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An Unsung French Composer: Some thoughts on Étienne Nicolas Méhul and his overture to ‘Le Trésor Supposé’

I recently completed writing a preface for a study score of Étienne Nicolas Méhul’s Le Trésor supposé overture (which is now available from MusikProduktion). Having studied the overtures of Gluck, Mozart, and Beethoven for my PhD, Méhul was a composer I knew about, but not a composer whose music I had fully explored. He is, however, an fascinating musical figure and his music particularly interesting in the way it wrestles with the relationship between words and music.

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. Despite huge popularity during his lifetime, Méhul’s music features rarely on concert programmes today (and the overture to Le Trésor supposé is no exception). Recordings are also sparse (although notable exceptions include William Christie’s take on Stratonice [Erato, 1996] and Werner Ehrhardt’s version of L’irato, our L’emporte [Capriccio, 2006] as well as a number of recordings of his symphonies).

Whilst Méhul wrote four symphonies, his interest lay primarily with the theatre, something which I think is clearly evident in his music. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why his music is rarely performed today. Méhul’s music is theatrical in nature, filled with dramatic gestures, interruptions, pauses, and “special effects”. In his stage works, Méhul wrote music that both heightened and added to the literary drama. His music functions, in a way, like a film score, the music underpinning the action, adding to the story, creating moments of expectation, tension, and relaxation. (Think how music is effectively employed in horror films to suggest to the listener that something bad is going to happen). The dramatic and theatrical nature of Méhul’s music provides it with an intensity that I think can make it difficult to listen (more so than, say, the melodic (although dramatic) arias of a Rossini or Verdi opera).

The invitation to provide a preface to the overture to Le Trésor supposé was an interesting challenge, as it one of Méhul’s even lesser known works, with relatively little having been witten about it. With this overture, then, I had to not only start from scratch, but also write a preface that inspired readers to find about more about the work.

The overture has a light and comic tone, but it is by no means standard fare for the period. The overture lurches into usual keys and has an odd musical structure, both of which I think are clearly audible to the listener and furnish the overture with an aural awkwardness. Due to contraints of space I was only able to touch on the complexity of the overture in the preface, so I decided to write as well as this post a more extended and technical essay which situates the overture in the broader context of the play it was originally intended to introduce and that explores the music and structure of the overture in more detail. (The essay can be viewed here, or as a PDF on my academia.edu profile).

My thoughts are that in the overture to Le Trésor supposé, Méhul seeks to prepare the spectator for the light and comic nature of the play to follow by presenting a series of musical portraits that depict some of the play’s main characters, actions, and events. The martial fanfare that opens the overture, for instance, I think is intended to depict the character of Géronte and in particular his authoritarian nature. The lyrical theme that occurs later in the overture (bar 93), by contrast, explores more lyrical ideas, and could potentially be representative of the loving relationship between Lucile and her lover Dorval. (These ideas are explored in more detail in my essay). Although rarely performed today, the overture to Le Trésor supposé is certainly an interesting piece to listen to, especially if you listen in terms of drama and character.

To complete my project, I decided that it would be worth creating a playlist as a kind of sampler for those new to Méhul (or for those who want to learn more) that consists of tracks that I think provide an insight into Méhul’s dramatic compositional style. For each track, I have written a short text that either provides some additional contextual information or some of my thoughts on the piece. The track listings, explanations, and link to the Spotify playlist can be found in the playlist section of my blog.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and opinions on the playlist, the essay, or Méhul’s music in general and welcome any comments you may have.

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