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Étienne Nicolas Méhul’s Comic Overture to Le Trésor Supposé

Introduction

Étienne Nicolas Méhul was born in 1763 and died in 1817. He resided in Paris for most of his life, living through the French Revolution, Terror, and the rise of Napoleonic Empire. He was an admirer of the music of Christoph Willibald Gluck, close friend of the composer Luigi Cherubini, and his music was acclaimed by composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Hector Berlioz.[1]

In more recent times, though, opinions on Méhul have diverged and his music has received mixed reviews. For Donald Francis Tovey, Méhul is ‘one of those composers whose fate is to be overrated by historians and underrated by musicians’. Although Tovey acknowledges that Méhul has been ‘credited with powerful genius and an inexhaustible vein of melody’, he feels that ‘these compliments are so manifestly falsified by his works as to be positively slanderous’.[2]

Despite the praise and thorough scholarship of Elizabeth C. Bartlet who have shown Méhul to be an innovative composer and his works as key to the development of the genre of opéra-comique, performances of Méhul’s works are a rarity today, and in this sense the overture to Le Trésor Supposé is no exception.[3]

Intriguingly, the few recordings of the overture that do exist present the overture as a standalone concert piece, and usually alongside a number of other eighteenth-century overtures or symphonic works.[4] The overture to Le Trésor Supposé, though, was not originally intended to function as an isolated instrumental piece, but as a theatrical introduction to a comic play.

Hoffman’s Le Trésor Supposé

Le Trésor Supposé is a one-act play (with music) written by François-Benoît Hoffman and was premiered on the 29th July 1802 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris (previously the Théâtre Feydeau).[5] The musical numbers composed by Méhul include: the overture printed here, four airs, a duet, a trio, a quartet, and a finale for all five characters.[6] The play was reasonably successful and was performed at the Opéra-Comique a total of 26 times during Méhul’s lifetime. It is a tale of love, money, and trickery, and is in keeping with much of the French theatrical repertory at that time (which sought to replicate in their programming the feeling of stability and optimism brought about by the establishment of the Consulate in 1799).[7]

The light and comic tone of Le Trésor Supposé stands in contrast to Méhul’s more famous and more serious works of the late 1780s and 1790s. Works such as Euphrosine, Stratonice and Mélidore et Phrosine, which were written during the terrifying years of the Revolution, Terror, and politically turbulent times of Directory, are illustrative of the composers desire to set serious subject matter and to explore ways in which to depict musically turbulent emotions such as rage, jealousy, and sacrifice.[8] In these operas Méhul sought to heighten the dramatic role music could play in both opéra and opéra-comique. By manipulating and developing motifs and themes and by taking a much freer approach to harmony and musical forms, Méhul created a musical language that could heighten and expand the drama of the libretto.

Le Trésor Supposé seems to stand in contrast to these works. It is light and comic and seems to hark back to the pre-revolutionary opéra-comiques of composers such as André Ernest Modeste Grétry and Nicolas Dalayrac. In this sense, it might be understood as a work written to satisfy contemporary “Consulate” taste and the public demand for a lighter repertory. This, however, fails to acknowledge the play’s impressive musico-dramatic narrative. Music is not simply used in Le Trésor Supposé to comment on the drama, but to add to the literary narrative. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the music is the way in which Méhul draws upon the musico-dramatic devices he developed in his operas of the 1790s, adapting them to suit the comic context of this play. Le Trésor Supposé, then, is not indicative of a retrograde step in Méhul’s compositional and stylistic development, but an example of Méhul reapplying and reimagining his tried and tested musico-dramatic techniques to a different literary genre.[9] Whereas in operas such as Stratonice and Mélidore et PhrosineMéhul explored how music could be used to add an element of suspense and represent dark emotions, here Méhul explores the idea of music as comedy, experimenting with ways by which to depict musically mischief, greed, and young love.

The Story of Le Trésor Supposé

The plot of Le Trésor Supposé is based upon the common eighteenth-century comic trope of the fastidious yet foolish uncle-cum-tutor. The play has 5 characters: Géronte (tutor and uncle of Lucile), Lucile (Géronte’s niece), Dorval (lover of Lucile), Crispin (Dorval’s valet), and Lisette (Lucile’s servant). Lucile and Dorval are in love, but as Géronte does not approve of Dorval they cannot marry; he thinks Dorval to be greedy, reckless, and a libertine.

