BY CAMILLE SAINT-SAENS
TRANSLATED BY EDWIN GILE RICH Translator of Lafond's "Ma Mitrailleuse," etc.
BOSTON SMALL, MAYNARD & COMPANY
1919, BY SMALL, MAYNARD & COMPANY (INCORPORATED)
CHAPTER I MEMORIES OF MY CHILDHOOD
II THE OLD CONSERVATOIRE
III VICTOR HUGO
IV THE HISTORY OF AN OPERA-COMIQUE
V LOUIS GALLET
VI HISTORY AND MYTHOLOGY IN OPERA
VII ART FOR ART'S SAKE
VIII POPULAR SCIENCE AND ART
IX ANARCHY IN MUSIC
X THE ORGAN
XI JOSEPH HAYDN AND THE "SEVEN WORDS"
XII THE LISZT CENTENARY AT HEIDELBERG (1912)
XIII BERLIOZ'S REQUIEM
XIV PAULINE VIARDOT
XIX JULES MASSENET
XXI JACQUES OFFENBACH
XXII THEIR MAJESTIES
XXIII MUSICAL PAINTERS
The Master, Camille Saint-Saens
The Paris Opera
The First Performance of Dejanire
M. Saint-Saens in his Later Years
The Madeleine where M. Saint-Saens played the organ for twenty years
Mme. Pauline Viardot
M. Jules Massenet
Meyerbeer, Composer of Les Huguenots
Ingres, the painter famous for his violin
MEMORIES OF MY CHILDHOOD
In bygone days I was often told that I had two mothers, and, as a matter of fact, I did have two—the mother who gave me life and my maternal great-aunt, Charlotte Masson. The latter came from an old family of lawyers named Gayard and this relationship makes me a descendant of General Delcambre, one of the heroes of the retreat from Russia. His granddaughter married Count Durrieu of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. My great-aunt was born in the provinces in 1781, but she was adopted by a childless aunt and uncle who made their home in Paris. He was a wealthy lawyer and they lived magnificently.
My great-aunt was a precocious child—she walked at nine months—and she became a woman of keen intellect and brilliant attainments. She remembered perfectly the customs of the Ancien Regime, and she enjoyed telling about them, as well as about the Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the times that followed. Her family was ruined by the Revolution and the slight, frail, young girl undertook to earn her living by giving lessons in French, on the pianoforte—the instrument was a novelty then—in singing, painting, embroidery, in fact in everything she knew and in much that she did not. If she did not know, she learned then and there so that she could teach. Afterwards, she married one of her cousins. As she had no children of her own, she brought one of her nieces from Champagne and adopted her. This niece was my mother, Clemence Collin. The Massons were about to retire from business with a comfortable fortune, when they lost practically everything within two weeks, in a panic, saving just enough to live decently. Shortly after this my mother married my father, a minor official in the Department of the Interior. My great-uncle died of a broken heart some months before my birth on October 9, 1835. My father died of consumption on the thirty-first of the following December, just a year to a day after his marriage.
Thus the two women were both left widows, poorly provided for, weighed down by sad memories, and with the care of a delicate child. In fact I was so delicate that the doctors held out little hope of my living, and on their advice I was left in the country with my nurse until I was two years old.
While my aunt had had a remarkable education, my mother had not been so widely taught. But she made up for any lack by the display of an imagination and an eager power of assimilation which bordered on the miraculous. She often told me about an uncle who was very fond of her—he had been ruined in the cause of Philippe Egalite. This uncle was an artist, but he was, nevertheless, passionately fond of music. He had even built with his own hands a concert organ on which he used to play. My mother used to sit between his knees and, while he amused himself by running his fingers through her splendid black hair, he would talk to her about art, music, painting—beauty in every form. So she got it into her head that if she ever had sons of her own, the first should be a musician, the second a painter, and the third a sculptor. As a result, when I came home from the nurse, she was not greatly surprised that I began to listen to every noise and to every sound; that I made the doors creak, and would plant myself in front of the clocks to hear them strike. My special delight was the music of the tea-kettle—a large one which was hung before the fire in the drawing-room every morning. Seated nearby on a small stool, I used to wait with a lively curiosity for the first murmurs of its gentle and variegated crescendo, and the appearance of a microscopic oboe which gradually increased its song until it was silenced by the kettle boiling. Berlioz must have heard that oboe as well as I, for I rediscovered it in the "Ride to Hell" in his La Damnation de Faust.
At the same time I was learning to read. When I was two-years-and-a-half old, they placed me in front of a small piano which had not been opened for several years. Instead of drumming at random as most children of that age would have done, I struck the notes one after another, going on only when the sound of the previous note had died away. My great-aunt taught me the names of the notes and got a tuner to put the piano in order. While the tuning was going on, I was playing in the next room, and they were utterly astonished when I named the notes as they were sounded. I was not told all these details—I remember them perfectly.
I was taught by Le Carpentier's method and I finished it in a month. They couldn't let a little monkey like that work away at the piano, and I cried like a lost soul when they closed the instrument. Then they left it open and put a small stool in front of it. From time to time I would leave my playthings and climb up to drum out whatever came into my head. Gradually, my great-aunt, who fortunately had an excellent foundation in music, taught me how to hold my hands properly so that I did not acquire the gross faults which are so difficult to correct later on. But they did not know what sort of music to give me. That written especially for children is, as a rule, entirely melody and the part for the left hand is uninteresting. I refused to learn it. "The bass doesn't sing," I said, in disgust.
Then they searched the old masters, in Haydn and Mozart, for things sufficiently easy for me to handle. At five I was playing small sonatas correctly, with good interpretation and excellent precision. But I consented to play them only before listeners capable of appreciating them. I have read in a biographical sketch that I was threatened with whippings to make me play. That is absolutely false; but it was necessary to tell me that there was a lady in the audience who was an excellent musician and had fastidious tastes. I would not play for those who did not know.
As for the threat of whippings, that must be relegated to the realm of legends with the one that Garcia punished his daughters to make them learn to sing. Madame Viardot expressly told me that neither she nor her sister was abused by their father and that they learned music without realizing it, just as they learned to talk.
But in spite of my surprising progress my teacher did not foresee what my future was to be. "When he is fifteen," she said, "if he can write a dance, I shall be satisfied." It was just at this time, however, that I began to write music. I wrote waltzes and galops—the galop was fashionable at that period; it ran to rather ordinary musical motives and mine were no exception to the rule. Liszt had to show by his Galop Chromatique the distinction that genius can give to the most commonplace themes. My waltzes were better. As has always been the case with me, I was already composing the music directly on paper without working it out on the piano. The waltzes were too difficult for my hands, so a friend of the family, a sister of the singer Geraldy, was kind enough to play them for me.
I have looked over these little compositions lately. They are insignificant, but it is impossible to find a technical error in them. Such precision was remarkable for a child who had no idea of the science of harmony. About that time some one had the notion that I should hear an orchestra. So they took me to a symphony concert and my mother held me in her arms near the door. Until then I had only heard single violins and their tone had not pleased me. But the impression of the orchestra was entirely different and I listened with delight to a passage played by a quartet, when, suddenly, came a blast from the brass instruments—the trumpets, trombones and cymbals. I broke into loud cries, "Make them stop. They prevent my hearing the music." They had to take me out.
When I was seven, I passed out of my great-aunt's hands into Stamaty's. He was surprised at the way my education in music had been directed and he expressed this in a small work in which he discussed the necessity of making a correct start. In my case, he said, there was nothing to do but to perfect.
Stamaty was Kalkbrenner's best pupil and the propagator of the method he had invented. This method was based on the guide main, so I was put to work on it. The preface to Kalkbrenner's method, in which he relates the beginnings of his invention, is exceedingly interesting. This invention consisted of a rod placed in front of the keyboard. The forearm rested on this rod in such a way that all muscular action save that of the hand was suppressed. This system is excellent for teaching the young pianist how to play pieces written for the harpsichord or the first pianofortes where the keys responded to slight pressure; but it is inadequate for modern works and instruments. It is the way one ought to begin, for it develops firmness of the fingers and suppleness of the wrist, and, by easy stages, adds the weight of the forearm and of the whole arm. But in our day it has become the practice to begin at the end. We learn the elements of the fugue from Sebastian Bach's Wohltemperirte Klavier, the piano from the works of Schumann and Liszt, and harmony and instrumentation from Richard Wagner. All too often we waste our efforts, just as singers who learn roles and rush on the stage before they know how to sing ruin their voices in a short time.
Firmness of the fingers is not the only thing that one learns from Kalkbrenner's method, for there is also a refinement of the quality of the sound made by the fingers alone, a valuable resource which is unusual in our day.
Unfortunately, this school invented as well continuous legato, which is both false and monotonous; the abuse of nuances, and a mania for continual expressio used with no discrimination. All this was opposed to my natural feelings, and I was unable to conform to it. They reproached me by saying that I would never get a really fine effect—to which I was entirely indifferent.
