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History Of Music:
George Frederic Handel
Joseph Haydn
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Ludwig Van Beethoven
The Romantic Composers
Development Of The Piano
Frederic Chopin
Programme Music
Franz Liszt
Famous Operas And Their Composers
Italian Opera
French Opera
German Opera
Wagner And His Music Dramas
Tristan And Isolde

French Opera

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Opera was not introduced into France until the middle of the seventeenth century and was, from the first, quite independent of Italian influences. Great importance was given to the chorus and ballet, and in the endeavor to perfect dramatic action and scenic effects, musical shortcomings were entirely overlooked. The French are always fond of witty dialogue, and this they interspersed freely throughout their operas; they gave great importance to the so-called "dry" recitative, a monotonous and unmusical form of speech. Often an opera was but a series of choruses and ballets, loosely joined together by endless recitative. In comparison to the polished and brilliant execution of the Italians, the inferior singing and ever-present ballets of the French must have presented a strange contrast. The Italians overestimated the importance of the musical side of drama, while the French laid their emphasis on the side of plot and action. Each had glaring defects and each was positive of its own superiority. Later we find these two influences acting and re-acting upon one another, making possible the work of the nineteenth century.

Goldoni has given an amusing account of early French opera which has been translated from his autobiography: "I kept waiting for the airs, the music of which, I thought, would have least amused me; when, behold! out comes the ballet again, and concludes the act. I, thinking that the whole act had been without a single air, turn to my neighbour for explanation on that point. He begins to laugh, and assures me that the act I have heard contained no less than six airs. 'How? I am not deaf.' It turns out that I had taken all the airs for an endless recitative. A minute later out came the three actors, all singing together; this was meant for a trio, but again I mistook it for a recitative. In short, all was beautiful, grand, magnificent, excepting the music. When the curtain had fallen, all my acquaintances asked me how I had liked the opera. The answer bursts out of my lips, "Tis a paradise for the eyes, but a hell for the ears."

The works of Jean Baptiste de Lully represent the best in French opera. Although a native Italian, he is classed with the French school; he did not, like his countrymen, permit the musical side of his dramas to overbalance all other elements. As a boy his experiences were varied; when thirteen years old he was retained as a helper in the Royal kitchen in Paris, but he attracted attention by his unusual skill as a dancer and violin player and was gradually advanced until he reached the position of composer and music-master to the French king. The greatest service he performed was in his treatment of the overture; his melodies are pleasing but his operas reflect the formal tone of all French music of the seventeenth century.

The period from 1750 to 1780 is very important in the history of the opera. The rise of opera-comique and the reforms of Gluck set loose the influences that paved the way for our modern drama. We have seen that the Italian grand opera was characterized by vocal display, which sacrificed action and text; that the tendency of French opera was just the opposite-giving great place to dramatic effect and woefully lacking on the musical side. Operatic history ever since has centered about the conflict of these two tendencies.

The French opera-comique is very similar in origin to the Italian opera buffa, and grew out of the vaudeville, the favorite entertainment of the lower classes. As early as 1714 it was the custom for holiday-makers to gather in the market places and watch the performance of burlesques-often coarse in character, but always uproariously applauded. These rude farces were plentifully interspersed with popular songs, in which the audience joined with great gusto. When songs in direct connection with the plot of the farce were introduced we have the beginning of comic opera. It was the invariable result of the growing demand for naturalness and spontaneity in dramatic representation. At the present time "operacomique" means any opera that has been brought out at the Theatre de 1'Opera-comique, in Paris, and does not imply the comic element. Thus the term is often applied to tragedies, such as Bizet's "Carmen" and Puccini's "Madame Butterfly."