Led by Crispin, Dorval, Lucile, and Lisette develop a plan to trick Géronte into approving of their marriage. Crispin, knowing that Géronte often checks up on his niece by spying on her from the closet in her room, suggests acting out a conversation when Géronte is next listening. Crispin’s plan is to tell Lisette about a hidden treasure that is buried in the basement of Dorval’s house, with the intention being that Géronte overhears and tries to retrieve the treasure. Crispin’s plan succeeds: on hearing of the supposed treasure, Géronte becomes overwhelmed by greed. He decides to arrange a meeting with Dorval and to put in an offer on Dorval’s house so that he can excavate the cellar and seize the buried treasure before Dorval finds it. On meeting with Dorval (and after much haggling), Géronte offers Dorval a sum that is four times over and above the value of the house. Following the signing of the contract and the handing over of the keys to the house, Crispin escorts Géronte to the house, where Géronte immediately heads to the basement to start an excavation of the cellar. After much commotion, Géronte discovers a chest, but is surprised (and confused) to find it empty, and it is not long before he realises he has been tricked. The final scene sees Dorval offering to destroy the purchase agreement, but only if Géronte allows him to marry Lucile. Géronte in a desperate attempt to recoup his financial losses agrees and the play ends with a celebratory chorus.

The Le Trésor Supposé Overture: A Comic Story in Music?

The overture provides a perfect introduction to the play by establishing a light and comic tone. During the latter half of the eighteenth century it was thought that an overture should prepare listeners for the nature and argument of the drama to follow, and in this sense the overture to Le Trésor Supposé is an excellent and interesting example.[10] Through the effective deployment of contrasting musical motifs, the manipulation of musical form, and the development of characteristic motifs, Méhul establishes not only a comic mood in his overture, but a sense of drama, the overture alluding to some of the key events and characters in the play.

The various ways in which music can communicate a story or narrative that is in some sense akin to that of a literary narrative has been much discussed. Anthony Newcomb, for example, argues that a listener can hear a musical work in a narrative manner if they follow the main musical theme of a work through a linear sequence of musical events, actions, and emotions, almost as if it were the main character of a novel, growing, learning, and transforming.[11] Susan McClary has built on this idea and has shown that music can also foster a sense of narrative through the manipulation of a listener’s harmonic expectation and their desire for tonal closure.[12] Quite interestingly, Carolyn Abbate does not understand music to have the ability to establish the complex narrative framework that is characteristic of much literary narrative as music lacks the tenses of language.[13] In her opinion, music does not present the listener with a complete or whole narrative, but a series of narrative moments; music is only able to narrate temporarily and at moments of rupture and noncongruence where the musical form breaks down or does something unexpected or unusual.

The overture to Le Trésor Supposé is particularly interesting to study using the narrative frameworks for music proposed above. The blurring of structural boundaries in the overture and the frequent allusions to tonalities distantly related to the overture’s D major key signature provide the overture with an unusual and complicated sonata form structure that, in my opinion, seems susceptible to a study of tonal desire and moments of noncongruence. In addition, the overture also has a curious motivic structure, consisting of a number of pictorial motifs that seem to allude to some of the characters and relationships in the play.

A Narrative Analysis of the Overture

The overture is in the key of D major and is based on two contrasting motivic ideas: a fanfare-like statement (see bars 1-20) and a lyrical melody (bars 93-108). The overture appears to have a sonata form design, although it is worth stressing that this by no means ‘typical’, the overture host to a number of interesting moments and musical corners. The three sections that would normally constitute a sonata form movement (exposition, development, and recapitulation), for example, are by no means obvious in the overture, the development section seamlessly blurring into the exposition. Méhul’s decision not to clearly delineate the return of the opening material in the recapitulation I will discuss in more detail later as I believe it is an example of where Méhul exploits traditional formal models to furnish his overture with a sense of narrative.

The fanfare-like motif that opens the overture provides the music with an almost regal, martial feel. The D major signature (a common key for marches), the triadic contour of the melody, and the use of dotted rhythms and brass all add to this effect. This may on first hearing seem at odds with the nature of the play, as the plot has no military or regal figures and focuses upon non-aristocratic characters. The 3/4 time signature, however, subverts the martial feel of the passage. By using a time signature associated with dances such as the minuet (rather than the 4/4 time signature associated with marches) a disjuncture is created between the military style fostered in the opening bars and the rhythmic context of the overture. To my mind, the opening bars come across as somewhat lopsided, the 3/4 time signature trivialising the military style and providing the passage with a comic tone.

