Project Gutenberg EBook of The Opera, by R.A. Streatfeild

Mozart and Gluck, each in his respective sphere, carried opera to a point which seemed scarcely to admit of further development. But before the advent of Weber and the romantic revolution there was a vast amount of good work done by a lesser order of musicians, who worked on the lines laid down by their great predecessors, and did much to familiarise the world with the new beauties of their masters' work. The history of art often repeats itself in this way. First comes the genius burning with celestial fire. He sweeps away the time-worn formulas, and founds his new art upon their ruins. Then follows the crowd of disciples, men of talent and imagination, though without the crowning impulse that moves the world. They repeat and amplify their leader's maxims, until the world, which at first had stood aghast at teaching so novel, in time grows accustomed to it, and finally accepts it without question. Next comes the final stage, when what has been caviare to one generation is become the daily bread of the next. The innovations of the master, caught up and reproduced by his disciples, in the third generation become the conventional formulas of the art, and the world is ripe once more for a revolution!

Deeply as Gluck's work affected the history of music, his immediate disciples were few. Salieri (1750-1825), an Italian by birth, was chiefly associated with the Viennese court, but wrote his best work, 'Les Danaïdes,' for Paris. He caught the trick of Gluck's grand style cleverly, but was hardly more than an imitator. Sacchini (1734-1786) had a more original vein, though he too was essentially a composer of the second class. He was not actually a pupil of Gluck, though his later works, written for the Paris stage, show the influence of the composer of 'Alceste' very strongly. The greatest of Gluck's immediate followers—the greatest, because he imbibed the principles of his master's art without slavishly reproducing his form—was Méhul (1763-1817), a composer who is so little known in England that it is difficult to speak of him in terms which shall not sound exaggerated to those who are not familiar with his works. How highly he is ranked by French critics may be gathered from the fact that when 'Israel in Egypt' was performed for the first time in Paris some years ago, M. Julien Tiersot, one of the sanest and most clear-headed of contemporary writers on music, gave it as his opinion that Handel's work was less conspicuous for the qualities of dignity and sonority than Méhul's 'Joseph.' Englishmen can scarcely be expected to echo this opinion, but as to the intrinsic greatness of Méhul's work there cannot be any question. He was far more of a scientific musician than Gluck, and his scores have nothing of his master's jejuneness. His melody, too, is dignified and expressive, but he is sensibly inferior to Gluck in what may be called dramatic instinct, and this, coupled with the fact that the libretti of his operas are almost uniformly uninteresting, whereas Gluck's are drawn from the immortal legends of the past, is perhaps enough to explain why the one has been taken and the other left. Méhul's last and greatest work, 'Joseph,' is still performed in France and Germany, though our national prejudices forbid the hope that it can ever be heard in this country except in a mutilated concert version. The opera follows the Biblical story closely, and Méhul has reproduced the large simplicity of the Old Testament with rare felicity. From the magnificent opening air, 'Champs paternels,' to the sonorous final chorus, the work is rich in beauty of a very high order. Of his other serious works few have remained in the current repertory, chiefly owing to their stupid libretti, for there is not one of them that does not contain music of rare excellence. 'Stratonice,' a dignified setting of the pathetic old story of the prince who loves his father's betrothed, deserves to live if only for the sake of the noble air, 'Versez tous vos chagrins,' a masterpiece of sublime tenderness as fine as anything in Gluck. 'Uthal,' a work upon an Ossianic legend, has recently been revived with success in Germany. It embodies a curious experiment in orchestration, the violins being entirely absent from the score. The composer's idea, no doubt, was to represent by this means the grey colouring and misty atmosphere of the scene in which his opera was laid, but the originality of the idea scarcely atones for the monotony in which it resulted. Although his genius was naturally of a serious and dignified cast, Méhul wrote many works in a lighter vein, partly no doubt in emulation of Grétry, the prince of opéra comique. Méhul's comic operas are often deficient in sparkle, but their musical force and the enchanting melodies with which they are begemmed have kept them alive, and several of them—'Une Folie,' for instance, and 'Le Trésor Supposé'—have been performed in Germany during the last decade, while 'L'Irato,' a brilliant imitation of Italian opera buffa, has recently been given at Brussels with great success.

