University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Opéra Comique at Sibley Music Library

Volume XXVIII · Number 1 · Summer 1974
Opéra Comique at Sibley Music Library

The French dramatic scores are but one small portion of the primary sources available at the Sibley Library for historical research. Early editions of English opera, Italian opera (both buffa and seria), and German opera from the Singspiel through Wagner and the twentieth-century avant-garde pieces are constantly being sought and acquired. The music mentioned here has been purchased through a period of four decades, and as historical musicology shifts its focus of attention to studies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it is the period of the opéra comique which concerns us. Our most recent acquisitions, not yet catalogued, have contained much pertinent material, helping to make this library one of the chief centers for operatic research in the United States.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the French developed the opéra comique, a type of musico-dramatic entertainment whose aim was to amuse with light wit, sophisticated plots, and tuneful airs. The interpolation of spoken dialogue (in verse or in prose) set the opéra comique apart from the Italian opera, and its piquancy set it apart from the German Singspiel. Several composers, among them Monsigny and Philidor, established this typically Gallic genre. They were followed by Grétry (a Belgian turned French) who set the norm, and he in turn was succeeded by such men as Boieldieu, Hérold, Adam, and Auber, carrying the tradition well into the nineteenth century. These composers fortunately lived during a time when publication usually came close upon the heels of performance, so that contemporary primary sources are available for historical research.

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Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729-1817) wrote a number of dramatic pieces, variously designated as comédie féerie, opéra bouffon, drame, comédie, and occasionally opéra comique. His first works were given at the Théâtre de la Foire Saint-Germain, beginning with Les Aveux indiscrets in 1759. After this theater was closed, he wrote exclusively for the Théâtre de la Comédie-Italienne (which merged with the theater of the Opéra-Comique) where, from 1762 to 1777, he produced several highly successful works in which the techniques of the opéra comique were used. Although Monsigny had stopped composing by the outset of the French Revolution, his dramatic music, full of melodic charm and sensitivity, placed him among the founders of the opéra comique. The Sibley Music Library has nine full scores (i.e., vocal parts and complete orchestration, plus diaglogue and basic stage directions) and three vocal scores (vocal parts with orchestration reduced to a keyboard accompaniment) which were engraved during the composer's lifetime. In the following list, the full scores are given in chronological order by date of first performance:

Le Maître en droit (1760), opéra bouffon in two acts, performed at the Théâtre de la Foire Saint-Germain.

Le Cadi dupé (1761), one-act opéra bouffon.

On ne s'avise jamais de tout (1761), opéra bouffon in one act, first performed at the Théâtre de la Foire Saint-Laurent and later at the court at Versailles.

Le Roy et le fermier (1762), three-act comédie, first given at the Comédie-Italienne. The Sibley Library has two copies of the full score, as well as a Duo from the opera, arranged by the theater accompanist for either piano or harp.

Rose et Colas (1764), one-act comédie.

L'Isle sonnante (1767/8), three-act opéra comique, the earliest score by Monsigny in the Sibley Library to bear this designation. It was given at the Théâtre du Duc d'Orléans (1767) at Bagnolet, followed by a second performance at the Comédie-Italienne in Paris (1768).

Le Déserteur (1769), three-act drame, dedicated to the Duc d'Orléans.

La Belle Arsène (1773), comédie féerie after Voltaire, first given at Fontainebleau as a three-act piece (1733) and later at the Comédie-Italienne as a four-act opera. The Sibley Library score is of the latter arrangement.

Félix ou L'Enfant trouvé (1777), comédie en vers et en prose, performed at the Comédie-Italienne and at Versailles.

The scores were obviously used for performance at one time or another, for they show signs of wear, bear annotations, and some of the measures are blocked out in colored crayon, indicating cuts in the music. On the title-pages the composer is typically designated as M. M*** without having his name spelled out. Lest we think that publishers of the twentieth century are the only ones who are eager to advertise their wares, attention must be called to the verso of Monsigny's title pages, where pieces of music available from his engravers are prominently listed.