When I was ten, my teacher decided that I was sufficiently prepared to give a concert in the Salle Pleyel, so I played there, accompanied by an Italian orchestra, with Tilmant as the conductor. I gave Beethoven's Concerto in C minor and one of Mozart's concertos in B flat. There was some question of my playing at the Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire, and there was even a rehearsal. But Seghers, who afterwards founded the Societe St. Cecile, was a power in the affairs of the orchestra. He detested Stamaty and told him that the Societe was not organized to play children's accompaniments. My mother felt hurt and wanted to hear nothing more of it.
After my first concert, which was a brilliant success, my teacher wanted me to give others, but my mother did not wish me to have a career as an infant prodigy. She had higher ambitions and was unwilling for me to continue in concert work for fear of injuring my health. The result was that a coolness sprang up between my teacher and me which ended our relations.
At that time my mother made a remark which was worthy of Cornelia. One day some one remonstrated with her for letting me play Beethoven's sonatas. "What music will he play when he is twenty?" she was asked. "He will play his own," was her reply.
* * * * *
The greatest benefit I got from my experience with Stamaty was my acquaintance with Maleden, whom he gave me as my teacher in composition. Maleden was born in Limoges, as his accent always showed. He was thin and long-haired, a kind and timid soul, but an incomparable teacher. He had gone to Germany in his youth to study with a certain Gottfried Weber, the inventor of a system which Maleden brought back with him and perfected. He made it a wonderful tool with which to get to the depths of music—a light for the darkest corners. In this system the chords are not considered in and for themselves—as fifths, sixths, sevenths—but in relation to the pitch of the scale on which they appear. The chords acquire different characteristics according to the place they occupy, and, as a result, certain things are explained which are, otherwise, inexplicable. This method is taught in the Ecole Niedermeuer, but I don't know that it is taught elsewhere.
Maleden was extremely anxious to become a professor at the Conservatoire. As the result of powerful influence, Auber was about to sign Maleden's appointment, when, in his scrupulous honesty, he thought he ought to write and warn him that his method differed entirely from that taught in the institution. Auber was frightened and Maleden was not admitted.
Our lessons were often very stormy. From time to time certain questions came up on which I could not agree with him. He would then take me quietly by the ear, bend my head and hold my ear to the table for a minute or two. Then, he would ask whether I had changed my mind. As I had not, he would think it over and very often he would confess that I was right.
"Your childhood," Gounod once told me, "wasn't musical." He was wrong, for he did not know the many tokens of my childhood. Many of my attempts are unfinished—to say nothing of those I destroyed—but among them are songs, choruses, cantatas, and overtures, none of which will ever see the light. Oblivion will enshroud these gropings after effect, for they are of no interest to the public. Among these scribblings I have found some notes written in pencil when I was four. The date on them leaves no doubt about the time of their production.
THE OLD CONSERVATOIRE
I cannot let the old Conservatoire in the Rue Bergere go without paying it a last farewell, for I loved it deeply as we all love the things of our youth. I loved its antiquity, the utter absence of any modern note, and its atmosphere of other days. I loved that absurd court with the wailing notes of sopranos and tenors, the rattling of pianos, the blasts of trumpets and trombones, the arpeggios of clarinets, all uniting to form that ultra-polyphone which some of our composers have tried to attain—but without success. Above all I loved the memories of my education in music which I obtained in that ridiculous and venerable palace, long since too small for the pupils who thronged there from all parts of the world.
I was fourteen when Stamaty, my piano teacher, introduced me to Benoist, the teacher of the organ, an excellent and charming man, familiarly known as "Father Benoist." They put me in front of the keyboard, but I was badly frightened, and the sounds I made were so extraordinary that all the pupils shouted with laughter. I was received at the Conservatoire as an "auditor."
So there I was only admitted to the honor of listening to others. I was extremely painstaking, however, and I never lost a note or one of the teacher's words. I worked and thought at home, studying hard on Sebastian Bach's Wohltemperirte Klavier. All of the pupils, however, were not so industrious. One day, when they had all failed and Benoist, as a result, had nothing to do, he put me at the organ. This time no one laughed and I at once became a regular pupil. At the end of the year I won the second prize. I would have had the first except for my youth and the inconvenience of having me leave a class where I needed to stay longer.
That same year Madeleine Brohan won the first prize in comedy. She competed with a selection from Misanthrope, and Mlle. Jouassin gave the other part of the dialogue. Mlle. Jouassin's technique was the better, but Madeleine Brohan was so wonderful in beauty and voice that she carried off the prize. The award made a great uproar. To-day, in such a case, the prize would be divided. Mlle. Jouassin won her prize the following year. After leaving school, she accepted and held for a long time an important place at the Comedie-Francaise.
Benoist was a very ordinary organist, but an admirable teacher. A veritable galaxy of talent came from his class. He had little to say, but as his taste was refined and his judgment sure, nothing he said lacked weight or authority. He collaborated in several ballets for the Opera and that gave him a good deal of work to do. It sounds incredible, but he used to bring his "work" to class and scribble away on his orchestration while his pupils played the organ. This did not prevent his listening and looking after them. He would leave his work and make appropriate comments as though he had no other thought.
In addition to his ballets, Benoist did other little odd jobs for the Opera. As a result one day, without thinking, he gave me the key to a deep secret. In his famous Traite d'Instrumentation Berlioz spoke of his admiration for a passage in Sacchini's Oedipus a Colone. Two clarinets are heard in descending thirds of real charm just before the words, "Je connus la charmante Eriphyle." Berlioz was enthusiastic and wrote:
"We might believe that we really see Eriphyle chastely kiss his eyes. It is admirable. And yet," he adds, "there is no trace of this effect in Sacchini's score."
Now Sacchini, for some reason or other which I do not know, did not use clarinets once in the whole score. Benoist was commissioned to add them when the work was revived, as he told me as we were chatting one day. Berlioz did not know this, and Benoist, who had not read Berlioz's Traite, knew nothing of the romantic musician's enthusiastic admiration of his work. These happily turned thirds, although they weren't Sacchini's, were, none the less, an excellent innovation.
Benoist was less happy when he was asked to put some life into Bellini's Romeo by using earsplitting outbursts of drums, cymbals, and brass. During the same noise-loving period Costa, in London, gave Mozart's Don Juan the same treatment. He let loose throughout the opera the trombones which the author intentionally reserved for the end. Benoist ought to have refused to do such a barbarous piece of work. However, it had no effect in preventing the failure of a worthless piece, staged at great expense by the management which had rejected Les Troyens.
I was fifteen when I entered Halevy's class. I had already completed the study of harmony, counterpoint and fugue under Maleden's direction. As I have said, his method was that taught at the Ecole Niedermeuer. Faure, Messager, Perilhou, and Gigot were trained there and they taught this method in turn. My class-work consisted in making attempts at vocal and instrumental music and orchestration. My Reverie, La Feuille de Peuplier and many other things first appeared there. They have been entirely forgotten, and rightly, for my work was very uneven.
At the end of his career Halevy was constantly writing opera and opera-comique which added nothing to his fame and which disappeared never to be revived after a respectable number of performances. He was entirely absorbed in his work and, as a result, he neglected his classes a good deal. He came only when he had time. The pupils, however, came just the same and gave each other instruction which was far less indulgent than the master's, for his greatest fault was an overweening good nature. Even when he was at class he couldn't protect himself from self-seekers. Singers of all sorts, male and female, came for a hearing. One day it was Marie Cabel, still youthful and dazzling both in voice and beauty. Other days impossible tenors wasted his time. When the master sent word that he wasn't coming—this happened often—I used to go to the library, and there, as a matter of fact, I completed my education. The amount of music, ancient and modern, I devoured is beyond belief.
But it wasn't enough just to read music—I needed to hear it. Of course there was the Societe des Concerts, but it was a Paradise, guarded by an angel with a flaming sword, in the form of a porter named Lescot. It was his duty to prevent the profane defiling the sanctuary. Lescot was fond of me and appreciated my keen desire to hear the orchestra. As a result he made his rounds as slowly as possible in order to put me out only as a last resort. Fortunately for me, Marcelin de Fresne gave me a place in his box, which I was permitted to occupy for several years.
I used to read and study the symphonies before I heard them and I saw grave defects in the Societe's vaunted execution. No one would stand them now, but then they passed unnoticed. I was naive and lacked discretion, and so I often pointed out these defects. It can be easily imagined what vials of wrath were poured on me.
As far as the public was concerned, the great success of these concerts was due to the incomparable charm of the depth of tone, which was attributed to the hall. The members of the Societe believed this, too, and they would let no other orchestra be heard there. This state of affairs lasted until Anton Rubinstein got permission from the Minister of Fine Arts to give a concert there, accompanied by the Colonne orchestra. The Societe fretted and fumed at this and threatened to give up its series of concerts. But the Societe was overruled and the concert was given. To the general surprise it was seen that another orchestra in the same hall produced an entirely different effect. The depth of tone which had been appreciated so highly, it was found, was due to the famous Societe itself, to the character of the instruments and the execution.
