A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Auber, Daniel-François-Esprit

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AUBER, Daniel-François-Esprit, was born January 29, 1784 (according to Fétis, 1782 [App. p.525 "The weight of testimony concerning the year of the composer's birth supports Fétis and substantiates the date 1782. In the supplement to Mendel's Lexicon, the date 1784 is corrected to correspond with Fétis, on the authority of Paloschi."]), at Caen, where his parents were on a visit. The family, although of Norman origin, had been settled in Paris for two generations, and that metropolis was always considered as his home by our composer. In his riper years he hardly ever left it for a single day, and not even the dangers of the Prussian siege could induce the then more than octogenarian to desert his beloved city. Although destined by his father for a commercial career, young Auber began to evince his talent for music at a very early period. At the age of eleven he wrote a number of ballads and 'Romances,' much en vogue amongst the elegant ladies of the Directoire; one of them called 'Bonjour' is said to have been very popular at the time. A few years later we find Auber in London, nominally as commercial clerk, but in reality more than ever devoted to his art. Here also his vocal compositions are said to have met with great success in fashionable drawing-rooms; his personal timidity however—a feature of his character which remained to him during his whole life—prevented the young artist from reaping the full benefit of his precocious gifts. In consequence of the breach of the Treaty of Amiens (1804) Auber had to leave England, and on his return to Paris we hear nothing more of his commercial pursuits. Music had now engrossed all his thoughts and faculties. His début as an instrumental composer was accompanied by somewhat peculiar circumstances. Auber had become acquainted with Lamarre, a violoncello-player of considerable reputation; and to suit the peculiar style of his friend, our composer wrote several concertos for his instrument, which originally appeared under Lamarre's name, but the real authorship of which soon transpired. The reputation thus acquired Auber increased by a violin-concerto written for and first played by Mazas at the Conservatoire with signal success; it has since been introduced here by M. Sainton. His first attempt at dramatic composition was of a very modest kind. It consisted in the re-setting of an old opera-libretto called 'Julie' for a society of amateurs (in 1811 or 12). The orchestra was composed of two violins, two violas, violoncello, and double-bass. The reception of the piece was favourable. Cherubini, the ruler of the operatic stage at that time, was amongst the audience, and recognising at once the powerful though untrained genius of the young composer, he offered to superintend his further studies. To the instruction of this great composer Auber owed his mastery over the technical difficulties of his art. As his next work, we mention a mass written for the private chapel of the Prince de Chimay, from which the beautiful a capella prayer in 'Masaniello ' is taken. His first opera publicly performed was 'Le Séjour militaire,' and was played in 1813 at the Théâtre Feydeau. Its reception was anything but favourable, and so discouraged was the youthful composer by this unexpected failure that for six years he refrained from repeating the attempt. His second opera, 'Le Testament, ou les Billets-doux,' brought out at the Opera Comique in 1819, proved again unsuccessful, but Auber was now too certain of his vocation to be silenced by a momentary disappointment. He immediately set to work again, and his next opera, 'La Bergère châtelaine,' first performed in the following year, to a great extent realised his bold expectations of ultimate success. The climax and duration of this success were, to a great extent, founded on Auber's friendship and artistic alliance with Scribe, one of the most fertile playwrights and the most skilful librettist of modern times. To this union, which lasted unbroken till Scribe's death, a great number of both comic and serious operas owe their existence, not all equal in value and beauty, but all evincing in various degrees the inexhaustible productive power of their joint authors. Our space will not allow us to insert a complete list of Auber's numerous dramatic productions; we must limit ourselves to mentioning those amongst his works which by their intrinsic value or external grace of execution have excited the particular admiration of contemporary audiences, or on which their author's claim to immortality seems chiefly to rest. We name 'Leicester,' 1822 (being the first of Auber's operas with a libretto by Scribe); 'Le Maçon,' 1825 (Auber's chef-d'œuvre in comic opera); 'La Muette de Portici' (Masaniello) 1828; 'Fra Diavolo,' 1830; 'Lestocq,' 1835 [App. p.525 "1834"]; 'Le Cheval de Bronze, 1835; 'L'Ambassadrice,' 1836; 'Le Domino noir,' 1837; 'Les Diamans de la couronne,' 1841; 'Carlo Broschi,' 1842; 'Haydée,' 1847; 'L'Enfant prodigue,' 1850; 'Zerline,' 1851 (written for Madame Alboni); 'Manon Lescaut,' 1856; 'La fiancée du Roi des Garbes,' 1867; 'Le premier jour de bonheur,' 1868; and 'Le Rêve d'amour,' first performed in December 1869 at the Opéra Comique. [App. p.525 adds "'Emma,' 1821; 'La Neige,' 1823; 'Le Concert à la Cour,' 1824; 'Léocadie,' 1824; 'Le Timide' and 'Fiorilla,' 1826; 'La Fiancée,' 1829; 'Le Dieu et la Bayadère,' 1830; 'Le Philtre,' 1831; 'Le Serment,' 1832; 'Gustave III,' 1833; 'Actéon,' 1836; 'Le Lac des Fées,' 1839; 'Zanetta,' 1840; 'Le Due d'Olonne,' 1842; 'La Part du Diable,' 1843; 'La Sirène,' 1844; 'La Barcarolle,' 1845; 'Marco Spada,' 1852; 'Jenny Bell,' 1855; and 'La Circassienne,' 1861."]

