predilection for religious music; and his oratorios ” The Redemption,” ” Mors et Vita,” and several masses have been given with varying success. Perhaps one of the greatest points ever made in Gounod’s favour by a critic was that by Pougin, who asks what other composer could have written two such operas as ” Faust ” and ” Romeo et Juliette ” and still have them essentially different musically. The ” Garden Scene ” in the one and the ” Balcony Scene ” in the other are identical, so far as the feeling of the play is concerned; also the duel of Faust and Valentine and Romeo and Tybalt.
Ambroise Thomas’s better works, ” Mignon ” and ” Hamlet,” may be said to be more or less echoes of Gounod; and while his ” Francesca da Rimini,” which was brought out in 1882, was by far his most ambitious work, it never became known outside of Paris. Ambroise Thomas was born in 1811, and died within a year of Gounod. His chief merit was in his successful direction of the Conservatoire, to which he succeeded Auber in 1871.
Georges Bizet (his name was Alexander César Leopold) was born in 1838, in Paris. His father was a poor singing teacher, and his mother a sister-in-law of Delsarte; she was a first-prize piano pupil of the Conservatoire. As a boy, Bizet was very precocious, and entered the Conservatoire as a pupil of Marmontel when he was ten. He took successively the first prizes for solfége, piano, organ, and fugue, and finally the Prix de Rome in 1857, when he was nineteen years old. The latter kept him in Rome until 1861, when he returned to Paris and gave piano and harmony lessons and arranged dance music for brass bands, a métier not unknown to either Wagner or Raff.
Until 1872, Bizet wrote but small and unimportant works, such as ” The Pearl Fisher,” ” The Fair Maid of Perth,” and several vaudeville operettas, some of which he wrote to order and anonymously. He married a daughter of Halévy, the composer, and in 187172 served in the National Guard. His first important work was the incidental music to Alphonse Daudet’s ” L’Arlesienne ” and finally his ” Carmen ” was given (but without success), at the Opéra Comique, in March, 1875. He died June 3, 1875.
Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, in 1835; he commenced studying piano when only three years old. I believe it is mostly through his piano concertos and his symphonic poems that his name will live; for his operas have never attained popularity, with perhaps the one exception of ” Samson and Delilah.” His other operas are: ” The Yellow Princess,” ” Proserpina,” ” Etienne Marcel,” ” Henry Vlll,” ” Ascanio.”
jules Massenet was born in 1852, and at the age of twelve became a pupil of Bezit at the Conservatoire, was rejected by Bezit for want of talent, and afterward studied with Reber and Thomas, and won the Prix de Rome in 1863. Upon his return, in 1866, he wrote a number of small orchestral works, including two suites and several sacred dramas, Marie Magdalen ” and ” Eve and the Virgin,” in which the general Meyerbeerian style militated against any suggestion of religious feeling. His first grand opera, ” Le roi de Lahore,” was given in 1881. The second was ” Herodiade,” which was followed by ” Manon,” ” The Cid,” ” Esclarmonde,” ” Le mage.”