The invasion of an Italian buffa company in Paris in the year 1732 did much to destroy the structure of French grand opera and direct more attention toward the opera-comique. Many were weary of artificiality and turned eagerly to Italian music. The success of the buffa troupe called forth heated criticism on the part of French composers and two strong factions arose, with supporters among all classes. One party was in favor of adopting Italian opera and the other violently opposed it; even the king and queen took part in the discussion -on opposite sides. The result of this contention was most wholesome; it roused the people from the apathy into which they had fallen, and paved the way for an opera in which music and drama should not be opposed to one another, but in which they could be blended into a composite whole. A composer then appeared who dared to upset the cherished traditions-one who marks the dividing line between the old and modern school of opera.

Christoph Wilibald Gluck was born in Bavaria in the year 1714. His parents were poor, and at the age of twelve he was sent to a Jesuit school, where for six years he studied singing, violin, organ and the classics. After this he devoted himself exclusively to his musical work, studying and playing at Prague. For many years he had no idea of writing any but grand operas; his early works, written in the conventional Italian style, met with such success that he was called to London. Here he produced two operas that proved to be utter failures, and Cluck betook himself and his wounded pride to Paris.

By 1760 he had become convinced that the form of grand opera was shallow, and even absurd; he possessed a strong dramatic instinct, was a devoted student of Greek poetry, and desired to create operas that should be in accordance with the Athenian tragedies. Nothing worth mentioning came from his pen until 1762, when his great reform opera, "Orpheus and Eurydice," appeared. This drama is divided into three acts.

The curtain rises upon a scene showing a grassy valley with the tomb of Eurydice in the foreground. A chorus of mourners is interrupted by a cry of grief from Orpheus, husband of the dead Eurydice, who vows he will follow her to the underworld. The god Amor appears and tells him of the perilous conditions imposed on any mortal who would attempt to bring a shade back from Hades; but Orpheus determines to accomplish his purpose.

Act II takes place in Hades, opening with a chorus of the Furies, in which the barking of the dog Cerberus is often heard. In the midst of all this uproar Orpheus enters and by means of heart-rending strains on his lyre makes an impassioned appeal for mercy. At last, moved by the beauty of the song, the Furies allow him to pass beyond into the. Elysian Fields. By command of the gods, Orpheus may not look upon his departed love, so he tries to find her by instinct. Compassionate spirits become interested and place her hand in his.

In the last act Orpheus is discovered leading hurydice, who is transported with joy; finally she notices that he holds his face aloof and will not gaze upon her. For this she reproaches him and at last, overpowered by her entreaties, Orpheus turns and, as he looks upon her, she falls dead. Then follows the exquisite melody, "What shall I do without Eurydice ?" In the midst of his hopeless grief, Amor returns and restores Eurydice to her faithful lover.

Gluck found great difficulty with his singers, for in his endeavor to assign music to its proper place he went to the other extreme and did not give the vocalists enough oppor tunity. In his later operas, "Alcestis," produced in 1767, "Iphigenia in Aulis" and "Iphigenia in Tauris"-the latter written to show his superiority over a rival composer-he displayed greater skill in depicting dramatic scenes. The principles which Gluck tried to lay down may be stated briefly as follows: He desired to do away with the artificiality that had grown up in the opera, and compel actors to sing the notes as they were written by the composer; he thought the overture ought to indicate the general character of the opera; that the orchestra should be used as a means of expression, not merely an accompaniment; and that there should be no disparity between the aria and the recitative. In short, hiswhole aim tended toward simplicity, and he introduced and made permanent principles of dramatic simplicity and unity.

Gluck was not one of the great melodists, and his operas are seldom heard today; but the principles which he established have never been laid aside. His was a frivolous age, and his reforms required the expenditure of a moral strength that commands the highest respect and admiration.

After the triumphal close of what might be termed the Gluck reform campaign, Paris became the operatic center of all Europe. The reputation of no dramatic composer was regarded as established until Paris had favorably received his productions. It is somewhat difficult to classify French operas of the nineteenth century, for theoretically there are but two general classes-grand opera and opera-comique. The second class is the cause of possible confusion in the minds of music amateurs, for gradually the form of comic opera expanded and developed until it took in elements other than those of comedy and combined those of tragedy as well. It is impossible to tell from the text or treatment of many French operas to which of the two classes they belong, there being no distinctive difference between them; their classification depends solely upon whether they were first produced at the Academie de Musique or the Opera-comique.

