Étienne Nicolas Méhul

Méhul.jpg

Born: 22 June 1763, Givet, France

Died: 18 October 1817, Paris, France


Méhul commands respect rather than affection. He was the leading French composer of the Revolutionary age, and admired by Napoleon. He wrote the Chant du départ, the anthem of the First Empire, nicknamed “the brother of the Marseillaise”; he was the first musician appointed to the Institut de France (Académie des Beaux-Arts) in 1795, and the first to receive the Légion d’honneur in 1794. But he is almost forgotten now.

“Méhul in his time was one of our most profound harmonists,” the anonymous critic of Le Corsaire wrote in 1830. “Rigorous observer of the rules of his art, he applied himself to create new and bold combinations without ever sacrificing the correctness of the drawing; he knew the power of imitative song; he knew that the musical expression must follow and reinforce the dramatic situation – so that the most intrepid arrangers fought in vain to draw a single contredanse from his severe compositions.”

Pougin (Annales politiques et littéraires, 1892) praised Méhul as one of the greatest of French musicians, embodying the national genius of vigorous conciseness, elegance, and beautiful language. Wagner considered him one of the three masters who continued and developed Gluck’s reform. (The others were Cherubini and Spontini.)

Méhul’s most acclaimed works are Euphrosine et Corradin (1790), his first opera, with the same story as Rossini’s Matilde di ShabranStratonice (1792), which we discuss below; Mélidore et Phrosine (1794), a pre-Wagnerian drama of incest and leitmotifs; Adrien (1799); Ariodant (1799), his favourite opera, based on Ariosto; and the Biblical opera Joseph (1807), performed in Germany until the end of the 19th century.

None of Méhul’s works remain in the repertoire. A few have been sporadically recorded – most recently, Bru Zane has recorded Adrien and the Ossian drama Uthal (1806), infamous for its absence of violins. But, as Le Gaulois wrote in 1917, the dust lies thick on his sleeping scores. And has done now for two centuries.

I confess that I find Méhul rather cold. His music seems skillful, but academic rather than inspired. The expression is true and vigorous, as Pougin suggests; his music is more robust than Grétry’s; his harmonies and orchestration are effective – but his strength was not in melody. Few tunes (other than that famous Chant du départ) linger. Even ‘famous’ pieces like the quartets in Stratonice or l’Irato, the battle scene in Adrien, or, Fétis suggests, the duet in Euphrosine et Corradin succeed because of how Méhul constructs and assembles his material, rather than the quality of the material itself.

Berlioz made a similar criticism. He praised Méhul’s “passionate energy”; his conviction that the music for an opera should relate to the sentiment expressed in the words; and his understanding that musical expression did not depend on melody alone, but on harmony, modulation, rhythm, orchestration, the choice of the upper or the lower register of voices and instruments, the speed or slowness of execution, and the different shades of dynamics in the production of sound. In this, Berlioz wrote, Méhul belonged to the school of Gluck.

“But his style, more studied and polished, and more academic than that of the German master, was also much less grandiose, less striking, and less pungent. You will find there far fewer of those immense shafts of light which penetrate to the depth of the soul. And then, if I may make this confession, I find Méhul rather short of ideas. The music he wrote was excellent, truthful, pleasant, beautiful, and moving, but cautious to the point of austerity. His muse shows intelligence, spirit, warmth and beauty; but she preserves the looks of a housewife, her dress is grey and lacks fullness, and she cherishes parsimony.”

In the opera-cum-oratorio Joseph, Berlioz thought Méhul handled the orchestra with perfect tact and common sense. “There is not one instrument too many, and not a single note is out of place. But this same orchestra’s studied soberness lacks colour and even energy. You miss movement and that indefinable element which generates life.”


OPERAS

  1. Euphrosine, ou le tyran corrigé (1790)
  2. Cora (1791)
  3. Stratonice (1792)
  4. Le jeune sage et le vieux fou (1793)
  5. Horatius Coclès (1794)
  6. Le congrès des rois (1794 ; with others)
  7. Mélidore et Phrosine (1794)
  8. Doria, ou La tyrannie détruite (1795)
  9. La caverne (1795)
  10. Le jeune Henri (1797)
  11. Le pont de Lody (1797)
  12. La taupe et les papillons (composed 1797/98, unperformed)
  13. Adrien (1799)
  14. Ariodant (1799)
  15. Épicure (1800 ; with Cherubini)
  16. Bion (1800)
  17. L’irato, ou L’emporté (1801)
  18. Une folie (1802)
  19. Le trésor supposé, ou Le danger d’écouter aux portes (1802)
  20. Joanna (1802)
  21. Héléna (1803)
  22. Le baiser et la quittance, ou Une aventure de garnison (1803 ; with others)
  23. L’heureux malgré lui (1803)
  24. Les deux aveugles de Tolède (1806)
  25. Uthal (1806)
  26. Gabrielle d’Estrées, ou Les amours d’Henri IV de France (1806)
  27. Joseph (1807)
  28. Les amazones, ou La fondation de Thèbes (1811)
  29. Le prince troubadour, ou Le grand trompeur des dames (1813)
  30. L’oriflamme (1814 ; with others)
  31. La journée aux aventures (1816)
  32. Valentine de Milan (1822)