A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/David, Félicien

DAVID, Félicien, one of the most prominent of French composers, was born March 8 [App. p.608 "April 13"], 1810, at Cadenet, in the south of France. His father was an accomplished musical amateur, and it is said that Félicien at the mature age of two evinced his musical taste by shouts of applause at his father's performances on the fiddle. At the age of four the boy was able to catch a tune. Two years later Garnier, first oboe at the Paris Opera, happened to hear the child sing, and strongly advised his mother to cultivate Félicien's talent. Soon afterwards the family removed to Aix, where David attended the Maîtrise (school) du Saint Sauveur, and became a chorister at the cathedral. He is said to have composed hymns, motets, and other works at this early period, and a quartet for strings, written at the age of 13, is still preserved at the Maitrise. In 1825 he went to the Jesuit college at Aix to complete his studies. Here he continued his music, and acquired some skill on the violin. He also developed an astonishing memory for music, which enabled him to retain many pieces by Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, and Lesueur, by heart. When he left the college, at the age of 18, want of means compelled him to enter the office of his sister's husband, a lawyer, but he soon afterwards accepted the appointment of second conductor at the Aix theatre, which he occupied till 1829, when the position of maître de chapelle at St. Sauveur was offered to him. During the one year he occupied this place he wrote several compositions for the choir of the church; one of these, a 'Beatus Vir,' afterwards excited the admiration of Cherubini.

In 1830 David went to Paris to finish his musical education. He had a small allowance from his uncle, but his wants were moderate and his enthusiasm great. Cherubini received him kindly, and under his auspices David entered the Conservatoire, and studied harmony under Millot. He also took private lessons from Réber, and thus accomplished his course of harmony within six months. He then entered the class of Fétis for counterpoint and fugue. An 'Ave verum' composed at this time proves his successful advance. On the withdrawal of his allowance David had to support himself by giving lessons. At the same period he narrowly escaped the conscription.

In 1831 we have to date an important event in our composer's life, viz. his joining the St. Simoniens. David lived for some time in the kind of convent presided over by the Père Enfantin, and to his music were sung the hymns which preceded and accompanied the religious and domestic occupations of the brethren. When, in 1833, the brotherhood was dissolved, David joined a small group of the dispersed members, who travelled south, and were received with enthusiasm by their co-religionists at Lyons and Marseilles. The music fell to our composer's share, and several of his choruses were received with great applause.

At Marseilles David embarked for the East, where he remained for several years, at Constantinople, Smyrna, Egypt, and the Holy Land. The impressions thus received were of lasting influence on his talent. He managed wherever he went to take with him a piano, the gift of an admiring manufacturer at Lyons. Soon after his return, in 1835, he published a collection of 'Mélodies orientales' for piano. In spite of the melodious charm and exquisite workmanship of these pieces they met with total neglect, and the disappointed composer left Paris for several years, and lived in the neighbourhood of Igny, rarely visiting the capital. Two symphonies, 24 quintets for strings, several nonets for wind, and numerous songs (one of which latter, 'Les Hirondelles,' was at one time very popular in England) belong to this period. One of his symphonies, in F, was in 1838 performed at the Valentino concerts, but without success. In 1841 David again settled in Paris, and his name began to become more familiar to the public, owing to the rendering of some of his songs by M. Walter, the tenor. But his chief fame is founded on a work of very different import and dimensions—his 'Ode-symphonie' 'Le Désert,' in which he has embodied the impressions of his life in the East, and which was produced Dec. 8, 1844. The form of this composition is difficult to define. Berlioz might have called it a 'melologue.' It consists of three parts subdivided into several vocal and orchestral movements, each introduced by some lines of descriptive recitation. The subject is the mighty desert itself, with all its gloom and grandeur. On this background is depicted a caravan in various situations, singing a hymn of fanatic devotion to Allah, battling with the simoom, and resting in the evening by the fountain of the oasis. Whatever one's abstract opinion of programme music may be, one cannot help recognising in the 'Desert' a highly remarkable work of its kind. The vast monotony of the sandy plain, indicated by the reiterated C in the introduction, the opening prayer to Allah, the 'Danse des Almées,' the chant of the Muezzin, founded on a genuine Arabic melody—are rendered with a vividness of descriptive power rarely equalled by much greater musicians. David, indeed, is almost the only composer of his country who can lay claim to genuine local colour. His Arabs are Arabs, not Frenchmen in disguise.

The 'Désert' was written in three months. It was the product of spontaneous inspiration, and to this circumstance its enormous success is mainly ascribable. None of David's subsequent works have approached it in popularity. 'Le Désert' was followed, in 46, by 'Moïse au Sinaï,' an oratorio written in Germany, where David had gone on a concert-tour, and where he met with much enthusiasm not unmixed with adverse criticism. 'Moïse,' originally destined for Vienna, was performed in Paris, its success compared with that of its predecessor being a decided anticlimax. The next work is a second descriptive symphony, 'Christophe Colomb' (1847), and its success again was anything but brilliant. 'Eden, a Mystery,' was first performed at the Opéra in 48, but failed to attract attention during that stormy political epoch. His first genuine success since 1844 David achieved with an opéra comique, 'La Perle du Brésil' (1851). His remaining dramatic works are 'La Fin du Monde' (in four acts, never performed), 'Herculanum' (serious opera in four acts; 1859 at the Opéra[1]), 'Lalla Roukh' (two acts; 1862), and 'Le Saphir' (in three acts; 1865 both at the Opera Comique). Another dramatic work, 'La Captive,' was in rehearsal, but was withdrawn by the composer for reasons unknown.

David's power as an operatic writer seems to lie more in happy delineation of character than in dramatic force. Hence his greater success with comedy than with tragedy. 'Lalla Roukh' particularly is an excellent specimen of felicitous expression, and easy but never trivial melodiousness. Here again his power of rendering musically the national type and the local surroundings of his characters becomes noticeable. This power alone is sufficient to justify the distinguished position he holds. As to his final place in the history of his art it would be premature to give a definite opinion. Félicien David died on Aug. 29, 1876. [App. p.608 "for seven years before his death he held the post of librarian to the Conservatoire."] Since his death several of his works—'Le Desert' and 'Lalla Roukh' amongst the number—have been revived with much success in Paris, and his quartets are now (1877) being played.

An essay on David's life and works up to 1854 is found in the collection called Mirecourt's 'Contemporains.' For the earlier part of his life a brochure (Biographie de F. David, Marseilles, 1845, out of print), by M. Saint-Etienne, is a valuable source.

[ F. H. ]

  1. It appears that in 'Herculanum' a great many pieces from the 'Fin du Monde' have been embodied. The present writer has no personal knowledge of either work.