THE question of what sort of music should be employed in opera
is a fundamental one, and has given rise to more controversies,
heart-burnings, and recriminations than any other matter, since
it lies at the root of all differences between schools or individuals.
In the earliest times, we find a declamatory style; in the works
of the Venetians, melody asserts itself; with Scarlatti, musical
learning is pressed into service; in the epoch of Handel, a conventional
form dominates the stage; the efforts of Gluck bring back something
of an earlier dramatic style, with vastly increased resources
in the orchestra; Mozart reverts again to a more melodic method,
enforcing it with correct expression and consummate orchestral
skill. There can be no doubt that the best results in all these
different styles would be due, not merely to the use of good
music, but also to its proper adaptation to the dramatic situation.
Whether a libretto be worthy or not is hardly a question for
the musical critic, though of course it has much to do with the
popularity of the opera.
In the days of the eighteenth century,
the drama was a much more conventional affair than at present.
With England a prey to the cunning artifice of the Pope-Dryden
group of poets, France but lately emerged from the courtly superficialities
of Le Grand Monarque, Germany still in the grasp of Paris
fashions, and Italy possessing little of the earlier Renaissance
vitality, it was no wonder that literature did not show any of
the free exuberance of thought that came later in the Romanticism
of the nineteenth century. So even
under the best circumstances there was an amount of conventionality
in all the earlier librettos that forced the audiences of their
day to judge largely by the music. To quote a later saying, "Whatever
was too silly to be spoken could be sung."
When the classical period in musical history appeared, with
the advent of the symphonic school, and the full orchestral resources
were employed to mingle intellectual and emotional effects in
their proper balance by uniting melody with harmony, it is not
surprising to find a school of operatic composers who reflected
the spirit of their time. They devoted all their study and inspiration
to the task of producing the best possible music, and employing
it in an effort to raise the standard of the stage. If their
operas are seldom given today, it is because these works are
both too good and not good enough; to good for an unthinking
public that considers opera merely intended to tickle its ears
with melody, and not good enough to hold their own against the
great advance in dramatic realism that has taken place since
their day. When they appeared, however, their librettos possessed
a passionate intensity that was new on the stage, and their pure
and lofty harmonies were synonymous with all that was best in
classical music. It is a significant fact that Germany, the country
that is most appreciative of "pure music" (i.e.
instrumental compositions without the extraneous aid of any plot),
should be the place where these works are most warmly received
The first of the composers to whom this lengthy preamble is
dedicated was Cherubini. Born in Florence, in 1760, he soon proved
himself a genius, and by the age of twenty he had become thoroughly
proficient in the old sacred style that gave Italy its renown.
During the next eight years "a change came o'er the spirit
of the scene," and our young enthusiast left the straight
and narrow path, and devoted himself to the production of conventional
Italian operas. In 1788, however, after settling in Paris, he
deliberately discarded the light Neopolitan style, and in his
first French work, "Demophon," showed marked indications
of the grandeur he was destined to attain in his later operas.
His Parisian career thus began within a decade of Gluck's departure,
and he, rather than the indecisive Salieri, is the logical successor
of the German reformer. Despite the ignorance of the military
leaders during the Revolution, and the opposition of Napoleon
in the Consulate, Cherubini remained master of the musical situation
in Paris, and Paris was dramatically in advance of the rest of
If "Demophon" was an interesting suggestion, rather
than a successful achievement, its promise was amply fulfilled
with the production of "Lodoiska," in 1791. This work,
which made its composer famous throughout the world, obliterated
in an instant the melodious trifles that had been in vogue since
Gluck's departure. Its deep earnestness, its profound learning,
its harmonic and melodic richness, and its great dramatic strength
won instant approval, and kept the piece on the boards for nearly
two hundred times during its first year. Its story, rather poorly
arranged, deals with the efforts of lodoiska's lover to rescue
her from the castle of a more powerful rival, and introduces
an assault by Tartars at the close, to make a diversion that
ensures her final escape.
After "Eliza" (1794) came a still greater success,
in the shape of "Medée" (1797). Its grandeur
and classic proportion rendered it a masterpiece, while its tremendous
dramatic strength and sublimity won general admiration. Yet the
opera at first was not a success,--no doubt because its music
was too harmonic to suit the masses. Its weak points are a poor
libretto, a decided monotony in its general tone, and a too complete
centering of interest in the title rôle.
Three years later (1800) came another great production, "Les
Deux Journées." The action of this opera takes place
in the time of Cardinal Mazarin, and deals with the fortunes
of the deputy Armand, who has incurred the enmity of the prelate.
