Étienne Méhul

Last updated
Étienne Méhul
Mehul by Winter.jpg
Étienne Méhul, by H.E. von Winter
Born(1763-06-22)22 June 1763
Givet, France
Died18 October 1817(1817-10-18) (aged 54)
Paris, France

Étienne Nicolas Méhul (French:  [meyl] ; 22 June 1763 18 October 1817) was a French composer, "the most important opera composer in France during the Revolution". [1] He was also the first composer to be called a "Romantic". [2]



Mehul in 1799, portrait by Antoine Gros. Etienne-Henri Mehul, attribue a Antoine Gros - paris(dot)fr.jpg
Méhul in 1799, portrait by Antoine Gros.
His grave in Paris PL Mehul 2.jpg
His grave in Paris

Méhul was born at Givet in Ardennes to Jean-François Méhul, a wine merchant, and his wife Marie-Cécile (née Keuly). His first music lessons came from a blind local organist, but he had innate aptitude and was sent to study with a German musician and organist, Wilhelm Hanser  [ de ], at the monastery of Lavaldieu, a few miles from Givet. Here Méhul developed his lifelong love of flowers. [3]

In 1778 or 1779 he went to Paris and began to study with Jean-Frédéric Edelmann, a harpsichord player and friend of Méhul's idol Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Méhul's first published composition was a book of piano pieces in 1783. He also arranged airs from popular operas and by the late 1780s he had begun to think about an operatic career for himself.

In 1787, the writer Valadier offered Méhul one of his libretti, Cora , which had been rejected by Gluck in 1785. [4] The Académie royale de musique (the Paris Opéra) put Méhul's work, under the title Alonzo et Cora, into rehearsal in June 1789. However, the rehearsals were abandoned on 8 August, probably because the Opéra had been suffering severe financial difficulties throughout the 1780s, and the opera was not premiered until 1791. [5] In the meantime, Méhul found an ideal collaborator in the librettist François-Benoît Hoffman, who provided the words to the first of Méhul's operas to be performed, Euphrosine . Its premiere in 1790 was an immense success and marked the composer out as a new talent. It was also the start of his long relationship with the Comédie Italienne theatre (soon to be renamed the Opéra-Comique).

In spite of the failure of Cora in 1791 and the banning of Adrien for political reasons the year after that, Méhul consolidated his reputation with works such as Stratonice and Mélidore et Phrosine . During the French Revolution, Méhul composed many patriotic songs and propaganda pieces, the most famous of which is the Chant du départ . Méhul was rewarded by becoming the first composer named to the newly founded Institut de France in 1795. He also held a post as one of the five inspectors of the Conservatoire de Paris. Mehul was on friendly terms with Napoleon and became one of the first Frenchmen to receive the Légion d'honneur.

Méhul's operatic success was not as great in the first decade of the nineteenth century as it had been in the 1790s, although works such as Joseph (1807) became famous abroad, particularly in Germany. The failure of his opera Les amazones in 1811 was a severe blow and virtually ended his career as a composer for the theatre. Despite his friendship with Napoleon, Méhul's public standing survived the transition to the Bourbon Restoration intact. However, the composer was now seriously ill with tuberculosis and he died on 18 October 1817. [6] His grave is at Père Lachaise Cemetery, near the grave of the composer François Joseph Gossec.

In 1797 Méhul adopted his seven-year-old nephew, composer Joseph Daussoigne-Méhul, and his younger brother. He played a major role in his nephew's musical education and career; counting him among his pupils at the Conservatoire de Paris. After his death, Daussoigne-Méhul completed his unfinished opera Valentine de Milan which premiered at the Opéra-Comique in 1822. He also wrote new recitatives for his opera Stratonice in 1821 for a revival of that work in Paris. [7]



Méhul's most important contribution to music was his operas. He led the generation of composers who emerged in France in the 1790s, which included his friend and rival Luigi Cherubini and his outright enemy Jean-François Le Sueur. Méhul followed the example of the operas which Gluck had written for Paris in the 1770s and applied Gluck's "reforms" to opéra comique (a genre which mixed music with spoken dialogue and was not necessarily at all "comic" in mood). But he pushed music in a more Romantic direction, showing an increased use of dissonance and an interest in psychological states such as anger and jealousy, thus foreshadowing later Romantic composers such as Weber and Berlioz. Indeed, Méhul was the very first composer to be styled a Romantic; a critic used the term in La chronique de Paris on 1 April 1793 when reviewing Méhul's Le jeune sage et le vieux fou . [8]