Auber's position in the history of his art may be defined as that of the last great representative of opéra comique, a phase of dramatic music in which more than in any other the peculiarities of the French character have found their full expression. In such works as 'Le Maçon' or 'Les Diamans de la couronne,' Auber has rendered the chevaleresque grace, the verve, and amorous sweetness of French feeling in a manner both charming and essentially national. It is here that he proves himself to be the legitimate follower of Boieldieu and the more than equal of Hérold and Adam. With these masters Auber shares the charm of melody founded on the simple grace of the popular chanson, the piquancy of rhythm and the care bestowed upon the distinct enunciation of the words characteristic of the French school. Like them also he is unable or perhaps unwilling to divest his music of the peculiarities of his own national type. We have on purpose cited the 'Diamans de la couronne' as evincing the charm of French feeling, although the scene of that opera is laid in Portugal. Like George Brown and the 'tribu d'Avenel' in Boieldieu's 'Dame Blanche,' Auber's Portuguese are in reality Frenchmen in disguise; a disguise put on more for the sake of pretty show than of actual deception. We here recognise again that amalgamating force of French culture to which all civilised nations have to some extent submitted. But so great is the charm of the natural grace and true gaieté de cœur with which Auber endows his creations that somehow we forget the incongruity of the mongrel type. In comparing Auber's individual merits with those of other masters of his school, of Boieldieu for instance, we should say that he surpasses them all in brilliancy of orchestral effects. He is, on the other hand, decidedly inferior to the last-mentioned composer as regards the structure of his concerted pieces. Auber here seems to lack that firm grasp which enables the musician, by a distinct grouping of individual components, to blend into a harmonious whole what seems most contradictory, yet without losing hold of the single parts of the organism. His ensembles are therefore frequently slight in construction; his style indeed may be designated as essentially homophonous; but he is (perhaps for the same reason) a master in the art of delineating a character by touches of subtlest refinement.

Amongst his serious operas it is particularly one work which perhaps more than any other has contributed to its author's European reputation, but which at the same time differs so entirely from Auber's usual style, that without the most indubitable proofs one would hardly believe it to be written by the graceful and melodious but anything but passionately grand composer of 'Le Dieu et la Bayadere' or 'Le Cheval de Bronze.' We are speaking of 'La Muette de Portici,' in this country commonly called, after its chief hero, 'Masaniello.' In it the most violent passions of excited popular fury have their fullest sway; in it the heroic feelings of self-surrendering love and devotion are expressed in a manner both grand and original; in it even the traditional forms of the opera seem to expand with the impetuous feeling embodied in them. Auber's style in Masaniello is indeed as different as can be imagined from his usual elegant but somewhat frigid mode of utterance, founded on Boieldieu with a strong admixture of Rossini. Wagner, who undoubtedly is a good judge in the matter, and certainly free from undue partiality in the French master's favour, acknowledges in this opera 'the bold effects in the instrumentation, particularly in the treatment of the strings, the drastic grouping of the choral masses which here for the first time take an important part in the action, no less than original harmonies and happy strokes of dramatic characterisation.' Various conjectures have been propounded to account for this singular and never-again-attained flight of inspiration. It has been said for instance that the most stirring melodies of the opera are of popular Neapolitan origin, but this has been contradicted emphatically by the composer himself. The solution of the enigma seems to us to lie in the thoroughly revolutionised feeling of the time (1828), which two years afterwards was to explode the established governments of France and other countries. This opera was indeed destined to become historically connected with the popular movement of that eventful period. It is well known that the riots in Brussels began after a performance of the 'Muette de Portici' (August 25, 1830), which drove the Dutch out of the country, and thus in a manner acted the part of 'Lilliburlero.' There is a sad significance in the fact that the death (May 13, 1871 [App. p.525 "May 12"]) of the author of this revolutionary inspiration was surrounded and indeed partly caused by the terrors of the Paris commune.

About Auber's life little remains to be added. He received marks of highest distinction from his own and foreign sovereigns. Louis Philippe made him Director of the Conservatoire, and Napoleon III added the dignity of Imperial Maître-de-Chapelle. He however never acted as conductor, perhaps owing to the timidity already alluded to. Indeed he never was present at the performance of his own works. When questioned about this extraordinary circumstance, he is said to have returned the characteristic answer, 'Si j'assistais à un de mes ouvrages, je n'écrirais de ma vie une note de musique.' His habits were gentle and benevolent, slightly tinged with epicureanism. He was a thorough Parisian, and the bonmots related of him are legion. [App. p.525 "In Forster's life of Dickens, ch. xlix., it is related that Dickens described Auber as 'a stolid little elderly man, rather petulant in manner.'"]

[ F. H. ]