Nevertheless, the hall is excellent, although it is no longer adequate for the presentation of modern compositions. But it is a marvellous place for the numerous concerts given by virtuosi, both singers and instrumentalists, accompanied by an orchestra, and for chamber music. Finally, the hall where France was introduced to the masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, whose influence has been so profound, is a historic place.
Numerous improvements in the administration of the Conservatoire have been introduced during the last few years. On the other hand, old and honored customs have disappeared and we can but regret their loss. From Auber's time on there was a pension connected with the Conservatoire. Here the young singers who came from the provinces at eighteen found board and lodging, a regular life, and a protection from the temptations of a large city, so dangerous to fresh young voices. Bouhy, Lassalle, Capoul, Gailhard and many others who have made the French stage famous came from this pension.
We also used to have dramatic recitals which were excellent both for the performers and the audiences as they gave works which were not in the usual repertoire. In these recitals they gave Mehul's Joseph, which had disappeared from the stage for a long time. The beautiful choruses sung by the fresh voices of the pupils made such a success and the whole work was so enthusiastically applauded that it was revived at the Opera-Comique and won back a success which it has never lost. We also heard there Gluck's Orphee long before that masterpiece was revived at the Theatre-Lyrique. Then there was Mehul's Irato, a curious and charming work which the Opera took up afterwards. And there, too, they gave the last act of Rossini's Otello. The tempest in that act gave me the idea of the one which rumbles through the second act of Samson.
When the hall was reconstructed, the stage was destroyed so that such performances are impossible. But to make up for this, they installed a concert organ, a necessary adjunct for musical performances.
Finally, in Auber's day and even in that of Ambroise Thomas, the director was master. No one had dreamed of creating a committee, which, under cover of the director's responsibility, would strangely diminish his authority. The only benefit from the new system has been the end of the incessant war which the musical critics waged on the director. But that did no harm, either to the director or to the school, for the latter kept on growing to such an extent that it ought to have been enlarged long ago. The committee plan has won and the incident is closed. One may only hope that steps will be taken to make possible an increase in the number of pupils since so many candidates apply each year and so few are chosen.
As everyone knows, we have been struck by a perfect mania for reforms, so there is no harm in proposing one for the Conservatoire. Foreign conservatoires have been studied and they want to introduce some of their features here. As a matter of fact, some of the foreign conservatoires are housed in magnificent palaces and their curricula are elaborated with a care worthy of admiration. Whether they turn out better pupils than we do is an open question. It is beyond dispute, however, that many young foreigners come to us for their education.
Some of the reformers are scandalized at the sight of a musician in charge of a school where elocution is taught. They forget that a musician may also be a man of letters—the present director combines these qualifications—and that it is improbable that it will be different in the future. The teachers of elocution have always been the best that could be found. Although M. Faure is a musician, he has known how to bring back the classes in tragedy to their original purpose. For a time they tended towards an objectionable modernism, for they substituted in their competitions modern prose for the classic verse. And the study of the latter is very profitable.
Not only is there no harm in this union of elocution and music, but it would be useful if singers and composers would take advantage of it to familiarize themselves with the principles of diction, which, in my opinion, are indispensable to both. Instead, they distrust melody. Declamation is no longer wanted in operas, and the singers make the works incomprehensible by not articulating the words. The composers tend along the same lines, for they give no indication or direction of how they want the words spoken. All this is regrettable and should be reformed.
As you see, I object to the mania for reform and end by suggesting reforms myself. Well, one must be of one's own time, and there is no escaping the contagion.
Everything in my youth seemed calculated to keep me far removed from romanticism. Those about me talked only of the great classics and I saw them welcome Ponsard's Lucrece as a sort of Minerva whose lance was to route Victor Hugo and his foul crew, of whom they never spoke save with detestation.
Who was it, I wonder, who had the happy idea of giving me, elegantly bound, the first volumes of Victor Hugo's poems? I have forgotten who it was, but I remember what joy the vibrations of his lyre gave me. Until that time poetry had seemed to me something cold, respectable and far-away, and it was much later that the living beauty of our classics was revealed to me. I found myself at once stirred to the depths, and, as my temperament is essentially musical in everything, I began to sing them.
People have told me ad nauseam (and they still tell me so) that beautiful verse is inimical to music, or rather that music is inimical to good verse; that music demands ordinary verse, rhymed prose, rather than verse, which is malleable and reducible as the composer wishes. This generalization is assuredly true, if the music is written first and then adapted to the words, but that is not the ideal harmony between two arts which are made to supplement each other. Do not the rhythmic and sonorous passages of verse naturally call for song to set them off, since singing is but a better method of declaiming them? I made some attempts at this and some of those which have been preserved are: Puisque ici bas toute ame, Le Pas d'armes du roi Jean, and La Cloche. They were ridiculed at the time, but destined to some success later. Afterwards I continued with Si tu veux faisons un reve, which Madame Carvalho sang a good deal, Soiree en mer, and many others.
The older I grew the greater became my devotion to Hugo. I waited impatiently for each new work of the poet and I devoured it as soon as it appeared. If I heard about me the spiteful criticisms of irritating critics, I was consoled by talking to Berlioz who honored me with his friendship and whose admiration for Hugo equalled mine. In the meantime my literary education was improving, and I made the acquaintance of the classics and found immortal beauties in them. My admiration for the classics, however, did not diminish my regard for Hugo, for I never could see why it was unfaithfulness to him not to despise Racine. It was fortunate for me that this was my view, for I have seen the most fiery romanticists, like Meurice and Vacquerie, revert to Racine in their later years, and repair the links in a golden chain which should never have been broken.
The Empire fell and Victor Hugo came back to Paris. So I was going to have a chance of realizing my dream of seeing him and hearing his voice! But I dreaded meeting him almost as much as I wished to do so. Like Rossini Victor Hugo received his friends every evening. He came forward with both hands outstretched and told me what pleasure it was for him to see me at his house. Everything whirled around me!
"I cannot say the same to you," I answered. "I wish I were somewhere else." He laughed heartily and showed that he knew how to overcome my bashfulness. I waited to hear some of the conversation which, according to my preconceived ideas, would be in the style of his latest romance. However, it was entirely different; simple polished phrases, entirely logical, came from that "mouth of mystery."
I went to Hugo's evenings as often as possible, for I never could drink my fill of the presence of the hero of my youthful dreams. I had occasion to note to what an extent a fiery republican, a modern Juvenal, whose verses branded "kings" as if with a red hot iron, in his private life was susceptible to their flattery. The Emperor of Brazil had called on him, and the next day he could not stop talking about it constantly. Rather ostentatiously he called him "Don Pedro d'Alcantara." In French this would be "M. Pierre du Pont." Spanish inherently gives such florid sounds to ordinary names. This florid style is not frequent in French, and that is precisely what Corneille and Victor Hugo succeeded in giving it.
A slight incident unfortunately changed my relations with the great poet.
"As long as Mlle. Bertin was alive," he told me, "I would never permit La Esmeralda to be set to music; but if some musician should now ask for this poem, I would be glad to let him have it."
The invitation was obvious. Yet, as is generally known, this dramatic and lyric adaptation of the famous romance is not particularly happy. I was much embarrassed and I pretended not to understand, but I never dared to go to Hugo's house again.
Years passed. In 1881 a subscription was taken up to erect a statue to the author of La Legende des Siecles, and they began to plan celebrations for its dedication, particularly a big affair at the Trocadero. My imagination took fire at the idea, and I wrote my Hymne a Victor Hugo.
As is well known, the master knew nothing at all about music, and the same was true of those around him. It is a matter of conjecture how the master and his followers happened to mistake some absurd and formless motif for one of Beethoven's sublime inspirations. Victor Hugo adapted the beautiful verses of Stella to this halting motif. It was published as an appendix in the Chatiments, with a remark about the union of two geniuses, the fusion of the verse of a great poet with the admirable verse of a great musician. And the poet would have Mme. Drouet play this marvellous music on the piano from time to time! Tristia Herculis!
As I wanted to put in my hymn something peculiar to Victor Hugo, which could not possibly be attributed to anyone else, I tried to introduce this motif of which he was so fond. And, by means of numerous tricks which every musician has up his sleeve, I managed to give it the form and character which it had lacked.
The subscription did not go fast enough to suit the master, and he had it stopped. So I put my hymn in a drawer and waited for a better opportunity.
About this time M. Bruneau, the father of the well-known composer, conceived the idea of giving spring concerts at the Trocadero. Bruneau came to see me and asked me if I had some unpublished work which I would let him have. This was an excellent occasion for the presentation of my Hymne, as it had been written with the Trocadero in mind. The performance was decided on and Victor Hugo was invited to come and hear it.