If we view the overture in theatrical terms and with reference to the characters in the play, the interplay of the comic with the serious is actually quite apt, as in my opinion the opening motif can be understood as a musical portrait of Géronte. While a man of letters and an educator, Géronte is also a very greedy man whose habit for listening in on other people’s conversations causes him to be tricked by Crispin and the others in the play. The opening bars of the overture, then, provide the listener with a glimpse into Géronte’s character: the fanfare captures his status as a serious disciplinarian, whereas the time signature works against this and portrays him as the fool.

This proposed connection between the opening bars of the overture and the character of Géronte is something I believe is affirmed later in the play. Indeed, after hearing of the supposed treasure in Dorval’s basement in Scene 11, Géronte sings an air that speaks of his desire to retrieve the treasure and his excitement of becoming rich. Like the overture, this air is also in the key of D major, creating a tonal connection or bridge between the two musical numbers is; a connection further emphasised by the fact that Géronte is the only character in the play to be assigned an air in this key. The use of a triadic figure in the orchestral accompaniment of the final allegro section of the air strengthens the connection to the overture, the triadic movement mirroring that of the violins in the overture’s opening bars.

This portrayal of Géronte as tutor and as fool is, perhaps, also alluded to in bar 4 of the overture when a Bb enters the musical texture, destabilising the key of D major. The modal intrusion is unsettling and is a musical technique Méhul frequently employed in his operas for dramatic effect. If we look closely at the airs of Le Trésor Supposé we see that modal mixing also features, but it is reserved for specific dramatic moments. Most interestingly, we see that it is employed in Géronte’s D major air referred to above, the music moving towards D minor as Géronte sings about his vision being disrupted by the thought of his future riches. Hoffman’s line here is quite witty as it hints at the fact that Géronte’s greed will eventually overwhelm his senses, and his judgement. The import of the line is underscored by Méhul’s music, which at this point in the air drifts towards the key of D minor. The modal intrusion unsettles the musical texture and was perhaps intended to hint at both the flaw in Géronte’s character and the mischievous work of Dorval and friends. The move to D minor in the opening bars of the overture, then, foreshadows this musical number. In effect, the disruptive Bb in the overture functions as a musical symbol for the flaw in Géronte’s character.

The next moment of interest in the overture occurs at bars 21. From bar 21-24 the music undergoes a rather abrupt harmonic transition from D minor to Eb minor. This is by no means standard harmonic fare for 1802, and is still quite shocking to the ear, even by today’s standards. Intriguingly, apart from a few brief references to D minor, the only other time Méhul employs a flat key is in the Scene II quartet for Crispin, Lisette, Dorval, and Lucile. At the exact moment Crispin reveals his plan to deceive Géronte to the others characters, Méhul modulates from the quartet’s opening key of C major to the flat key of Ab major. Méhul’s decision to underscore this important dramatic moment with a flat tonality that stands in contrast to the other numbers in the play (which are all in sharp keys) gives the passage a special musical and dramatic significance. Although the key of the quartet is Ab major and the flat passage in the overture mentioned above is in Eb minor, I think that because they are the only two instances where a significantly flat tonality is employed, I believe an a potentially audible musico-dramatic connection is established. If correct, the unexpected and abrupt shift to Eb minor becomes imbued with a dramatic weight, providing a musical allusion to the mischievous plotting of the quartet of characters later in the play. In short, the odd and awkward musical transition is not a compositional faux pas, but a well-thought out dramatic device that alerts the listener to the tension between Géronte and the other characters in the play.

Bar 77 of the overture hosts another significant musico-dramatic event. Having returned to D major in bar 53, the music begins to move towards the dominant in preparation for the second theme in A major. The E pedal at bar 60 and the use of codetta-like gestures suggests this is to be the case. However, at bar 77 the music takes an unusual turn: the music moves towards A minor, the melody takes on a lyrical tone, and harmonic suspensions furnish the passage with a plaintive tone. By introducing a lyrical melody just before the expected appearance of the second theme of the exposition, the boundaries between the first and second themes are blurred, weakening the overall opposition characteristic of sonata form, and in this case the opposition between the music associated with Géronte and the music that is, as we shall see, associated with Lucile and Dorval.

