Creative Projects

Playlist: An Introduction to Étienne Nicolas Méhul

As part of my recent project on Méhul’s overture to Le Trésor Supposé (which consists of a preface for MusikProduktionblog, and essay), I thought it might be interesting to explore the educational potential of the playlist. The playlist below functions in the manner of a “taster CD”, introducing some of Méhul’s works (for which recordings are available on Spotify) that I think capture 1) his interest in music as an expressive and dramatic medium 2) his experimentation with musical sounds and forms and 3) his desire to communicate literary ideas, actions, and characters through music.

Although originally I intended to accompany each track with only a few short sentences, it proved to be an interesting and difficult challenge to justify the selections and set them in the broader context of Méhul’s oeuvre. I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on the tracks, my comments, and on the idea of a playlist having an educational or pedagogical function.

The details of the playlist and text can be found below and the playlist accessed via by clicking here, or the button below:

1) Thomas Beecham – Le Trésor Supposé: Overture

As this overture formed the basis of this project I felt that it should introduce the playlist. A detailed exploration of the music can be found in my accompanying essay, although I think from listening to the overture alone the drama of the opera comes across: such as the opposition between the lovers and the authoritarian figure of Géronte and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of comedy. The unusual and unexpected musical turns tease the listener, playing with their musical expectations of the work, adding an element of mischief and humour.

2) William Christie – Stratonice: “Ciel! ne sois point inexorable” [Chorus]

There is something beautiful about the simplicity of opening chorus to Méhul’s Stratonice. The chorus clearly harks back to those of Gluck, the simple melodic structure and colourful harmonies providing a sombre and melancholic tone. The chromatic figures in the violins that begin about 42 seconds into this recording disturb the otherwise calm texture and add an element of tension, perhaps even suspense. The harmonic clash between the violins and the voice furnishes the passage with a tension that to my mind pre-empts musically the tension that lies at the heart of the opera between father and son, both of whom have fallen in love with the same woman.

3) Werner Ehrhardt – L’irato, ou L’emporte: Quartet: “O ciel, que faire” [Isabelle, Nerine, Lysandre, Scapin]

L’Irato was written at about the same time as Le Trésor Supposé and is similar in both plot and musical style. It received its first performance at the Théâtre Favart on 17 February 1801, a year before Le Trésor Supposé. This quartet forms the dramatic centre point of the opera. The quartet follows on from Lysandre revelation that Isabelle’s uncle is planning for her to marry her tutor, Balouard. Isabelle, who is deeply in love with Lysandre, is deeply upset by the news. Her horror is, however, somewhat mollified during the quartet as Scapin, Lysandre’s servant, reveals a plot to stop Pandolphe’s (Isabelle’s uncle) plan going ahead. The change in the dramatic situation is made evident in the music, the dramatic exclamations that open the quartet being replaced by music that has an almost mischievous tone. The question and answer pattern between Scapin and the other characters at a low volume suggesting the unveiling of a secret plan.

4) Rhenish Philharmonic Orchestra – Symphony No. 1 in G Minor: Menuetto

I particularly like Méhul’s effective use of orchestral timbre and dynamics in this movement to his First Symphony in G minor. The move from a quiet pizzicato (short, plucked notes) in the strings to a more lyrical and smooth melody for full orchestra I think gives the movement a particularly dramatic and dynamic trajectory. The disjointed melody has an almost magical quality and reminds me of the opening bars to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Nights Dream overture (which was written some eighteen years later).

5) William Christie – Stratonice: “Parlez. Achevez de m’apprendre” [Erasistrate, Antiochus]

This emotionally charged duet has, as Elizabeth M. Bartlet notes, ‘the serious tone of the tragédie lyrique’.[1] The duet comes at a key point in the opera: Erasistrate’s discovery that Antiochus’ illness is the result of his secret love for his father’s fiancée. Méhul adds to the dramatic tension by writing music that becomes increasingly fraught. At first, the two characters take turns to sing extended passages, but as the duet proceeds, the exchanges becoming shorter and increasingly frequent, culminating in an overlapping of the voices and a powerful finale. Although not included here, the music that follows develops this tension further, the duet becoming a trio as the King arrives and finally a tremendous quartet with the appearance of Stratonice, the love of both the King and the Prince.

