A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Méhul, Etienne
MÉHUL, Etienne Henri [App. p.716 "for Henri read Nicolas"], born June 24 [App. p.716 "22"], 1763, at Givet in the Ardennes, son of a cook, who was too poor to give him much education. Even in childhood he showed a passion for music, and a remarkable perseverance in overcoming obstacles, and at 10 was appointed organist to the convent of the Récollets at Givet. Having learned all that his master, a poor blind organist, could teach him, he was thrown on his own resources, until the arrival, at the neighbouring convent of Lavaldieu, of a new organist, Wilhelm Hauser, whose playing had attracted the attention of the Abbot Lissoir, when visiting the Abbey of Scheussenried in Swabia. The monks of Lavaldieu, wishing to make music a special feature in their services, had a good organ, and the playing of Hauser, who was a sound and good musician, caused quite an excitement in that secluded corner of the Ardennes. Lavaldieu was several leagues from Givet, but Méhul often walked over to hear him; and at length, with the consent of his father, was admitted into the convent, and became the most diligent, as he was the most gifted, of the eight pupils under Hauser's training. At 14 be became deputy organist; and a distinguished amateur who heard him play was so struck by his evident power of imagination, that he determined to take him to Paris, and in 1778 Méhul bade farewell to the flowers he loved to cultivate, and the instructor who had put him in the way to become a great musician. On his arrival in Paris he at once went to Edelmann for instruction in pianoforte playing and composition. To earn his bread he gave lessons, and composed two sonatas (1781) which bear no traces of a master mind; but this was not the line in which he was destined to distinction. In 1779 he was present at the first performance of 'Iphigénie en Tauride,' and the effect produced on one with his cultivated intellect, his love of the beautiful, and passionate though reserved nature, was immense. He expressed his admiration to Gluck himself, who received the young enthusiast graciously, gave him valuable advice, and undertook his instruction in the philosophical and poetical parts of music. Encouraged by the success of a cantata with orchestra composed to one of Rousseau's sacred odes, and produced at the Concert Spirituel in March 1782, he might have gone on writing church music, had not Gluck shown him his true vocation, and directed his attention to the stage. Solely for practice he composed one after another three operas, 'Psyché et l'Amour,' a pastoral by Voisenon previously set by Saint Amans; 'Anacréon,' the third act of a ballet by Bernard and Rameau, produced in 1757 as 'Les Surprises de l'Amour'; and 'Lausus et Lydie,' 3 acts, to a libretto adapted by Valadier from Marmontel. These unpublished scores are lost, no trace of them being discoverable in any of the public libraries of Paris.
Méhul now felt himself in a position to appear before the public, and Valadier having furnished him with the libretto of 'Cora et Alonzo,' 4 acts, also taken from Marmontel, the score was soon ready, and accepted by the Académie, but there the matter ended. Tired of waiting, he resolved to try his fortune at another theatre, and having made the acquaintance of Hoffmann he obtained from him the libretto of 'Euphrosine et Coradin, ou le Tyran corrigé,' 3 acts (Sept. 4, 1790). In this opéra-comique the public recognised at once a force, a sincerity of accent, a dramatic truth, and a gift of accurately expressing the meaning of the words, which were throughout the main characteristics of Méhul's mature genius. Its success was instantaneous; and the duet 'Gardez-vous de la jalousie,' the close of which contains a modulation as unexpected as it is effective, speedily became a favourite throughout France. Henceforth Méhul had ample opportunities of satisfying his productive instinct, and he brought out successively:—
'Cora' (1791); 'Stratonice' (May 3, 1792); 'Le jeune Sage et le vieux Fou' (179e); 'Horatius Coclès' and 'Phrosine et Mélidore' (1794); 'La Caverne' (1795), not so successful as Lesueur's on the same subject; 'Doria' and 'Le jeune Henri' (1797); 'Adrien' (June 4) and 'Ariodant' (Oct. 11, 1799); 'Epicure,' with Cherubini (March 14), and 'Bion' (Dec. 27. 1800); 'L'Irato, ou l'Emporté' (Feb. 17 1801); 'Une Folie' (April 4), 'Le Trésor supposé,' 'Joanna,' and 'L'Henreux malgré lui' (1802); 'Héléna' and 'Le Balser et la Quittance,' with Kreutzer, Boieldieu, and Nicolo (1803); 'Les deux Aveugles de Tolède' (Jan. 28), 'Uthal' (May 17), and 'Gabrielle d'Estrées' (June 25, 1806); 'Joseph' (Feb. 17, 1807).
