Hélène – contemporary writings

Camille Bellaigue

Revue musicale – 31 janvier 1905

Revue des Deux Mondes, 5e période, tome 25, 1905 (pp. 698-708).

THEATRE DE L’OPERA-COMIQUE : Hélène, poème lyrique en un acte, paroles et musique de M. Camille Saint-Saëns.

Not having received the Prix de Rome in former times, the greatest of our composers has applied himself to show that he could have obtained it, and even that it would not be impossible for him to win it again.  Hélène is something like the cantata, belated and superior, of M. Saint-Saens; the irreproachable “homework” not of a schoolboy, but of a teacher.

With “La Belle” and “la Bonne”, her two homonyms and predecessors, the Helen of M. Saint-Saëns poet and musician has this in common, that she gives herself; she is distinguished in this from the one and the other, that she does not give herself without struggles. It takes nothing less, to throw her into the arms of Paris, than the counsel, and almost the order of Venus, expressly risen out of the waves.  Cypris having pleaded the prospect, Pallas in her turn pleaded against it, in vain.  In vain did she represent to the lovers, to their eyes no less than to their ears (the decoration illustrating the music), the fatal consequences of their love, the ten-year war and the burning of Troy, and on the violet coloured sea, we see a floral galley carrying one of the first and most famous among adulterous couples, to the sound of songs and kisses.

If Venus triumphs in the poem, Pallas in music is the strongest.  A little cold, sovereignly wise and pure, this music is above all a daughter of the spirit; it goes without saying that the word, when speaking of such a musician, must be taken in the broad sense of intelligence or understanding and apply to the entire order of sounds.

On the score of Hélène, discreet and tempered on purpose, always clear, rarely brilliant, there are only two great blows of light: one at the beginning and the other at the end.  The last, a little garish, consists in the explosion or the apotheosis of the love theme, to the sounds of an orchestra where the zephyrs and the waves rustle.  And, of this theme sketched sometimes during the work, the sketches touched us more finely than the supreme splendor.  In itself the melody is unequal, having as its center, or as a body, a rather trivial progression, which a sinuous and charming cadence resolves.

The first scene, on the contrary, is of a sober and lively color.  An orchestral introduction, an orchestra that bubbles, where two rhythms are opposed and break each other; some measures of an invisible chorus, which tambourines accompany under the porticoes of the palace illuminated in the night; a thousand echoes of joy and festivity; tones and modulations of crystal, clear and flowing sonorities, it is nothing, it passes like a flash, but it cannot be forgotten.

Between these two notes of light, the appearance and the prophecy of Pallas makes a beautiful dark spot.  A semblance, a suspicion of a storm announces it: a breath of wind and a few rumblings of thunder, no more; but from the twofold point of view of natural truth and musical originality, this little atmospheric incident leaves nothing to be desired.  The noble declamation of the goddess arises and then develops on undersides of instrumentation and harmony both solid and soft; finally, the orchestra, which comes alive, adds its commentary, pathetic without melodrama, to the anticipated account of the misfortunes of Ilion.  Still other details have their price.  By other scattered signs, the artist reveals himself, great in little things.  With as much finesse as he notes the storm, he surprises, he sets a sunrise.  Sometimes it is by a series of chords that shudder and rise, sometimes by a trio of a moment, for violin, viola and cello, and this moment of pure music, I was going to write chamber music, is delicious.

Two or three passages from the monologue of Helen testify that the musician never had a surer hand to serve more delicate thoughts.  From the shared soul of the heroine, music expresses, or rather indicates, here less a firm will, than weak and changing whims.  But to these indications, which of finesse and accuracy it gives!  Listen, and then read and reread again the period which begins with this remembrance: “Je vivais paisible, honorée,” (I lived peaceably, honored), and ends with this regret: “Ah! pourquoi l’ai-je-vue, cette tête charmante!” (Ah! Why did I see it, that charming head!)  This is perfection itself.  This is not an “aria”.  But in character, in the section and termination of the original phrase, in the proportions and eurhythms of the periods and movements, in the orchestration itself, founded on the string quartet, there is all the purity of the classical spirit and style.  The harmonies enveloping Paris’s call: Viens, dit-il, dans ma Troade! (Come, he said, to my Troy!) exhale a languor, which if not in the Phrygian mode, is at least strange and oriental in mood.  Here, for the first time, the melody of love rises, timid and still retained.  It is here that it has the most charm, and when it is lost, scatters or sinks into sonorous drops, it is astonishing that the concert of a woman’s voice, a violin, a harp and a flute can unite so much fullness to so much tenuity.