Another confusing element is the fact that the greater share of the operas of the French school were written by foreign musicians. Among those who had much to do with the development of French opera are Cherubini and Spontini, Italians, and Meyerbeer and Offenbach, Germans. We can only bear in mind the fact that an opera belongs to the national school of that language in which it is written. However, the peculiar dramatic sense of the French people, together with French spirit and taste, separated the whole treatment of their opera from that of the Italians.

The first to contribute largely to the modern French school was Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842). His musical talent displayed itself at an early age, and when but sixteen he had already composed many works for the stage. It was not until 1780 that his first opera appeared, and from that time on for fourteen years he was busily engaged in operatic composition. He did much for the development of French opera, was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by Napoleon, and in 1822 became director of the Paris Conservatoire. None of his operas are presented today with the exception of "Les deux Journes," known in England and America as "The Water Carrier." This is the opera, the production of which, in Beethoven's opinion, placed Cherubini at the head of all his contemporaries.

It is designated by some writers as a grand opera, but from its general character it is more correctly opera-comique. It was first produced in Paris, 1800. The first act opens at the house of Michele, a water carrier of Paris; his son Antonio, is about to wed Angeline, a peasant girl living at Genesse. Michele is interested in a Count Armand, who is being persecuted by Cardinal Mazarin; so fearful is he that the Count may escape that he has the city gates constantly watched, and no one may leave without a pass. Since Michele has passes for his son and daughter, he devises a plan by which Count Armand and his wife can escape from the city. After much persuasion, his daughter is induced to give up going to her brother's wedding; so in her disguise, the Count's wife is able to pass through the gates, under Antonio's protection. It is more difficult to effect a means of escape for the Count, but this is done by concealing him in a water barrel. Arrived safely outside, he hides in a hollow tree, it being arranged that when all is clear his wife shall clap her hands as a signal. She does so, but soldiers are concealed among the rocks and at once seize her, whereupon Count Armand rushes forth and covers them with his pistol. He is obliged to give himself up, however, and just as the soldiers are about to take him away, Michele comes bearing the news that the persecution has ceased and that the Count's liberty is restored to him.

The opera is characterized by a simplicity that is at once dignified and dramatically forceful. Its beautiful overture is frequently heard as a concert number, and the dramatic ensemble for Antonio, Costanza and the soldiers at the beginning of the second act is a masterpiece of dramatic writing. It is to be regretted that this charming opera is not more often given.

The history of French grand opera reaches its height in Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864). He was a German Jew and was born in Berlin. For a time he studied in Munich, later went to Italy, where he became a great admirer and imitator of Rossini; went to Paris in 1826 and there dropped the style he had affected and became the originator of one purely his own. He is perhaps best known by his operas "Les Huguenots," "Robert le Diable" and "L'Africaine."

"Few composers have been so much eulogized and so much reviled as Meyerbeer. The opinion of Wagner and Schumann, who denounced him as an unmitigated charlatan and trickster, may be set off against the view of his French admirers, many of them able critics, who pronounce him one of the greatest of musico-dramatic geniuses. The truth doubtless lies between these two estimates. While in sheer musical imagination and science he cannot be called one of the greatest of musicians, yet he was not lacking in ideas, and was deficient in sustained development rather than in thematic invention. His ingenuity and command in the matter of orchestral combination for dramatic purposes is unquestioned. He had many great inspirations, and there are pages in his works that will always rank among the most powerful in opera history... No operatic composer was ever more uneven, and this is due not only to a lack of spontaneity in creation but still more to his intense desire to make `effect' at every point, no matter at what loss of musical unity. A work of his is, therefore, as Mrs. Julian Marshall says, a consummate piece of mosaic rather than an organic structure."

