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Berlioz: Predecessors and Contemporaries

Berlioz and Méhul

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Etienne Nicolas Méhul First impressions

Critical writings: Berlioz on Méhul

A general estimate

Available scores of Méhul

Notes on the available scores

CG = Correspondance Générale
Débats = Journal des Débats

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First impressions

    It was shortly after he arrived in Paris in October 1821 that Berlioz first heard the music of Méhul. As he relates in his Memoirs (chapter 5):

The following week [after a performance of Salieri’s Les Danaïdes] I went back to the Opéra where this time I heard a performance of Stratonice by Méhul and the ballet from Nina, the music of which had been composed and arranged by Persuis. I admired greatly the overture to Stratonice, the aria of Seleucus “Versez tous vos chagrins” and the quartet of the doctor’s examination; but I found the score as a whole somewhat cold.

    This must have taken place some time during November or December 1821, when the work was being performed at the Opéra. It seems from Berlioz’s correspondence that his initial reactions to Méhul were more enthusiastic than his later recollections suggest. In a letter to his sister Nancy of 20 February 1822 (CG no. 11) he tells of the great impression made on him by a piece by Daleyrac, and adds:

It is almost the same feeling that I experienced at the Opéra when hearing in Stratonice the aria “Versez tous vos chagrins dans le sein paternel”. But I will not attempt as yet to describe to you this music.

    In a later letter, dated 31 August 1824 and addressed to his father, he asserts his determination to become a composer, whatever the opposition from his family (CG no. 31):

In short I want to make a name for myself, I want to leave on earth some trace of my life; and so powerful is this feeling, which in itself is nothing but noble, that I would rather be Gluck or Méhul dead than what I am now in the prime of life.

    A letter of 21 January 1825 (CG no. 40) lists Gluck, Sacchini, Méhul, his teacher Lesueur, and the singers Dérivis and Mme Branchu as figures ‘that are designed to excite to the highest degree the enthusiasm of sensitive souls’. Faithful to his method, Berlioz was not content with merely hearing the music but evidently made a point of studying closely those scores of Méhul he was able to find at the library of the Conservatoire — he mentions in the Memoirs (chapter 12) how when auditioning for a post as chorister at the Théâtre des Nouveautés in 1826 he offered to sing from memory music from a number of operas, including Méhul’s Stratonice.

    After this date references to Méhul in Berlioz’s correspondence become rare and are all very brief, unlike the numerous references to Beethoven, Gluck, Spontini and Weber, not to mention Shakespeare or Virgil. There is in fact a large gap between 1825 and the next reference in a letter of 6 March 1848 (CG no. 1184) when Berlioz, writing from London to his friend Auguste Morel, mentions his idea of arranging various songs connected with the French Revolution, including Méhul’s popular Chant du départ of 1794, for publication by Beale in London (D. K. Holoman, A Catalogue of the Works of Hector Berlioz no. 115: the project did not apparently materialise).

    The record in the Memoirs is similar – references to Méhul are few and occur only in connection with the 1820s, and thereafter Méhul drops out of sight.

    It seems, in other words, that after an initial period of enthusiasm in his early years in Paris, Berlioz ceased to admit Méhul to the select group of gods in his musical Pantheon. But this is not the full story. Berlioz did maintain his regard for Méhul as one of the most significant and creative French composers of the previous generation, for whom Berlioz acknowledged he had a soft spot (see for example on Dalayrac Débats 25 August 1844 and 13 January 1851; on Grétry Débats 3 October 1841 and 18 July 1846). Méhul is mentioned with respect several times in the Treatise on Orchestration of 1844, notably in the chapter on the horn where he is praised for his understanding of the instrument, and one example from the opera Phrosine et Mélidore is quoted in full score. There is also a reference in the chapter on the viola, though here Berlioz criticises the monotonous effect of the scoring of the opera Uthal from which violins were deliberately excluded.

Critical writings: Berlioz on Méhul

    The fullest insight into Berlioz’s knowledge and estimate of Méhul’s music is provided by his critical writings, though mentions of Méhul were normally dependent on performances of his music, and these were infrequent. Only once did the Conservatoire put on a concert devoted wholly to music by Méhul (7 March 1830, not reviewed by Berlioz or mentioned in his correspondence). Otherwise performances were restricted to a small number of favourite pieces or excerpts, the success of which could usually be taken for granted (the following list may not be complete). These included the ever popular overture La Chasse du Jeune Henri, performed at the Conservatoire with some frequency, in 1835 (29 March, with the horn parts quadrupled), 1838 (28 January, 11 March and 22 April), 1839 (20 December), 1847 (18 April), 1850 (27 January), and 1851 (6 April); excerpts from the opera Irato in 1834 (May) and 1838 (24 March, at the Opéra); and excerpts from his opera Joseph in 1837 (15 January, 5 & 24 March), 1838 (9 & 22 April), 1839 (31 March), 1849 (28 January), and 1851 (13 April). Complete performances of his operas were rare: for example Berlioz regarded Méhul’s Euphrosine et Coradin as his masterpiece and called for it to be a regular part of the repertoire of any state-subsidised opera-house (Débats 25 September 1850; cf. 7 December 1843). Yet the only performance he mentions having heard dated back to the mid 1820s (Débats 16 September 1851). The most frequently performed of Méhul’s operas was Joseph; it was given a complete concert performance at the Conservatoire in 1850 (Débats 29 June 1850), staged at the Opéra-Comique de following year (Débats 16 September 1851), and staged again at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1862, though the production was not a success (Débats 28 January and 16 February 1862). A staging of the comic opera Une Folie in 1843 was not successful either (Débats 7 December 1843).