“Music,” Gounod once said to us, “becomes unbreathable.”  But it was not of M. Saint-Saëns’ music that he spoke.  In pages such as the one we have just quoted, as another where the queen listens to her innocent and pastoral childhood in the distance, it seems that the music is airing and lightening, that it strips and sacrifices what it can of matter, only to live by the spirit.  Too many young musicians ask or command him today to the contrary sacrifice.  Hence their music oppresses and asphyxiates us.  Let them learn from a Saint-Saëns to provide for our pleasure with an economy that their prodigality does not equal.  Let them spare themselves and spare us!  Nietzsche said, not without some reason: “A work that wants to produce an impression of health must be executed at most with three quarters of the strength of its author.  If the author has given his extreme measure, the work agitates the spectator and agitates him by its tension.” Helen’s spectator can be easy.  The author did not give his extreme measure this time.  He reserved the quarter – at least – of himself.  But as little as he pretended to do, he did it with ease, sovereign freedom, and as if to amuse himself.  In truth, we expressed ourselves badly a little while ago and we’ll amend it.  We should not call this work “homework”, it is a game.

Mademoiselle [Mary] Garden lends to the unfaithful wife of Menelaus, or rather she gives her, for the artist has conviction and sincerity, the charm of her person and her attitudes, the assurance and purity of her voice.  In the role of the Priamide, Mr. Clément showed taste and style.  But next to Helen’s mauve sails, Paris’s tunic looked harshly blue, and, by chance at the Opéra-Comique, the colors did not accord as well as the sounds.

Camille Saint-Saëns


In Au courant de la vie (Dorbon-Ainé, Paris, 1914)

A long time ago, I had this vision: Helen fleeing in the night, arriving broken, at the end of her strength, at the seaside, far from her palace, joined by Paris – the scene of passion, the resistance finally defeated, the supreme flight of the two lovers after a desperate struggle…

For I have never been able to see in Helen the woman who is merely in love; she is the slave of Destiny, the victim of Aphrodite sacrificed by the goddess to her glory, the price of the Golden Apple; she is a great figure whose fault does not awaken mockery, but rather a kind of sacred terror.  See her on the ramparts of Ilion, of that city on which her presence calls for ruin and massacre: when she passes, the Trojan elders rise and salute her.  Later on we find her at her husband’s, making as queen the honors of her palace, and no one thinks of reproaching her for her past, her abandonment, the years spent in Troy, so many Greeks who have died for her!  The daughter of Zeus finds in her steps only respect and respect.

I had therefore dreamed of painting in music the hegira of the two lovers; but we know how [Offenbach’s] parody had taken possession of it, with what happiness and success.  To take seriously those epic characters who had become comic, for a long time there was no need to think of them; I had handed over this project to later times and the time had passed, the project had come out of my memory.

All that was needed was a request from M. Gunsbourg, repulsed at first, and then insistently resumed, to awaken my memories, and again show Helen and Paris more alive than ever.

At first I had the intention — idea, I admit, of laziness — of working with a collaborator; but what ?  A collaborator would have liked to add ideas to mine, to deprive my conception of its simplicity; I decided to work alone.

Alone ! Not quite. Following the example of our classics, I took as auxiliary Homer, Theocritus, Aeschylus, Virgil, and even Ovid. Scholars will easily share what they have in Helen. Without Virgil, would I have dared to describe the palace of Priam, those gilded roofs, the walls clothed in polished and brilliant bronze, adorned with brilliant statues, probably polychromes, this ensemble that makes these strange architectures of Gustave Moreau very likely?  Would I have dared the verse:

Dans le sang de son fils Priam est égorgé ?