Yet Meyerbeer introduced many legitimate innovations, his range of expression was wide and he permanently influenced not only French opera, but German and Italian as well. His greatest work is conceded by all critics to be "Les Huguenots," which seems destined to hold its place among the best of musical dramas.

This is a grand opera in five acts, first produced at the Academie de Musique, February 29, 1836. The action of the play passes in the last part of the sixteenth century, first in Touraine and later in Paris; this, it will be remembered, was during the time of the bloody persecutions of the Huguenots, as the French Protestants were called. The Duke of Medicis has to all appearances made peace with Admiral Coligny, leader of the Huguenots, and we are at once introduced to the castle of Count Nevers, Here are gathered many Catholic noblemen and with them is the Protestant Raoul de Nangis, lately promoted to the rank of captain. During the banquet they talk of love and each guest is asked to give the name of his sweetheart. Raoul then tells them how once, when walking, he came upon a group of students molesting a lady riding in a litter. He rescued her and found her to he the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Although he does not know her name his heart burns for her. At this point a lady is announced to Count Rivers and Raoul at once recognizes in her the lady of his dreams. She has come to ask Nevers to release her from her engagement to him, which he does with great reluctance. Returning to the table he gives no explanation, and Raoul at once suspects her of being Never's mistress. Presently a page enters with an invitation for Raoul, and the others, recognizing the seal of Queen Margarita of Valois, at once try to seek his friendship.

Next we find Raoul at the court of the beautiful Queen, who is expending the utmost energy to reconcile the Catholics with the Protestants. To help toward this end she has de cided to unite Raoul with her lady-of-honor, Valentine, daughter of Count of St. Bris and a staunch Catholic. Valentine has told her that it was Raoul who rescued her from the rude students and that she loves him. Raoul is ready to comply with the Queen's wish, but when Valentine is brought in and he sees in her the one whom he thinks so unworthy of honest love, he takes back his promise. All are amazed and the girl's father vows bloody revenge.

In the third act Marcel, Raoul's servant, brings a challenge to St. Bris, but meanwhile the latter has been informed of another means of making way with his foe; he, however, accepts the challenge. His daughter, although mortally offended at Raoul, still loves him and resolves to save his life. Seeing Marcel, she bids him tell his master not to come to the duel alone. Meanwhile Raoul has gone to meet his enemy, who appears with four comrades; while they are fighting, a disturbance between Catholic and Protestant citizens arises, which is stopped by Queen Margarita. Valentine is brought in to bear witness in the impromptu trial and then Raoul hears what her errand to Nevers had really been. But this knowledge comes too late, for Valentine's father has promised Nevers that he shall wed his daughter, and the latter appears to claim his bride. The presence of the Queen prevents an open outbreak, but Raoul departs from the scene with deadly hate in his heart.

In the next act, the dreadful night of St. Bartholomew is fast approaching. Valentine is in her room; Raoul enters to take a last farewell, but almost immediately St. Bris enters with a party of Catholics and Raoul is forced to hide in the next room. There he hears a conspiracy for the terrible destruction of the Protestants. Nevers alone refuses to aid in such murder, and fearing he will turn traitor, the others bind him in the room. In spite of Valentine's entreaty to stay with her, Raoul rushes out to save his comrades from a bloody death.

In the last act he is found, pale and excited, in the court of Queen Margarita and her husband, Henry of Navarre. He tells them of the plot and urges that they help to prevent it; but it is too late, for most of the Huguenots have already been massacred. Raoul once more meets Valentine, who promises to save him if he will go over to her faith. This he refuses to do and, it now being impossible for him to be saved, she resolves to die with him. She accepts his creed and they die together at the hand of an assassin.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is the most widely known representative of the modern French school. "Like many other composers he has distinguished himself both as writer for the theatre and for the church, the union of the mystical and the sensuous in his temperament producing that warm, seductive, languishing and ecstatic manner which is peculiar to him and is felt in both his religious and his secular music. There is a certain softness and effeminacy in this style which is hardly in keeping with the highest demands of dramatic music, certainly not with those of church music. Gounod's immense popularity is due to his remarkable gift of voluptuous melody, which completely captivates at the first hearing, and although it may cloy at last and never sounds the lowest depths of passion, at its best it is sincere and forcible and bears the marks of genuine feeling."

