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Famous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 online

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new and profoundly original genius; a genius more complex than that
of his predecessors, seeking for effects in the detail as well as in
the _ensemble_, but arriving like them, and by different means, at an
intensity of expression which was difficult to surpass.

It goes without saying that the score of _Robert le Diable_ contained
suggestions of the forms adopted by the author in the course of his
Italian career. This is especially noticeable in the first act and the
beginning of the second, and it would not have been an easy matter to
avoid it. But the general style of the work has an incontestable grandeur,
the declamation, noble and powerful, assumes the character of the French
lyric declamation, the contrasts of situations are striking and managed
with a remarkable intelligence, and the color of the music, its fantastic
character, so well in accord with the subject, are of such an intensity as
to produce on the hearer an ineffaceable impression. It is in the third
act especially, divided into two distinct parts, that the genius of the
composer is given full scope, and attains its most complete magnificence.
The comic scene between Bertram and Raimbaut, that in which voices from
below call to Bertram, the dramatic scene between Bertram and Alice, are
all of a great beauty, and the tableau following, that of the evocation of
nuns in the depth of their cloister, with the episode of the seduction of
Robert, is of a wonderful poetry and grace, and contrasts in a striking
manner with that which precedes. In the fourth act it is the human passion
which speaks its most pathetic language from the grand duet of Robert
and Isabelle to the moment when the powerful finale comes to prove to us
that Gluck's genius and his transports are not unknown to the genius of
Meyerbeer. As to the fifth act, it is of an admirable dramatic feeling.

The novelty of the forms and the hitherto unusual development of the
score of _Robert_ at first surprised the public, which was cautious about
passing judgment. But surprise soon gave way to admiration, admiration
grew to enthusiasm, and triumph, a triumph perhaps without precedent on
the French stage, welcomed a work so abounding in beauties of a very high
order. It is well known how rapidly the whole world ratified the judgment
of the Parisian public.

Meyerbeer has been criticised for his Italian souvenirs in his opera _les
Huguenots_, particularly that pretty air of Marguerite's in the second
act, charming in itself and from a strict musical point of view, but
which is evidently an aside, a concession made to virtuosity, and which
breaks the _ensemble_ and the unity of an otherwise strong, noble and
severe work. This fault aside, however, what a masterpiece is this score
of the _Huguenots_, in which the interest steadily increases, and which,
from the first scene to the last, never ceases to rise higher and higher!
Admiration knows not how to choose nor where to pause, so constant and
varied are the demands made upon it, whether by the marvellous tableaux,
like that of the arrival of Raoul at Marguerite's house, the picturesque
curfew scene in the third act, the duel scene which follows, the powerful
episode of the benediction of the poignards in the fourth, followed
by the splendid duet of Raoul and Valentine, finally the scene of the
massacre of the Huguenots in the fifth, - or by the delineation of the
characters, traced with a surprising vigor and sureness of hand, such as
those of Marcel, of Saint-Bris and of Nevers, which make an ineffaceable
impression on the memory. And what color, what style, what grandeur from
the beginning to the end of this work! Whether it be the dramatic element
which dominates, as in the duel scene or that of the conjuration, whether
it be the pathetic and passionate element, as in the _duo_ of the lovers,
whether it be the popular and picturesque element, as in the entire third
act, the superiority of the artist is always the same, always equally
complete, with no sign of weakness nor faltering. In this opera he recalls
with vividness and truth a world which has disappeared, and his music is
marvellously in accord with the period which he undertakes to depict,
the personages which he presents to us, and even the costumes of those
personages. As to the inspiration, always warm, noble and vigorous, it is
of an inexpressible richness and power.

[Illustration: [Music]

Fac-simile of Meyerbeer's musical manuscript, written in 1852.]

[Illustration: Fac-simile of Meyerbeer's letter to his brother, written in
1837.]