The performance was splendid—a large orchestra, the magnificent organ, eight harps, and eight trumpets sounding their flourishes in the organ loft, and a large chorus for the peroration of such splendor that it was compared to the set pieces at the close of a display of fireworks. The reception and ovation which the crowd gave the great poet, who rarely appeared in public, was beyond description. The honeyed incense of the organ, harps and trumpets was new to him and pleased his Olympian nostrils.
"Dine with me to-night," he said to me. And from that day on, I often dined with him informally with M. and Mme. Lockrou, Meurice, Vacquerie and other close friends. The fare was delightful and unpretentious, and the conversation was the same. The master sat at the head of the table, with his grandson and granddaughter on either side, saying little but always something apropos. Thanks to his vigor, his strong sonorous voice, and his quiet good humor, he did not seem like an old man, but rather like an ageless and immortal being, whom Time would never touch. His presence was just Jove-like enough to inspire respect without chilling his followers. These small gatherings, which I fully appreciated, are among the most precious recollections of my life.
Time, alas, goes on, and that fine intellect, which had ever been unclouded, began to give signs of aberration. One day he said to an Italian delegation, "The French are Italians; the Italians are French. French and Italians ought to go to Africa together and found the United States of Europe."
The red rays of twilight announced the oncoming night.
Those who saw them will never forget his grandiose funeral ceremonies, that casket under the Arc de Triomphe, covered with a veil of crape, and that immense crowd which paid homage to the greatest lyric poet of the century.
There was a committee to make musical preparations and I was a member. The most extraordinary ideas were proposed. One man wanted to have the Marseillaise in a minor key. Another wanted violins, for "violins produce an excellent effect in the open air." Naturally we got nowhere.
The great procession started in perfect order, but, as in all long processions, gaps occurred. I was astonished to find myself in the middle of the Champs Elysees, in a wide open space, with no one near me but Ferdinand de Lesseps, Paul Bert, and a member of the Academie, whose name I shall not mention as he is worthy of all possible respect.
De Lesseps was then at the height of his glory, and from time to time applause greeted him as he passed.
Suddenly the Academician leaned over and whispered in my ear,
"Evidently they are applauding us."
THE HISTORY OF AN OPERA-COMIQUE
Young musicians often complain, and not without reason, of the difficulties of their careers. It may, perhaps, be useful to remind them that their elders have not always had beds of roses, and that too often they have had to breast both wind and sea after spending their best years in port, unable to make a start. These obstacles frequently are the result of the worst sort of malignity, when it is for the best interest of everyone—both of the theatres which rebuff them, and the public which ignores them—that they be permitted to set out under full sail.
In 1864 one of the most brilliant of the reviews had the following comments to make on this subject:
Our real duty—and it is a true kindness—is not to encourage them (beginners) but to discourage them. In art a vocation is everything, and a vocation needs no one, for God aids. What use is it to encourage them and their efforts when the public obstinately refuses to pay any attention to them? If an act is ordered from one of them, it fails to go. Two or three years later the same thing is tried again with the same result. No theatre, even if it were four times as heavily subsidized as the Theatre-Lyrique, could continue to exist on such resources. So the result is that they turn to accredited talent and call on such men from outside as Gounod, Felicien David and Victor Masse. The younger composers at once shout treason and scandal. Then, they select masterpieces by Mozart and Weber and there are the same outcries and recriminations. In the final analysis where are these young composers of genius? Who are they and what are their names? Let them go to the orchestra and hear Le Nozze di Figaro, Oberon, Freischutz and Orphee ... we are doing something for them by placing such models before them.
The young composers who were thus politely invited to be seated included, among others, Bizet, Delibes, Massenet, and the writer of these lines. Massenet and I would have been satisfied with writing a ballet for the Opera. He proposed the Rat Catcher from an old German tale, while I proposed Une nuit de Cleopatra on the text of Theophile Gautier. They refused us the honor, and, when they consented to order a ballet from Delibes, they did not dare to trust him with the whole work. They let him do only one act and the other was given to a Hungarian composer. As the experiment succeeded, they allowed Delibes to write, without assistance, his marvellous Coppelia. But Delibes had the legitimate ambition of writing a grand opera. He never reached so far.
Bizet and I were great friends and we told each other all our troubles. "You're less unfortunate than I am," he used to tell me. "You can do something besides things for the stage. I can't. That's my only resource."
When Bizet put on the delightful Pecheurs de Perles—he was helped by powerful influences—there was a general outcry and an outbreak of abuse. The Devil himself straight from Hell would not have received a worse reception. Later on, as we know, Carmen was received in the same way.
I was, indeed, able to do something beside work for the stage, and it was just that which closed the stage to me. I was a writer of symphonies, an organist and a pianist, so how could I be capable of writing an opera! The qualities which go to make a pianist were in a particularly bad light in the greenroom. Bizet played the piano admirably, but he never dared to play in public for fear of making his position worse.
I suggested to Carvalho that I write a Macbeth for Madame Viardot. Naturally enough he preferred to put on Verdi's Macbeth. It was an utter failure and cost him thirty thousand francs.
They tried to interest a certain princess, a patron of the arts, in my behalf. "What," she replied, "isn't he satisfied with his position? He plays the organ at the Madeleine and the piano at my house. Isn't that enough for him?"
But that wasn't enough for me, and to overcome the obstacles, I caused a scandal. At the age of twenty-eight I competed for the Prix de Rome! They did not give it to me on the ground that I didn't need it, but the day after the award, Auber, who was very fond of me, asked Carvalho for a libretto for me. Carvalho gave me Le Timbre d'Argent, which he didn't know what to do with as several musicians had refused to touch it. There were good reasons for this, for, despite an excellent foundation for the music, the libretto had serious faults. I demanded that Barbier and Carre, the authors, should make important changes, which they did at once. Then, I retired to the heights of Louveciennes and in two months wrote the score of the five acts which the work had at first.
I had to wait two years before Carvalho would consent to hear the music. Finally, worn out by my importunities, they decided to get rid of me, so Carvalho invited me to dine with him and to bring my score. After dinner I went to the piano. Carvalho was on one side and Madame Carvalho on the other. Both were very pleasant and charming, but the real meaning of this friendliness did not escape me.
They had no doubts about what awaited them. Both really loved music and little by little they fell under the spell. Serious attention succeeded the false friendliness. At the end they were enthusiastic. Carvalho declared that he would have the study of the work begun as soon as possible; it was a masterpiece; it would have a great success, but to assure this success, Madame Carvalho must sing the principal part.
Now the principal part in Le Timbre d'Argent is that of a dancer and the singer's part is greatly subordinate. To remedy this they decided to develop the part. Barbier invented a pretty situation to bring in the passage Bonheur est chose legere, but that wasn't enough. Barbier and Carre racked their brains without finding any solution of the difficulty, for on the stage as elsewhere there are problems that can't be solved.
Between times they tried to find a dancer of the first rank. Finally, they found one who had recently left the Opera, although still at the height of her beauty and talent. And they continued to seek a way to make the part of Helene worthy of Madame Carvalho.
The famous director had one mania. He wanted to collaborate in every work he staged. Even a work hallowed by time and success had to bear his mark; much greater were his reasons for interpolating in a new work. He would announce brusquely that the period or the country in which the action of the work took place must be changed. He tormented us for a long time to make the dancer into a singer on his wife's account. Later, he wanted to introduce a second dancer. With the exception of the prologue and epilogue the action of the piece takes place in a dream, and he took upon himself the invention of the most bizarre combinations. He even proposed to me one day to introduce wild animals. Another time he wanted to cut out all the music with the exception of the choruses and the dancer's part, and have the rest played by a dramatic company. Later, as they were rehearsing Hamlet at the Opera and it was rumored that Mlle. Nilsson was going to play a water scene, he wanted Madame Carvalho to go to the bottom of a pool to find the fatal bell.
Foolishness of this kind took up two years.
Finally, we gave up the idea of Mme. Carvalho's cooeperation. The part of Helene was given to beautiful Mlle. Schroeder and the rehearsals began. They were interrupted by the failure of the Theatre-Lyrique.
Shortly afterwards Perrin asked for Le Timbre d'Argent for the Opera. The adaptation of the work for the large stage at the Opera necessitated important modifications. The whole of the dialogue had to be set to music and the authors went to work on it. Perrin gave us Madame Carvalho for Helene and Faure for Spiridion, but he wanted to burlesque the part for the tenor and give it to Mlle. Wertheimber. He wanted to engage her and had no other part for her. This was impossible. After several discussions Perrin yielded to the obstinate refusals of the authors, but I saw clearly from his attitude that he would never play our work.
About that time du Locle took over the management of the Opera-Comique. He saw that Perrin, who was his uncle, had decided not to stage Le Timbre d'Argent and asked me for it.