The gates of Paris are strictly guarded, and all precautions
are taken to prevent Armand's escape. He is saved from capture
by the water-carrier Mikeli, whose son he had once befriended,
and he makes his way out of the city concealed in Mikeli's water-cart.
In the neighboring village of Gonesse, however, he is captured
by the cardinal's troops while protecting his wife Constance
from the rudeness of two soldiers. The dénouement comes
in the shape of a pardon from the queen, and all ends happily.
The style of the music is so genial and natural, so full of
warmth of feeling and expressive charm, that it must undoubtedly
rank as Cherubini's best opera. The attacks on the declamatory
style of "Medée" were hardly justified here,
for, as Fétis says, "There is a copiousness of melody
in Cherubini, especially in 'Les Deux Journées;' but such
is the rudeness of the accompanying harmony, and the brilliant
colouring of the instrumentation, . . . that the merit of the
melody was not appreciated at its just value." A more modern
writer (Ritter), in reference to this and other operas of the
composer, says, "They will remain for the earnest student
a classic source of exquisite artistic enjoyment, and serve as
models of a perfect mastery over the deepest resources and means
that the rich field of musical art presents."
The only later work of Cherubini that needs mention here is
"Faniska," brought out in Vienna in 1806. Founded on
a plot somewhat similar to "Lodoiska," it won instant
success, and among the crowd that thronged to its première
were Beethoven and Haydn, both of whom were anxious to bear homage
to the truly great composer. He produced several other operas
in Paris, all more or less successful. Concerning "Les Abencerrages,"
Mendelssohn wrote that he could not sufficiently "admire
the sparkling fire, the clever original phrasing, the extraordinary
delicacy and refinement with which the whole is written, or feel
grateful enough to the grand old man for it." The latter
part of Cherubini's long career was devoted to teaching and sacred
compositions, and at his death, in 1842, his fame in church music
rivalled his reputation in opera.
The works of Mehul (1763-1817) and Lesueur (1763-1837) are
the only ones of the time that ranked with Cherubini's. Mehul,
especially, was successful in continuing and improving the grand
style of Gluck, and his operas are marked everywhere by a powerful
directness that is not inappropriate to the stormy days of the
Revolution. Lesueur possessed a certain large simplicity of style,
but his works are somewhat less effective than those of his compeer.
The logical successor of Cherubini was Spontini (1774-1851).
Born at Majolati, he soon devoted himself to the study of music,
and in 1791 entered a Neapolitan conservatory. After several
years of Italian operatic triumphs, he too, decided to try his
fortunes in Paris, and in 1803 he entered the gay capital. The
next year saw the production of his first French effort, the
one-act opera "Milton." Three years afterward he produced
the masterpiece that gained immortality for him in the musical
world,--"La Vestale." His renown was increased by "Fernando
Cortez" (1809), but after this he brought forth nothing
worthy of mention for ten years, and even his "Olympie"
(1819) can hardly compare with the two earlier works. Spontini
professed a great admiration for Mozart, but his music is a direct
outcome of the chaste simplicity of Gluck's style. Unlike Cherubini,
he showed the prevailing fault of the Italian race,--one that
has been evident in opera until within the last three decades
of the nineteenth century,--a lack of the harmonic sense. This
very "instinct for the logic of harmony" is just what
has caused the greatness of modern music in the classical and
subsequent periods, so it is not surprising to find Spontini's
works on the shelf at present. Yet in his day he was without
a rival in popular favour, and his compositions exerted undoubted
influence on such diverse natures as Wagner and Meyerbeer.
The other French composers of this time, although worthy of
more than a passing mention, were less definitely under the influence
of the classical style that was even then known as "German
music." Henri Montan Berton, son of that Pierre Berton who
tried to make peace between Gluck and Piccini, occupied a respectable,
but not pre-eminent, position in comic opera. Catel (1773-1830)
displayed much elegance and purity of style, but unfortunately
acquired a professional reputation for writing "learned
music." Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1825) composed operas that
were pleasing, if not ambitious, but is better known as a master
of the violin. Persuis (1769-1819) wrote much that is now forgotten,
and remains in history as a great orchestral leader. More important
was the work of Nicolo Isouard (1777-1818), popularly known as
Nicolo. He had little originality, and much of his music was
commonplace, but some passages of his "Joconde" and
"Cendrillon" show great tenderness and charm.