The austere subject of the opera of _le Prophète_, in which the element
of passion played only a very secondary rôle, caused it to be received at
first with a certain reserve on the part of the public. But Meyerbeer
had never been better inspired, and the nobleness, the grandeur and the
severity of the style of this composition raises it to a level which he
did not exceed. The beautiful introduction to the first act, the scene
of the three anabaptists, the marvellous ballet of skaters, the arioso
of Fidès in prison, a truly sublime and pathetic page, finally the
grand tableau of the cathedral, are so many superb and living proofs of
Meyerbeer's powerful and versatile genius. The public grew to admire the
beauties of this bold and dignified work; as to the artists, there are
many who unhesitatingly place the _Prophète_ above all that he has written
for the stage; for myself, I divide my highest admiration between _le
Prophète_ and _les Huguenots_.

[Illustration: REPRODUCTION OF ORIGINAL BILLBOARD OF FIRST PERFORMANCE OF
THE HUGUENOTS.

From archives of the Paris Opera.]

The success of _l'Etoile du Nord_, performed at the _Opéra-Comique_, Feb.
16, 1854, was much more spontaneous and considerable than that of the
_Prophète_ at the _Opéra_. Yet, after the lapse of forty years, the latter
is still played on all the stages of the world, whereas _l'Etoile du Nord_
is well-nigh forgotten. Assuredly there are some beautiful pages in this
score, in which Meyerbeer embodied several pieces from his German opera,
_A Camp in Silesia_, and especially should be mentioned the songs and
the ballad of Catherine in the first act, the quintet in the second, the
superb song of Pierre in the third, as well as the comic duet and trio;
but the work is essentially lacking in unity, it is too heavy as a whole,
and the orchestration is too noisy and brilliant for the demi-character of
the opera. Meyerbeer was much better inspired in _le Pardon de Plöermel_
(Dinorah), given also at the _Opéra-Comique_, April 4, 1839. This work
contains some exquisite pages, among which I will mention particularly the
overture with invisible chorus, Hoël's air in the first act, the drinking
chorus and the trio in the second, and the touching and melancholy song of
Hoël in the third. Unfortunately the insignificance and emptiness of the
libretto have always been a drawback to this beautiful score.

What are the salient traits of Meyerbeer's genius, and what influence has
this genius exerted upon his contemporaries? Such is the double question
which presents itself to us in the presence of the works of this great
man. First of all should be remarked his power of inspiration and power
of conception. He was the first to give to France the example of these
five-act operas of colossal dimensions, the performance of which requires
fully five hours, and the richness, the power of his inspiration is such
that so far from weakening during the course of these five long acts, it
is often higher, more sublime at the end than at the beginning. Witness
the fifth acts of all his great works; _Robert_, _les Huguenots_, _le
Prophète_, _l'Africaine_; every one of them is a masterpiece! As to the
power of conception, that mysterious faculty of unifying the different
parts of a work so large and complex as each of his operas, and forming of
them a harmonic, homogeneous whole, it is trully marvellous, and indicates
a peculiarly organized and quite exceptional musical brain. Everything,
indeed, is to be found in his works; dramatic sentiment is carried to its
highest power, the musical style is full of splendor, the general form is
superb, the harmony is solid and substantial, and the union of the voices
with the instruments admits of no criticism. If there were any fault
to be found with him it would be in the excess of sonority, sometimes
overwhelming, which he gives to the orchestra. But on the other hand, how
much he has improved the orchestra, giving it increased interest and life,
as well as variety of color, of timbre and of effect! What an important
part it takes in certain situations, and how carefully, conscientiously
and cleverly it is managed!

Conscience, indeed, was one of Meyerbeer's master qualities. Others, so
richly gifted, might perhaps have been content to follow the course of
their inspiration, without taking the trouble to enrich it, to fortify
it with the aid of all the means which art puts at the disposal of the
composer. He neglected nothing, no detail, no effect, no method that
enabled him to augment his resources, to complete his thought, in a
word, to attain perfection, or what he believed to be perfection. Nothing
dismayed him, he spared no pains to realize his ideal, to obtain the
result at which he aimed, and he never felt that he had done a thing so
well that it could not be improved. Thus his works have the solidity of
marble and the strength of iron. And if a blemish be sometimes discovered
in them, it is like the spots on the sun, which do not interfere with its
dazzling light.