Méhul's main musical concern was that everything should serve to increase the dramatic impact. As his admirer Berlioz wrote:

[Méhul] was fully convinced that in truly dramatic music, when the importance of the situation deserves the sacrifice, the composer should not hesitate as between a pretty musical effect that is foreign to the scenic or dramatic character, and a series of accents that are true but do not yield any surface pleasure. He was convinced that musical expressiveness is a lovely flower, delicate and rare, of exquisite fragrance, which does not bloom without culture, and which a breath can wither; that it does not dwell in melody alone, but that everything concurs either to create or destroy it – melody, harmony, modulation, rhythm, instrumentation, the choice of deep or high registers for the voices or instruments, a quick or slow tempo, and the several degrees of volume in the sound emitted. [9]

One way in which Méhul increased dramatic expressivity was to experiment with orchestration. For example, in Uthal , an opera set in the Highlands of Scotland, he eliminated violins from the orchestra, replacing them with the darker sounds of violas in order to add local colour. [10] Méhul's La chasse du jeune Henri (Young Henri's Hunt) provides a more humorous example, with its expanded horn section portraying yelping hounds as well as giving hunting calls. (Sir Thomas Beecham frequently programmed this piece to showcase the Royal Philharmonic horn section.)

Méhul's key works of the 1790s were Euphrosine , Stratonice , Mélidore et Phrosine and Ariodant. [11] Ariodant, though a failure at its premiere in 1799, has come in for particular praise from critics. Elizabeth Bartlet calls it "Mehul's best work of the decade and a highpoint of Revolutionary opera". [12] It deals with the same tale of passion and jealousy as Handel's 1735 opera Ariodante . As in many of his other operas, Mehul makes use of a structural device called the "reminiscence motif", a musical theme associated with a particular character or idea in the opera. This device looks forward to the leitmotifs in Richard Wagner's music dramas. In Ariodant, the reminiscence motif is the cri de fureur ("cry of fury"), expressing the emotion of jealousy. [12]

Around 1800, the popularity of such stormy dramas began to wane, replaced by a fashion for the lighter opéra comiques of composers such as François-Adrien Boieldieu. In addition, Mehul's friend Napoleon told him he preferred a more comic style of opera. As a Corsican, Napoleon's cultural background was Italian, and he loved the opera buffa of composers like Paisiello and Cimarosa. Méhul responded with L'irato ("The Angry Man"), a one-act comedy premiered as the work of the Italian composer "Fiorelli" in 1801. When it became an immediate success, Méhul revealed the hoax he had played. [13] Méhul also continued to compose works in a more serious vein. Joseph , based on the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, is the most famous of these later operas, but its success in France was short-lived. In Germany, however, it won many admirers throughout the nineteenth century, including Wagner. [14] A melody from Joseph is very similar to a popular folk melody widely known in Germany which was used as a song in the Imperial German Navy, and adapted, notoriously, as the tune for the co-national anthem of Nazi Germany, the Horst-Wessel-Lied . It is unclear, however, whether Méhul's melody was the actual provenance of the melody. [15]

Symphonies and other works

Besides operas, Méhul composed a number of songs for the festivals of the republic (often commissioned by the emperor Napoleon), cantatas, and five symphonies in the years 1797 and 1808 to 1810.

Mehul's First Symphony (1808) is notable for its dissonant and violent mood, and has been compared to Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, written in the same year. Taking inspiration from the more anguished works of Haydn and Mozart, such as Haydn's Sturm und Drang and later Paris Symphonies of 1785–86 and Mozart's Symphony No. 40 (K. 550, 1788), it was revived in one of Felix Mendelssohn's concerts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1838 and 1846 to an audience including Robert Schumann, who was impressed by the piece. [16] (At the time of writing, only Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 [1799/1800 and 1802] had been performed in France.) His other symphonies also followed German and Austrian models. Commenting after the premiere of his first symphony, he noted: "I understood all the dangers of my enterprise; I foresaw the cautious welcome that the music-lovers would give my symphonies. I plan to write new ones for next winter and shall try to write them… to accustom the public gradually to think that a Frenchman may follow Haydn and Mozart at a distance."

