A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Isouard, Nicolo
ISOUARD, or ISOARD, Nicolo, usually known as Nicolo, born Dec. 6, 1775, at Malta, where his father was a merchant and secretary of the 'Massa Frumentaria,' or government storehouses. He was taken to Paris as a boy, and educated at the Institution Berthaud, a preparatory school for the engineers and artillery. Much of his time was taken up with the study of the pianoforte under Pin, but he passed a good examination for the navy. He was however recalled before receiving his commission, and on his return to Malta in 1790 was placed in a merchant's office. His pianoforte-playing made him welcome in society; and encouraged by this he went through a course of harmony with Vella and Azopardi, and with Amendola of Palermo—where he passed several years as clerk to a merchant—and completed his studies under Sala and Guglielmi at Naples, where he was employed by a German banking firm. He now determined to become a composer, and abandoning commerce, much against his father's wish, produced his first opera, 'L'avviso ai Maritati,' at Florence in 1795. After this date he called himself simply Nicolo, in order not to compromise his family, and it was under this name that he made his reputation. From Florence he went to Leghorn, and composed 'Artaserse,' an opera seria, which procured him the cross of San Donato of Malta. He succeeded Vincenzo Anfossi as organist of St. John of Jerusalem at Malta, and on the death of San Martino became maître de chapelle to the Order, retaining both posts until the occupation of the island by the French (June 10–13, 1798). During these early years he acquired that facility which was afterwards one of his most marked characteristics. There was not a branch of composition which he did not attempt, as a list of his works at this date will show:—9 Cantatas; masses, psalms, and motets; vocal pieces for concerts; and 8 or 9 operas which it is not necessary to enumerate.
At this time he was strongly urged to go to Paris. On his arrival he found a useful friend in Rodolphe Kreutzer, and the two composed conjointly 'Le petit Page' (Feb. 14, 1800), and 'Flaminius à Corinthe (Feb. 28, 1801). At the same time Delrieu re-wrote the librettos of two of his Italian operas, which were performed under their original titles, 'L'Impromptu de Campagne' (June 30, 1800), and 'Le Tonnelier' (May 17, 1801). Isouard also made considerable mark in society as a pianist. To his friendship with Hoffmann and Etienne he owed not only sound advice, but a series of librettos upon which he was able to work with a certainty of success. Thus favoured by circumstances, he produced in 16 years no less than 33 operas. The following list is in exact chronological order, which Fétis has not been careful to observe:
'La Statue, on la femme avare' (April 29); 'Michel Ange' (Dec. 11, 1802); 'Les Confidences' (March 30); 'Le Baiser et la Quittance' (June 17), with Méhul, Kreutzer, and Boieldieu; 'Le Médecin Turc' (Nov. 19, 1803); 'L'Intrigue aux fenêtres' (Feb. 24); 'Le Déjeuner de Garçons' (April 24); 'La Ruse inutile'(May 30); 'Léonce' (Nov. 18, 1805); 'La Prise de Passau' (Feb. 8); 'Idala' (July 30, 1806); 'Les Rendez-vous bourgeois' (May 9); 'Les Créanciers' (Dec. 10. 1807); Un Jour à Paris' (May 24); 'Cimarosa' (June 28, 1808); 'L'Intrigue au Sérail' (April 25, 1809); 'Cendrillon' (Feb. 22, 1810); 'La Victime des Arts' (Feb. 27), with Solié and Berton; 'La Fête du village' (March 31); 'Le Billet de loterie' (Sept 14); 'Le Magicien sans Magic' (Nov. 4, 1811); 'Lulli et Quinault (Feb. 27, 1812); 'Le Prince de Catane' (March 4); 'Le Français à Venise' (June 14, 1813); Le Siége de Méziéres' (Feb. 12), with Cherubini, Catel, and Boieldieu; 'Joconde' (Feb. 28); 'Jeannot et Colin' (Oct. 17, 1814); 'Les deux Maris' (March 18); and 'L'une pour l'autre' (May 11, 1816).
To this long list must be added 'Aladin, ou la Lampe merveilleuse,' which he did not live to finish, but which was completed by Benincori.
Isouard had the gift of melody, and remarkable skill in disposing his voices so as to obtain the utmost effect. Instances of this are—the quintet in 'Michel Ange,' quite Italian in its form; the ensemble and trio in the 'Rendezvous bourgeois'; the quartet in the 2nd act of 'Joconde'; the trio in the same opera, and that of the three sisters in 'Cendrillon'; the finale in the 'Intrigue aux fenêtres'; the trio and the duet in 'Jeannot et Colin,' and many others. To these qualities must be added the originality and unadorned simplicity of his music, which gave it a kind of troubadour character. His later works, composed when Boieldieu was running him hard, are manifestly superior to the earlier ones, when he had no competitor. 'Joconde,' the favourite romance in which will never be forgotten, far surpasses 'Cendrillon,' though inferior to 'Jeannot and Colin,' which for finish, taste, sentiment, and charm of style will always be appreciated by musicians.
Another of Isouard's good points is that his comedy never degenerates into vulgarity. In Boileau's words, this composer—
'Distingua le naïf du plat et du bufibn.'
He strictly observed the proprieties of the stage, and thoroughly understood the French public. In his own way he continued Grétry's work, but being no originator was eclipsed by Boieldieu and afterwards by Auber. The successes of his rival provoked him beyond control, and when Boieldieu was elected by the Institut in 1817 to succeed Méhul in preference to himself, his mortification was extreme. It was, perhaps, to drown the remembrance of this defeat, and of the triumphs of his opponent, that, although a married man, he plunged into a course of dissipation which ruined his health and brought on consumption, from which he died in Paris, March 23, 1818.
There is no biography of Isouard, nor indeed any sketch at all adequate. Several portraits have been published, but are of no artistic merit. From one of them was executed in 1853 the marble bust now in the foyer of the Opéra Comique.Isouard is little known in England. The only two of his pieces which appear to have been brought out on the London stage are 'Les Rendezvous bourgeois' (St. James's, May 14, 1849), and 'Joconde,' English version by Mr. Santley (Lyceum, Oct. 25, 1876).
[ G. C. ]
- Fayolle, in his 'Dictionnaire des Musiciens,' states that General Vaubois took him to Paris as his private secretary, but a comparison of dates will show this to have been an impossibility. General Vaubois was in command of the French at Malta, and with a garrison of 4,000 men maintained his position against the blockading forces of the allies without and the Maltese themselves within, for two years from 1798. Isouard, on the other hand, reached Paris with his family in 1799. Fétis has reproduced this error.