6) Roberto Alagna – Joseph: “Vainement Pharaon dans sa reconnaissance Champs paternels” [Joseph]

Joseph was one on Méhul’s most popular operas. For Berlioz, this opera was “simple, touching, rich in felicitous, though not very daring modulations, full of broad and vibrant harmonies and graceful figures in the accompaniment”.[2] This track, sung by Alagna, is one of the most moving arias in the opera. Although in this aria we hear Méhul at his most lyrical, emphasised by Alagna’s performance, the music is never detached from the meaning of the text. Of particular interest in terms of musical drama is the musical accompaniment; Méhul choosing not to write a simple and unobtrusive accompaniment, but one that holds it own. The orchestra adds to the musical drama of the aria, it becoming stronger and more ‘vocal’ as the aria progresses.

7) Werner Ehrhardt – L’irato, ou L’emporte: “Femme jolie et du bon vin” [Balouard, Lysandre, Scapin]

Songs on the topic of wine and women were a commonplace in both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century opera. This track from L’irato comes at the point in the opera where Scapin encourages the rivals Lysandre and Balouard to drown their sorrows. The trio is particular interesting as it is written in a way that gives the spectator the impression that the song is not just another operatic aria, but a song the stems from the “real” world of the opera. In effect, Méhul writes a drinking song that may have well been heard in any eighteenth-century tavern. (There is also a notable similarity to the tone of this number and that of the many Revolutionary songs that had become popular in the 1790s – see track 10). The clinking of glasses audible in this recording heightens the sense of realism provided by the music, blurring the boundaries between sound and music. Another interesting music effect occurs at about two minutes thirty in to the track when a rather melodically decorative passage is introduced for all three singers. This passage, though, isn’t intended to demonstrate the virtuosic capabilities of the singers, but show uncontrolled excess. This is an example of communal, drunken singing, something made evident later in the passage when the music begins to lose its sense of harmonic direction, drunkenly wandering off course. I also like the effect at 4 minutes in where the music builds towards a finale, but wanders off course, lurching in another direction before the trio is brought to its official close.

8) The Gulbenkian Orchestra – Symphony No. 3 in C Major: Andante

The C major symphony is for the large part a tort and densely worked exercise in motivic development, and the slow movement here is no exception. There is, for me, something extraordinary beautiful about this movement. Despite the lyrical nature of the movement, it appears to have no single, complete melody. The movement seems to present the listener with search for identity, the orchestra constantly searching for a theme. Musical ideas go from one instrument to another across the entire orchestra, but no single instrument or section dominates the texture. In my opinion, the movement feels uneasy, presenting a much darker musical terrain that was perhaps standard for slow movements of the time. In a way, the movement has a romantic edge, the tone of a Beethovenian scherzo, but one tempered by the style of an andante.

9) William Christie – Stratonice: “Quelle funeste envie!” [Séleucus] “Ah! gardez vos trésors” [Antiochus]

This dramatically charged duet has an unusually restrained and balanced quality, harking back to the arias of Gluck. Although this duet lacks the progressively experimental tone of some of Méhul’s other works, this is a beautiful example of Méhul’s ability to write lyrical and melodic music.

10) Armand Mestral – Le chant du depart: “La victoire en chantant” [M.J. Chénier – E.N. Méhul]

This track stands in stark contrast to the other pieces included here and is an example of one of Méhul’s French Revolutionary songs. These politically fuelled songs capture the essence of this turbulent historical period, and Méhul songs in particular were incredibly popular with sheet music selling in the thousands. This song has a fiercely republican text, which is emphasised by Méhul through the regular phrasing and catchy tune, perfect for encouraging communal singing and capturing the Revolutionary spirit.