    Several of these performances received notices from Berlioz and from these and other asides in his critical writings his estimate of Méhul emerges: Méhul belonged to a select group of French composers of the previous generation whose work deserved greater recognition from contemporaries. In a damning review of Le Diable à quatre by Solié (Rénovateur, 11 May 1835; Critique Musicale II, 146) he comments on ‘the stage (sc. the Opéra Comique) which had once been graced by Méhul, Grétry, and the finest geniuses of the French school’. In a critique of Hérold’s Zampa (Débats, 27 September 1835; Critique Musicale II, 289) he writes ‘The style does not have any pronounced colour; it is neither chaste and severe like that of Méhul, nor exuberant and brilliant like that of Rossini, nor vehement and dreamy like that of Weber; in short, while sharing to some extent in each of the three schools, the German, the Italian, and the French, Hérold does not have a style of his own, and yet is neither Italian, nor French, nor German’. Commenting on the low expectations current in his time from opera composers (Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 9 October 1836; Critique Musicale II, 561) he states ‘To succeed it is not absolutely necessary to be gifted with musical genius, talent is more than enough. Composers are not expected to show the exquisite sensitivity of Dalayrac, the passionate energy of Méhul, or the innocence full of delicacy of Grétry’. Reviewing a performance of a chorus from Joseph (Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 22 January 1837; Critique Musicale III, 18) he notes that the piece ‘seemed to make a great impression on the audience. There are very few composers who are capable like Méhul of upholding the honour of our French school in the dangerous company of the German masters’.

    The emphasis on championing the merits of French composers is particularly interesting coming from Berlioz, hardly a musical chauvinist himself. In one of his articles (Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 1 April 1838; Critique Musicale III, 426), he raises the point explicitly in connection with a quartet from Méhul’s Irato: ‘[this quartet], which many relegate to the category of old fashioned pieces, is all the same one of the freshest and most youthful creations of French music. The prejudices which existed in Méhul’s time against our national school […] have not by any means disappeared. How many dilettanti prefer the most miserable score from the most miserable Italian scribbler to works of real merit from our own composers. If they were to hear music which they laud to the skies, but under the name of a French master, they would hiss it without even knowing why’.

    Pride of place among Berlioz’s writings on Méhul goes to a long and superb article published in the Débats of 16 September 1851 and prompted by a revival of the opera Joseph at the Opéra Comique, which itself followed a successful performance of the work by pupils of the Conservatoire in June 1850 (see above). One of Berlioz’s aims in writing the article was to remind the musical public of the day of one of the great names of French music – he contrasts contemporary ignorance with the much greater degree of knowledge that was current in the 1820s. The article was soon reissued by Berlioz (omitting the four last paragraphs) in the Second Epilogue of his Soirées de l’orchestre, published in 1852. Much of the biographical material on Méhul was derived from existing reference works which he mentions – Choron’s Dictionnaire historique des musiciens (1810-1811) and the Biographie universelle des musiciens by Fétis (1835-1844). Berlioz, no musicologist himself, could not verify the frequently anecdotal material he was presented with (for example, the story he relates of the alleged meeting between Gluck and Méhul may be apocryphal). Nor was he in a position to know the whole of Méhul’s varied and prolific output, many of whose works had not been published. But what was available he had studied closely and knew well. He mentions for example that the library of the Conservatoire had a manuscript copy of an unpublished opera, Adrien, which he clearly had studied on the spot. He was evidently familiar with numerous works of Méhul which were rarely if ever performed, and which he must have known purely from a reading of the scores. His detailed evaluation of Méhul is limited in practice to the major operas, which formed the most important part of Méhul’s output, but Méhul’s symphonic and instrumental works are only briefly mentioned.

A general estimate

    Rather than paraphrase the words of Berlioz it may be best to cite directly the conclusion of his article, in which he summarises Méhul’s merits and characteristics. Berlioz gives there an overall assessment of the composer, and at the same time sets out his own musical creed: Méhul is for him a precursor.