A fifth symphony was never completed—"as disillusionment and tuberculosis took their toll", in the words of David Charlton. The Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 were only rediscovered by Charlton in 1979. Interviewed 8 November 2010 on the on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Professor Charlton said that Méhul's 4th Symphony was the first ever to employ the cyclical principle.

List of works


For piano

Orchestral music

Vocal music


Incidental music for plays


Related Research Articles

Opéra comique is a genre of French opera that contains spoken dialogue and arias. It emerged from the popular opéras comiques en vaudevilles of the Fair Theatres of St Germain and St Laurent, which combined existing popular tunes with spoken sections. Associated with the Paris theatre of the same name, opéra comique is not necessarily comical or shallow in nature; Carmen, perhaps the most famous opéra comique, is a tragedy.

François-Benoît Hoffman was a French playwright and critic, best known today for his operatic librettos, including those set to music by Étienne Méhul and Luigi Cherubini.

<i>Stratonice</i> (opera) opera by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul

Stratonice is a one-act opéra comique by Étienne Méhul to a libretto by François-Benoît Hoffman, first performed at the Théâtre Favart, Paris, on 3 May 1792. The plot is taken from De Dea Syria concerning an incident from the history of the Seleucid dynasty which ruled much of the Middle East during the Hellenistic era of the ancient world.

<i>Ariodant</i> opera

Ariodant is an opéra comique in three acts by the French composer Étienne Méhul first performed at the Théâtre Favart in Paris on 11 October 1799. The libretto, by François-Benoît Hoffman is based on the same episode in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso that also inspired Handel's opera Ariodante. The work had a profound influence on the development of Romantic opera, particularly in Germany.

Charles-Simon Catel French composer and educator

Charles-Simon Catel was a French composer and educator born at L'Aigle, Orne.

<i>Joseph</i> (opera) opera by Étienne-Nicolas Méhul

Joseph is an opéra comique in three acts by the French composer Étienne Méhul. The libretto, by Alexandre Duval, is based on the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. The work was first performed by the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 17 February 1807 at the Théâtre Feydeau. It mixes musical numbers with spoken dialogue and is described in both the libretto and the printed announcement for the opening night as a "drame en trois actes, mêlé de chant", although the Méhul scholar Elizabeth Bartlet catalogues it as an "opéra en prose".

Adolphe-Abraham Samuel was a Belgian music critic, conductor and composer.

Joseph Daussoigne-Méhul French composer

Joseph Daussoigne-Méhul was a French composer and music educator. He served as the first director of the Royal Conservatory of Liège from 1826–1862; having been appointed to that post by William I of the Netherlands. In addition to his duties as director, he also taught courses in harmony and composition at the school. Among his notable pupils were Adolphe Samuel, César Franck, and Jean-Théodore Radoux, the latter of whom succeeded him as conservatory director. In 1859, he was made a Commander of the Order of Leopold.

<i>Mélidore et Phrosine</i> opera by Étienne Méhul

Mélidore et Phrosine is an opera by the French composer Étienne Méhul. It takes the form of a drame lyrique in three acts. The libretto, by Antoine Vincent Arnault, is loosely based on the myth of Hero and Leander. The work was first performed at the Théâtre Favart, Paris on 6 May 1794. It is an important example of early Romantic opera.

<i>Horatius Coclès</i> opera by Étienne Méhul

Horatius Coclès is an opera in one act and nine scenes by the French composer Étienne Nicolas Méhul with a libretto by Antoine-Vincent Arnault. It was first performed at the Paris Opéra on 18 February 1794. It is based on the Roman legend of Horatius Cocles.

<i>Le jeune Henri</i> opera by Étienne Méhul

Le jeune Henri is an opera by the French composer Étienne Méhul. It takes the form of a comédie mêlée de musique in two acts. The libretto, by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, is based on an episode from the life of King Henri IV of France. It was first performed on 1 May 1797 at the Théâtre Favart, Paris. The opera was a failure but the overture was warmly applauded and has often been performed separately since. Known as La chasse du jeune Henri, it is a piece of programme music describing the course of a hunt from dawn to the killing of the stag.

<i>Lirato</i> opera by Étienne Méhul

L'irato, ou L'emporté is an opéra-comique in one act by the French composer Étienne Méhul with a French-language libretto by Benoît-Joseph Marsollier. It was first performed at the Théâtre Favart, Paris on 17 February 1801. Written in a lighter style than Méhul's operas of the 1790s, L'irato is famous for being part of a deception the composer played on his friend Napoleon Bonaparte.