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A contemporary of Monsigny was François André Danican-Philidor (1726-1795), the last and greatest member of a famous family of French musicians. An avid chess-player as well as composer, he traveled to England and to Germany, where he heard the music of such composers as Georg Frideric Handel. His dramatic works, variously designated as opéra bouffonopéra comiquecomédie, or comédie lyrique, were in vogue from 1756 to 1788, and although they may lack some of the spontaneous charm of Monsigny's works, they prove without a doubt that Philidor was an expert orchestrator and a musician thoroughly versed in harmonic principles. From among twenty dramatic pieces, the Sibley Library has the following engraved music (in full score unless otherwise indicated):

Biaise le savetier (1759), opéra comique mêlé d'ariettes, first played at the Théâtre de la Foire Saint-Germain. The Library has a vocal score (Liège, 1759), with bass part only.

Le Jardinier et son seigneur (1761), one-act opéra bouffon.

Le Maréchal ferrant (1761), two-act opéra comique.

Sancho Pança, gouverneur dans l'Isle de Barataria (1762), opéra bouffon after Cervantes.

Le Boucheron, ou Les Trois souhaits (1763), comédie en un acte mêlée d'ariettes, dedicated to the Dauphin.

Le Sorcier (1764), comédie lyrique in two acts, presented at the Comédie-Italienne and at Versailles, and considered to be one of his best works. The Library owns two copies.

Tom Jones (1765), comédie lyrique in three acts, after the novel by Henry Fielding. After being performed at the Comédie-Italienne in 1765, it was revised and presented again in 1766; the Sibley Library score contains the revised version.

Les Femmes vengées (1775), opéra comique en un acte et en vers.

Thémistocle (1785), tragédie lyrique in three acts, given at Fontainebleau and at the theater of the Académie Royale de Musique.

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A younger contemporary and rival of both Monsigny and Philidor was André Ernest Modeste Grétry, born in Liège in 1741, who was responsible for establishing the norm for the opéra comique and making it a distinctively French product. He was educated at Liège and began writing instrumental music at an early age. At twenty-five he was in Geneva, working as a music teacher. There he met Voltaire, who urged him to go to Paris, where opportunities existed for producing lyric drama. Following his advice, Grétry settled in Paris in the autumn of 1767 and launched his operatic career under the patronage of the Swedish ambassador, the Count de Dreutz. Le Huron was his first opus, produced at the Comédie-Italienne in August 1768, and it was followed by a long list of works whose succession was unbroken in spite of the major disturbances of the French Revolution. Filled with fine melodies, his music was understandably popular. Although in Grétry's later years his operas were eclipsed by those of younger composers and his style was criticized for its thin harmonic texture, he nevertheless succeeded in becoming clearly identified with the opéra comique. For his contributions to French culture he was honored by election into several of the illustrious artistic and learned societies of Paris, by having a street named after him, and by Napoleon's granting him a life pension in addition to making him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1802. He died in 1813 at Montmorency, where he had lived in L'Ermitage, the former residence of Rousseau.

The Sibley Library has thirty-two volumes of the rare Oeuvres de Grétry, collection des opéras de Grétry en grandes partitions (Paris, Chez Mile. Jenny Grétry [1805-1823]), containing the most successful of the dramatic pieces. The library also owns forty-four volumes of the "official" critical edition of the works, issued by Breitkopf and Härtel in Leipzig between 1884 and 1936 and edited by prominent Belgian musicologists: Collection complète des oeuvres de Grétry, publiée par le Gouvernement Belge. Most significant, however, are the first edition folios of individual pieces, published in Paris with the approval of Grétry. These full scores, of which the library has thirty-four, include:

Le Huron (1768), the first work by Grétry to be performed in Paris.

Le Tableau parlant (1769), one of his best comic dramas.

Zémire et Azor (1771), first performed at Fontainebleau for the Court, where it was well received and established Grétry as one of the foremost composers of Paris.

Les Mariages samnites (1775), a rather indifferent piece as far as popularity was concerned  but containing a march which Mozart used later as the theme for his Variations, K. 352.

Le Jugement de Midas (1778), a satire on the music and the performance of the pedantic Académie.

