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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 7097

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The influence of Gluck was not confined to Cherubini, but was hardly less manifest in molding the style and conceptions of Méhul and Spontini,* who held prominent places in the history of the French opera.

* It is a little singular that some of the most

distinguished names in the annals of French music were

foreigners. Thus Gluck was a German, as also was Meyerbeer,

while Cherubini and Spontini were Italians.

Henri Etienne Méhul was the son of a French soldier stationed at the Givet barracks, where he was born June 24, 1763. His early love of music secured for him instructions from the blind organist of the Franciscan church at that garrison town, under whom he made astonishing progress. He soon found he had outstripped the attainments of his teacher, and contrived to place himself under the tuition of the celebrated Wilhelm Hemser, who was organist at a neighboring monastery. Here Méhul spent a number of happy and useful years, studying composition with Hemser and literature with the kind monks, who hoped to persuade their young charge to devote himself to ecclesiastical life.

Méhul's advent in Paris, whither he went at the age of sixteen, soon opened his eyes to his true vocation, that of a dramatic composer. The excitement over the contest between Gluck and Piccini was then at its height, and the youthful musician was not long in espousing the side of Gluck with enthusiasm. He made the acquaintance of Gluck accidentally, the great ehevalier interposing one night to prevent his being ejected from the theatre, into one of whose boxes Méhul had slipped without buying a ticket. Thence forward the youth had free access to the opera, and the friendship and tuition of one of the master minds of the age.

An opera, "Cora et Alonzo," had been composed at the age of twenty and accepted at the opera; but it was not till 1790 that he got a hearing in the comic opera of "Euphrasque et Coradin," composed under the direction of Gluck. This work was brilliantly successful, and "Stratonice," which anpeared two years afterward, established his reputation. The French critics describe both these early works as being equally admirable in melody, orchestral accompaniment, and dramatic effect. The stormiest year of the revolution was not favorable to operatic composition, and Méhul wrote but little music except pieces for republican festivities, much to his own disgust, for he was by no means a warm friend of the republic.

In 1797 he produced his "Le Jeune Henri," which nearly caused a riot in the theatre. The story displeased the republican audience, who hissed and hooted till the turmoil compelled the fall of the curtain. They insisted, however, on the overture, which is one of great beauty, being performed over and over again, a compliment which has rarely been accorded to any composer. Méhul's appointment as inspector and professor in the newly organized Conservatory, at the same time with Cherubini, left him but little leisure for musical composition; but he found time to write the spectacular opera "Adrian," which was fiercely condemned by a republican audience, not as a musical failure, but because their alert and suspicious tempers suspected in it covert allusions to the dead monarchy. Even David, the painter, said he would set the torch to the opera-house rather than witness the triumph of a king. In 1806 Méhul produced the opera "Uthal," a work of striking vigor founded on an Ossianic theme, in which he made the innovation of banishing the violins from the orchestra, sub

stituting therefor the violas.

It was in "Joseph," however, composed in 1807, that this composer vindicated his right to be called a musician of great genius, and entered fully into a species of composition befitting his grand style. Most of his contemporaries were incapable of appreciating the greatness of the work, though his gifted rival Cherubini gave it the warmest praise. In Germany it met with instant and extended success, and it is one of the few French operas of the old school which still continue to be given on the German stage. In England it is now frequently sung as an oratorio. It is on this remarkable work that Méhul's lasting reputation as a composer rests outside of his own nation. The construction of the opera of "Joseph" is characterized by admirable symmetry of form, dramatic power, and majesty of the choral and concerted passages, while the sustained beauty of the orchestration is such as to challenge comparison with the greatest works of his contemporaries. Such at least is the verdict of Fétis, who was by no means inclined to be over-indulgent in criticising Méhul. The fault in this opera, as in all of Méhul's works, appears to have been a lack of bright and graceful melody, though in the modern tendencies of music this defect is rapidly being elevated into a virtue.

The last eight years of Méhul's life were depressed by melancholy and suffering, proceeding from pulmonary disease. He resigned his place in the Conservatory, and retired to a pleasant little estate near Paris, where he devoted himself to raising flowers, and found some solace in the society of his musical friends and former pupils, who were assiduous in their attentions. Finally becoming dangerously ill, he went to the island of Hyères to find a more genial climate. But here he pined for Paris and the old companionships, and suffered more perhaps by fretting for the intellectual cheer of his old life than he gained by balmy air and sunshine. He writes to one of his friends after a short stay at Hyères: "I have broken up all my habits; I am deprived of all my old friends; I am alone at the end of the world, surrounded by people whose language I scarcely understand; and all this sacrifice to obtain a little more sun. The air which best agrees with me is that which I breathe among you." He returned to Paris for a few weeks only, to breathe his last on October 18, 1817, aged fifty-four.

Méhul was a high-minded and benevolent man, wrapped up in his art, and singularly childlike in the practical affairs of life. Abhorring intrigue, he was above all petty jealousies, and even sacrificed the situation of chapel-master under Napoleon, because he believed it should have been given to the greatest of his rivals, Cherubini. When he died Paris recognized his goodness as a man as well as greatness as a musician by a touching and spontaneous expression of grief, and funeral honors were given him throughout Europe. In 1822 his statue was crowned on the stage of the Grand Opera, at a performance of his "Valentine de Rohan." Notwithstanding his early death, he composed forty-two operas, and modern musicians and critics give him a notable place among those who were prominent in building up a national stage. A pupil and disciple of Gluck, a cordial co-worker with Cherubini, he contributed largely to the glory of French music, not only by his genius as a composer, but by his important labors in the reorganization of the Conservatory, that nursery which has fed so much of the highest musical talent of the world.

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