The Ghetto drowned in the wake of the Marseillaise.
Napoleon’s conquering armies marched through European capitals, and ancient hierarchies crumbled to the tune of “Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité.” Tumbling bricks followed rolling heads, and the Ghetto wall that had separated Jew from Gentile collapsed to dust.
What followed in this dissolution of barriers? Priests no longer held the keys to heaven. Kings no longer claimed divine right. Panniers yielded to shifts as corsets unlaced, and powdered white wigs to unruly locks gave way. Culottes to trousers morphed and men wore heels no more. Romantic and Classic wed in the wake of the Marseillaise, and from this union a new vision of art was born, a two-headed nursling over whom Dionysus and Apollo would continue to do battle throughout the coming century.
Ingres or Delacroix? Austen or Byron? Restoration or Revolution? It was the arrogance of conquerors which told them that they alone had the answer and that they in their righteousness would spread it to the world. But the truth is always more complicated, for the war between the Apollonian sangfroid and Dionysian hot blood is an eternal one, taking a new form in every age. Just as Florentine Disegno vs. Venetian Colore shaped the late cinquecento, David vs. Gericault opened the 1800’s, and the pendulum of the twentieth century swung only with greater velocity between Pollock’s splatters and Warhol’s soup cans.
It is always the revolutionary who thinks that he alone, and for the first time ever, has the solution that stops the pendulum. But revolutions have a way of eating their own.
For a few decades following the mass democratization that swept across Europe, it seemed the change might be permanent and the Ancien Régime might be gone forever. But just as the monarchies returned, the refreshingly simple songs of the early 19th century evolved into weighty leitmotifs by its end, and the Age of Emancipation, as it is known in Jewish history, rode the arc to its tragic expiration date.
Bourgeois citizens rose to fill the void left by aristocrats both dead and exiled, and homes required a new form of entertainment for those not acquainted with the finely tuned delicacy and oblique references of the aristocratic ridotto. The lute became a relic and the guitar became the instrument of choice, particularly in France, where “guitaromanie” became all the rage, quickly spreading to other countries. Guitarists who had previously served aristocratic amateurs in private settings enjoyed a newfound prestige as virtuosi performers, composers, and teachers, and composition for the guitar enjoyed an explosion of activity unequaled before or since.
The solo repertoire stayed with us, remaining at the forefront of the guitarist’s arsenal up through our own time. In contrast, the songs, compact Italian bel canto jewels, French romances, and lilting Spanish seguidillas suffered a different fate, as the piano supplanted the guitar and the German lied eclipsed this unusually rich body of repertoire forevermore. The songs from these few, post-Napoleonic decades went under the radar, emerging surreptitiously in the grand operas later in the century.
Who would imagine that Carmen’s famous come hither aria and Ravel’s Bolero are the last stops on the seguidilla’s journey from popular folk form to operatic and orchestral bombast? Who thinks about the humble Neapolitan origins of expansive bel canto displays, or even the possibility that the offstage aria that Tosca sings in Act II of her eponymous opera is an oblique quote by her composer of his grandfather’s music?
Does it occur to us that the text of Il va venir, an aria from Halévy’s La Juive, (The Jewess), written by an assimilated French Jewish composer, not only serves as a bit of plot exposition, but, perhaps inadvertently and unconsciously, outlines two theological aspects of Judaism, the “He will arrive” of the title text referring not simply to the heroine’s gentile beau, but the angel Elijah of the Passover story and the Messiah himself, who has yet to make an appearance on earth for the first time?
Napoleon, imagining himself as something akin to a Messiah, and revered as one in many Jewish communities because of his emancipatory reforms, was blessed with no musical talent whatsoever. He was a great lover of music, attracted commentary for his musical views, and held a special place in his heart for Italian repertoire, particularly opera. As early as 1791, he wrote:
“For every age and in every situation, music consoles, pleases, disturbs delightfully… We should not therefore proscribe music: it is the man of feeling's tender companion, it inspires his emotions. It increases the number of his enjoyments, and as he savours all the minute details of the charming melody, he is more deeply affected by the delights of the emotion…”
A friend wrote about him thusly
“Napoleon's voice was most unmusical, nor do I think he had any ear for music; for neither on this occasion, nor in any of his subsequent attempts at singing, could I ever discover what tune it was he was executing.”
And another commented
“He expressed a great dislike to French music, which, he said, was almost as bad as the English, and that the Italians were the only people who could produce an opera.”