11) Werner Ehrhardt – L’irato, ou L’emporte: “Si je perdais mon Isabelle” [Lysandre]

Intentionally standing in stark contrast to the previous track, this aria returns us to the world of opéra comique. Here we see Lysandre alone and in a desperate state, bemoaning the fact he is not going to be able to marry his love Isabelle. Particularly effective in this aria is the interplay of spoken word and music. Rare in opera, spoken word was a defining feature of opéra comique. As well as provide a quick way of explaining the plot and off-stage action, the interplay between spoken word and music could also be employed as an effective dramatic device. Here, the dynamic perfectly captures Lysandre’s emotional state, the constant moving between text and music a reflection of his unstable state of mind.

12) The Gulbenkian Orchestra – Overture: Young Henry’s Hunt

This is perhaps Méhul’s most performed work. The overture, which was originally intended to introduce an opera based the life of King Henri of France, is a lively romp full of both humour and character. Particularly effective is Méhul’s juxtaposition of the pastoral (epitomised by the lyrical strings) and the King’s hunt, depicted by raucous horns. The interplay of the two themes furnishes the overture with an almost pictorial quality that seems to capture (in comic fashion) the eighteenth-century interest in the relationship between man and nature.

13) William Christie –Stratonice: “Insensé, je forme des souhaits” [Antiochus]

This aria comes towards the end of the opera and sees Antiochus in utter despair, begging for Death to release him from his misery. From the very beginning, Antiochus’ pain is made audible, a harsh dissonance created between his first note and the chord presented by the orchestra. Although beautifully melodic, the air still has a declamatory nature, Méhul experimenting with musical lyricism and the natural rhythm of speech. Also of interest here is Méhul’s effective use of the orchestra, Bartlet identifying in particularly the effective and unusual use of the upper woodwind and tenor instruments such as the viola, bassoon, and cello.[3]

14) Werner Ehrhardt – L’irato, ou L’emporte: “Ah, mon cher Oncle – Maitre” [Isabelle, Nerine, Lysandre, Balouard, Scapin]

The finale to L’irato is interesting primarily because of the way it incorporates a range of music styles to support the fast-paced drama of the final scene. Opening with music that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Gluck’s tragic operas, the music soon adopts a comic tone. This is followed by a lyrical and emotive passage sung by Lysandre as he sings of his love for Isabelle. A march-like passage follows for Pandolphe that has a tone similar to that of a French Revolutionary song before the listener is once again returned to musical world of comedy, which concludes with a grand and triumphant finale.

15) Chin-Ming Lin – La Chasse Du Jeune Henri: Overture (arr. Gottschalk for 3 pianos, 10-hands, orchestra, RO 54b)

This is not a work by Méhul, but a work inspired by his overture La Chasse Du Jeune Henri. I thought it made a suitable end to this playlist as it allows us to hear Méhul from a fresh perspective. Gottschalk’s 1849 (revised again in 1861 with the addition of pianos) re-imagining of the work places Méhul in a more modern, nineteenth-century context. The effective orchestration and manipulation of the original score gives the overture a fresh feel. The use of piano is particularly effective (especially for the mid-1800s), the pianos creeping in almost unnoticed half way through the piece before taking centre stage.

[1] M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, ‘Etienne Nicolas Mehul and opera during the French Revolution, Consulate, and Empire : a source, archival and stylistic study’ (University of Chicago, 1982), p. 1045.

[2] Hector Berlioz, Evening with the Orchestra, edited and translated by Jaques Barzun(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1999), p.353.

[3] M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet, ‘Etienne Nicolas Mehul and opera during the French Revolution, Consulate, and Empire : a source, archival and stylistic study’ (University of Chicago, 1982), p. 1094.


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