In regard to the influence exerted by Meyerbeer upon his contemporaries,
although genuine and unmistakable, it cannot be said to be so complete or
so general as that exerted by Rossini. And this is due to the nature of
his genius, which was very complex, and in which cerebral reflection and
the combination of means held as important a place as inspiration properly
speaking. It was easy to imitate, without obtaining the same results,
the methods and the forms employed by Rossini (I refer to the _Italian_
Rossini, and not the Rossini of _William Tell_); very much less easy was
it to imitate the forms and the methods of Meyerbeer, these being not only
more complicated, more varied, but essentially dependent on the subject,
on the situations, on the episodes. This is why Meyerbeer's influence has
been mainly felt in the conception and general form of a work, and has
been much less sensible in technical detail and musical method.

In closing, I would say that Meyerbeer is one of the noblest, most
glorious artists who have ever shed lustre not only upon the French stage,
but on musical art as applied to the theatre. A great musician, but
especially a great dramatic musician, he has power, nobility, bold and
heroic inspiration, and above all the gift of emotion, of that poignant
and vigorous emotion which stirs the spectator, wrings his heart, lays
hold upon his very vitals, and forces the tears from his eyes.

[Illustration: Arthur Pougin]

[Illustration: FRESCO IN THE VIENNA OPERA HOUSE,

Illustrating Meyerbeer's Opera "The Huguenots."]

[Illustration: JOHANN STRAUSS

_Reproduction of a photograph from life of the younger Johann Strauss._

_Published by Reichard & Lindner, Berlin, 1887._]




[Illustration]

STRAUSS


The name of Strauss bids fair to become as numerously represented in the
annals of Nineteenth Century music as was that of Bach in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries; with this difference, however, that while the
Bachs were all of one family, three of the Strausses who have become
sufficiently famous to win a place in the musical dictionaries are not
related to the other three or four. It is with those that _are_ related,
the family of Johann Strauss, the Viennese "Waltz-King," that this article
is concerned.

A few years ago (1887) the famous Leipsic publishing house of Breitkopf
and Härtel commenced the issue of a complete collection of the waltzes,
polkas, and other dance pieces of the elder Johann Strauss. The first
volume has an interesting though brief biographic sketch by Johann
Strauss, Jr., who relates some of his personal reminiscences of his
father, besides other facts previously known to the public. "My father,"
he says in the opening paragraph, "was a musician by the grace of God. Had
he not been guided by an inner, irresistible impulse, the difficulties
which confronted him in his youth would have pushed him into another path."

It is interesting to note how this "impulse" would have its own way, as in
the case of other famous musicians, notwithstanding parental opposition.
Strauss was born at Vienna on March 14, 1804. When he was a mere child
he used to amuse himself (as Haydn had done in his childhood) by taking
two sticks and imitating the movements of a fiddler. Great was his joy
when his father, having discovered this instinctive trait, made him a
present of a small violin and allowed him to take lessons on it in the
primary school. But this was as far as parental encouragement went. Little
Johann's desire to become a professional musician was not countenanced,
and at the age of fourteen he was sent to a book-binder to learn his
trade; but he soon tired of this work and when his master added insult
to injury by forbidding him to play the violin, he packed up his beloved
instrument and his few other possessions and ran away. In a suburb of
Vienna he came across a friend who induced him to return to his parents,
whom he persuaded at the same time to give up opposing his musical
inclinations. So he received regular lessons and was soon able to play in
a small local orchestra.

As luck would have it, another musician, who was destined to be Strauss's
colleague and rival, Joseph Lanner, was at that time beginning his
brilliant career in Vienna. He was four years older than Strauss, and had
associated himself with two other musicians for the purpose of playing in
the cafés which abounded in that city. Strauss begged permission to join
this club, and was accepted as viola player, one of his duties being the
passing around of the plate for collections. There was so much animation
and true musical feeling in the performances of this club that it became
immensely popular and soon Lanner found it impossible to accept all the
engagements that were offered. This led him to engage more musicians and
ultimately to divide his orchestra into two smaller ones, over one of
which he himself presided, while Strauss was placed at the head of the
other.

