In the old days French opera was based on declamation and it was scrupulously respected even in the arias. There is a fine example of this excellent system in Lully’s famous aria from Medusa to prove what strength results from a close relation between the accent of the verse and the music. Gluck was one of the most fervent disciples of this system, but Orphee, as we know, was derived from Orfeo. The question was whether he could even think of suppressing this spectacular chorus with its amazing strength which was one of the principal reasons for the work’s success. Unfortunately the music of the chorus was moulded on the Italian text, and each verse ended with the accent on the antepenult, which occurs frequently in German and Italian, but never in French. And they sing:
Quel est l’auDAcieux
Qui dans ces SOMbres lieux
Ose porTER ses pas
Et devant LE trepas
Ne fremit pas?
As French is not strongly accented such faults are tolerated. Gluck’s theme impressed itself on the memory, so that he dealt a terrific blow to the purity of prosody. We gradually became so disinterested in this that by Auber’s time scarcely any attention was paid to it. Finally, Offenbach appeared. He was a German by birth and his musical ideas naturally rhymed with German in direct contradiction to the French words to which they applied. This constant bungling passed for originality. Sometimes it would have been necessary to change the division of a measure to get a correct melody, as in the song:
Un p’tit bonhomme
Pas plus haut qu’ca.
In such a case we might say that he did wrong for the mere pleasure of going astray. But popular taste was so corrupted that no one noticed it and everybody who wrote in the lighter vein fell into the same habits.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Andre Messager for breaking away from this manner and setting musical phraseology aright. His return to the old traditions was not the least of the attractions of his delightful Veronique.
But we are wandering far from Gluck and Orphee, although not so far as we might think. In art, as in everything, extremes meet, and there are all kinds of tastes.
Felix Duquesnal in one of his brilliant articles has written something about Delsarte, the singer, in connection with his controversy with Madame Carvalho. The cause of this controversy was the lessons she took from him. The name of Delsarte should never be forgotten, as I shall try to explain. Madame Carvalho did not refuse to pay Delsarte for her lessons, but she did not want to be called his pupil. Although she had attended the Conservatoire, she wanted to be known solely as a pupil of Duprez. As a matter of fact it was Duprez who knew how to make the “Little Miolan,” the delightful warbler, into the great singer with her important place on the French stage.