His masterpiece is undoubtedly "Faust," the story of which is as follows: Faust, a student in Germany, after living a life of close study and meditation, becomes consumed with a desire to unravel the mysteries of nature. To attain this result he calls upon the Evil Spirit, who appears in the form of Mephistopheles. By means of his unearthly power, Mephistopheles restores Faust to youth, with its illusions and passions, endowing him also with personal beauty and rich attire. For this he receives Faust's promise to serve him in the hereafter. Then by means of a vision Mephistopheles reveals to him Margaret, the lovely village maiden, with whom Faust immediately falls desperately and violently in love. His desire to meet her is gratified.

Now Margaret, noted alike for her purity and loveliness, has been left by her brother, Valentine, under the care of Dame Martha during his absence as a soldier. Upon meeting Faust, Margaret at first rejects the advances of the stranger but the latter is aided by the demoniacal influence of Mephistopheles, who is bent upon destroying another human soul, and overcomes her resistance.

Upon his return from the wars, Valentine learns that Faust has been the cause of Margaret's downfall, and challenges him to a duel. Through the help of Mephistopheles the seducer wins in the encounter and Valentine is slain. Margaret, horror-stricken at the calamity of which she is the cause, gives way to unreasoning despair, and in a fit of frenzy kills her child. For this crime she is thrown into prison. Faust again implores the aid of Mephistopheles, who enables him to enter her prison cell and both urge her to flee for liberty. But Margaret, in whom the horror of her sin has given way to holier feelings, refuses to go, and places her reliance in repentance and prayer. At last, overcome with sorrow and remorse, the unhappy girl expires with a prayer on her lips.

Mephistopheles triumphs over the double catastrophe he has caused, but at this point a chorus of celestial voices is heard, proclaiming pardon for the repentant sinner, while the Evil Spirit, completely foiled and overcome, crouches suppliantly as the accents of divine love and forgiveness are heard, and the spirit of Margaret is wafted by angels to its heavenly home.

The opera of "Faust" is considered by many critics to be the most popular work on the modern stage, and undoubtedly it contains Gounod's best music. It has been given more than a thousand times in Paris alone. The love scenes between Faust and Margaret and the tragic prison episode show the composer's power of melody and dramatic expression, but we cannot help but feel that the portrayal of Faust is little more than that of the traditional stage lover and that he is a mere go-between in an amorous escapade. The German title of this opera-Margnaerite-seems rather more appropriate than the title by which it is generally known, for it is the dramatization of but a single episode in Goethe's powerful poem.

The name of Camile Saint-Saens is among the foremost of present-day French composers. He was most versatile and his works include chamber music, piano solos and con certos, oratorios and operas. He was not only a successful composer, one of the foremost pianists in Europe and a brilliant organist, but was also a writer of great literary merit. In elegance and finish, cleverness and clearness of touch, he is a representative artist of the French school.

The most popular of his operas is perhaps "Proserpine," a lyric drama in four acts. It is not based on the classical story that its name implies, but its scene is laid in Italy, in the sixteenth century. Proserpine is in love with Sabatino, who is quite unaware of her affection and is devoted to Angiola, sister of his friend, Renzo. When Sabatino discovers her secret, he fails to treat her with respect and she becomes furious when she learns that he loves another. In order to avenge herself she seeks aid from a ruffian named Squarocca, whom she has released when he was caught stealing in her palace.

