Open main menu

HALÉVY, Jacques François Fromental Elias, a Jew, whose real name was Lévi, born in Paris May 27, 1799; entered the Conservatoire 1809, gained a prize in solfeggio 1810, and the second prize for harmony 1811. From Berton's class he passed to that of Cherubini, who put him through a severe course of counterpoint, fugue, and composition. In 1816 he competed for the 'Grand Prix de Rome,' and gained the second prize for his cantata 'Les derniers moments du Tasse'; in the following year the second Grand Prix for 'La Mort d'Adonis,' and in 1819 his 'Herminie' carried off the 'Grand Prix' itself. Before leaving for Rome, he composed a funeral march and 'De Profundis' in Hebrew, on the death of the Duc de Berry (Feb. 14, 1820), for 3 voices and orchestra, with an Italian translation; it was dedicated to Cherubini, performed March 24, 1820, at the synagogue in the Rue St. Avoye, and published. During his stay in Italy Halévy studied hard, and in addition not only wrote an opera, and some sacred works, still in MS., but found time to learn Italian. On his return to France he encountered the usual difficulties in obtaining a hearing. 'Les Bohémiennes' and 'Pygmalion,' which he offered to the Grand Opera, and 'Les deux Pavilions,' opera comique, remained on his hands in spite of all his efforts; but in 1827 'L'Artisan,' which contains some pretty couplets and an interesting chorus, was produced at the Théâtre Feydeau. This was followed in 1828 by 'Le Roi et le Batelier,' a little pièce de circonstance, composed conjointly with his friend Rifaut for the fête of Charles X. A month later, Dec. 9, 1828 (not 1839} he produced 'Clari,' 3 acts, at the Théâtre Italien, with Malibran in the principal part. It contains some remarkable music. 'Le Dilettante d'Avignon' (Nov. 7, 1829), a clever satire on the poverty of Italian librettos, was very successful, and the chorus 'Vive, vive l'Italie' speedily became popular. 'La Langue musicale' was less well received, owing to its poor libretto, but the ballet 'Manon Lescaut' (May 3, 1830) had a well-merited success at the Opéra, and was published for the Piano. 'La Tentation' (June 20, 1832), a ballet-opera in 5 acts, written conjointly with Casimir Gide (1804–1868) contains 2 fine choruses, which were well received. In spite of so many proofs of talent, Halévy still accepted any work likely to bring him into notice; and on March 4, 1833, brought out 'Les Souvenirs de Lafleur,' a one-act comic opera written for the farewell appearances of Martin the baritone; and on May 16 of the same year 'Ludovic,' a lyric drama in 2 acts which had been begun by Hérold. At length however his opportunity arrived. To produce successfully within the space of 10 months two works of such ability and in such opposite styles as 'La Juive' (Feb. 23), and 'L'Eclair' (Dec. 16, 1835), the one a grand opera in 5 acts, and the other a musical comedy without choruses, for 2 tenors and 2 sopranos only, was indeed a marvellous feat, and one that betokened a great master. They procured him an entrance into the Institut, where he succeeded Reicha (1836), and were followed by a large number of dramatic works, of which the following is a complete list:—

'Guido et Ginevra,' 5 acts (March 5, 1838). 'Les Treize.' 3 acts (April 15), and 'Le Shérif.' 3 acts (Sept. 2, 1839). 'Le Drapier,' 3 acts (Jan. 6, 1840). 'Le Guitarrero.' 3 acts (Jan. 21), and 'La Reine de Chypre,' 5 acts (Dec. 22, 1841). 'Charles VI,' 5 acts (March 15, 1843). 'Le Lazzarone,' 2 acts (March 29, 1844). 'Les Mousquetaires da la Reine,' 3 acts (Feb. 3, 1846). 'La Val d'Andorre,' 3 acts (Nov. 11, 1848). Incidental music for 'Prométhée enchainé' (March 18), a translation by Léon Halévy of the tragedy of Æsculus; and 'La Fée aux Roses,' 3 acts (Oct. 1, 1849). 'La Tempesta,' 3 acts, Italian opera,[1] produced at Her Majesty's Theatre, London, June 6, 1850, and in Paris, Feb. 25, 1861. 'La Dame de Pique.' 3 acts (Dec. 28, 1850). 'Le Julf errant.' 5 acts (April 28. 1852). 'Le Nabab,' 3 acts (Sept. 1, 1853). 'Jaguarita l'Indienne,' 3 acts (May 14, 1855). 'Valentine d'Aubigny.' 3 acts (1856). 'La Magicienne.' 5 acts (March 17, 1858). 'Noë,' an opera in 5 acts, left unfinished [Appendix p.662 "finished by Bizet"]; 'Les Plages da Nil,' a cantata with orchestra and chorus: many vocal piaces, and some piano music.