[…] His musical system, if one can call such a doctrine a system, was based on solid common sense, which nowadays is held in such low esteem. He believed that operatic music, or any music destined to be linked to words, had to offer a direct connection with the sentiments expressed by those words. […] He was convinced that musical expression is a delicate and rare flower, of exquisite fragrance, which cannot blossom without being nurtured and which a single breath can cause to wither. It does not depend on melody alone, but everything contributes to bringing it into being or destroying it: melody, harmony, modulations, rhythm, orchestration, the choice of the upper or lower register of voices and instruments, the speed or slowness of execution, and the different shades of dynamics in the production of sound. He knew that one can show oneself to be a learned or brilliant musician, and yet be entirely devoid of feeling for expression; that one may on the other hand possess that feeling to the highest degree, yet have only mediocre musical value; and that the true masters of dramatic art have always been gifted to a greater or lesser extent with genuine musical qualities that are united to a feeling for expression. […]
Méhul was completely free from the prejudices of some of his contemporaries regarding certain artistic devices which he would use skilfully when he believed they were appropriate, and which the upholders of routine want to banish in every circumstance. He thus belonged completely and truly to the school of Gluck. But his style, more studied and polished, and more academic than that of the German master, was also much less grandiose, less striking, and less pungent. You will find there far fewer of those immense shafts of light which penetrate to the depth of the soul. And then, if I may make this confession, I find Méhul rather short of ideas. The music he wrote was excellent, truthful, pleasant, beautiful and moving, but cautious to the point of austerity. His muse shows intelligence, spirit, warmth and beauty; but she preserves the looks of a housewife, her dress is grey and lacks fullness, and she cherishes parsimony. […]
In Joseph also, as in the majority of his other scores, the orchestra is handled with perfect tact and a highly respectable common sense. There is not one instrument too many, and not a single note is out of place. But this same orchestra’s studied soberness lacks colour and even energy. You miss movement and that indefinable element which generates life. I believe that without adding a single instrument to those used by Méhul, there was a way of giving to the ensemble the qualities that one regrets to find missing. But this shortcoming, though genuine, is in my view a thousand times preferable to the abominable and disgusting fault which there is no chance of correcting with the majority of modern operatic composers, as a result of which the art of instrumentation has disappeared from operatic orchestras, to be replaced by vulgar and ridiculous noises. […]

Available scores of Méhul

An *asterisk indicates that the score is cited by Berlioz in his Treatise on Orchestration

Overture: La Chasse du Jeune Henri (duration 11'03")
— Score in large format
(file created on 18.3.2003)
— Score in pdf format

Notes on the available scores

Overture: La Chasse du Jeune Henri

    The opera Le Jeune Henri was a failure at its first performance in 1797, and Méhul did not even publish the work. But the overture was an instant success and has remained to this day a very popular concert piece. It was frequently performed in Berlioz’s time — see above. Berlioz wrote of one of these performances (on 29 March 1835, when it was played at the end of the concert, with the horn parts quadrupled): ‘the public was delighted to meet again this old acquaintance, and after listening up to the last note with respectful attention they greeted it on departing with unanimous applause’ (Débats, 18 April 1835; Critique Musicale II, 124f.). Elsewhere he describes it as ‘the perennial masterpiece in the descriptive genre’ (Revue et gazette musicale de Paris, 29 April 1838; Critique Musicale III, 457). Berlioz included it twice in his own concerts, in December 1850 in Paris (at a concert of the Société Philharmonique), and in August 1861 at Baden-Baden (the only other work of Méhul he performed was an aria from Joseph at concerts of the Société Philharmonique in February and April 1850).

    It may be worth contrasting Berlioz’s use of hunting horns with that of Méhul in La Chasse du Jeune Henri. Though the overture is an effective piece, the fanfares are in themselves rather conventional. Berlioz’ use of hunting horns, on the other hand, is always original and unexpected (the overture to Rob Roy should probably be discounted, as Berlioz disowned the work immediately after its first performance). They first appear, but in a miniature form, in the Queen Mab scherzo of Romeo and Juliet (bar 476 and following). In the Damnation of Faust hunting horns provide the unexpected and sinister background to the dialogue of Faust and Mephistopheles just before the Ride to the Abyss. In the Royal Hunt and Storm in Les Troyens Berlioz introduces not one, but a multiplicity of different hunting themes, all different in their rhythm, character, and orchestration. The various themes are presented at first separately, then all of them come together at the climax of the storm (bar 241 and following), except for the main horn theme of the start of the allegro (bar 45 and following), different in character from the others, which reappears on its own at the end of the piece after the climax has subsided (bar 338 and following). There is no more powerful or imaginative piece of its kind in the whole of music.

    The tempi for this overture have been set as follows: Andante, crotchet = 52; Allegro, dotted crotchet = 112.

The Hector Berlioz Website was created by Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin on 18 July 1997.
The Berlioz and Méhul page was created on 18 March 2003. Revised on 1st July 2021.

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page. All rights of reproduction reserved.

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