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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 11922

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Marmontel had furnished the libretto of an opera to Cherubini, and the composer shortly after his return from Turin to Paris had it produced at the Royal Academy of Music. Vogel's opera on the same text, "Demophon," was also brought out, but neither one met with great success. Cherubini's work, though full of vigor and force, wanted color and dramatic point. He was disgusted with his failure, and resolved to eschew dramatic music; so for the nonce he devoted himself to instrumental music and cantata. Two works of the latter class, "Amphion" and "Circe," composed at this time, were of such excellence as to retain a permanent hold on the French stage. Cherubini, too, became director of the Italian opera troupe, "Les Bouffons," organized under the patronage of Léonard, the Queen's performer, and exercised his taste for composition by interpolating airs of his own into the works of the Italian composers, which were then interesting the French public as against the operas of Rameau.

"At this time," we are told by Laf age, "Cherubini had two distinct styles, one of which was allied to Paisiello and Cimarosa by the grace, elegance, and purity of the melodic forms; the other, which attached itself to the school of Gluck and Mozart, more harmonic than melodious, rich in instrumental details." This manner was the then unappreciated type of a new school destined to change the forms of musical art.

In 1790 the Revolution broke out and rent the established order of things into fragments. For a time all the interests of art were swallowed up in the frightful turmoil which made Paris the center of attention for astonished and alarmed Europe. Cherubini's connection had been with the aristocracy, and now they were fleeing in a mad panic or mounting the scaffold. His livelihood became precarious, and he suffered severely during the first five years of anarchy. His seclusion was passed in studying music, the physical sciences, drawing, and botany; and his acquaintance was wisely confined to a few musicians like himself. Once, indeed, his having learned the violin as a child was the means of saving his life. Independently venturing out at night, he was arrested by a roving band of drunken Sansculottes, who were seeking musicians to conduct their street chants. Somebody recognized Cherubini as a favorite of court circles, and, when he refused to lead their obscene music, the fatal cry, "The Royalist, the Royalist!" buzzed through the crowd. At this critical moment another kidnapped player thrust a violin in Cherubini's hands and persuaded him to yield. So the two musicians marched all day amid the hoarse yells of the drunken revolutionists. He was also enrolled in the National Guard, and obliged to accompany daily the march of the unfortunate throngs who shed their blood under the axe of the guillotine. Cherubini would have fled from these horrible surroundings, but it was difficult to evade the vigilance of the French officials; he had no money; and he would not leave the beautiful Cécile Tourette, to whom he was affianced.

One of the theatres opened during the revolutionary epoch was the Théatre Feydeau. The second opera performed was Cherubini's "Lodo?ska" (1791), at which he had been laboring for a long time, and which was received throughout Europe with the greatest enthusiasm and delight, not less in Germany than in France and Italy. The stirring times aroused a new taste in music, as well as in politics and literature. The dramas of Racine and the operas of Lulli were akin. No less did the stormy genius of Schiller find its counterpart in Beethoven and Cherubini. The production of "Lodo?ska" was the point of departure from which the great French school of serious opera, which has given us "Robert le Diable," "Les Huguenots," and "Faust," got its primal value and significance. Two men of genius, Gluck and Grétry, had formed the taste of the public in being faithful to the accents of nature. The idea of reconciling this taste, founded on strict truth, with the seductive charm of the Italian forms, to which the French were beginning to be sensible, suggested to Cherubini a system of lyric drama capable of satisfying both. Wagner himself even says, in his "Tendencies and Theories," speaking of Cherubini and his great co-laborers Méhul and Spontini: "It would be difficult to answer them, if they now perchance came among us and asked in what respect we had improved on their mode of musical procedure."

"Lodo?ska," which cast the old Italian operas into permanent oblivion, and laid the foundation of the modern French dramatic school in music, has a libretto similar to that of "Fidelio" and Grétry's "Coeur de Lion" combined, and was taken from a romance of Faiblas by Fillette Loraux. The critics found only one objection: the music was all so beautiful that no breathing time was granted the listener. In one year the opera was performed two hundred times, and at short intervals two hundred more representations took place.

The Revolution culminated in the crisis of 1793, which sent the King to the scaffold. Cherubini found a retreat at La Chartreuse, near Rouen, the country seat of his friend, the architect Louis. Here he lived in tranquillity, and composed several minor pieces and a three-act opera, never produced, but afterward worked over into "Ali Baba" and "Faniska." In his Norman retreat Cherubini heard of the death of his father, and while suffering under this infliction, just before his return to Paris in 1794, he composed the opera of "Elisa." This work wras received with much favor at the Feydeau theatre, though it did not arouse the admiration called out by "Lodo?ska."

