In David Cairns’ two-volume biography of Hector Berlioz, he devotes a great deal of space in the first volume to Berlioz’ first composition teacher, Jean-François Le Sueur (1760-1837), an exact contemporary of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) who became his second. And what he has to say about Le Sueur is quite remarkable, that despite his exalted position at the Académie des Beaux Arts he was not only willing to take on occasional private pupils like Berlioz who showed great promise (due to the bitter, ongoing feud with his father over his choice of career, Berlioz was not given money to study at the Conservatoire or the Académie) but also guided them in the basics of composition without interfering with their own evolving, individual style.
Of course, part of the reason for Le Sueur’s sympathy for his young charge was that both of them were rabid fans of Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-1787), the stubborn pioneer of dramatic opera who came to reject the florid nonsense of the Baroque era in favor of a plainer vocal line and, more importantly, an astonishing revamping of orchestral writing to reflect the ongoing drama with surging brass and string passages formerly unknown in the music world. Le Sueur delighted young Berlioz when he told him of the one time he actually saw Gluck walking the streets of Paris. He did not immediately recognize him, having never seen him in person before, but was struck by his strong presence and self-absorbed manner. Typically, as soon as someone else did recognize him, Gluck turned away and hastily left. The bystander who spotted him told Le Sueur who it was, and thus the incident stayed in his memory.
Le Sueur also understood the challenges that young Berlioz was facing in starting up a music career out of nothing. He himself had done the same thing, starting out as a chorister in the college church of Abbeville and then at the Cathedral of Amiens where he studied music. Because of this background, he fell into composing religious music: masses, oratorios, prayers etc. When he decided to turn his attentions to opera, he was rebuffed. Everyone pegged him as solely a writer of religious music, and assumed that he would have no feeling for dramatic music. But they were wrong. After spending four years in London (1788-92), he returned to Paris where he was able to have three straight operas, all of them successes, produced at the Théâtre Feydeau: Le Caverne, ou le repentir (1793), Paul et Virginie, ou le Triomphe le Virtu (1794) and the classical Télémaque dans l’Ile de Calypso (1796). Cherubini became a supporter and then a colleague. Le Sueur was appointed professor at the Ecole de la Garde Nationale in 1793 and then named inspecteur at the newly-formed Conservatoire. Unfortunately, due to the presence at the latter institution of the more famous and powerful Etienne-Nicholas Méhul, François-Joseph Gossec and Charles Simon Catel (all fine composers themselves), Le Sueur was limited to teaching elementary musical principles and solfège.
Despite the success of his first three operas, Le Sueur was unable to get his operas Ossian, ou Les Bardes and La mort d’Adam produced in Paris. In anger, he wrote a violent pamphlet titled Projet d’un plan général de l’instruction musicale en France in which he attacked the Conservatoire, its methods and its director. This led to his being fired in September 1802.
Reduced to poverty, he came into a great stroke of luck when Napoleon heard one of his operas, congratulated him personally, and made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. In gratitude, Le Sueur composed a Triumphal March for Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor. His good name restored, Le Sueur was eventually appointed to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, replacing André Grétry, who had just died, at the end of 1813.
Due to all these events, plus his own considerable talent, Le Sueur was able to cautiously advise and guide young Berlioz into a musical career while still warning him of the kind of obstacles he would face in trying to establish himself as an independent composer. I refer the reader to Cairns’ excellent book for further details of the Le Sueur-Berlioz relationship. Later on, before his death, Le Sueur also taught two other French composers of renown, Charles Gounod and Ambroise Thomas.
But—and this is the crux of this article—what of Le Sueur’s own music? Unfortunately, the only complete CD I’ve been able to track down is the one of his Coronation Oratorios conducted by Christoph Spering on the Naïve label. Though solidly written, they are old-fashioned and somewhat pompous. There is, however, a performance of the motet Unxerunt Salomonen, performed as one of several pieces by various composers, at Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor, conducted by Vladimir Tchernouchenko. You can find it here. This music is considerably interesting; the opening theme bears a surprising resemblance to that of Didon’s aria in the last act of Les Troyens, “Cher Tyriens,” and one can easily hear that Le Sueur, like Berlioz, was a master of using “space” to make his music resonate. We can also hear a powerful performance of Rolando’s aria from his first opera, La Caverne, sung by baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot and the period orchestra Les Agrément by clicking here. This time there is no resemblance to Berlioz, yet the aria is powerful and moving, quite unlike the neatly ordered music of the bel canto composers. It sounds like a cross between Gluck and Spontini.
There is, however, a complete performance of Le Sueur’s second opera, a live radio broadcast of a concert performance of Paul et Virginie conducted by Hervé Niquet. It is available on CDs from House of Opera here, but also available for free streaming on YouTube.
To modern American ears, one drawback of the opera is that it has way too much spoken narration and dialogue in French, which means nothing to us and, frankly, disrupts the musical flow. Yet it is obvious that Le Sueur was a disciple of Gluck: the music bristles with the same energy, the same strophic arias and duets, similar scale passages and chromatic movement in the orchestral writing and a very dramatic forward momentum that sweeps the listener up in its very energy. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, one also hears pre-echoes of Berlioz in its writing: the biting strings and winds, the repeated notes in one of the choral passages near the beginning (about seven minutes in) which immediately reminded me of the chorus in the funeral section of Berlioz’ Romeo et Juliette, and occasional orchestral swells (crescendos) allied to a driving rhythm. All in all, this opera could very easily be confused as being a formerly unknown work by Gluck, even more so than the operas of Cherubini who also modeled himself on the earlier composer.
This is no small achievement, particularly for a 34-year-old composer who until recently had only been known for his religious music. The only odd element, to our ears nowadays, is that the role of Paul is assigned to a haute-contre, a very specific kind of high tenor, almost what we would today call a tenorino. The voice of a haute-contre is placed very high in the masque—not falsetto, like a modern-day countertenor, but in a natural head tone. This kind of singer was quite familiar to French audiences of the 1780s and ‘90s, but nowadays it is rare simply because very little music calls for it and it sounds somewhat effete. In Niquet’s concert performance, Paul is sung by François-Nicolas Geslot. He is indeed a haute-contre and a pretty good one (after a somewhat infirm entrance, he warms up and is steady throughout), but like most of his breed the voice has an odd nasal quality that does not always translate to non-Gallic tastes. It takes some getting used to. The rest of the cast is superb in every way.
Yet I daresay that you will become captivated by Le Sueur’s music; it is inventive, exciting and engaging. I would prefer listening to an opera like this than the majority of Rossini’s and Donizetti’s bel canto claptrap with all of its coloratura fiorature and nonsensical ornaments: sound and fury signifying nothing. If you simply reduce the spoken dialogue somewhat, you’ll find that Paul et Virginie plays very well and holds your attention from start to finish. Granted, it is a Gluck clone and not an advancement on Gluck, as the operas of Spontini and Berlioz were, but I really enjoyed it. It has vitality and quite a bit of originality within the Gluckian style.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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