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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 7069

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


A well-known musical critic sums up his judgment of Halévy in these words: "If in France a contemporary of Louis XIV., an admirer of Racine, could return to us, and, full of the remembrance of his earthly career under that renowned monarch, he should wish to find the nobly pathetic, the elevated inspiration, the majestic arrangements of the olden times upon a modern stage, we would not take him to the Theatre Fran?ais, but to the Opera on the day in which one of Halévy's works was given."

Unlike Méhul and Spontini, with whom in point of style and method Halévy must be associated, he was not in any direct sense a disciple of Gluck, but inherited the influence of the latter through his great successor Cherubini, of whom Halévy was the favorite pupil and the intimate friend. Fromental Halévy, a scion of the Hebrew race, which has furnished so many geniuses to the art world, left a deep impress on his times, not simply by his genius and musical knowledge, which was profound, varied, and accurate, but by the elevation and nobility which lifted his mark up to a higher level than that which we accord to mere musical gifts, be they ever so rich and fertile. The motive that inspired his life is suggested in his devout saying that music is an art that God has given us, in which the voices of all nations may unite their prayers in one harmonious rhythm.

Halévy was a native of Paris, born May 27, 1799. He entered the Conservatory at the age of eleven years, where he soon attracted the particular attention of Cherubini. When he was twenty the Institute awarded him the grand prize for the composition of a cantata; and he also received a government pension which enabled him to dwell at Rome for two years, assiduously cultivating his talents in composition. Halévy returned to Paris, but it was not till 1827 that he succeeded in having an opera produced. This portion of his life was full of disappointment and chilled ambitions; for, in spite of the warm friendship of Cherubini, who did everything to advance his interests, he seemed to make but slow progress in popular estimation, though a number of operas were produced.

Halévy's full recognition, however, was found in the great work of "La Juive," produced February 23, 1835, with lavish magnificence. It is said that the managers of the Opera expended 150,000 francs in putting it on the stage. This opera, which surpasses all his others in passion, strength, and dignity of treatment, was interpreted by the greatest singers in Europe, and the public reception at once assured the composer that his place in music was fixed. Many envious critics, however, declaimed against him, asserting that success was not the legitimate desert of the opera, but of its magnificent presentation. Halévy answered his detractors by giving the world a delightful comic opera, "L'éclair," which at once testified to the genuineness of his musical inspiration and the versatility of his powers, and was received by the public with even more pleasure than "La Juive."

Halévy's next brilliant stroke (three unsuccessful works in the mean while having been written) was "La Reine de Chypre," produced in 1841. A somewhat singular fact occurred during the performance of this opera. One of the singers, every time he came to the passage,

Ce mortel qu'on remarque

Tient-il Plus que nous de la Parque

Le fil?

was in the habit of fixing his eyes on a certain proscenium box wherein were wont to sit certain notabilities in politics and finance. As several of th

ese died during the first run of the work, superstitious people thought the box was bewitched, and no one cared to occupy it. Two fine works, "Charles VI." and "Le Val d'Andorre," succeeded at intervals of a few years; and in 1849 the noble music to ?schylus's "Prometheus Bound" was written with an idea of reproducing the supposed effects of the enharmonic style of the Greeks.

Halévy's opera of "The Tempest," written for London, and produced in 1850, rivaled the success of "La Juive." Balfe led the orchestra, and its popularity caused the basso Lablache to write the following epigram:

The "Tempest" of Halévy

Differs from other tempests.

These rain hail,

That rains gold.

The Academy of Fine Arts elected the composer secretary in 1854, and in the exercise of his duties, which involved considerable literary composition, Halévy showed the same elegance of style and good taste which marked his musical writings. He did not, however, neglect his own proper work, and a succession of operas, which were cordially received, proved how unimpaired and vigorous his intellectual faculties remained.

The composer's death occurred at Nice, whither he had gone on account of failing strength, March 17, 1862. His last moments were cheered by the attentions of his family and the consolations of philosophy and literature, which he dearly loved to discuss with his friends. His ruling passion displayed itself shortly before his end in characteristic fashion. Trying in vain to reach a book on the table, he said: "Can I do nothing now in time?" On the morning of his death, wishing to be turned on his bed, he said to his daughter, "Lay me down like a gamut," at each movement repeating with a soft smile, "Do, re, mi," etc., until the change was made. These were his last words.

The celebrated French critic Sainte-Beuve pays a charming tribute to Halévy, whom he knew and loved well:

"Halévy had a natural talent for writing, which he cultivated and perfected by study, by a taste for reading which he always gratified in the intervals of labor, in his study, in public conveyances-everywhere, in fine, when he had a minute to spare. He could isolate himself completely in the midst of the various noises of his family, or the conversation of the drawing-room if he had no part in it. He wrote music, poetry, and prose, and he read with imperturbable attention while people around him talked.

"He possessed the instinct of languages, was familiar with German, Italian, English, and Latin, knew something of Hebrew and Greek. He was conversant with etymology, and had a perfect passion for dictionaries. It was often difficult for him to find a word; for on opening the dictionary somewhere near the word for which he was looking, if his eye chanced to fall on some other, no matter what, he stopped to read that, then another and another, until he sometimes forgot the word he sought. It is singular that this estimable man, so fully occupied, should at times have nourished some secret sadness. Whatever the hidden wound might be, none, not even his most intimate friends, knew what it was. He never made any complaint. Halévy's nature was rich, open and communicative. He was well organized, accessible to the sweets of sociability and family joys. In fine, he had, as one may say, too many strings to his bow to be very unhappy for any length of time. To define him practically, I would say he was a bee that had not lodged himself completely in his hive, but was seeking to make honey elsewhere too."

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