This meant another metamorphosis for the work and new and considerable work for the musician. And this work was by no means easy. Until this time Barbier and Carre had been as close friends as Orestes and Pylades, but now they had a falling out. What one proposed, the other systematically refused. One lived in Paris; the other in the country. I went from Paris to the country and from the country to Paris trying to get these warring brothers to agree. This going to and fro lasted all summer, and then the temporary enemies came to an understanding and became as friendly as ever.
We seemed to be nearly at the end of our troubles. Du Locle had found a wonderful dancer in Italy on whom we depended, but the dancer turned out not to be one at all. She was a mime, and did not dance.
As there was no time to look for another dancer that season du Locle, to keep me patient, had me write with Louis Gallet La Princesse Jaune, with which I made my debut on the stage. I was thirty-five! This harmless little work was received with the fiercest hostility. "It is impossible to tell," wrote Jouvin, a much feared critic of the time, "in what key or in what time the overture is written." And to show me how utterly wrong I was, he told me that the public was "a compound of angles and shadows." His prose was certainly more obscure than my music.
Finally, a real dancer was engaged in Italy. It seemed as though nothing more could prevent the appearance of the unfortunate Timbre. "I can't believe it," I said. "Some catastrophe will put us off again."
When that frightful crisis was at an end, the dancer was re-engaged. The parts were read to the artists, and the next day Amede Achard threw up his role, declaring that it belonged to grand opera and was beyond the powers of an opera-comique tenor. It is well known that he ended his career at the Opera.
Another tenor had to be found, but tenors are rare birds and we were unable to get one. To use the dancer he had engaged du Locle had Gallet and Guiraud improvise a short act, Le Kobold, which met with great success. The dancer was exquisite. Then du Locle lost interest in Le Timbre d'Argent and then came the failure of the Opera-Comique.
During all these tribulations I was preparing Samson, although I could find no one who even wanted to hear me speak of it. They all thought that I must be mad to attempt a Biblical subject. I gave a hearing of the second act at my house, but no one understood it at all. Without the aid of Liszt, who did not know a note of it, but who engaged me to finish it and put it on at Weimar, Samson. would never have seen the light. Afterwards it was refused in succession by Halanzier, Vaucorbeil, and Ritt and Gailhard, who decided to take it only after they had heard it sung by that admirable singer Rosine Bloch.
But to return to Le Timbre d'Argent. I was again on the street with my score under my arm. About that time Vizentini revived the Theatre-Lyrique. His first play was Paul et Virginie, a wonderful success, and he was preparing for the close of the season another work which he liked. They were kindly disposed to me at the Ministry of Fine Arts and they interested themselves in my misfortunes. So they gave the Theatre-Lyrique a small subsidy on condition that they play my work. I came to the theatre as one who has meddled and I quickly recognized the discomforts of my position. First, there was a search for a singer; then, for a tenor, and they tried several without success. I found a tenor who, according to all reports, was of the first rank, but, after several days of negotiation, the matter was dropped. I learned later from the artist that the manager intended to engage him for only four performances, evidently planning that the work should be played only four times.
The choice finally fell on Blum. He had a fine voice, and was a perfect singer but no actor. Indeed he said he didn't want to be an actor; his ideal was to appear in white gloves. Each day brought new bickerings. They made cuts despite my wishes; they left me at the mercy of the insubordination and rudeness of the stage manager and the ballet master, who would not listen to my most modest suggestions. I had to pay the cost of extra musicians in the wings myself. Some stage settings which I wanted for the prologue were declared impossible—I have seen them since in the Tales of Hoffman.
Furthermore, the orchestra was very ordinary. There had to be numerous rehearsals which they did not refuse me, but they took advantage of them to spread the report that my music was unplayable. A young journalist who is still alive (I will not name him) wrote two advance notices which were intended to pave the way for the failure of my work.
At the last moment the director saw that he had been on the wrong tack and that he might have a success. As they had played fairyland in the theatre in the Square des-Arts-et-Metiers, he had at hand all the needed material to give me a luxurious stage-setting without great expense. Mlle. Caroline Salla was given the part of Helene. With her beauty and magnificent voice she was certainly remarkable. But the passages which had been written for the light high soprano of Madame Carvalho were poorly adapted for a dramatic soprano. They concluded, therefore, that I didn't know how to write vocal music.
In spite of everything the work was markedly successful, the natural result of a splendid performance in which two stars—Melchissedech and Mlle. Adeline Theodore, at present teacher of dancing at the Opera—shone.
Poor Vizentini! His opinion of me has changed greatly since that time. We were made to understand and love each other, so he has become, with years, one of my best and most devoted friends. He first produced my ballet Javotte at the Grand-Theatre in Lyons, which the Monnaie in Brussels had ordered and then refused. He had dreams of directing the Opera-Comique and installing Le Timbre d'Argent there. Fate willed otherwise.
We have seen how the young French school was encouraged under the Empire. The situation has improved and the old state of affairs has never returned. But we find more than the analogy between the old point of view and the one that was revealed not long ago when the French musicians complained that they were more or less sacrificed in favor of their foreign contemporaries. At bottom it is the same spirit in a modified form.
To resume. As everyone knows, the way to become a blacksmith is by working at a forge. Sitting in the shade does not give the experience which develops talent. We should never have known the great days of the Italian theatre, if Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi had had to undergo our regime. If Mozart had had to wait until he was forty to produce his first opera, we should never have had Don Giovanni or Le Nozze di Figaro, for Mozart died at thirty-five.
The policy imposed on Bizet and Delibes certainly deprived us of several works which would now be among the glories of the repertoire at the Opera and the Opera-Comique. That is an irreparable misfortune; one which we cannot sufficiently deplore.
As Dejanire, cast in a new form, has again appeared in the vast frame of the Opera stage, I may be allowed to recall my recollections of my friend and collaborator, Louis Gallet, the diligent and chosen companion of my best years, whose support was so dear and precious to me. Collaboration for some reason unknown to me is deprecated. Opera, it is said, should spring from the brain like Minerva, fully armed. So much the better if such divine intellects can be found, but they are rare and always will be. For dramatic and literary art on the one hand and musical art on the other require different powers, which are not ordinarily found in the same person.
I first met Louis Gallet in 1871. Camille du Locle, who was the manager of the Opera-Comique at the time, could not put on Le Timbre d'Argent, and while he waited for better days, which never came, to do that, he offered me a one-act work. He proposed Louis Gallet as my collaborator, although I had not known him until then. "You were made to understand each other," he told me. Gallet was then employed in some capacity at the Beaujon hospital and lived near me in the Faubourg Saint-Honore. We soon formed the habit of seeing each other every day. Du Locle had judged aright. We had the same tastes in art and literature. We were equally averse to whatever is too theatrical and also to whatever is not sufficiently so, to the commonplace and the too extravagant. We both despised easy success and we understood each other wonderfully. Gallet was not a musician, but he enjoyed and understood music, and he criticised with rare good taste.
Japan had recently been opened to Europeans. Japan was fashionable; all they talked about was Japan, it was a real craze. So the idea of writing a Japanese piece occurred to us. We submitted the idea to du Locle, but he was afraid of an entirely Japanese stage setting. He wanted us to soften the Japanese part, and it was he, I think, who had the idea of making it half Japanese and half Dutch, the way the slight work La Princesse Jaune was cast.
That was only a beginning and in our daily talks we sketched the most audacious projects. The leading concerts of the time did not balk at performing large vocal works, as they too often do to-day to the great detriment of the variety of their programmes. We then thought that we were at the beginning of the prosperity of French oratorio which only needed encouragement to flourish. I read by chance in an old Bible this wonderful phrase,
"And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth," and so I proposed to Gallet that we do a Deluge. At first he wanted to introduce characters. "No," I said, "put the Bible narrative into simple verse, and I will do the rest." We know with what care and success he accomplished his delicate task. Meanwhile he gave Massenet the texts for Marie-Madeleine and Le Roi de Lahore, and these two works created a great stir in the operatic world.
We had dreams of historical opera, for we were quite without the prejudice against this form of drama which afflicts the present school. But I was not persona grata to the managers and I did not know at what door to knock, when one of my friends, Aime Gros, took the management of the Grand-Theatre at Lyons and asked me for a work. This was a fine opportunity and we grasped it. We put together, with difficulty but with infinite zest, our historical opera, Etienne Marcel, in which Louis Gallet endeavored to respect as far as is possible in a theatrical work the facts of history. Despite illustrious examples to the contrary he did not believe that it was legitimate to attribute to a character who has actually lived acts and opinions that are entirely fanciful. I was in full agreement with him in that as in so many other things. I go even farther and cannot accustom myself to the queer sauces in which legendary characters are often served. It seems to me that the legend is the interesting thing, and not the character, and that the latter loses all its value when the legend which surrounds it is destroyed. But everyone knows that I am a crank.
