Daniel Francois Esprit Auber
Daniel Francois Esprit Auber, a celebrated French composer of opera, was born at Caen, Jan. 29, 1782. His father, a Parisian merchant, was an educated man and a great lover of music. He entertained artists at his house in Paris, so that his parlors resounded with continued concerts; and a taste for music was early cultivated in the young Francois. Like most artists, he displayed a talent for his true vocation while yet a child; but his father intended to make a merchant of him.
However, he allowed the boy to take music lessons as an accomplishment, and was gratified by his progress; for in a short time he composed several pieces which were performed for the entertainment of friends, and much admired.
Francois, who was in a banking house, soon became disgusted with his employment, and set out for London, in company with a young banker, ostensibly for business purposes; but, when they arrived, Auber left his companion to frequent commercial establishments, and inform himself about business matters, whilst he accepted the flattering invitations extended to him by those lovers of art whose parlors were ever open to musical talent.
Thus pleasantly passed a year and a half, when he was obliged to return to Paris, much less qualified for the banking house than he was before he left home.
He now composed some concertos for his friend Lamare, the violoncellist, who published them under his own name. Then he wrote a concerto for the violin, which was brought out by Mazas at the Conservatoire. Meanwhile he made his first attempt at a dramatic composition, taking the libretto of the old comic opera “Julie,” and setting it to new music. It was performed at a private theatre, and well received by his friends.
Another little opera was performed at the house of the Prince of Chimay. Auber’s father, perceiving Cherubini among the artists present, thought it a good opportunity to ask him what he thought of his son’s works. “He has talent,” replied Cherubini; “but it is easy to see that his musical studies are incomplete.” “But how? I have put him under the best masters.” “My dear sir, don’t you know that artists do not sell their secret? they give it.” After further conversation it was concluded that Cherubini should direct the young man in his course. Auber subscribed to the engagement, and studied arduously under the guidance of the master, who knew so well how to unite French taste with Italian form, and who transmitted his own musical science to his pupil.
Among other pieces which he wrote at this time was a mass, a number of which (the prayer) he afterwards transferred into his “Masaniello.” In 1813 he put “Le Sejour Militaire,” a comic opera, upon the stage. Although he was then over thirty years old, it was his debut. Few composers have commenced their lyric career so late in life; but none have regained lost time so effectually.
The cold reception given to this work, the death of his father, and material cares, prevented our artist from coming before the public for several years; it was not until a change of fortune made it necessary for him to try to earn something by that which he had previously looked upon more as a pastime than a means of gaining his livelihood, that he set himself seriously to work.
In 1819 he produced the comic opera in one act, “Le Testament et les Billets-Doux.” This second work succeeded no better than the first; but he did not allow himself to be discouraged: on the contrary, he seemed to write with more vigor, and in 1820 brought out “La Bergere Chatelaine” with good success. This was followed in 1821 by the opera, “Emma; ou,la Promesse Imprudente,” which was equally successful. In 1822 he united himself with Scribe, who furnished the greatest number of librettos for his compositions; and from this time forward he gained continually in public favor. The first work after his union with Scribe was the opera “Leicester,” written in 1822; then followed thirty others, “Le Macon” (1825), “La Muette di Portici” (1828), “Fra Diavolo” (1830, “Gustave” (183), “Le Lac des Fees” (1839), “Le Part du Diable,” and more. “La Muette di Protici” (“Masaniello”), an opera in five acts, represented the 29th of February, 1828, was his crowning glory.
This opera is considered as his masterpiece. The libretto written in part by Scribe, has for its subject, as is generally known, the rise and fall of Masaniello. The introudction of a mute girl upon the stage and in an opera was an inspiration as happy as it was bold. The score of this opera is extremely rich. Airs, duets, prayers, cavatines, barcarolles, choruses, dances, orchestration– all are characteristic; and the whole is wonderfully effective. One of the singular merits of this opera is the musical language which so admirably expresses the sentiments that the poor Fenella can only render by gesticulation. The overture is original and brilliant; in fact, it is a perfect feast for the ear. In 1830 the king sent for Auber to come to the palace. “Ah, M. Auber,” he said, takin ghim aside, “You have no idea of the good your opera has done.” “How, sire” “All revolutions resemble each other: to sing one is to provoke another. What can I do to please you?” “Ah, sire, I am not ambitious.” “I am disposed to name you director of the court concerts. Be sure that I shall remember you. But,” added he, taking the arm of the artist very cordially, and leading him into the center of the room, “from this day forth, you understand me well, M. Auber, I expect you to bring out the ‘Muette’ but very seldom.”