After 8 bars of A minor, E major returns in preparation for a perfect cadence in A major at bar 93. The cadence signals the start of the second section or theme. This passage provides a contrast to the music we have heard thus far: it is lyrical in nature and has a folk music feel, which is a result of the pedal on A in the bass and the melody being accompanied in thirds and sixths. This passage likely depicts the character of Lucille. As before, the airs in the play can help us to understand the musical ideas in the overture. Significantly, there is only one air in the play that is in the key of A major: Lucile’s romance. And, like the passage in the overture, this air employs a pedal on A and a melody that is triadic and lilting in nature. It is probable, then, that the overture’s lyrical theme is intended to depict Lucile and, in particular, her love for Dorval.

Interestingly, the lyrical melody of the overture also makes reference to some of the musical ideas from the overture’s opening material. The melody, for example, has a triadic structure and at bar 96 dotted rhythms are introduced, both of which refer the listener back to the opening bars and the music associated with Géronte. The subtle allusions to Géronte’s music perhaps captures in music the familial bond between Lucile and her uncle in the play, highlighting the fact that despite their disagreement these two characters are not in fierce opposition (as may be the case in a tragic play), but actually very fond of one another. The blurring of the first and second sections mentioned above through the use of a pre-emptory lyrical theme at bar 77 I think accentuates this relationship, the anticipatory minor-key melody weakening the contrast between the first and second theme and the potential musico-dramatic opposition between Géronte and Lucile.

At bar 125 of the overture, however, the music appears to adopt a more aggressive tone. The dotted rhythms from the opening return fortissimo, accompanied by an unstable chromatic bass line. The music associated with Dorval and Lucile’s romance is interrupted, and by music associated with the character of Géronte. To my mind, it is as if Géronte has overheard their romance from his secret hiding place in the closet and has burst in to the room to send Dorval home. (Despite familial bonds, then, at this point in the overture Géronte still remains opposed to Lucile’s marriage to Dorval).

After a short codetta passage, the development section begins (bar 156). The harmony becomes increasingly chromatic and fragmented references are made to both the lyrical motif associated with Lucile and the dotted motif associated with Géronte. The juxtaposition of the lyrical and the more militant theme provides a musical representation of the two forces within the play, Géronte pitted against the lovers. The constantly changing harmonies, however, suggests movement and change and are perhaps representative of argument going back and forth in search of a solution.[14]

As noted earlier, the return of the recapitulation is by no means obvious in the overture. Bar 181 could potentially be the start of the recapitulation, but it is not entirely clear as the presentation of the fanfare motif does not appear as it had in bar 1. By omitting the note D from the chord, the return of the material is made modally ambiguous and sounds at first as if the material has returned in F# minor. D major is not clarified until the final beat of bar 182. To complicate matters further, as soon as D major becomes established, the music begins to modulate and at bar 188 a second statement of the fanfare motif is presented, but now a tone lower in the key of C major.

Standard sonata form junctures are once again blurred. The return of the opening material for the recapitulation is undermined, as the recapitulation does not coincide with or bring about a strong sense of a return to the tonic key; in fact, the harmony comes across as muddled and confused. While formally the overture “fails” to provide a model example of a sonata form work, the recapitulation does add to the drama of the overture. The lack of a tonally stable D major in the recapitulation, to my mind, mirrors the final scene of the play, the scene in which Géronte discovers, much to his confusion, that the treasure chest is empty and in which Géronte’s authoritative identity as uncle and tutor is undermined by the other characters.

By contrast, the return of the lyrical, romance theme at bar 223 is much more stable and is presented almost identically to how it was presented in the exposition. The recapitulation seems to convey in musical terms that the manipulation of Géronte has been a success: the lovers’ wishes are fulfilled and no sacrifice has had to be made on their part. Well, perhaps… There is, of course, one significant difference between the presentation of the lyrical theme in the exposition and the lyrical theme in the recapitulation: the theme now appears in the tonic key D major. The fact that the lovers’ music is subjugated into the key associated with Géronte suggests that the reconciliation still requires his approval and the marriage remains is on his terms. In short, the lyrical, lover’s music occurs in D major as a mark of his approval of their marriage and their union as a family. The ending to Méhul’s overture, then, potentially adds an interesting subtext to the drama, suggesting that Géronte’s was not forced into agreeing to their marriage, but actually came round to the idea of his own accord (albeit with some financial encouragement).