Some time after my Henri VIII, in which Vaucorbeil had imposed another collaborator on me, Ritt asked me for a new work. We were looking about for a subject, when Gallet came to my house and timidly, as if fearing a rebuff, proposed Benvenuto Cellini. I had thought of that for a long time, and the idea had come to me of putting into musical form that fine drama, which had had its hours of glory, where Melingue modeled the statue of Hebe before the populace. I, therefore, accepted the suggestion with pleasure. This enterprise brought me in touch with Paul Meurice, whom I had known in my childhood, when he was wooing Mlle. Granger, his first wife and an intimate friend of my mother's. Paul Meurice revealed a secret to me: that the romance Ascanio, attributed to Alexander Dumas, had been entirely written by Meurice. The work met with a great success, and out of gratitude, Dumas offered to help Meurice in constructing a drama from the romance, which was to be signed by Meurice alone. So it is easy for one who knows Dumas's dramas to find traces of his handiwork in Benvenuto Cellini.
It was not particularly easy to make an opera out of the play, and Gallet and I worked together at it with considerable difficulty. We soon saw that we should have to eliminate the famous scene of the casting of the statue. When we reached this point in the play, Benvenuto had already done a good deal of singing, and this scene with its violence seemed certain to exceed the strength of the most valiant artist. In connection with our Proserpine, I have been accused of supposing that Vacquerie had genius. It would be too much to say that he had genius, but he certainly had great talent. His prose showed a classical refinement, and his poetry, in spite of fantastic passages which no one could admire, was sonorous in tone, contained precious material, and was both interesting and highly individual. What allured me in Proserpine was the amount of inner emotion there was in the drama, which is very advantageous to the music. Music gives expression to feelings which the characters cannot express, and accentuates and develops the picturesqueness of the piece; it makes acceptable what would not even exist without it.
Vacquerie approved highly the convent scene which Gallet invented. This introduced a quiet and peaceful note amidst the violence of the original work. Gallet wrote a sonnet in Alexandrine verse for Sabatino's declaration of his love. I was unable to set this to music, for the twelve feet embarrassed me and prevented my getting into my stride. As I did not know what else to do, I took the sonnet and by main force reduced the verse to ten feet with a caesura at the fifth foot. I took this to my dear collaborator in fear and trembling, and, as I had feared, he at once fell into the depths of despair.
"That was the best thing in my work," he said. "I nursed and caressed that sonnet, and now you have ruined it."
In the face of this despair, I screwed up my courage. As I had previously cut down the verse, I now tried lengthening out the music. Then, I sang both versions to the disconsolate poet.
And what a miracle! He was altogether reconciled, approved both versions, and did not know which one to choose. We ended with a patchwork. The two quatrains are in verses of ten feet, and the two tiercets in Alexandrine metre.
Outside of our work, too, our relations were delightful. We wrote to each other constantly in both prose and verse; we bombarded each other with sonnets; his letters were sometimes ornamented with water colors, for he drew very well and one of his joys was to cover white paper with color. Gallet drew the sketches for the desert in Le Roi de Lahore and the cloister in Proserpine.
When Madame Adam founded the Nouvelle Revue she offered me the position of musical critic, which I did not think I ought to accept. She did not know where to turn. "Take Gallet," I advised her. "He is an accomplished man of letters. He is not a musician in the sense that he has studied music, but he has the soul of a musician, which is worth much more." Madame Adam followed my advice and found it good.
At this period, under the guise of Wagnerism, the wildest theories and the most extravagant assertions were current in musical criticism. Gallet was naturally well poised and independent and he did not do as the rest did. Instead he opposed them, but from unwillingness to give needless offense he displayed marked tact and discretion in his criticisms. This did him no good, however, for it aroused no sentiment of gratitude, and without giving him credit for a literary style that was rare among librettists, his contemporaries received each of his works with a hostility entirely devoid of either justice or mercy. Gallet felt this hostility keenly. He felt that he did not deserve it, since he took so much care in his work and put so much courtesy into his criticism. The blank verse he used in Thais with admirable regard for color and harmony, counting on the music to take the place of the rhyme, was not appreciated. This verse was free from assonance and the banalities which it draws into operatic works, but it kept the rhythm and sonorous sound which is far removed from prose. That was the period when there was nothing but praise for Alfred Ernst's gibberish, though that was an insult alike to the French language and the masterpieces he had the temerity to translate. Gallet used the same blank verse in Dejanire, although its use here was more debatable, but he handled it with surprising skill. Now that this text has been set to music, it shows its full beauty.
Louis Gallet devoted a large part of his time to administrative duties, for he was successively treasurer and manager of hospitals. Nevertheless he produced works in abundance. He left a record of no less than forty operatic librettos, plays, romances, memoirs, pamphlets, and innumerable articles. I wish I knew what to say about the man himself, his unwearying goodness, his loyalty, his scrupulousness, his good humor, his originality, his continual common sense, and his intellect, alert to everything unusual and interesting.
What good talks we used to have as we dined under an arbor in the large garden which was his delight at Lariboisiere! I used to take him seeds, and he made amusing botanical experiments with them.
He was seriously ill at one period of his life. He was wonderfully nursed by his wife—who was a saint—and he endured prolonged and atrocious sufferings with the patience of a saint. He watched the growth of his fatal disease with a stoicism worthy of the sages of antiquity and he had no illusion about the implacable illness which slowly but surely would result in his premature death. A constantly increasing deafness was his greatest trouble. This cruel infirmity had made frightful progress when, in 1899, the Arenes de Beziers opened its doors for the second time to Dejanire. In spite of everything, including his ill health which made the trip very painful, he wanted to see his work once more. He heard nothing, however—neither the artists, the choruses, nor even the applause of the several thousand spectators who encored it enthusiastically. A little later he passed on, leaving in his friends' hearts and at the work-tables of his collaborators a void which it is impossible to fill.
HISTORY AND MYTHOLOGY IN OPERA
Oceans of ink have been spilled in discussing the question of whether the subjects of operas should be taken from history or mythology, and the question is still a mooted one. To my mind it would have been better if the question had never been raised, for it is of little consequence what the answer is. The only things worth while are whether the music is good and the work interesting. But Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Tristan and Siegfried appeared and the question sprang up. The heroes of mythology, we are told, are invested with a prestige which historical characters can never have. Their deeds lose significance and in their place we have their feelings, their emotions, to the great benefit of the operas. After these works, however, Hans Sachs (Die Meistersinger) appeared, and although he is not mythical at all he is a fine figure nevertheless. But in this case the plot is of little account, for the interest lies mainly in the emotions—the only thing, it appears, which music with its divine language ought to express.
It is true that music makes it possible to simplify dramatic action and it gives a chance, as well, for the free expression and play of sentiments, emotions and passions. In addition, music makes possible pantomimic scenes which could not be done otherwise, and the music itself flows more easily under such conditions. But that does not mean that such conditions are indispensable for music. Music in its flexibility and adaptability offers inexhaustible resources. Give Mozart a fairy tale like the Magic Flute or a lively comedy such as Le Nozze di Figaro and he creates without effort an immortal masterpiece.
It is a question whether there is any essential difference between history and mythology. History is made up of what probably happened; mythology of what probably did not happen. There are myths in history and history in myths. Mythology is merely the old form of history. Every myth is rooted in truth. And we have to seek for this truth in the fable, just as we try to reconstruct extinct animals from the remains Time has preserved to us. Behind the story of Prometheus we see the invention of fire; behind the loves of Ceres and Triptolemus the invention of the plow and the beginnings of agriculture. The adventures of the Argonauts show us the first attempts at voyages of exploration and the discovery of gold mines. Volumes have been written about the truths behind the fables, and explanations have been found for the strangest facts of mythology, even for the metamorphoses which Ovid described so poetically.
Halfway between history and mythology come the sacred writings. Each race has its own. Ours are the Old and New Testament. Many believe that these books are myths; a larger number—the Believers—that they are history, Sacred History, the only true history—the only one about which it is not permitted to express a doubt. If you want a proof of this, recall that not so many years ago a clergyman in the Church of England was censured by his ecclesiastical superiors for daring to say in a sermon that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden was symbolical and not a real creature.
And the ecclesiastical authorities were right. The basis of Christianity is the Redemption—the incarnation and sacrifice of God himself to blot out the stain of the first great sin and also to open the Kingdom of Heaven to men. That original sin was Adam's fall, when he followed the example of Eve, a victim of the Serpent's treacherous counsels, and disobeyed the command not to taste the Forbidden Fruit. Eliminate the Garden of Eden, the Serpent, the Forbidden Fruit, and the entire fabric of Christianity crumbles.