The master of opera comique during this period was
Boieldieu (1775-1834). Many of his earlier works were too trivial
to last, but "Ma Tante Aurore" (1803) brought him into
popular favour, and his two great works, "Jean de Paris"
(1812) and "La Dame Blanche" (1825), placed him securely
at the head of his school. The latter opera is founded on episodes
from Scott's "Monastery" and "Guy Mannering,"
but, like the novels of the immortal romancer, it is cast in
a form that is too lengthy to suit modern standards. Boieldieu's
music shows much melodic beauty, though its tenderness often
degenerates into sentimentality. He was the last representative
of the school of Grétry and Monsigny, as after him came
the deluge of Italianism that is usually associated with the
name of Rossini.
In Germany, the successors of Mozart at first produced little
of enduring value. Süssmayer, his pupil (1766-1803), displayed
a melodic facility and a peculiar popular charm, but his works
lack depth and originality. Winter (1754-1825) was strong in
declamation and chorus work, but is best remembered by his church
music. Weigl (1766-1846) won much appreciation by his tuneful
"Schweizer Familie." Dittersdorf (1739-99) carried
on the earlier traditions of the Singspiel, and displayed
real brightness and vivacity in his comedies. But the only worthy
example of the more serious and lofty operatic style was Beethoven's
solitary opera, "Fidelio," produced in 1805.
The libretto, a translation from the French, had already been
used, notably in Paer's "Eleonora." According to the
story, Florestan, a Spanish nobleman, has become the captive
of his bitterest enemy, Pizarro. In the state prison, of which
the latter has charge, Florestan is confined in a cell without
light or air, utterly at Pizarro's mercy. Leonore, wife of the
prisoner, has in some way discovered her husband's plight, and,
in the hope of aiding him to escape, she disguises herself in
male attire, and, under the name of Fidelio, enters the service
of Rocco, the head jailer. She soon wins the admiration of the
jailer's daughter, Marcellina, who neglects her former lover,
Jacquino, for the sake of the handsome stranger. Meanwhile Pizarro,
learning of the approaching visit of Ferdinand, the governor,
decides to kill Florestan in order to escape detection. He bribes
Rocco to dig a secret grave in the cell, while Fidelio, aroused
by this treachery, obtains leave to help the jailer. Together
Fidelio and Rocco proceed to the cell (Act II.), where the unfortunate
Florestan is lying overcome with starvation. When their work
is over, Pizarro himself appears, and prepares to stab Florestan;
but the disguised Leonore, who has remained in the background,
now rushes to Florestan's defense, and threatens Pizarro with
a loaded pistol. At this moment the governor's trumpet-call is
heard from without; Pizarro is obliged to receive him, Florestan
and Leonore rush into each other's arms, and the governor restores
the prisoner to his lost honours and banishes his oppressor.
This opera, like "The Magic Flute," still retains
traces of the old Singspiel, in the form of spoken dialogue.
But the verbal passages are few and short, and, if rightly uttured,
may be made to add emphasis to the musical climaxes. In all French
performances they have given way to recitative. Of the character
of the music there is nothing but praise to be said. It is all
in the strongly dramatic vein that gives such power to Beethoven's
orchestral works. In an age when operatic realism was not sought
after, when the characters might pause in the midst of even the
best operas and express in detail their views on the situation,
the sincerity and appropriateness of the music could not fail
to win its meed of admiration. But now the public makes greater
demands, and the musico-dramatic action of "Fidelio,"
like that of "Don Giovanni," is far too deliberate
for modern taste. Its many well-known numbers show Beethoven's
emotional power at its greatest; but, like the Mozart selections,
they are now heard to best advantage on the concert stage.
Especially suited for concert prima donnas is Fidelio's well-known
outburst of indignation ("Abscheulicher!") and the
glorious adagio ("Komm, Hoffnung!") with which it is
joined. Jacquino's lament in the first act is also worthy of
note; in this act, too, is the famous canon-quartette, "Mir
ist so wunderbar;" while the jailer's sonorous "Gold
Song," and Pizarro's fiery aria when he is forced to decide
on Florestan's murder, stand out in bold relief. The second act
is one long dramatic scena, and culminates in the almost
frenzied duet, "O Namenlose Freude!"
Produced at the Kaerntnerthor Theatre, in Vienna, a year before
"Faniska," it was not overwhelmingly popular, and only
in later times did it attain the fame of Cherubini's operas.
In judging the classical school, as a whole, due allowance
must be made for the lack of swift and natural action already
aluded to. If the dramas of this epoch represented a tremendous
advance over the conventional productions of a Metastasio,
we can only realise their force by putting ourselves in the place
of their earliest audiences, and ignoring all the progress made
since their day. If we do this, we see that the formal character
of the music is merely a relative matter, due to a contrast with
the freer style of the present; and even today there are many
who would find relief from the modern dissonances in the clear,
well-formed themes of the older masters.