So it is with Italians that we open our program, beginning with the Neapolitan Domenico Cimarosa. Born in 1749, he was often referred to as “the Italian Mozart.” Lievi aurette ascoltate implores the breezes to echo the poet’s sentiments to a lover, and to prevent any deception from changing their affection. Cimarosa wrote opera roles for the next composer on our program, the great castrato Girolamo Crescentini (1766– 1846). Napoleon had banned castrati from both stage and church throughout France until he heard Crescentini, who came to be called “Napoleon’s favorite castrato.” Following a stellar career, Crescentini retired to composing, teaching, and treatise writing. His Languir d’amore was probably written for Giuseppina Grassini, his student, and one of the greatest singers of the day.
Grassini was also a dedicatee of a song cycle by Ferdinando Carulli, another Neapolitan and one of the most brilliant guitarists and guitar composers of the period. Another triple threat composer-teacher-performer, his songs are dwarfed by his output for guitar, but no less wonderful. Carulli’s Tornate sereni, with its text expressing the sighs of a faithful lover, was written for Grassini, information that is not only interesting but ironic, if one takes into account that of her many lovers, one was Napoleon and the other was his archenemy the Duke of Wellington.
Napoleon’s sister Elisa was the patron and lover of Niccolo Paganini, one of the most celebrated violin virtuosos in history. Less well known is that he was also a composer and guitarist. It was around the time of the French invasion of Northern Italy that the young Paganini began his fascination with the guitar, which he played in private salon evenings rather than public concerts throughout the rest of his life, describing the guitar as his “constant companion” on concert tours. His travels would bring him in contact with the great guitarists and composers Carulli in Paris and Giuliani in Vienna, but even these encounters did not change his determination to keep his guitar composition and performing private.
As a composer, Charles Doisy was not in the same league as Giuliani, Carulli, or Paganini, but he was an important presence in the French guitar world between 1797 and 1807. He was a composer, professor, performer, arranger, editor, and merchant of musical scores, and it is thanks to his teaching method, Principes de la guitare (1801) that he remained known to future generations. A key figure in the popularization of music for domestic guitar performance, he regularly contributed arrangements and original compositions to the periodical La Récreation des Muses, which had a wide circulation throughout Paris, a testament to the level of musical literacy at the time. Among his arrangements were selections from the popular operas and oratorios of the day, among which was an aria from the opera Les Deux Journées by the Florentine-turned-Parisian Luigi Cherubini.
Like Jean-Baptise Lully (né Giovanni Battista Lulli) before him, Cherubini was one of several Italians and a handful of Florentines who took up residence and flourished in the French capital. Les Deux Journées had been premiered at the Théâtre Feydeau of the Opéra Comique in 1800, and exhibits the typical French taste for simple melodies that goes back to Rameau. The Neo-Classicism of the post-Revolutionary period provided fertile ground for the genre of the romance, which eschewed virtuosity in favor of a directness of expression and integrity of melody. Doisy composed books of such romances himself, one of which is the charming L’amour chassé par l’hymen, and arranged many others, such as L’Amour, from an opera by the harpist Jean-François Nadermann.
The French taste for simplicity is perhaps best explained by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, defining the genre of the romance in the Dictionary of Music (here in a 1779 English translation by William Waring), wrote thusly:
“As the romance should be written in a simple touching style, and a rather antique taste, the air ought to answer to the character of the words: No ornaments; a sweet, natural, rural melody, which may produce its effect by itself, independently of the method of singing it. It is not necessary that the air should be striking; it is sufficient that it is lively, that it does not overshadow the words, that it makes them very clearly be heard…For the air of a romance, we require only a just, clear voice, which pronounces well and sings with simplicity.”
It is easy to see how a selection from Haydn’s Creation made it into La Récreation des Muses. As an apogee of Classicism, the work describes the origin of the world with settings of Enlightenment texts, including Milton’s Paradise Lost. The Hommage a L’Éternel proceeds with stately grace, devoid of ornament. Arranged by Doisy for guitar and in French translation, it made for a fitting dissemination of Enlightenment ideals into the domestic sphere.
The Spaniard Fernando Sor, unlike most of his countrymen, was eager to spread these ideals as well, and as a covert sympathizer with the Napoleonic cause, soon found himself labeled a traitorous afrancesado, or Napoleon sympathizer. Hailing from a long line of military professionals, he abandoned his own military career and moved to Paris to devote his life wholeheartedly to music. A protean composer and one of the great guitar virtuosos of the 19th century, his career took him to London and Moscow as well as the French capital, where he composed patriotic songs, operas, cantatas, and ballets, in addition to his works for solo guitar.
Of his prolific compositions for voice, probably the best known are the seguidillas, despite the fact that they were first set in a modern edition only a few decades ago. The seguidilla derives from humble origins, a dance form that was also referred to as a bolero, with settings of short poems that trace their lineage back to the court poems of the Spanish Renaissance. With the French invasion of Spain in 1808, the form was appropriated by the French and adapted to ever grander settings, until we have the famous aria from Bizet’s Carmen and the Bolero of Ravel.