Astonishing as it may seem, these 24 operas were not the only works Méhul produced within 17 years. He composed and published in addition many patriotic songs and cantatas, among others the 'Chant national du 14 Juillet,' the 'Chant du Départ,' the 'Chant du Retour,' the 'Chanson de Roland,' and choruses to 'Timoléon' a tragedy by Joseph Chénier; two ballets, 'Le Jugement de Paris' (1793) and 'La Dansomanie' (1800); several operettas, and other 'morceaux de circonstance,' such as 'Le Pont de Lodi,' etc., all unpublished except the 'Chant lyrique' for the inauguration of the statue voted to Napoleon by the Institut.
The epoch at which he composed 'Uthal' and 'Joseph' was the culminating point of Méhul's career. He was already a member of the Institut (1795) and a chevalier of the Legion of Honour (1802), and had been inspector of instruction at the Conservatoire from its foundation. His pupils looked up to him and he was a favourite in the best society, but such homage did not blind him to the fact that in science his colleagues Cherubini and Catel were his superiors, owing to his want of early systematic training. This accounts for his laborious efforts to change his style, and excel in more than one department of music. His symphonies, though performed at the Conservatoire, cannot rank with those of Haydn and Mozart; indeed none of his other orchestral works rise to the level of his overtures. Of his ballets 'Le Retour d'Ulysse' (1807), and 'Persée et Andromède' (1810) in which he introduced many pieces from 'Ariodant,' were well received, but 'Les Amazones, ou la fondation de Thebes' disappeared after nine performances. An opéra-comique in 1 act, 'Le Prince Troubadour' (1813), was not more successful, but his last work, 'La Journée aux Aventures,' 3 acts (Nov. 16, 1816), kept the boards for some time. Its success was partly due to its being known at the time that Méhul was dying of consumption. Two months after its production he was sent to Provence, but the change came too late; he returned to Paris, and died there Oct. 18, 1817, aged 54. Besides six unpublished operas composed between 1787–97, he left the unfinished score of 'Valentine de Milan,' a 3-act opéra-comique, completed by his nephew and pupil Daussoigne-Méhul (born at Givet, June 10, 1790, died at Liege, March 10, 1875), and produced Nov. 28, 1822.
The most conspicuous quality of Méhul's work as a whole is its absolute passion. This is exemplified most strikingly in 'Stratonice' and 'Ariodant.' Not less obvious are the traces of the various influences under which he passed. Between 'Ariodant' and 'Joseph' must be placed all those repeated attempts to vary his style, and convince his detractors that he could compose light and graceful airs as well as grand, pathetic, and sustained melodies, which cannot be considered as anything but failures, although the ignorant amateurs of the day pronounced 'L'Irato' to be true Italian music. 'Joseph,' which dates from the midst of the Revolution, before the Empire, belongs to a different epoch, and to a different class of ideas. Méhul's noble character, his refined sentiment, and religious tendencies, the traces of his early education, in his perfect acquaintance with the church modes and plainsong, and his power of writing excellent church music, are all apparent in this powerful work, the simplicity, grandeur, and dramatic truth of which will always command the admiration of impartial musicians.
Méhul was not so fortunate as Grétry in finding a poet whose creative faculties harmonised thoroughly with his own; and he was fascinated by any subject—antique, chevaleresque, Ossianic, Spanish, patriarchal, or biblical—so long as it afforded him opportunities for local colouring, the importance of which he often exaggerated. His overtures to 'Le Jeune Henri' 'Horatius Coclès,' 'Timoléon,' and 'Les deux Aveugles de Tolède' are however incomparably superior to anything of the kind which preceded them; and most striking are such passages as the introduction to 'Ariodant,' where three cellos and a trombone hold a kind of dialogue, and that in 'Mélidore et Phrosine,' where four horns which have a complete part throughout the score, accompany the voice of a dying man with a kind of smothered rattle. In 'Uthal' the violins are entirely absent, their places being taken by the violas, in order to produce a soft and misty effect. Grétry was shocked at this innovation, and so wearied by its monotony, that he cried on leaving the theatre after the first performance, 'Six francs for an E-string (chanterelle)!'
Though Méhul's new and ingenious combinations were not always successful, and though his melodies were often wanting in that life and dash which rouse an audience, it must be acknowledged that with all his faults his work bears the stamp of a very individual mind and character, and the impress of that mighty race of 1789, with whom to will was to do, but amongst whose many gifts that of grace was too often wanting. Had he but possessed this fascinating quality, Méhul might have been the Mozart of France. As it is, we cannot withhold our admiration from the man who carried on Gluck's work with even more than Gluck's musical skill, regenerated opéra-comique, and placed himself at the head of the composers of his own time and nation.
[ G. C. ]