<i>Le jeune sage et le vieux fou</i> opera by Étienne Méhul

Le jeune sage et le vieux fou is an opera by the French composer Étienne Méhul with a libretto by François-Benoît Hoffman. It takes the form of a comédie mêlée de musique in one act. It was first performed at the Théâtre Favart on 28 March 1793. A revised version appeared in 1801.

<i>Euphrosine</i> opera by Étienne Méhul

Euphrosine, ou Le tyran corrigé is an opera, designated as a 'comédie mise en musique', by the French composer Étienne Nicolas Méhul with a libretto by François-Benoît Hoffman. It was the first of Méhul's operas to be performed and established his reputation as a leading composer of his time. The premiere was given by the Comédie-Italienne at the first Salle Favart in Paris on 4 September 1790.

<i>Les amazones</i> opera by Étienne Méhul

Les amazones, ou La fondation de Thèbes is an opera in three acts by the French composer Étienne Méhul with a libretto by Victor-Joseph Étienne de Jouy. It was first performed at the Paris Opéra on 17 December 1811 with the Emperor Napoleon and his new wife, Marie-Louise in the audience. The plot, which concerns the reconciliation of two warring peoples, was intended to symbolise the peace between France and Austria.

<i>Cora</i> (opera) opera

Cora is an opera in four acts by the French composer Étienne Méhul. The libretto, by Valadier, is based on the novel Les Incas by Jean-François Marmontel. It was the first opera Méhul wrote but the second to be performed, receiving its premiere at the Académie Royale de Musique on 15 February 1791. Cora was not a success and there were only four more performances.

<i>Gabrielle dEstrées</i> (opera) opera

Gabrielle d’Estrées, ou Les amours d'Henri IV de France is an opera in three acts by the French composer Étienne Méhul. It premiered at the Opéra-Comique, Paris on 25 June 1806. The libretto is by Claude Godard d'Aucourt de Saint-Just.

<i>Bion</i> (opera) Opera by Étienne Méhul

Bion is an opera by the French composer Étienne Méhul. It takes the form of a comédie en vers mêlée de musique in one act. It premiered at the Opéra-Comique, Paris on 27 December 1800. The libretto, by François-Benoît Hoffman, is based on Les voyages d'Anténor by Étienne-François de Lantier. The opera was revived on 15 November 1802.

<i>Le pont de Lody</i> opera

Le pont de Lody is a one-act opera by the French composer Étienne Méhul which premiered at the Théâtre Feydeau, Paris on 15 December 1797. The libretto is by Étienne Joseph Bernard Delrieu. The opera is a fait historique, a genre popular during the French revolutionary era, often portraying contemporary events on stage. The work celebrates Napoleon's Italian campaign and focuses on his victory at the Battle of Lodi on 10 May 1796.

Elizabeth Bartlet (musicologist)

Mary Elizabeth Caroline Bartlet was a Canadian-born musicologist known for her scholarship on French music, and particularly opera, in the 18th and 19th centuries. She also produced pioneering critical editions of the scores for Rossini's Guillaume Tell and Rameau's Platée. At the time of her death she was a professor of music at Duke University and a director of the American Musicological Society.


  1. Bartlet p.vii
  2. Cairns p. 220; Orga (2002).
  3. Adélaïde de Place pp. 8–11
  4. Searle, Arthur (1991), "Manuscripts and printed music", Early Music, 19 (2): 269–274, doi:10.1093/earlyj/xix.2.269 .
  5. Adélaïde de Place pp. 27–28
  6. General biography from Bartlet (1997) pp.vii-ix
  7. Denis Havard de la Montagne. "Joseph Daussoigne-Méhul". www.musimem.com.
  8. Orga (2002)
  9. Berlioz p. 354
  10. Charlton (1993) p. 644
  11. Charlton (1994) p. 127
  12. 1 2 Bartlet p.x
  13. Berlioz p. 352
  14. Charlton (1993)
  15. Broderick, George (1995), "Das Horst-Wessel-Lied: A Reappraisal", International Folklore Review, 10: 100–127.
  16. Cf. footnote 41 of the Preface by David Charlton in his critical edition of the score of the G minor symphony published by A-R Editions, Inc., Madison, 1985.