The accomplice undertakes to seize Angiola as she is coming from a convent, and arranges for her to meet Proserpine. In the ensuing interview the latter tries to persuade her not to marry Sabatino. Angiola resists all persuasion and, as her rival is about to stab her, is rescued by her brother. Proserpine is forced to wait for her revenge till the wedding day of Sabatino and Angiola, when she turns upon the bride and stabs her with a concealed dagger. Thinking his wife dead, Sabatino then kills Proserpine; Angiola recovers and is restored to her husband.

Although certain passages of this work are delightful,'' yet in the main the musical effect has to be sacrificed to meet the demands of the plot, which is one of melodramatic absurdity.

Probably of more lasting worth is the opera, "Samson and Dalila," by the same composer. This is based upon the biblical story of these characters and closely follows the narrative found in Judges. The 'opera opens in Palestine, where Samson is trying to encourage the disheartened Hebrews. Abinelech appears with a host of Philistines, but is slain by Samson and his soldiers dispersed. When the High Priest discovers the dead body of Abinelech, he calls upon the Philistines to avenge their leader's death, but in vain.

Realizing that Samson cannot be captured by force, the priest resorts to cunning; seeking the assistance of the beautiful Dalila, he persuades her to exert her charms on his enemy, and she proves so seductive that the hero is ready to yield, despite the warnings of the Hebrews.

The second act is laid in the beautiful valley of Soreck; here the High Priest is plotting with Dalila to deliver Samson over to the Philistines by means of her wiles. After repeat edly asking Samson wherein lies his, strength, and as many times having the real answer refused her, Dalila at length succeeds in coaxing the true secret from her lover; he finally admits that his strength lies in his hair. Then soothing him to sleep, Dalila discloses her secret to her people, the Philistines, who with her help cut off his hair and put out his eyes. He is then easily captured and imprisoned.

In the third act Samson is discovered sorrowfully turning a handmill and listening to the rebukes of his fellow captives, who chide him for his weakness in yielding to a woman. The last scene shows the interior of the temple where the Philistines are rejoicing over their victory and praising Dalila for her cleverness. Samson is then led in by a youth and is hailed with derision; the blind captive remains silent, being overcome with grief. The High Priest pours out a cup of wine into which he has poured a deadly poison and commands Dalila to serve it to the victim; the latter, however, whispers to the youth to lead him to the pillars of the temple. There he prays aloud to the God of Israel to give him back his strength for just one instant. The prayer is granted and, seizing the pillars, Samson overturns them and the temple collapses amid the shrieks of the terrified Philistines.

This opera is undoubtedly the masterpiece of the composer and is intensely dramatic throughout. It contains some exquisite melodies, while the duet between Samson and Dalila is one of the finest love scenes in opera repertoire.

Charles Ambroise Thomas is one of the modern French musicians whose operas are much loved in all countries. No more charming musical drama exists than his "Mignon," based upon Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister" and first produced at the Opera-Comique November 17, 1866.

The scene of the first two acts is laid in Germany, and that of the last in Italy. The overture gives out the leading motifs of the drama, which opens with a chorus of towns people in the yard before a German inn. A troupe of actors is among them resting on their way to the castle of a neighboring prince. Their harper is an old man of noble birth whose daughter, Mignon, was stolen while a mere child by a band of gypsies. Disguised in this way the old man has wandered for years, hoping to find her in his travels. A strolling band of gypsies enters the court-yard and he again resumes his silent search. Mignon, who is indeed with them, is ordered to perform her famous egg dance, and when she refuses because she is so weary, is abused by Giarno, the leader of the band. The old harper interposes in her behalf but not until Wilhelm Meister, a young student, steps forth is she rescued from the gypsey. To save her from such cruelty, Meister engages Mignon as his page and takes her with him. He, too, is of excellent family but is traveling with this troupe of comedians for the experience he may gain and has fallen in love with one of its members-Philine, who is full of arts and graces.