It was fortunate for our composer, that he had united with Scribe, who, like himself, was endowed with a flexible, varied, and popular talent: the two assisted and supported each other. What admirable works they have given us!
The compositions of our artist from 1830 to 1840 are distinguished by variety of effects, combinations in rhythm, delicacy of detail, and brilliant, rich, and clear instrumentation. “Fra Diavolo” was written in 1830, “Gustave” in 1833, and “Le Lac des Fee” in 1839. Among these, “Fra Diavolo,” a comic opera in three acts, performed Jan 8, 1830, stands out in bold relief, so to say. The libretto is one of the most amusing which Scribe has written, and the score, one of Auber’s best. Time has not changed its sparkling melodies: what surer sign of originality? And who has not listened with pleasure to the overture? The overture of “Le Dieu et la Bayadere,” an opera ballet in three acts, performed in the same year, is one of the most charming that this composer has written. Many other operas equally successful followed. “Le Domino Noir,” in 1837, and “Les Diamants de la Couronne,” in 1841, place Auber in the foremost rank of the masters of piquant and graceful music.
The necessity of making a choice among so many chef d’oeuvre obliges us to pass over a great number of his productions. But we will give an anecdote to show the facility with which Auber composed. At the last rehearsal of the “sirene,” after listening to the overture, he struck his forehead, exclaiming, “That is hateful: I will never keep such music. It must be changed.” “But this is quite impossible, sir,” said the manager. “There is no time to make a change: the bills announce the opera for tomorrow.” “Bah! inform the leader of the orchestra.” The clock struck nine. Auber sat down in the theatre, composed another overture, directed the copyists, and at midnight had completed a new and magnificent overture, which was rehearsed the next morning.
The rejuvenated talent of Auber, the head of the French school, reached its height in 1847, with the comic opera “Haydee.” Scribe had arranged some affecting situations upon a new and original subject; and of course the musician must write one of his richest scores to correspond. The general effect of it is dramatic, and perfectly appropriate to the nature of the subject. The instrumentation is highly colored, always elegant; and the harmony is not wanting either in novelty or effect. There is a charming hautbois solo in the overture. Louis Philippe was so much pleased with this opera that he sent the cross of the Legion of Honor to the maestro. Let us add that Frederick William of Prussia sent Auber a magnificent ring, when he heard the opera “Le Lac des Fees,” in 1839. The same prince sent him a snuff box covered with precious stones, when “La Muette” came out.
The composer was less felicitous with “L’ Enfant Prodigue.” But his works produced some time after met with public approbation, particularly “Le premier Jour de Bonheur,” which he composed at the advanced age of eighty seven, and which was hailed as almost a miracle. There were many crowns woven for the white head of the musical Anacreon, many happy similitudes used to celebrate this eternal spring, and these primroses of genius that bloomed out from under the snows of old age.
The indifference of Auber for musical renown is worthy of remark. Auber never was present at the performance of his own pieces. He did not care for the pleasure of being applauded.
This famous artist obtained the highest and most valued distinctions. He was a member of the Institute, commander of the “Legion d’Honneur,” successor to Cherubini as director of the Conservatory. He had enjoyed perfect health to the day of his death, May 12, 1871. He presided assiduously at all the general exercises and meetings of his pupils. He made it a duty to be present at all the official ceremonies to which he was invited; and, notwithstanding his numerous occupations, he knew how to arrange his time so as to save several hours a day for composition, having for a faithful companion one of Sebastian Erard’s good little pianos of four octaves and a half.
Auber was delicate in appearance, of distinguished manners, and very witty. It would be easy to fill a book with his bon mots. He even joked about his own age. He was directing a musical soiree, when, on a gentleman’s taking a white hair from his shoulder, he smilingly said, “That hair must belong to some old man who passed near me.” He was then over eighty years of age.
Many musicians who in their time made much noise in the world, have long been forgotten, whilst melodies like those of Auber are floating in the air, fresh, lively, and sparkling as when they were first written. Whilst we have parlors and pianos, Auber lives.