Although born in Florence and educated in the traditions of the Neapolitan school, Cherubini (1760-1842) belongs by right to the French school. His 'Lodoiska,' which was produced in Paris in 1791, established his reputation; and 'Les Deux Journées' (1800), known in England as 'The Water-Carrier,' placed him, in the estimation of Beethoven, at the head of all living composers of opera. Posterity has scarcely endorsed Beethoven's dictum, but it is impossible to ignore the beauty of Cherubini's work. The solidity of his concerted pieces and the picturesqueness of his orchestration go far to explain the enthusiasm which his works aroused in a society which as yet knew little, if anything, of Mozart. Cherubini's finest works suffer from a frigidity and formality strangely in contrast with the grace of Grétry or the melody of Méhul, but the infinite resources of his musicianship make amends for lack of inspiration, and 'Les Deux Journées' may still be listened to with pleasure, if not with enthusiasm. The scene of the opera is laid in Paris, under the rule of Cardinal Mazarin, who has been defied by Armand, the hero of the story. The gates of Paris are strictly guarded, and every precaution is taken to prevent Armand's escape; but he is saved by Mikeli, a water-carrier, whose son he had once befriended, and who now repays the favour by conveying him out of Paris in his empty water-cart. Armand escapes to a village near Paris, but is captured by the Cardinal's troops while protecting his wife Constance, who has followed him, from the insults of two soldiers. In the end a pardon arrives from the Queen, and all ends happily. In spite of the serious and even tragic cast of the plot, the use of spoken dialogue compels us to class 'Les Deux Journées' as an opéra comique; and the same rule applies to 'Médée,' Cherubini's finest work, an opera which for dignity of thought and grandeur of expression deserves to rank high among the productions of the period. Lesueur (1763-1837) may fitly be mentioned by the side of Méhul and Cherubini. His opera 'Les Bardes,' though now forgotten, has qualities of undeniable excellence. Its faults as well as its beauties are those of the period which produced it. It is declamatory rather than lyrical, and decorative rather than dramatic, but in the midst of its conventions and formality there is much that is true as well as picturesque.

During the closing years of the eighteenth and at the beginning of the nineteenth century the activity of the French school of opera is in remarkable contrast with the stagnation which prevailed in Italy and Germany. Italy, a slave to the facile graces of the Neapolitan school, still awaited the composer who should strike off her chains and renew the youth of her national art; while Germany, among the crowds of imitators who clung to the skirts of Mozart's mantle, could not produce one worthy to follow in his steps. Yet though French opera embodied the finest thought and aspiration of the day, it is only just to observe that the impetus which impelled her composers upon new paths of progress came largely from external sources. It is curious to note how large a share foreigners have had in building up the fabric of French opera. Lulli, Gluck, and Cherubini in turn devoted their genius to its service. They were followed by Spontini (1774-1851), who in spite of chauvinistic prejudice, became, on the production of 'La Vestale' in 1807, the most popular composer of the day. Spontini's training was Neapolitan, but his first visit to Paris showed him that there was no place upon the French stage for the trivialities which still delighted Italian audiences. He devoted himself to careful study, and his one-act opera 'Milton,' the first-fruits of his musicianship, showed a remarkable advance upon his youthful efforts. Spontini professed an adoration for Mozart which bordered upon idolatry, but his music shows rather the influence of Gluck. He is the last of what may be called the classical school of operatic composers, and he shows little trace of the romanticism which was beginning to lay its hand upon music. He was accused during his lifetime of overloading his operas with orchestration, and of writing music which it was impossible to sing—accusations which sound strangely familiar to those who are old enough to remember the reception of Wagner in the seventies and eighties. His scores would not sound very elaborate nowadays, nor do his melodies appear unusually tortuous or exacting, but he insisted upon violent contrasts from his singers as well as from his orchestra, and the great length of his operas, a point in which he anticipated Meyerbeer and Wagner, probably reduced to exhaustion the artists who were trained on Gluck and Mozart. 'La Vestale' was followed in 1809 by 'Fernand Cortez,' and in 1819 by 'Olympie,' both of which were extremely successful, the latter in a revised form which was produced at Berlin in 1821. Spontini's operas are now no longer performed, but the influence which his music exercised upon men so different as Wagner and Meyerbeer makes his name important in the history of opera.