Touched by his kindness to her, Mignon also falls in love with the young student, who is quite unconscious of her devotion and is becoming more and more a prey to the wiles of Philine. They journey on to the castle, the harper with them; he is reminded by Mignon of his lost daughter and she is attracted to him because his lonely state is so like her own. Arrived at the castle, Wilhelm enters with the others, bidding Mignon wait outside. This awakens bitter jealousy in her mind and she is considering drowning herself in a nearby lake, when she hears the notes of Lothario's harp. She goes to him for counsel and expresses to him the foolish wish that the palace in which the hated Philine is playing might be struck by lightning. Embittered by his own grief and her troubles, Lothario steals away and sets fire to the castle. Meanwhile the play is finished, the actors emerge and Philine orders Mignon to go back and bring some flowers she has thoughtlessly left inside. Mignon obeys and suddenly the flames leap out of the windows; Wilhelm rushes into the burning palace and brings out the unconscious girl in his arms.

The third act carries us to Italy, whither Mignon has been taken; Wilhelm has discovered her love for him in her delirium and has freed himself from the fascinations of the actress. Lothario, no longer a harper, takes them to Italy, where Mignon has so longed to return, and receives them in his palace. Gradually Mignon remembers having seen certain things about the place before, and finally recognizes her mother's picture on the wall. This removes the last shadow of doubt and Lothario, rejoiced that his daughter has come to him at last, presents her to his subjects who have gathered to greet him, and gives his blessing to Wilhelm, her chosen husband.

"Mignon" has always been a success, and by virtue of its fresh and exquisite melodies will probably retain its popularity. Among the most delightful of this composer's inspirations is the duet which, in the first act, is sung by Wilhelm and Mignon. He has questioned her as to her past history, and when he says:

"Were I to break thy chains and set thee free,

To what beloved spot wouldst thou take thy way?"

she replies in the beautiful romanza, translated directly from Goethe ;

"Knowst thou the land where citron-apples bloom, And oranges like gold in leafy gloom, A gentle wind from deep blue heaven blows, The myrtle thick, and high the laurel grows Knowst thou it then? 'Tis there! 'Tis there! O my true loved one, thou with me must go!"

George Bizet (1838-1875) was a composer of great individuality and was a most ardent devotee of the modern romantic school of music. Had not his career been cut short by his untimely death, it is quite probable that the French school would have been greatly influenced by his rare ability. His fame rests almost entirely upon the opera "Carmen," which is universally accepted as one of the most original productions on the French stage.

The story of "Carmen" is so well known that it requires but little explanation. It has of late been produced on the stage without music and is included in the repertoire of almost every stock theatrical company. This opera is distinctly Spanish in its general character; not only is the plot based upon southern passion and emotion, but its music also is Spanish to a high degree.

Carmen, the heroine, is a Spanish gypsey and is a combination of fickleness and wild charm. She naturally has many admirers but is betrothed to Don Jose, a brigadier. Of course she soon tires of him and plans a thousand ways to awaken his jealousy.

Unknown to them all, Don Jose already has a wife at home, the sweet Micaela, but forgets her in his passion for the gypsey. Micaela comes to find her husband, bringing the portrait and benediction of his mother, whom he dearly loves, but her attentions are spurned by Don Jose, who has eyes for no one but the bewitching Carmen. Meanwhile this passionate creature has quarreled with one of her companion workers in a cigarette factory and is taken to prison, but Don Jose secures her release; she promises to meet him that evening at a certain inn. The second act shows them there together, surrounded by the whole band of gypsies. Don Jose is so infatuated with Carmen's charms that he is willing to become one of them, although he knows they are smugglers and he is an officer of the law. He even engages in a dangerous enterprise with them to show his sincerity, but the gypsey no sooner sees that he will relinquish honor and life itself for her than she begins to be wearied by his attentions; she transfers her affections to a bull-fighter by the name of Escamillo, who is as passionate as herself. In the quarrel between the rivals, Escamillo's knife is broken and he is about to be killed by Don Jose when Carmen rushes in and stays his arm. Now realizing her treachery, Don Jose desires only revenge.