La Caravane du Caire (1783), with text by the Comte de Provence (later Louis XVIII) and embellished with lovely ballets and oriental scenes and so popular that it was played no less than 506 times.

Richard Coeur de Lion (1784), his greatest work in the opinion of many critics and containing a selection ("Une fièvre brûlante") on which Beethoven later wrote some variations.

Pierre le Grand (1790), an attempt at local color, which was quite an innovation for that period.

Elisca (1790), the last successful opéra comique by Grétry.

Grétry continued to produce theatrical pieces until 1802. His total output numbered nearly fifty compositions, which were performed at Fontainebleau, at Versailles, and Paris. They were designated as opéra bouffoncomédie parade . . . en vers, comédie-ballet en vers, pastoralecomédie mêlée d'ariettes, ballet héroïque, comédie héroïque, and comédie lyrique. The term opéra comique was not used consistently to describe Grétry's works until after the mid-eighties, at which time it seems to have become firmly established as the appropriate designation; it is also used on the title-pages of the engraved libretti which are in the Sibley Library.

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Monsigny, Philidor, and Grétry may be said to represent the older generation of composers of the opéra comique. François Adrien Boieldieu (1775-1834) bridged the stylistic gaps between them and the members of the younger generation. Born in Rouen, where he was educated and began his career, he was at first a rather imitative composer. Moving to Paris, he worked assiduously at his music, had some spectacular successes, and took counterpoint lessons from Cherubini. All seemed to be going well with him. Nevertheless, in 1803, he went to Russia. For eight years he was conductor of the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg, a period which some historians consider a musical hiatus in the otherwise "French" career of Boieldieu. Upon his return to Paris in 1811, he found that the usually fickle public still remembered him and he pursued his ambition to succeed as a dramatic composer. That he fulfilled his aspirations in large measure is attested to by his many operas and the tremendous popularity of several of them. The Sibley Library has the following music (engraved full scores unless otherwise indicated):

Zaraïme et Zulnar (1798), three-act opéra, dedicated to Méhul and Cherubini, both celebrated composers.

Beniawsky, ou Les Exilés du Kamchatka (1800) three-act opéra with spoken dialogue.

Le Calife de Bagdad (1800), opéra comique, from which the Library has selections. The device of publishing favorite excerpts separately was becoming popular.

Ma Tante Aurore, ou Le Roman impromptu (1803), first performed at the Opéra Comique. One of Boieldieu's most successful works, it placed him in a favorable position among dramatic composers in Paris. It was revived with great acclaim after his return from Russia.

La Jeune femme colère (1805), comédie based on Etienne and dedicated to the Empress Elizabeth Alexiewna. It was first performed at the Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg.

Les Voitures versées (1808), two-act opéra comique, for which the Sibley Library has an engraved full score autographed by the author. The composer is identified on the title-page as a Membre de l'Institut de la Musique particulière de la Chambre du Roi et Professeur de Composition de l'Ecole Royale de Musique.

Rien de trop, ou Les Deux paravents (1810/11), one act opéra comique, for four characters (three male, one female). Although it was first performed in St. Petersburg, the full score was engraved in Paris. Here the composer is identified as the master of the Chapel of the Czar of Russia and a member of the Conservatoire de France.

Jean de Paris (1812), two-act opéra comique, dedicated to Grétry, and one of Boieldieu's most charming pieces. In addition to the engraved full score, the  Library has several vocal scores published in Germany under the title, Johann von Paris, testifying to the international popularly of the work.

Le Nouveau Seigneur de village (1813), one-act opéra comique.

Le Petit chaperon rouge (1818), opéra féerie dedicated to the king. One of Boieldieu's best works, it was often performed. The Sibley Library's full score contains a manuscript leaf of entr'acte music which was obviously tipped in for a later presentation.

Les Deux nuits (1829). The Library has an arrangement for piano solo published in Vienna in the 1830s.