If we turn to profane history and take any historical work, we find that the facts are told in such a way that they seem to us beyond dispute. But if we see the same facts from the pen of another historian, we no longer recognize them. The reason is that a writer almost never undertakes the task of wrestling with the giant, History, unless he is impelled to do so by a preconceived idea, by a general conception, or a system he wants to establish. And whether he wants to or not, he sees the facts in a light favorable to his preconceived idea, and observes them through prisms which increase or diminish their importance at his will. Then, however great his discernment and however strong his desire to reach the truth, it is doubtful if he ever will. In history, as elsewhere, absolute truth escapes mankind. Louis XIV, Louis XV, Madame de Maintenon, Madame de Pompadour, Louis XVI, even Napoleon and Josephine, so near our own times, are already quasi-mythical characters. The Louis XIII of Marion de Lorme seemed until very lately to be accurate, but recent discoveries show us that he was quite different.
Napoleon III reigned only yesterday, but his picture is already painted in different tints. My entire youth was passed in his reign and my recollections represent him neither as the monster depicted by Victor Hugo nor the kind sympathetic sovereign of present-day stories.
There has been a great deal of discussion of the causes which brought on the War of 1870. We know all that was said and done during the last days of that crisis, but will anyone ever know what was hidden in the minds of the sovereigns, the ministers, and the ambassadors? Will it ever be known whether the Emperor provoked Gramont or Gramont the Emperor? Did they even know themselves? There is one thing the most discerning historian can never reach—the depths of the human soul.
We may, however, learn the secrets of the tomb. It was asserted for a long time that the remains of Voltaire and Rousseau had been exhumed, desecrated, and thrown into the sewers. Victor Hugo wrote a wonderful account of this—an account such as only he could write. One fine day doubt about this occurrence popped up unexpectedly. After waiting a long time it was decided to get to the heart of the matter, and they finally opened the coffins of the two great men. They were peacefully sleeping their last sleep. The deed never took place; its history was a myth.
In this connection Victor Hugo's credulity may be mentioned, for it was astonishing in a man of such colossal genius. He believed in the most incredible things, as the "Man in the Iron Mask," the twin brother of Louis XIV; in the octopus that has no mouth and feeds itself through its arms; and in the reality of the Japanese sirens which the Japanese were said to make out of an ape and a fish. He had some excuse for the sirens as the Academie des Sciences believed in them for a short time.
If what is called history is so near mythology as, many times, to be confounded with it, what about romance and the historical drama in which events, entirely imaginative, must of necessity find a place? What about the long-drawn-out conversations in books and on the stage that are attributed to historical persons? What about the actions attributed to them, which need not be true but only seem to be so? The supernatural element is the only thing lacking to make such works mythological in every way.
Now the supernatural lends itself admirably to expression in music and music finds in the supernatural a wealth of resources. But these resources are by no means indispensable. What music must have above all are emotions and passions laid bare and set in action by what we term the situation. And where can one find more or better situations than in history?
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From the time of Lulli until the end of the Eighteenth Century French opera was legendary, that is to say, it was mythological in character and was not, as has been pretended, limited to the depiction of emotion and the inner feelings in order to avoid contingencies. The real motive was to find in fables material for a spectacle. Tragedy, as we know, does not do this, for it can be developed only with considerable difficulty when the stage is crowded with actors. On the contrary, opera, which is free in its movements and can fill a vast stage, seeks for pomp, display and haloes in which gods and goddesses appear, in fact all that can be put into a stage-setting. If they did not use local color, it was because local color had not been invented. Finally, as we all get tired of everything, so they tired of mythology. Then the historical work was adopted and appeared on the stage with success, as is well known. The historical method had no rival until Robert le Diable rather timidly brought back the legendary element which triumphed later in the work of Richard Wagner.
In the meantime Les Huguenots succeeded Robert le Diable and for half a century this was the bright particular star of historical opera. Even now, although its traditions have largely been forgotten and although its workmanship is rather inferior to that of a later time, this memorable work nevertheless shines, like the setting sun, surprisingly brilliantly. The several generations who admired this work were not altogether wrong. There is no necessity to class this brilliant success as a failure, because Robert Schumann, who knew nothing about the stage, denied its worth. It is surprising that Berlioz's judgment has not been set against Schumann's. Berlioz showed his enthusiasm for Les Huguenots in his famous treatise on instrumentation.
The great public is little interested in technical polemics and is faithful to the old successes. Although little by little success has come to operas based on legends, there still remains a taste for operas with a historical background. This is not without a reason for as an authoritative critic has said: "A historical drama may contain lyric possibilities far greater than most of the poor, weak mythological librettos on which composers waste their strength, fully persuaded that by doing so they cause 'the holy spirit of Bayreuth to descend upon them.'"
And they never would have dreamed of being mythological, if their god, instead of turning to Scandinavian mythology, had followed his original intention of dramatizing the exploits of Frederick Barbarossa. In his youth he was not opposed to historical opera, for he eulogized La Musette de Portici, La Juive, and La Reine de Chypre. He made some justifiable criticisms of the libretto of the last work, although he admitted that the composer had contrived to write beautiful passages.
"We cannot praise Halevy too highly," he wrote, "for the firmness with which he resists every temptation, to which many of his contemporaries succumb, to steal easy applause by relying blindly on the talent of the singers. On the contrary, he demands that his virtuosi, even the most famous of them, shall subordinate themselves to the lofty inspiration of his Muse. He attains this result by the simplicity and truth he knows how to stamp on dramatic melodies."
This is what Richard Wagner said about La Juive in 1842.
Fortunately we no longer demand that operas be mythological, for if we did we should have to condemn the famous Russian operas and that is out of the question. However, the method of treatment is still in dispute and this question is involved. One method of treatment is admitted and another is not and it is extremely difficult to tell what is what.
I am now going to do a little special pleading for my Henri VIII, which, it would seem, is not in the proper manner. Not that I want to defend the music or to protest against the criticisms it has inspired, for that is not done. But I may, perhaps, be permitted to speak of the piece itself and to tell how the music was adapted to it.
According to the critics it would seem that the whole of Henri VIII is superficial and without depth, en facade; that the souls of the characters are not revealed, and that the King, at first all sugary sweetness, suddenly becomes a monster without any preparation for, or explanation of, the change.
In this connection let us consider Boris Godounof, for there is a historical drama suited to its music. I saw Boris Godounof with considerable interest. I heard pleasant and impressive passages, and others less so. In one scene I saw an insignificant friar who suddenly becomes the Emperor in the next scene. One entire act is made up of processions, the ringing of bells, popular songs, and dazzling costumes. In another scene a nurse tells pretty stories to the children in her charge. Then there is a love duet, which is neither introduced nor has any relationship to the development of the work; an incomprehensible evening entertainment, and, finally, funeral scenes in which Chaliapine was admirable. It was not my fault if I did not discover in all that the inner life, the psychology, the introductions, and the explanations which they complain they do not find in Henri VIII.
"To Henry VIII," it is stated at the beginning of the work, "nothing is sacred, neither friendship, love nor his word—ill are playthings of his mad whims. He knows neither law nor justice." And when, a little later, smiling, the King hands the holy water to the ambassador he is receiving, the orchestra reveals the working of his mind by repeating the music of the preceding scene. From beginning to end the work is written in this way. But dissertations on such details have not been given the public; the themes of felony, cruelty, and duplicity, and of this and that, have not, as is the fashion of the day, been underlined, so that the critics are excusable for not seeing them.
Not a scene, not a word, they say, shows the soul of Henry VIII. I would like to ask if it is not revealed in the great scene between Henry and Catharine, where he plays with her as a cat with a mouse, where he veils his desire to be rid of her under his religious scruples, and where he heaps on her constantly vile and cruel insinuations, or even in the last scene with its cruel hypocrisies. It is difficult to see why all his passions and all his feelings are not brought into play here. The Russian librettos do no more, nor the operas based on mythology.
But to continue. From the point of view of opera mythology offers one advantage in the use of the miraculous. But the rest of the mythical element offers, rather, difficulties. Characters who never existed and in whom no one believes cannot be made interesting in themselves. They do not sustain, as is sometimes supposed, the music and poetry. On the contrary, the music and poetry give them such reality as they possess. We could not endure the interminable utterances of the mournful Wotan, if it were not for the wonderful music that accompanies them. Orpheus weeping over Eurydice would not move us greatly, if Gluck had not known how to captivate us by his first notes. If it were not for Mozart's music, the puppets of the Magic Flute would amount to nothing.
Musicians should, as a matter of fact, be allowed to choose both the subject and motives for their operas according to their temperaments and their feelings. Much youthful talent is lost to-day because the young composers believe that they must obey set rules instead of obeying their own inspiration. All great artists, the illustrious Richard more than any other, mocked the critics.
As I have spoken of Richard Wagner's youth, I will take advantage of the opportunity to reveal a secret of one of his own works which is known to me alone. When Wagner was young, I was a child and I attended constantly the sessions of the Societe des Concerts. The kettledrummer of that day had a peculiar habit of breaking in before the rest of the orchestra. When the others began, it produced an effect which the authors had hardly foreseen and which was certain to be condemned. But the effect had a rather distinctive character and I thought it might be possible to use it. Richard Wagner lived in Paris at the time and frequented the famous concerts. There is no doubt that he noted this effect and used it in his overture to Faust.
