Francis Adrien Boieldieu’s Life and Times
This celebrated French composer of opera comique was born December 16, 1776, at Rouen, where his father held the position of secretary to Archbishop Larochefoucauld. His mother kept a milliner’s shop in the same city. The union does not seem to have been a happy one. We know at least that during the Revolution the elder Boieldieu availed himself of the law of divorce passed at that time to separate from his first wife and contract a second marriage.
Domestic dissensions were perhaps the reason why the composer, when his talent for music began to show itself, exchanged the house of his parent’s for that of his master, Broche, organist of the cathedral, who, although an excellent musician and pupil of the celebrated Padre Martini, was known as a drunkard, and occasionally treated Boieldieu with brutality. On one occasion, it is said, the boy had stained one of his master’s books with ink, and in order to evade the cruel punishment in store for him escaped from Broche’s house and went on foot to Paris, where he was found after much trouble by his family. Whether he returned to Broche seems uncertain. Neither are we informed of any other master to whom the composer owed the rudimentary knowledge of his art.
This knowledge, however acquired, was put to the test for the first time in 1793, when an opera by Boieldieu, called “La fille coupable” (words by his father), was performed at Rouen with considerable success. It has been believed that Boieldleu left Rouen for Paris immediately or at least very soon after this first attempt. This, however, must be a mistake, unless we accept the improbable conjecture of a second temporary sojourn in the capital. Certain it is that Boieldieu was again in Rouen October 28, 1795, when another opera by him, “Rosalie et Myrza,” was performed at the theater of that city. The success of this second venture does not seem to have been brilliant, to judge at least by the “Journal de Rouen,” which after briefly noticing the book observes silence with regard to the music.
Many of Boieldieu’s charming ballads and chansons owe their origin to this period, and added considerably to the local reputation of the young composer. Much pecuniary advantage he does not seem to have derived from them, for Cochet, the Paris publisher of these minor compositions, told Fetis that Boieldieu was glad to part with the copyright for the moderate remuneration of twelve francs apiece. Soon after the appearance of his second opera Boieldieu left Rouen for good. Ambition and the consciousness of power caused him to be dissatisfied with the narrow sphere of his native city, particularly after the plan, advocated by him in an article In the ‘”Journal de Rouen,” of starting a music school on the model of the newly founded Conservatoire had failed.
To Paris therefore Boieldieu went for a second time, with an introduction from Garat the singer to Jadin (a descendant of the well known Belgian family of musicians) , at whose house he found a hospitable reception, and became acquainted with the leading composers of the day, Cherubini among the number. Boieldieu made his debut as an operatic composer in the capital with “La famille suisse” which was performed at the Theatre Feydeau in 1797, and had a run of thirty nights alternately with Cherubini’s “Medee”.
Other operas followed in rapid succession, among which we mention “Zoraime et Zulnare” ( written before 1796, but not performed till 1798), “La dot de Suzette” (same year), “Beniowski” (after a drama by Kotzebue ; performed in 1800 at the Theatre 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. They are, according to Fetis, a concerto and six sonatas for pianoforte, a concerto for harps a duo for harp and pianofortes 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. “Le 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 harmonized 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 characterized by an absence of style, of individual style at least. Like most men of great creative power and of self-training, like Wagner for instance, Boieldieu began by unconsciously adopting and reproducing with great vigor the peculiarities of other composers; But every new advance of technical ability lapped with him a commensurate step toward 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 Fetis, which, although somewhat doubtful on chronological grounds, is at any rate plausibly invented. He relates that, during the composition of “Le Calife de Bagdad,” Boieldleu 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 peccadillos, the case was referred to Mehul, to whose decision, favorable or adverse, Boieldieu meekly submitted. Considering that at the time Boleldieu 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 “Le Calife,” Cherublni accosted the elated composer in the lobby of the theater with the words “Malheureux! are you not ashamed of such undeserved success?” Boliedieu’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. Fetis 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 “Le Calife de 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 works called “Ma tante Aurore,” was first performed at the Theatre 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 an various ways. Russia at that time was an El Dorado to 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 he 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 discovered fact 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 feeme colere”, “Les voitures versees”, “Aline, reine de Golconde”, “Telemaque”; 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. “Telemaque” ought to be mentioned as containing the charming air to the words “Quel plaisir d’etre en voyage,” afterward transferred to “Jean de Paris”.
In 1811 Boieldieu returned to Paris, where great changes had taken place in the meantime. Dalayrac was dead; Mehul and Cherubini, disgusted with the fickleness of public taste, kept silence; Niccolo Isouard was the only rival to be feared. But Boieldieu had not been forgotten by his old admirers. The revival of “Ma tante Aurore” and the first performance in Paris of an improved version of “Rien de trop” were received with applause, which increased to a storm of enthusiasm when in 1812 one of the composer’s most charming operas, “Jean de Paris,” saw the light. This is one of the two masterpieces on which Boieldieu’s claim to immortality must mainly rest. As regards refined humor and the gift of musically delineating a character in a few masterly touches, this work remains unsurpassed even by Boieldieu himself; in abundance of charming melodies it is perhaps inferior, and inferior only, to “La dame blanche.” No other production of the French school can rival either of the two in the sustained development of the excellences most characteristic of that school. The Princess of Navarre, the Page, the Seneschal, are indestructible types if loveliness, grace, and humor. After the effort in “Jean de Paris” Boieldieu’s genius seemed to be exhausted: nearly fourteen years elapsed before he showed in “La dame blanche” that his dormant power was capable of still higher flights.