Although Paris was the nursery of all that was best in opera at this period, to Germany belongs the credit of producing the one work dating from the beginning of the nineteenth century which deserves to rank with the masterpieces of the previous generation—Beethoven's 'Fidelio.' Beethoven's (1770-1827) one contribution to the lyric stage was written in 1804 and 1805, and was produced at Vienna in the latter year, during the French occupation. The libretto is a translation from the French, and the story had already formed the basis of more than one opera; indeed, it was a performance of Paer's 'Eleonora' which originally led Beethoven to think of writing his work. Simple as it is, the plot has true nobility of design, and the purity of its motive contrasts favourably with the tendency of the vast majority of lyric dramas. Florestan, a Spanish nobleman, has fallen into the power of his bitterest enemy, Pizarro, the governor of a state prison near Madrid. There the unfortunate Florestan is confined in a loathsome dungeon without light or air, dependent upon the mercy of Pizarro for the merest crust of bread. Leonore, the unhappy prisoner's wife, has discovered his place of confinement, and, in the hope of rescuing him, disguises herself in male attire and hires herself as servant to Rocco, the head gaoler, under the name of Fidelio. In this condition she has to endure the advances of Marcelline, the daughter of Rocco, who neglects her lover Jaquino for the sake of the attractive new-comer. Before Leonore has had time to mature her plans, news comes to the prison of the approaching visit of the Minister Fernando on a tour of inspection. Pizarro's only chance of escaping the detection of his crime is to put an end to Florestan's existence, and he orders Rocco to dig a grave in the prisoner's cell. Leonore obtains leave to help the gaoler in his task, and together they descend to the dungeon, where the unfortunate Florestan is lying in a half inanimate condition. When their task is finished Pizarro himself comes down, and is on the point of stabbing Florestan, when Leonore throws herself between him and his victim, a pistol in her hand, and threatens the assassin with instant death if he advance a step. At that moment a flourish of trumpets announces the arrival of Fernando. Pizarro is forced to hurry off to receive his guest, and the husband and wife rush into each other's arms. The closing scene shows the discomfiture and disgrace of Pizarro, and the restoration of Florestan to his lost honours and dignity.

The form of 'Fidelio,' like that of "Die Zauberflöte," is that of the Singspiel. In the earlier and lighter portions of the work the construction of the drama does not differ materially from that of the generality of Singspiele, but in the more tragic scenes the spoken dialogue is employed with novel and extraordinary force. So far from suggesting any feeling of anti-climax, the sudden relapse into agitated speech often gives an effect more thrilling than any music could command. At two points in the drama this is especially remarkable—firstly, in the prison quartet, after the flourish of trumpets, when Jaquino comes in breathless haste to announce the arrival of the Minister; and secondly, in the brief dialogue between the husband and wife which separates the quartet from the following duet. Leonore's famous words, 'Nichts, nichts, mein Florestan,' in particular, if spoken with a proper sense of their exquisite truth and beauty, sum up the passionate devotion of the true-hearted wife, and her overflowing happiness at the realisation of her dearest hopes, in a manner which for genuine pathos can scarcely be paralleled upon the operatic stage.

It is hardly necessary to point out to the student of opera the steady influence which Mozart's music exercised upon Beethoven's development. Yet although Beethoven learnt much from the composer of 'Don Giovanni,' there is a great deal in 'Fidelio' with which Mozart had nothing to do. The attitude of Beethoven towards opera—to go no deeper than questions of form—was radically different from that of Mozart. Beethoven's talent was essentially symphonic rather than dramatic, and magnificent as 'Fidelio' is, it has many passages in which it is impossible to avoid feeling that the composer is forcing his talent into an unfamiliar if not uncongenial channel. This is especially noticeable in the concerted pieces, in which Beethoven sometimes seems to forget all about opera, characters, dramatic situation and everything else in the sheer delight of writing music. No one with an ounce of musical taste in his composition would wish the canon-quartet, the two trios or the two finales, to take a few instances at random, any shorter or less developed than they are, but one can imagine how Mozart would have smiled at the lack of dramatic feeling displayed in their construction.