Sor’s seguidillas betray no such grandiosity. They are miniatures, with some satirical and comic texts among the more traditional laments of the lovelorn. Some are acute observations of banal details, like a girl fighting with her mother, others mock religiosity with parodies of funeral anthems that end up in commentaries on priests who have children. The seguidillas offer Sor as a musical Goya, a composer version of his painter countryman, whose portraits stealthily satirized their royal subjects without their awareness, and whose etchings decried the evils of war.
Napoleon’s sister Elisa, she of the affair with Paganini, founded the Capella di Camera, which was directed from 1806 – 1809 by a composer by the name of Puccini. Domenico Maria Puccini, native of Lucca, studied composition in Naples with Paisello, and later became a highly regarded composer of opera, as well as sacred and vocal chamber music. He embraced a simple and theatrical style, as his Sei Canzonette demonstrate, and was an unabashed supporter of Bonaparte, which may explain his premature death at the age of 43 under mysterious circumstances. His grandson’s opera Tosca, with its Bonaparte-ist hero Cavaradossi destined for assassination, appears in a new light given the political intrigues of the grandfather.
Like Paganini, Mauro Giuliani was a protean virtuoso. His first instrument was the cello, but as a guitarist, he quickly established himself as one of the greatest that had ever lived. He met and greatly admired Giaochino Rossini, whom he honored in six sets of Rossiniane, which were variations on themes from various operas. The first Rossiniana collection, Opus 119, contains variations on the aria Assisa a pié d’un salice from the composer’s opera Otello. Featuring three coloratura tenors and virtually uncast able today, the opera is a far cry from Verdi’s treatment of the same story, which adheres much more faithfully to Shakespeare’s tragedy. Rossini was in fact, not aquainted with the play, and adapted his version of the opera from a French retelling of the story, which is why it is almost unrecognizable. Desdemona’s last act aria and prayer, Assisa a pié d’un salice, however, perfectly captures her purity, anxiety, and acceptance of fate that delineates her character.
Many of the favorite arias of the day were arranged for guitar accompaniment almost as soon as they were premiered. In this concert, the arrangement of Il va venir from La Juive comes to us from an original edition arranged by P. Nachet. An unease characterizes the aria from Fromental Halévy’s 1835 opera. Taking place in Switzerland in 1414, the work addresses issues of inter-religious love, anti-Semitism, and intolerance with striking candor. In this aria, Rachel, daughter of the title character, expresses her anxiety over the impending appearance of Samuel, a young Jewish man with whom she is in love, but turns out to be a Gentile in disguise.
Rachel sings He will come! and with fright I feel myself shudder. My soul, alas, is oppressed. My heart beats, but no pleasure ... And yet, he will come! The night and the silence, the storm coming increase my terror. The fear, the distrust take hold of my heart! Every step makes me flinch! I was able to deceive the eyes of a father, but my not those of a severe God. Yes, I must, yes I want to run away. And yet, he will come! Apart from a simple turn of plot, is it is possible that the Jewish Halévy unconsciously layered additional levels of meaning in this alarmingly portentous text? One can read in “He will come” the anticipation of the Messiah that girds Jewish belief, and in the context of a Passover Seder, during which this aria takes place, the hope for Elijah’s visit, a part of the Passover ritual which includes leaving the door ajar for him. As readers with historical hindsight, do we not see what’s coming ourselves, and tremble with the knowledge of what became of French Jewry at the end of Emancipation’s arc? With our knowledge of the subsequent curtailment of Napoleon’s extraordinary reforms guaranteeing racial tolerance, does distrust not take hold of our hearts at the impermanence of change? Do we not wish too that all could have run away? Asked in 1816 by his personal physician why he had been so supportive of the Jewish people, Napoleon answered:
"My primary desire was to liberate the Jews and make them full citizens. I wanted to confer upon them all the legal rights of equality, liberty and fraternity as was enjoyed by the Catholics and Protestants. It is my wish that the Jews be treated like brothers as if we were all part of Judaism. As an added benefit, I thought that this would bring to France many riches because the Jews are numerous and they would come in large numbers to our country where they would enjoy more privileges than in any other nation. Without the events of 1814, most of the Jews of Europe would have come to France where equality, fraternity and liberty awaited them and where they can serve the country like everyone else."
Almost all of European leadership was resistant to Bonaparte’s legal changes in favor of tolerance, and when he was defeated, the Bourbon restoration and a reactionary impulse led to an inexorable slide to the indignities of the Dreyfus affair and the horrors that followed.
Just as Lincoln’s assassination has left Americans with a lingering “what if” regarding the unfulfilled promise of Reconstruction to right the wrongs of slavery, we are left in the 21st century to contemplate with wonder an alternate European history that might have been, had the Wake of the Marseillaise continued to flow.
– Jessica Gould