ART FOR ART'S SAKE
What is Art?
Art is a mystery—something which responds to a special sense, peculiar to the human race. This is ordinarily called the esthetic sense, but that is an inexact term, for esthetic sense signifies a sense of the beautiful and what is esthetic is not necessarily beautiful. Sense of style would be better.
Some of the savage races have this sense of style, for their arms and utensils show a remarkable feeling for style, which they lose by contact with civilization.
By art let us understand, if you please, the Fine Arts alone, but including decorative art. Music ought to be included.
I shall astonish most of my readers, when I say that very few people understand music. For most people it is, as Victor Hugo said, an exhalation of art—something for the ear as perfume is for the olfactory sense, a source of vague sensations, necessarily unformed as all sensations are. But musical art is something entirely different. It has line, modeling, color through instrumentation, all making up an ideal sphere where some, like the writer of these lines, live from childhood on, which others attain through education, while many others never know it at all. Furthermore, musical art has more movement than the other fine arts. It is the most mysterious of them all, although the others are mysterious as it is easy to see.
The first manifestation of art occurs through attempts to reproduce objects. Such attempts have been found which date back to prehistoric times. But what is primitive man's idea in such attempts? He wants to record by a line the contour of the object, the likeness of which he wishes to preserve. This contour and this line do not exist in nature. The whole philosophy of art is in that crude drawing. It bases itself on nature even while making something quite different in response to a special, inexplicable need of the human spirit. Accordingly nothing can be more chimerical or vain than the advice so often given to the artist to be truthful. Art can never be true, even though it should not be false. It should be true artistically, by giving an artistic translation which will satisfy the sense of style of which we have spoken. When Art has satisfied this sense of style, the object of artistic expression has been attained; nothing more can be asked. But it is not the "vain effort of an unproductive cleverness," as our M. de Mun has said; it is an effort to satisfy a legitimate need, one of the loftiest and most honorable in human nature—the need of art.
If this is so, why should we demand that Art be useful or moral? It is both in its own way, for it awakens noble and honest sentiments in the soul. That was the opinion of Theophile Gautier, but Victor Hugo disagreed. The sun is beautiful, he used to say, and it is useful. That is true, but the sun is not an object of art. Besides, how many times Victor Hugo denied his own doctrine by writing verses which were merely brilliant descriptions or admirable bits of imagination?
We are, however, talking of art and not of literature. Literature becomes art in poetry but forsakes it in prose. Even if some of the great prose writers rendered their prose artistic through the beauty and harmony of their periods and the picturesqueness of their expressions, still prose is not art in its real nature. So, crude indecency aside, what would be immoral in prose ceases to be immoral in verse, for in poetry Art follows its own code and form transcends the subject matter. That is why a great poet, Sully-Prudhomme, preferred prose to verse when he wanted to write philosophically, for he feared, on account of the superiority of form to substance in poetry, that his ideas would not be taken seriously. That explains as well why parents take young girls to hear an opera, when if the same piece was played without music they would be appalled at the idea. What Christian is ever shocked by La Juive or Catholic frightened away from Les Huguenots?
Because prose is far removed from art, it is unsuited to music, despite the fact that this ill-assorted union is fashionable to-day? In poetry there has been an effort to make it so artistic that form alone is considered and verse is written which is entirely without sense. But that is a fad which can't last long.
Sometime ago M. de Mun said:
"Not to take sides is what the author is inhibited from doing. Art, to my way of thinking, is a setting forth of ideas. If it is not that—if it limits itself solely to considerations of form, to a worship of beauty for its own sake, without regard to the deeds and thoughts it brings to light, then it seems to me no better than the vain effort of an unproductive cleverness."
The eminent speaker is absolutely right as far as prose is concerned, but we cannot agree with him if poetry is considered.
Victor Hugo, in his marvellous ode, La Lyre et La Harpe brings Paganism and Christianity face to face. Each speaks in turn, and the poet in his last stanza seems to acknowledge that both are right, but that does not prevent the ode from being a masterpiece. That would not be possible in prose, but in the poem the poetry carries all before it.
Why is it that geniuses like Victor Hugo, distinguished minds, thinkers, and profound critics, refuse to see that Art is a special entity which responds to a certain sense? If Art accommodates itself marvellously, if it accords itself with the precepts of morality and passion, it is nevertheless sufficient unto itself—and in its self-sufficiency lies its heights of greatness.
The first prelude of Sebastian Bach's Wohltemperirte Klavier expresses nothing, and yet that is one of the marvels of music. The Venus de Milo expresses nothing, and it is one of the marvels of sculpture.
To tell the truth, it is proper to add that in order not to be immoral Art must appeal to those who have a feeling for it. Where the artist sees only beautiful forms, the gross see only nudity. I have seen a good man scandalized at the sight of Ingres's La Source.
Just as morality has no function to be artistic, so Art has nothing to do with morality. Both have their own functions, and each is useful in its own way. The final aim of morality is morality; of art, art, and nothing else.
POPULAR SCIENCE AND ART
Rene Bazin has sketched cleverly Pasteur's brilliant career. France has no clearer claim to glory than in Pasteur, for he is one of the men, who, in spite of everything, keeps her in the first rank of nations.
A rare good fortune attended him. While many scholars who seek the truth without concerning themselves with the practical results have to wait many long years before their discoveries can be used, Pasteur's discoveries were useful at once. So the mob, which cannot understand science studied for its own sake, appreciated Pasteur's works. He saved millions to the public treasury, and tens of thousands of human lives.
He had already secured a notable place in science when the public learned his name through the memorable contest between him and Pouchet over "spontaneous generation." The probabilities of the case were on Pouchet's side. People refused to believe that these organisms which developed in great numbers in an enclosed jar or that the molds which developed under certain conditions were not produced spontaneously. The youth of the time went wild over the question.
I was constantly being asked, "Are you for Pouchet or Pasteur?" and my invariable response was, "I shall be for the one who proves he is right." I was unwilling to admit that any such question could be solved a priori in accordance with preconceived ideas, although I must confess that among my friends I found no one of the same opinion.
We know how Pasteur won a striking victory through his patience and his genius. He demonstrated that millions and millions of germs are present in the air about us and that when one of them finds favorable conditions, a living being appears which engenders others. "Many are called, but few are chosen." This law may seem unjust, but it is one of the great laws of Nature.
Pasteur, the great benefactor, whose discoveries did so much for all classes of society, should have been popular, but he was, on the contrary, extremely unpopular. The leading publicists of the day were influenced by some inexplicable sentiment and they made constant war on him. When, after several years of prodigious labor, Pasteur ventured to assert himself, they took advantage of his following the dictates of humanity in accepting all sorts of cases, curable or not, to spread a report that his treatment did not cure, but instead gave the disease which it was supposed to cure. Popular fury was aroused to such a height, that a monster mass meeting was held against Pasteur. Louise Michel addressed this meeting with her customary vigor of speech and amidst frantic applause shouted this unqualified remark, "Scientific questions should be settled by the people."
By this time everybody was talking about microbes, and a shop on the boulevards announced an exhibition of them. They used what is known as a solar microscope and threw on a screen, suitably enlarged, the animalculae which grow in impure water, the larvae of mosquitoes, and other insects, which bear about the same relation to microbes that an elephant does to a flea. I went into this establishment, and saw the plain people with their wives looking at the exhibition very seriously and really believing that they saw the famous microbes. One of them near me said, with a knowing air, "What won't science do next?"
I was indignant, and I had all I could do to keep from saying: "They are fooling you. What they are showing you is not Science, at the most only its antechamber. As for you who are deceiving these naive good people, you are only impostors."
But I kept still; I would only have succeeded in getting thrown out. But I said to myself—and I still say—"Why not enlighten these people, who obviously want light?" It is impossible to teach them science, but it should be possible to make them at least comprehend what science is, for they have no idea of it now. They do not know—in this era when they are constantly talking about their rights and urged to demand more wages and less work—that there are young people who are spending their best years and leading a precarious existence, working day and night, without hope of personal profit, with no other end in view besides the hope of discovering new facts from which humanity may benefit at some time in the future. They do not know that all the benefits of civilization which they carelessly enjoy are the result of the long, painful and enormous work of the thinkers whom they regard as idlers and visionaries who grow rich from the sweat of the toilers. In a word, they should be taught to give respect to what is worthy of it.
It is true that there are scientific congresses, but these are serious gatherings which attract only the select few. It should be possible to interest everybody, and in order to make scientific meetings interesting we should use motion pictures and concerts.
But here we trench on art. We ought to teach the people not only science but art as well, but the latter is the more difficult.