Conclusion

Although a relatively short piece, the overture to Le Trésor Supposé is a fascinating work to study in terms of plot, character, and drama as it is filled with interesting and unusual musical effects. In my opinion, the unusual harmonic and formal structure of the overture is not indicative of a weakness in Méhul’s compositional ability, but a result of the overture’s dramatic and theatrical function and Méhul’s desire to furnish the overture to Le Trésor Supposé with a narrative potential that aims to prepare the listener for the comic intrigue to be expounded in the play.

Suggested Citation: Kieran Fenby-Hulse, Méhul’s Comic Overture to Le Trésor Supposéhttps://kieranfenbyhulse.com/2012/09/03/le-tresor-suppose, posted on 12th October, 2012 (Accessed: [insert date]).

This essay was produced in a shortened version as a preface for a short score of the overture to Etienne Nicolas Méhul’s Le Trésor Supposé (Overture to the play by François-Benoît Hoffman). The score is available from Musikproduktion: http://musikmph.de/musical_scores/composers_sales/scorelist_eng.htm

A PDF version of this post is also available at: http://www.academia.edu/2021158/Mehuls_Comic_Overture_to_Le_Tresor_Suppose


[1]The most comprehensive work on Méhul remains M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, Etienne Nicolas Méhul and opera during the French Revolution, Consulate, and Empire: a source, archival and stylistic study (PhD Thesis: University of Chicago, 1982). On Méhul overtures specifically see: Patrick Taïeb, L’ ouverture d’opéra en France de Monsigny à Méhul (Paris: Société française de musicologie, 2007).

[2]Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis: Supplementary Essays, Glossary, and Index (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 35.

[3] Bartlet, p. 54.

[4] See: Orchestra of Gulbenkian Foundation, Mehul – The Complete Symphonies [Audio CD] (Nimbus Records, 1992) and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Beethoven, Boccherini, Brahms, Grétry, Méhul: Orchestral Music, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham[Audio CD] (Naxos, 2000)

[5]It was worth noting that Le Trésor Supposé underwent a number of revisions with two numbers being replaced before the publication of the score. For more information see Bartlet, p. 567-577.

[6]The score designates the play as a ‘comedie en prose, melee de musique’.

[7] Bartlet, p. 366.

[8] On the idea of jealousy in Méhul’s works see David Charlton, ‘Motive and Motif: Méhul before 1791’, Music & Letters, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Oct., 1976), p. 362-369. For an overview of opera in France during the revolution see Winton Dean, ‘Opera under the French Revolution’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 94th Sess. (1967-1968), p. 77-96.

[9]Le Trésor Supposé is of particularly interest in this respect as it is one of only a few works where Méhul’s compositional sketches are extant. For more information on the sources, see Bartlet, p. 148.

[10] On the dramatic nature and function of the overture in the latter half of the eighteenth century see: Basil Deane, ‘The French Operatic Overture from Grétry to Berlioz’, Proceedings of the Royal Music Association, Vol. 99, No.1 (1972), p. 67-80, Daniel Heartz, ‘Mozart’s Overture to Titus as Dramatic Argument’, Musical Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 1 (1978), p. 29-49, and Kieran Philip Hulse, ‘The “Dramatic” Overture and the Idea of Tragic Narrative’ (PhD Thesis: King’s College London, 2011).

[11] Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

[12] Anthony Newcomb, ‘Once More “Between Absolute and Program Music”: Schumann’s Second Symphony’, 19th-Century Music, Vol. 7 (1984), p. 233-250 and Anthony Newcomb, ‘Schumann and Late-Eighteenth-Century Narrative Strategies’, 19th-Century Music, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1987), p. 164-174.

[13] Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

[14] It is interesting that Méhul chooses to musically explore this dynamic in the overture, as it not a dramatic tension that is given much weight in the play. As with Méhul’s operas of the 1780s and 1790s, music is used here not simply to heighten the drama, but to add to it, Méhul’s music further developing the relationship between Lucile, Dorval, and Géronte.

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