Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/268

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256
BOIELDIEU.
 

before 1796, but not performed till 1798), 'La Dot de Suzette' (same year), 'Beniowski' (after a drama by Kotzebue; performed in 1800 at the Théâtre Favart), and 'Le Calife de Bagdad' (performed in September of the same year with enormous success). To these operatic works ought to be added some pieces of chamber music, which we mention less for their intrinsic value than for the sake of completeness. They are, according to Fétis, a concerto and six sonatas for pianoforte, a concerto for harp, a duo for harp and pianoforte, and three trios for pianoforte, harp, and violoncello. To the success of these minor compositions Boieldieu owed his appointment as professor of the pianoforte at the Conservatoire in 1800. With the same year we may close the first period of Boieldieu's artistic career. The 'Calife de Bagdad' is the last and highest effort of this period. If Boieldieu had died after finishing it he would be remembered as a charming composer of pretty tunes cleverly harmonised and tolerably instrumented, in short as an average member of that French school of dramatic music of which he is now the acknowledged leader. Boieldieu's first manner is chiefly characterised by an absence of style—of individual style at least. Like most men of great creative power and of autodidactic training, like Wagner for instance, Boieldieu began by unconsciously adopting, and reproducing with great vigour, the peculiarities of other composers. But every new advance of technical ability implied with him a commensurate step towards original conception, and his perfect mastery of the technical resources of his art coincided with the fullest growth of his genius. During this earlier period matter and manner were as yet equally far from maturity. This want of formal certainty was felt by the composer himself, if we may believe a story told by Fétis, which, although somewhat doubtful on chronological grounds, is at any rate plausibly invented. He relates that, during the composition of the 'Calif of Bagdad,' Boieldieu used to submit every new piece as he wrote it to the criticism of his pupils at the Conservatoire. When, as happened frequently, these young purists took exception at their master's harmonic peccadilloes, the case was referred to Méhul, to whose decision, favourable or unfavourable, Boieldieu meekly submitted. Considering that at the time Boieldieu was already a successful composer of established reputation, his modesty cannot be praised too highly. But such diffidence in his own judgment is incompatible with the consciousness of perfect formal mastership.

After one of the successful performances of the 'Calife' Cherubini accosted the elated composer in the lobby of the theatre with the words 'Malheureux! are you not ashamed of such undeserved success?' Boieldieu's answer to this brusque admonition was a request for further musical instruction, a request immediately granted by Cherubini, and leading to a severe course of contrapuntal training under the great Italian master. The anecdote rests on good evidence, and is in perfect keeping with the characters of the two men. Fétis strongly denies the fact of Boieldieu having received any kind of instruction or even advice from Cherubini—on what grounds it is not easy to perceive. Intrinsic evidence goes far to confirm the story. For after the 'Calif of Bagdad' Boieldieu did not produce another opera for three years, and the first work brought out by him after this interval shows an enormous progress upon the compositions of his earlier period. This work, called 'Ma tante Aurore,' was first performed at the Théâtre Feydeau January 1803, and met with great success. In June of the same year the composer left France for St. Petersburg. His reasons for this somewhat sudden step have been stated in various ways. Russia at that time was the El Dorado of French artists, and several of Boieldieu's friends had already found lucrative employment in the Emperor's service. But Boieldieu left Paris without any engagement or even invitation from the Russian court, and only on his reaching the Russian frontier was agreeably surprised by his appointment as conductor of the Imperial Opera, with a liberal salary. It is very improbable that he should have abandoned his chances of further success in France, together with his professorship at the Conservatoire, without some cause sufficient to make change at any price desirable. Domestic troubles are named by most biographers as this additional reason. Boieldieu had in 1802 contracted an ill-advised marriage with Clotilde Mafleuray, a dancer; the union proved anything but happy, and it has been asserted that Boieldieu in his despair took to sudden flight. This anecdote however is sufficiently disproved by the fact recently discovered of his impending departure being duly announced in a theatrical journal of the time. Most likely domestic misery and the hope of fame and gain conjointly drove the composer to a step which, all things considered, one cannot but deplore. Artistically speaking the eight years spent by Boieldieu in Russia must be called all but total eclipse. By his agreement he was bound to compose three operas a year, besides marches for military bands, the libretti for the former to be found by the Emperor. But these were not forthcoming, and Boieldieu was obliged to take recourse to books already set to music by other composers. The titles of numerous vaudevilles and operas belonging to the Russian period might be cited, such as 'Rien de trop,' 'La jeune femme colère,' 'Les voitures versées,' 'Aline, reine de Golconde' (to words previously set by Berton), and 'Télémaque'; also the choral portions of Racine's 'Athalie.' Only the three first-mentioned works were reproduced by Boieldieu in Paris; the others he assigned to oblivion. 'Télémaque' ought to be mentioned as containing the charming air to the words 'Quel plaisir d'être en voyage,' afterwards transferred to 'Jean de Paris.'

In 1811 Boieldieu returned to Paris, where great changes had taken place in the meantime. Dalayrac was dead; Méhul and Cherubini, disgusted with the fickleness of public taste, kept silence; Nicolo Isouard was the only rival to be