It may be interesting to the lovers of dramatic art, to know that theatrical amusements were introduced into France by the clergy. Cardinal Mazarin invited the Italian virtuosi to bring the opera to Paris. Cardinal Rovera suggested the idea of writing a French opera; and the Abbe Perrin composed the first French libretto. Thus the princes of the church encouraged the noblest of our pleasures.
The glory of competing with the Abbe Perrin in the creation of the French lyric art, due to Cambert, has unjustly been attributed to Lulli.
Cambert was born at Paris, 1628. He studied the harpsichord under Chambonnieres, became organist of one of the principal colleges, and afterwards superintendent of Anne of Austria’s music.
By the advice of Cardinal Rovera, the Abbe Perrin wrote a pastoral in five acts, for which Cambert composed the score. The novelty of the enterprise, and the real merits of the music, secured its success, although the words were little worth.
It was performed at Issy, April, 1659, in a low hall of the castle, without ballet, machinery, or any thing to give it effect but the simple interpretation of the amateurs. So much was said of this pastoral, that the king ordered it to be given in presence of the court at Vincennes. Encouraged by this their first enterprise, Perrin and Cambert conjointly wrote a new work, under the title of “Ariane.” This work was in course of rehearsal when Mazarin died, which prevented its representation. “Adonis,” another opera, met with a similar fate.
However, the indefatigable Abbe Perrin was not to be discouraged. He persevered, in spite of all obstacles, and finally succeeded in gaining his object. June 28, 1669, Louis XIV. granted him the privilege “of establishing musical academies in Paris and other cities, for the purpose of singing theatrical pieces in public.” This was the commencement of national dramatic music in France.
Although the privilege of which we have spoken was granted to Perrin, he never forgot his co-laborer Cambert, to whom he was indebted for his success.
Perrin and Cambert united with the Marquis de Sourdeac for machinery, and Champeron for finances, thus forming a society.
On the 19th of March, 1671, they brought out “Pomone,” a pastoral in five acts with a prologue, which must be considered as the first regular French opera. The singers were few, the drama badly constructed, the dancing executed by young men dressed in women’s clothes. Notwithstanding the imperfections attendant upon this infancy of art, “Pomone” had a run of eight months, by which Perrin gained thirty thousand livres as his share of the profits. Meanwhile Cambert was steadily improving; but, unfortunately for him, there was in Versailles a man who by his ability and talent had risen from Mlle. Montpensier’s kitchens to the office of superintendent of the royal music. This man was Lulli, who, in the double quality of Italian and rival, had at first derided Cambert’s works; but, when he learned to know their worth, he tacked about, and determined to rival them. Taking advantage of a dispute that had arisen among four associates, and the withdrawal of the Marquis of Sourdeac, he, countenanced by the credit of Mlle. Montespan, worked to have the privilege of the Royal Academy of Music taken from Perrin, and given to himself, just as they were on the point of bringing out their opera of “Ariane,” which had been postponed on account of the death of Mazarin.
Such gross injustice deeply affected Cambert, who was its chief victim. He went to London in 1673, and brought out his work in presence of Charles II. This prince immediately recognized his merit, and gave him a high position; but the favors of the English monarch could not console the fugitive. Worn out by grief, he died in 1677, ages forty nine years. It has been said that the creator of the French opera experienced the fate reserved to almost all inventors in that France who has so often shown herself as ungrateful towards her most illustrious children, as anxious to advance those whom she has adopted.