Meanwhile Micaela follows him everywhere, still loving him and often entreating him to return to his dying mother, who grieves for her absent son. At last he consents to go back with her, but still promises himself bloody revenge on his rival. The last act carries us to Madrid, where there is to be a bull-fight with Escamillo as the principal contestant for honors. Don Jose goes to the field of contest, hoping to win back the love of Carmen ; he finds her and, kneeling at her feet, vows never to forsake her and even to go back to her people, but the fearless Carmen declares her infatuation for the bull-fighter. Fairly crazed with love and jealousy, Jose attempts to take her by force, but she escapes from him, throwing the ring he has given her at his feet. In a perfect fury of grief, he overtakes her just as the trumpets announce Escamillo's victory, and stabs her through the heart.

Conspicuous among composers of French opera today is Jules Massenet. A composer of great refinement and good taste, Massenet well deserves the popularity he has won. He is especially noted for his skill in portraying love scenes, and as a melodist may be compared with Gounod. His opera, "Manon," adapted from Abbe Prevost's romance, Manon Lescaut, is ranked as one of the best exhibited on the French stage today.

The action takes place in the year 1721, first in an inn at Amiens. There Guillot, Minister of Finance, is making merry with a party of friends when Marion, a beautiful adventuress, enters with her cousin, Lescaut, of the Royal Guards. Guillot is at once attracted by Marion's beauty and, deserting his companions, tries to entice her to leave with him, but she refuses and he is obliged to withdraw.

Next Lescaut is forced to go away on a short business trip and warns his cousin against the advances of Guillot; during his absence the Chevalier Des Grieux comes to the inn, and although about to take orders in the church, falls in love with Marion on account of her beauty and seeming innocence. He becomes so infatuated with her that he consents to her plan of eloping to Paris, where in the second act they are established in cozy apartments. Here they are discovered by the irate Lescaut and his friend De Bretigny, a nobleman, and also in love with Marion. They become partially pacified on learning that Des Grieux has written to his father for consent to marry, but when this consent is refused they have Des Grieux seized and imprisoned.

The third act shows the fete of Cours la Reizie, where De Bretigny has assumed the protection of Marion. Together they chance to meet the father of Des Grieux and learn from him that his son has been seized with remorse for his conduct and has taken the orders of priest. Hearing this, all her former love returns and Marion flees from De Bretigny and goes back to seek her lover. Once more under her influence, Des Grieux forgets his vows and succumbs to her entreaties to forsake his holy office. Together they return to the gay world and the next act reveals them in the interior of a fashionable gambling resort in Paris. Des Grieux plays, at Marion's request, and wins continuously from Guillot, who unjustly says that cheating was the cause of such success. Trouble follows and Des Grieux and Manon are both on the verge of arrest when the former's father appears and secures his release, but Marion is captured and sentenced to exile.

In the last act both Des Grieux and Lescaut are concealed in a lonely spot along the road where Marion is to pass on her way to exile. The unhappy lover bribes her guard to let him interview her for the last time; he secretly urges her to try and escape with him. But Marion's spirit is utterly broken and exhausted by the nervous strain; she repents of her misspent life and expires in the arms of her grief-stricken lover.

The condition of the French operatic stage today promises much for the future. There is a strong "nationality" in the music that is a wholesome sign of advancement; to be sure, this desire to express individuality often leads to bizarre effects, but always with the avowed purpose of bringing music into closer union with literature.

A noticeable characteristic in the history of modern French music is the breadth of range in its compositions. Formerly a composer could not become renowned until he had produced at least one successful opera, but today many writers of musical drama have gained their fame through concert music. This tendency exercises a favorable influence upon operatic music, for it indirectly demands that a dramatic composer shall first be a master of musical science. This required study in turn affects all forms of composition-especially the art of orchestration, which in itself can make or ruin an opera.

It is impossible to forecast the future of the modern French school of music. Those who wish to follow its greatest progress must look to its instrumental forms rather than its dramatic, for in the former lies the greatest hope of the national music of France.

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