In 1795 the Paris Conservatory was founded, and Cherubini appointed one of the five inspectors, as well as professor of counterpoint, his associates being Lesueur, Grétry, Gossec, and Méhul. The same year also saw him united to Cécile Tourette, to whom he had been so long and devot

edly attached. Absorbed in his duties at the Conservatory he did not come before the public again till 1797, when the great tragic masterpiece of "Médée" was produced at the Feydeau theatre. "Lodo?ska" had been somewhat gay; "Elisa," a work of graver import, followed; but in "Médée" was attained the profound tragic power of Gluck and Beethoven. Hoffman's libretto was indeed unworthy of the great music, but this has not prevented its recognition by musicians as one of the noblest operas ever written. It has probably been one of the causes, however, why it is so rarely represented at the present time, its overture alone being well known to modern musical audiences. This opera has been compared by critics to Shakespeare's "King Lear," as being a great expression of anguish and despair in their more stormy phases. Chorley tells us that, when he first saw it, he was irresistibly reminded of the lines in Barry Cornwall's poem to Pasta:

"Now thou art like some winged thing that cries

Above some city, flaming fast to death."

The poem which Chorley quotes from was inspired by the performance of the great Pasta in Simone Mayer's weak musical setting of the fable of the Colchian sorceress, which crowded the opera-houses of Europe. The life of the French classical tragedy, too, was powerfully assisted by Rachel. Though the poem on which Cherubini worked was unworthy of his genius, it could not be from this or from lack of interest in the theme alone that this great work is so rarely performed; it is because there have been not more than three or four actresses in the last hundred years combining the great tragic and vocal requirements exacted by the part. If the tragic genius of Pasta conld have been united with the voice of a Catalani, made as it were of adamant and gold, Cherubini's sublime musical creation would have found an adequate interpreter. Mdlle. Tietjens, indeed, has been the only late dramatic singer who dared essay so difficult a task. Musical students rank the instrumental parts of this opera with the organ music of Bach, the choral fugues of Handel, and the symphonies of Beethoven, for beauty of form and originality of ideas.

On its first representation, on the 13th of March, 1797, one of the journals, after praising its beauty, professed to discover imitations of Méhul's manner in it. The latter composer, in an indignant rejoinder, proclaimed himself and all others as overshadowed by Cherubini's genius: a singular example of artistic humility and justice. Three years after its performance in Paris, it was given at Berlin and Vienna, and stamped by the Germans as one of the world's great musical masterpieces. This work was a favorite one with Schubert, Beethoven, and Weber, and there have been few great composers who have not put on record their admiration of it.

As great, however, as "Médée" is ranked, "Les Deux Journées,"* produced in 1800, is the opera on which Cherubim's fame as a dramatic composer chiefly rests.

* In German known as "Die Wassertràger," in English "The

Water-Carriers."

Three hundred consecutive performances did not satisfy Paris; and at Berlin and Frankfort, as well as in Italy, it was hailed with acclamation. Bouilly was the author of the opera-story, suggested by the generous action of a water-carrier toward a magistrate who was related to the author. The story is so interesting, so admirably written, that Goethe and Mendelssohn considered it the true model for a comic opera. The musical composition, too, is nearly faultless in form and replete with beauties. In this opera Cherubini anticipated the reforms of Wagner, for he dispensed with the old system which made the drama a web of beautiful melodies, and established his musical effects for the most part by the vigor and charm of the choruses and concerted pieces. It has been accepted as a model work by composers, and Beethoven was in the habit of keeping it by him on his writing-table for constant study and reference.

Spohr in his autobiography says: "I recollect, when the 'Deux Journées' was performed for the first time, how, intoxicated with delight and the powerful impression the work had made on me, I asked on that very evening to have the score given me, and sat over it the whole night; and that it was that opera chiefly that gave me my first impulse to composition." Weber, in a letter from Munich written in 1812, says: "Fancy my delight when I beheld lying upon the table of the hotel the play-bill with the magic name Armand. I was the first person in the theatre, and planted myself in the middle of the pit, where I waited most anxiously for the tones which I knew beforehand would elevate and inspire me. I think I may assert boldly that 'Les Deux Journées' is a really great dramatic and classical work. Everything is calculated so as to produce the greatest effect; all the various pieces are so much in their proper place that you can neither omit one nor make any addition to them. The opera displays a pleasing richness of melody, vigorous declamation, and all-striking truth in the treatment of situations, ever new, ever heard and retained with pleasure." Mendelssohn, too, writing to his father of a performance of this opera, speaks of the enthusiasm of the audience as extreme, as well as of his own pleasure as surpassing anything he had ever experienced in a theatre. Mendelssohn, who never completed an opera, because he did not find until shortly before his death a theme which properly inspired him to dramatic creation, corresponded with Planché, with the hope of getting from the latter a libretto which should unite the excellences of "Fidelio" with those of "Les Deux Journées." He found, at last, a libretto, which, if it did not wholly satisfy him, at least overcame some of his prejudices, in a story based on the Rhine myth of Lorelei. A fragment of it only was finished, and the finale of the first act is occasionally performed in England.

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