But Strauss was an ambitious man, and after this companionship had lasted
six years (1819-1825) he made his "declaration of independence" of Lanner
and conducted an orchestra of his own, which soon became "all the rage"
in Vienna. His son has sketched this important episode so eloquently that
I cannot do better than translate his words: "The public now learned
to know him as an independent conductor, and as such he soon became so
popular that the dance-loving Viennese were divided into two parties - the
_Lannerianer_ and the _Straussianer_ - each of which championed its
idol with ardor. It redounds to the credit of the good old times that
this partisanship could not cloud the personal relations between Lanner
and Strauss, who continued to remain good friends. Their professional
separation at this time was brought about by another circumstance: my
father accidentally discovered his talent for composition. Composing was
obviously at that time an easier matter than it is to-day. To produce a
polka, contemporary musicians study the whole literature of music and
perhaps a few philosophical systems too. Formerly, only one thing was
needed to compose: One had to have a happy thought, as the popular saying
is (_es musste Einem was einfallen_). And strange to say, these happy
thoughts always came. Self-confidence in this respect was so great that we
of the old school (_wir Alten_) frequently announced for a certain evening
a new waltz of which on the morning of the same day not a single note
was written. In such a case the orchestra usually went to the composer's
house, and as soon as the latter had finished a part it was immediately
copied for the orchestra. Meantime, the miracle of the 'happy thought'
repeated itself for the other parts of the waltz; in a few hours the piece
was completed, whereupon it was rehearsed, and in the evening it was
played before a usually enthusiastic public.

"Lanner - light-hearted and careless - hardly ever composed any other way.
One morning it happened that he felt ill and unable to work, while a new
set of waltzes had been promised for the evening, and of course not a
bar was on paper. He sent my father the simple message: 'Strauss, see if
you can think of something' (in the quaint Viennese dialect: _Strauss,
schauen's dass Ihnen was einfällt_.) - In the evening the new waltz was
played - as Lanner's, of course - and was received with extraordinary favor.
This circumstance, combined with his marriage in the same year, induced my
father to secure his independence. He organized at first a quintet, but
after barely a year his orchestra already numbered fourteen men. At what
rate his fame and his popularity both as composer and conductor grew, is
a thing of which we, in these prosaic days, can hardly have a conception.
The years 1830 to 1836, during which my father presided over the music at
the Sperl, will always remain memorable in the history of music at Vienna.
The audiences were enormous, the enthusiasm unbounded, and as my father
was persuaded to accept engagements for other amusement places too, he
had at his disposal, during the carnival, about two hundred musicians.
From this he selected a corps of _élites_ - his _Stammorchester_ - which he
succeeded by unceasing rehearsals in bringing to a point of perfection
such as no other private orchestra had ever reached. Visitors to Vienna
carried the fame of these musicians to other parts of the world, and
invitations soon came to him to play in other cities."

The rest of Johann Strauss's life is simply a record of his triumphs in
the cities of Germany, Holland, France, Belgium and England, as well as in
Vienna, where he was appointed director of the Court balls in 1835. From
1833 to 1849, the year of his death, he made a tour almost every year,
and he was the first musician, so far as the records show, who undertook
to travel with a whole orchestra. In 1837-38 his tour extended as far as
Paris and London. In evidence of his great success in Paris it is related
that when he gave a series of thirty concerts in conjunction with the
popular Musard, whose orchestra played after Strauss's, one half of the
audience usually left the hall after Strauss had finished his part of the
program. In London he arrived most opportunely about the time of Queen
Victoria's coronation, when merry music was in great demand, and here he
gave no fewer than seventy-two concerts, besides playing at many balls.
London, however, did not agree with his health. At his first visit he fell
ill there, and his second visit, in 1849, proved fatal, for he brought
with him the germs of disease (scarlet fever) to which he succumbed
shortly after his return to Vienna. He died on Sept. 25, aged 45. All the
Viennese joined in doing him homage, and a vast concourse - his son says
one hundred thousand - accompanied his coffin to the grave.