By devoting his life to the production of such varied and important works, Halévy proved his versatility; but the fact remains that throughout his long and meritorious career, he wrote nothing finer than 'La Juive' or more charming than 'L'Eclair.' He was unfortunately too easily influenced, and the immense success of 'The Huguenots' (Feb. 29, 1836) had an undue effect upon him. Instead of following in the direction of Hérold, giving his imagination full play, husbanding his resources, and accepting none but interesting and poetic dramas, he over-exhausted himself, took any libretto offered him, no matter how melancholy and tedious, wrote in a hurry and carelessly, and assimilated his style to that of Meyerbeer. It must be acknowledged also that in 'Guido et Ginevra,' 'La Heine de Chypre,' and 'Charles VI,' side by side with scenes of ideal beauty, there are passages so obscure that they seem impenetrable to light or air. His chief defects are—the abuse of the minor mode; the too frequent employment of sustained low notes in the orchestra previous to a sudden explosion on the upper registers; too constant repetition of the contrast between darkness and brillancy; vague melodic strains instead of definite rhythmical airs; and morceaux d'ensemble rendered monotonous by the same phrase being put into the mouths of characters widely opposed in sentiment. In spite however of such mistakes, and of much inexcusable negligence, even in his most important works, his music as a whole compels our admiration, and impresses us with a very high idea of his powers. Everywhere we see traces of a superior intellect, almost oriental in character. He excelled in stage pageantry—the entrance of a cortège, or the march of a procession; and in the midst of this stage pomp his characters are always sharply defined. We are indebted to him for a perfect gallery of portraits, drawn to the life and never to be forgotten. The man who created such a variety of such typical characters, and succeeded in giving expression to such opposite sentiments, and portraying so many shades of passion, must have been a true poet. His countrymen have never done him justice, but the many touching melodies he wrote bespeak him a man of heart, and enlist our warmest sympathies. Besides all this, he is by turns tender and persuasive, grand and solemn, graceful and refined, intellectual and witty, and invariably distinguished. We admit that his horror of vulgarity sometimes prevented his being sufficiently spontaneous, but we can pardon a few awkward or tedious phrases, a few spun-out passages, in one who possessed such a mastery of melancholy, and had equally within his grasp lofty and pathetic tragedy, and sparkling comedy thoroughly in harmony with French taste.

Not content with supplying the repertoires of three great lyric theatres, Halévy also found time to become one of the first professors at the Conservatoire. As early as 1816 he was teaching solfeggio, while completing his own studies; and in 27 was appointed professor of harmony, while filling at the same time the post of 'Maestro al cembalo* at the Italian Opéra, post he left two years later in order to become 'chef du chant' at the Académie de Musique. In 1833 he was appointed professor of counterpoint and fugue, and in 40, professor of composition. His lessons were learned and interesting, but he wanted method. Among his pupils may be mentioned Gounod, Victor Massé, Bazin, Deldevez, Eugène Gautier, Deffés, Henri Duvernoy, Bazille, Ch. Delioux, A. Hignard, Gastinel, Mathias, Samuel David, and the lamented George Bizet, who married his daughter. With Cherubini he maintained to the last an intimate and affectionate friendship which does credit to both, though sometimes put rudely to the proof. See a good story in Hiller's 'Cherubini' (Macmillan's Magazine, July 1875). Halévy's only didactic work was an elementary book called 'Leçons de lecture musicale' (Paris, Léon Escudier, 1857). This book, revised and completed after his death, is still the standard work for teaching solfeggio in the primary schools of Paris.

We have mentioned Halévy's entrance into the Institut in 1836; in 54 he was elected permanent secretary of the Academic des Beaux Arts, and in this capacity had to pronounce eulogiums, which he published with some musical critiques in a volume entitled 'Souvenirs et Portraits, études sur les beaux arts' (1861). These critical and biographical essays are pleasant reading; they secured Halévy reputation as a writer, which however he did not long enjoy, as he died of consumption at Nice, March 17, 1862. His remains were brought to Paris, and interred with great solemnity on the 24th of the same month.

[ G. C. ]

  1. The book of this opera was adapted by Scribe from Shakspeare, originally for Mendelssohn. Its reception was extraordinarily favourable, but it is said that the melody.on which Halévy was most congratulated by the artists, and which everybody was to be heard humming, was that of 'Where the bee sucks,' by Arne, which he had introduced into the part of Ariel.