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Louis Joseph Ferdinand Hérold (1791-1833), an able composer of the younger generation, had considerable technical background and succeeded in elevating the tone of theopéra comique to that of a national dramatic form. The variety of musical experience to which he was exposed during his career (in Rome, Naples, and Vienna, as well as in Paris) enriched his style, as can be observed not only in his operas but in his ballets, his incidental music to plays, and his instrumental music. He composed some two dozen dramatic pieces, several written in collaboration with such other composers as Boieldieu, Auber, and Cherubini. The Sibley Library has engraved full score for the following operas by Hérold alone:

Les Rosières (1817), three-act opéra comique, published by Boieldieu the Younger.

La Clochette, ou Le Diable page (1817), opéra féerie.

Les Troquers (1819), one-act opéra comique.

Lasthénie (1823), one-act opéra.

Emeline (1829), one-act opéra.

Zampa, ou La Fiancée de marbre (1831), opéra comique in three acts. The Sibley Library copy is a gift to a M. Eschhorn from the Conservatoire de Musique.

Le Pré aux clercs (1832), opéra comique in three acts.

Of the above, Zampa and Le Pré aux clercs proved to be the most published into the twentieth century.

Le Pré aux clercs enjoyed more favor in France and England than popular. Zampa had such brilliant success that soon after its presentation at the Opéra Comique, it was adapted for the German stage, where it remained a favorite for years, and vocal scores with bi-lingual text were issued by such outstanding publishers as Schott in Mainz and Peters in Leipzig. In France arrangements for piano solo and for piano duet were made and published, while Anton Diabelli not only arranged the opera for piano but issued it in Vienna under his own imprint. The overture to Zampa, in various instrumentations, continued to be published in Germany. Like Zampa, it went through many arrangements and continued to be published by such firms as Boosey in London, Lemoine and Grus in Paris, and Ricordi in Milan. With this opéra comique, based on a historical subject, Hérold was able to dignify the tone of this genre and to achieve unity between text and setting, thus pointing the way to a French national opera. (It is significant, too that Hérold wrote several opéras as well as works designated as opéra comique.)

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Adolphe Adam (1803-1856) had many dramatic pieces to his credit. Of the two-dozen or so which enjoyed immense popularity, most are designated as opéra comique and, starting in the late 1820s, they were performed at the Opéra Comique, the Opéra, and the ThéâtreLyrique for nearly a quarter century. In 1847 Adam started a new theater, the Théâtre National, which unfortunately suffered as a result of the Revolution of 1848. The Sibley Library has the engraved full score of Le Brasseur de Preston (1838), a three-act opéra comique dedicated to Nicholas I, Czar of Russia.

During the 1830s the publication practices for operatic works in France seem to have changed. Rather than issuing elaborately engraved full scores with complete orchestrations, the publishers were more apt to issue vocal scores with piano accompaniment. The care and time which had apparently been lavished upon music during the previous decades were fading into the past. The delightful title-vignettes, the dedicatory letters, and the artistic placement of notes upon the page which characterized the eighteenth-century full scores became the exception rather than the rule. One compensating feature, however, was that publishers issued multiple editions of vocal scores and arrangements of favorite dramatic pieces. In the case of works by Adam, the Sibley Library's holdings reflect the times; the fifteen most popular operas are found in vocal score.

Adam was also the composer of a number of ballets, among them Giselle, first performed at the Opéra in 1841 and still in the active classical repertoire.

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One of the last representatives of the opéra comique tradition was Daniel François Auber (1782-1871). His works, dating from 1805, are full of lilting melodies, lively rhythms, and lucid exposition of text, accompanied by clear orchestration. Writing serious operas as well as opéra comique, Auber effected a transition to the French grand opera. From among some fifty pieces, most of which were presented at the Opéra Comique, although a few were given at the Opéra and the Odéon, the Sibley Library has twenty-seven scores in first and early editions. Such works as Fra DiavoloLes Diamants de la couronneLe Domino noirLe Maçon, and La Muette de Portici went through numerous editions and continued to be published for decades. So popular were they that selections from them were being published in the United States as late as 1955. By 1869, when the last of Auber's works was performed, the opéra comique had gone full circle, and operas by such men as Gounod came into prominence. But during its century-long heydey, the opéra comique had few rivals. Many lively tunes and pretty ariettes came into being, and the French audiences were delightfully amused.


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