Regarding his personal appearance, Herr C. F. Pohl, the Viennese librarian
says, that "though small he was well made and distinguished looking, with
a singularly formed head. His dress was always neat and well chosen.
Though lively in company, he was naturally rather silent. From the moment
he took his violin in his hand he became another man, whose whole being
seemed to expand with the sounds he drew from it." In his own home the
"Waltz-King," who contributed so much to ball-room merriment, appears to
have been unhappy. His father had been the keeper of a beer house, and
he himself married the daughter of an innkeeper, Anna Streim, from whom he
was divorced on the ground of incompatibility of temper, after eighteen
years. They had five children - two daughters and three sons, Johann,
Joseph and Eduard, all three of whom have became famous in the annals of
dance music.

[Illustration: FROM A PORTRAIT OF THE ELDER JOHANN STRAUSS IN EARLY
MANHOOD.

Drawn and lithographed by C. Lutherer.]

Eduard, the youngest, born on Feb. 14, 1835, has proved the least talented
of the three. His compositions, numbering over two hundred, though often
piquant in harmony and cleverly orchestrated, are deficient in melodic
spontaneity and originality and often a mere echo of his brother Johann's
genius. (There are melodious exceptions, the Doctrinen Walzer, opus 79,
e. g.) He is a good conductor of dance music, and since the death of his
brother Josef, in 1870, and the retirement of Johann from executive music
in the same year, he has been sole conductor of the Strauss orchestra at
court balls and in the Volksgarten.

Josef, the second of the brothers, had more talent for composition than
Eduard. He was of delicate constitution and lived only forty-three years
(Aug. 22, 1827, to July 22, 1870), yet the number of his original pieces
is two hundred and eighty-three, to which must be added about three
hundred arrangements. Some of his waltzes and polkas - like the "Village
Swallows" and "Woman's Heart" - have become great favorites, and deservedly
so, but I cannot agree with the opinion, which has been held, that he was
the superior - or even the equal - of his brother Johann. He was a good
pianist, and for a number of years divided with his brothers the task of
conducting the Strauss orchestra in Vienna.

We now come to Johann Strauss, the oldest of the brothers, born Oct. 25,
1825, and still living. It is not often that a man of genius has a son
who attains even greater eminence than himself, but in this case the palm
must be awarded to Johann Strauss, Jr., whose creative power was not only
greater than that of his brothers, but soared into regions of which even
his father never dreamed.

His talent for music was manifested at a very early age, but his father
did not encourage it - forgetting how much he himself had suffered in his
childhood from parental opposition to his natural inclinations. It was
Horace who remarked, almost two thousand years ago, that no man is quite
satisfied with his occupation, and everyone fancies he would have been
happier had he chosen some other career. This may have been the reason why
the elder Strauss, in the midst of his honors and remarkable popularity,
decided that none of his sons should become musicians. Johann was to be
a merchant, Josef an engineer, and for Eduard, too, some non-musical
employment would have been selected had not his father died before he was
fourteen.

Fortunately for Johann, his mother secretly encouraged his fondness for
music, allowing him to take lessons on the violin and in composition. His
first waltz was written when he was only six years old, and called his
'First Thought.' That was sixty years ago, and every one of these years
has added several waltzes to his list. As a conductor he made his first
venture at the age of nineteen, with a band of his own; and when his
father died, five years later, he took his place and remained at the head
of his orchestra for ten years. As an "orchestral traveller" he was even
more enterprising than his father had been, for he extended his journeys
as far as America and St. Petersburg, being heard at Gilmore's Jubilee at
Boston in 1869, while in St. Petersburg he gave a series of concerts every
summer, from 1856 to 1866, always returning to Vienna in winter to furnish
the music for the court festivities and the numerous other balls given in
that gay city during the carnival.

The eminent Viennese critic, Dr. Hanslick, a personal friend of Strauss,
says of this early period of his career: "The incessant dispenser of joys
to all Vienna, Father Strauss, was a tyrant at home. The sons grew up
amid the embittering and demoralizing impressions of an unhappy family
life. Finally Johann emancipated himself, trusting in his talent, of
which he felt certain, and on that Dommayer-evening suddenly came forth
as a musical rival of his father. The first three works, with which he
made his début, were the waltzes, 'Gunstwerber,' 'Sinngedichte' and the
'Herzenslust' Polka.... The young man's animal spirits, so long repressed,
now began to foam over; favored by his talent, intoxicated by his early
successes, petted by the women, Johann Strauss passed his youth in wild



Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 31 of 32)