'Fidelio,' as has already been said, is the only opera produced in Germany at this period which is deserving of special mention. Mozart's success had raised up a crop of imitators, of whom the most meritorious were Süssmayer, his own pupil; Winter, who had the audacity to write a sequel to 'Die Zauberflöte'; Weigl, the composer of the popular 'Schweizerfamilie' the Abbé Vogler, who, though now known chiefly by his organ music, was a prolific writer for the stage; and Dittersdorf, a writer of genuine humour, whose spirited Singspiel, 'Doktor und Apotheker,' carried on the traditions of Hiller successfully. But though the lighter school of opera in Germany produced nothing of importance, upon the more congenial soil of France opéra comique, in the hands of a school of earnest and gifted composers, was acquiring a musical distinction which it was far from possessing in the days of Grétry and Monsigny. Strictly speaking, the operas of Méhul and Cherubini should be ranked as opéras comiques, by reason of the spoken dialogue which takes the place of the recitative; but the high seriousness which continually animates the music of these masters makes it impossible to class their works with operas so different in aim and execution as those of Grétry. Of the many writers of opéra comique at the beginning of this century, it will be enough to mention two of the most prominent, Nicolo and Boieldieu. Nicolo Isouard (1777-1818), to give him his full name, shone less by musical science or dramatic instinct than by a delicate and pathetic grace which endeared his music to the hearts of his contemporaries. He had little originality, and his facility often descends to commonplace, but much of the music in 'Joconde' and 'Cendrillon' lives by grace of its inimitable tenderness and charm. Nicolo is the Greuze of music. Boieldieu (1775-1834) stands upon a very different plane. Although he worked within restricted limits, his originality and resource place him among the great masters of French music. His earlier works are, for the most, light and delicate trifles; but in 'Jean de Paris' (1812) and 'La Dame Blanche' (1825), to name only two of his many successful works, he shows real solidity of style and no little command of musical invention, combined with the delicate melody and pathetic grace which rarely deserted him. The real strength and distinction of 'La Dame Blanche' have sufficed to keep it alive until the present day, although it has never, in spite of the Scottish origin of the libretto, won in this country a tithe of the popularity which it enjoys in France. The story is a combination of incidents taken from Scott's 'Monastery' and 'Guy Mannering.' The Laird of Avenel, who was obliged to fly from Scotland after the battle of Culloden, entrusted his estates to his steward Gaveston. Many years having passed without tidings of the absentee, Gaveston determines to put the castle and lands up for sale. He has sedulously fostered a tradition which is current among the villagers, that the castle is haunted by a White Lady, hoping by this means to deter any of the neighbouring farmers from competing with him for the estate. The day before the sale takes place, Dickson, one of the farmers, is summoned to the castle by Anna, an orphan girl who had been befriended by the Laird. Dickson is too superstitious to venture, but his place is taken by George Brown, a young soldier, who arrived at the village that day. George has an interview with the White Lady, who is of course Anna in disguise. She recognises George as the man whose life she saved after a battle, and knowing him to be the rightful heir of Avenel, promises to help him in recovering his property. She has discovered that treasure is concealed in a statue of the White Lady, and with this she empowers George to buy back his ancestral lands and castle. Gaveston is outbidden at the sale, and George weds Anna. Boieldieu's music has much melodic beauty, though its tenderness is apt to degenerate into sentimentality. In its original form the opera would nowadays be unbearably tiresome, and only a judicious shortening of the interminable duets and trios can make them tolerable to a modern audience. In spite of much that is conventional and old-fashioned, the alternate vigour and grace of 'La Dame Blanche' and the genuine musical interest of the score make it the most favourable specimen of this period of French opéra comique. It is the last offspring of the older school. After Boieldieu's time the influence of Rossini became paramount, and opéra comique, unable to resist a spell so formidable, began to lose its distinctively national characteristics.





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