My notes taken, my scenario outlined, it was only a matter of setting to work. I was then at Cairo, the host of His Majesty Prince Mohammed Aly Pasha, brother of the Khedive, enjoying complete freedom, a calmness which the visitors, frightened by enormous fellows superbly dressed and formidably armed, did not dare to disturb, guardians of the palace door.

It would be impossible for me to say how I found, before every word, the first musical phrase on which I then had to adapt the verses:

Des astres de la nuit tes yeux ont la clarté !
I was there when the management of the Khédival theater had the idea of ​​giving a great concert for the benefit of the Breton sailors and composing it entirely of my works.

Suddenly I was engaged in lectures and rehearsals, forced to “put my fingers” to pay for my person in this solemnity. All this was incompatible with work in its initial and critical period. I planted Hélène there with regret, and when later I wanted to go back to work, it was no longer possible: I was disoriented, out of tune!  I had to leave my delightful sojourn in Cairo to seek in the middle of the desert, in the Thebaid of Ismailia, a bath of light and silence, what is commonly called inspiration: Ismailia, favorite stay of the Prince of Arenberg, is a divine place.

It is the beata solitudo tempered by a group of highly civilized people of both sexes, employees of the administration of the Suez Canal, surrounded by their family, a small elite colony which counted in its bosom two poets of talent !  And as these amiable people are very occupied, they populate the solitude without troubling it.

In twelve days I had written my poem, and soon I embarked at Port Said to return to Paris, where I was awaiting the preparations for a revival of Henri VIII at the Opera. When this recovery was over, I found myself tired. My “instrument to compose” no longer worked; It took me eight days’ rest at Biarritz, and eight more at Cannes, to restore it. Then I remembered that the seaside town of Aix-en-Savoie nestled against a flowery mountain, surrounded by a wonderful panorama, with easy access, thanks to a cog railway, and I chose to settle on the Revard mountain, where I sketched almost entirely the music of Hélène completed in Paris.

It is thus necessary to work always in calm and silence, sheltered from distractions and importunities, comforted by the great spectacles of nature, surrounded by flowers and perfumes. Thus practiced, work is more than a pleasure, it is a voluptuousness. An analogy has been observed between the appearance of Pallas in Hélène and that of Brünnhilde in the second act of the Walküre; these analogies had not escaped me, but it was not possible to avoid it.

Helen calls to her aid her father Zeus. What can he do? Come himself? It would be a formidable appearance that would break the frame. Send Mercury, the messenger? The ancients would perhaps have admitted it, for Mercury leads souls to hell; but for us, Hermes is a god as light in character as mood; we do not see him as very threatening and terrible, predicting a catastrophe. On the contrary, as this role naturally flows from Pallas, the living antithesis of Cytherea, daughter of Zeus like Helen, there was no need to hesitate.

In art, when logic rules, one must obey him, without worrying about anything else. Certainly it is unfortunate to find ourselves struggling with one of the finest scenes in the theater; it would be even more necessary to retreat before an analogy which has not been sought, and which imposes itself by the force of things.

Helene and Paris, Samson and Dalila, Adam and Eve, it is always the same drama: the triumphant temptation, the irresistible attraction of the forbidden fruit.

While protesting for form, we have treasures of indulgence and even of sympathy for the vanquished.

The Church herself rejoices at the fault of Adam, O felix culpa!  Which made the Redemption necessary, the basis of the Christian religion.

Suppose Helen and Paris, terrified by the predictions of Pallas, bid each other an eternal farewell, they would win our esteem, they would not interest us any more.  Who has ever been interested in Menelaus?

This situation, which goes back to the earthly paradise, is disturbing; there is a problem which has not yet been solved. Perhaps the civilized state of which we are so proud, very recent in relation to the age of humanity, is only a transitory state, a march towards a higher state, where what seems obscure to us will appear clear, where certain things that seem essential to us will be nothing but words.  Let us hope.  As Carmen says, this other incarnation of the same idea, it is always permissible to hope.