We will not encumber the reader’s memory with a list of names belonging to the intervening period, which would have to remain names only. Many of these operas were composed in collaboration with Cherubini, Catel, Isobars, and others; only “Le nouveau seigneur de village” ( 1813) and “Le petit chaperon rouge” (1818) , both by Boieldieu alone, may be mentioned here. After the successful production of the last named opera, Boieldieu did not bring out a new entire work for seven years. In December, 1825, the long expected “Dame blanche” saw the light, and was received with unprecedented applause. Boleldieu modestly ascribes part of this success to the national reaction against the Rossini worship of the preceding years. Other temporary causes have been cited, but the first verdict has been confirmed by many subsequent audiences. The melodies sound as fresh and are received with an much enthusiasm as on that eventful night of December 10, 1825, so graphically described by Boieldieu’s pupil Adam. Such pieces as the cavatina “Viens gentiles dame,” the song “D’ici voyez ce beau domaine,” or the trio at the end of the first act, will never fail of their effect as long as the feeling for true grace remains.
“La dame blanche” is the finest work of Boieldieu, and Boieldieu the greatest master of the French school of comic opera. With Auber, Boieldieu shares verve of dramatic utterance, with Adam piquancy of rhythmical structure, while he avoids almost entirely that bane of modern music, the dance rhythm, which in the two other composers marks the beginning of the decline and fall of the school. Peculiar to Boieldieu is a certain homely sweetness of melody, which proves its kinship to that source of all truly national music, the popular song. “La Dame Blanche” might indeed be considered as the artistic continuation of the chanson, in the same sense as Weber’s “Der Freischutz” has been called a dramatized Volkslied. With regard to Boieldieu’s work this remark indicates at the same time a strong development of the amalgamating force of French art and culture; for it must be borne in mind that the subject treated is Scotch. The plot is a compound of two of Scott’s novels, “The Monastery” and “Guy Mannering”. Julian (alias George Brown) comes to his paternal castle unknown to himself. He hears the songs of his childhood, which awaken old memories in him; but he seems doomed to misery and disappointment, for on the day of his return his hall and his broad acres are to become the property of a villain, the unfaithful steward of his own family. Here is a situation full of gloom and sad foreboding. But Scribe and Boieldieu knew better. Their hero is a dashing cavalry officer, who makes love to every pretty woman he comes across, the “White Lady of Avenel” among the number. Yet nobody who has witnessed an adequate impersonation of George Brown can have failed to be impressed with the grace and noble gallantry of the character.
The Scotch airs also introduced by Boieldieu. although correctly transcribed, appear, in their harmonic and rhythmical treatment, thoroughly French. The tune of “Robin Adair,” described as “le chant ordmaire de la tribe d’Avenel,” would perhaps hardly be recognized by a genuine North Briton; but what it has lost in raciness it has gained in sweetness.
So much about the qualities which Boieldieu has in common with all the good composers of his school; in one point, however, he remains unrivaled by any of them; namely, in the masterly and thoroughly organic structure of his ensembles. Rousseau, in giving vent to his whimsical aversion to polyphony, says that it is as impossible to listen to two different tunes played at the same time as to two persons speaking simultaneously. True in a certain sense; unless these tunes represent at once unity and divergence, oneness, that is, of situation, and diversity of feelings excited by this one situation in various minds. We here touch upon one of the deepest problems of dramatic music, a problem triumphantly solved in the second act of “La dame blanche.” In the finale of that act we have a large ensemble of seven solo voices and chorus’. All these comment upon one and the same event with sentiments as widely different as can well be imagined. We hear the disappointed growl of baffled vice, the triumph of loyal attachment, and the subdued note of tender love, all mingling with each other and yet arranged in separate groups of graphic distinctness. This ensemble, and indeed the whole auction scene, deserve the title “classical” in the highest sense of the word.
The remainder of Boieldieu’s life is sad to relate. He produced another opera, called “Les deux nuits”, in 1829, but it proved a failure, owing chiefly to the dull libretto by Bouilly, which the composer had accepted from good nature. This disappointment may have fostered the pulmonary disease, the germs of which Boieldieu had brought back from Russia. In vain he sought recovery in the mild climate of Southern France. Pecuniary difficulties increased the discomforts of his failing health. The bankruptcy of the Opera Comique and the expulsion of Charles X, from whom he had received a pension, deprived Boieldieu of his chief sources of income. At last M. Thiers, the minister of Louis Philippe, relieved the master’s anxieties by a government pension of 6000 francs. Boieldlieu died October 8, 1834, at Jarcy, his country house, near Paris. The troubles of his last years were shared and softened by his second wife, to whom the composer was united in 1827 after a long and tender attachment.