Wednesday, December 12th, 2018...1:21 pm

Beauty and Cliché in an Anonymous French Manuscript Score

Jump to Comments

By Joseph Gauvreau, Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature. Joseph was a summer 2018 Pforzheimer Fellow in Harvard Library. Working closely with Christina Linklater (a Houghton music cataloger and keeper of the Isham Memorial Library in the Loeb Music Library), he reported a number of Harvard’s music manuscript holdings to RISM. Joseph’s essay is published in memory of Harvard professor John Milton Ward, who passed on December 12, 2011. Along with his wife Ruth Neils Ward, Professor Ward gave many materials such as the Galathée manuscript to the Harvard Theatre Collection. Joseph’s research and cataloging resulted in a more detailed HOLLIS record for this item.

“We all know how the Académie’s musical contest works…”
—Hector Berlioz
“Institut: Concours de Musique et Voyage d’Italie du Lauréat,”
Gazette Musicale de Paris
v. 1, no. 5 (2 February, 1834), p. 35

As one of this summer’s Pforzheimer Fellows, I spent several weeks exploring the collections of Loeb Music and Houghton libraries, entering records of music manuscripts into the online RISM database. RISM—the Répertoire International des Sources Musicales—provides freely accessible documentation of musical sources contained in libraries around the world. Details about a work’s provenance, its condition, physical appearance, and even excerpts of the music itself are all included in a RISM catalog entry—in its own words, “what exists and where it is kept.”

Title page of an anonymous French cantata manuscript. The title reads "Galathée, complet, orchestre" but no other identifying information is included.

Title page of an anonymous French cantata manuscript, which reads “Galathée, complet, orchestre.” M1500.G194 1800. Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.

One of the works I was assigned to catalogue was donated to the Harvard Theatre Collection in 2007 by John Milton and Ruth Neils Ward, and was formerly in the collections of Bernad Peyrotte and Jean-Marie Martin. It was a : the name Galathée, but nothing else in way of identification. No names, no dates, no place of composition. Searching for a match to the music in the RISM database also proved unsuccessful. It seemed no other library owned a copy of this piece—or at least, none had yet entered it into the catalogue.

A page of the manuscript shows that it was scored for three vocalists.

Passage depicting the three-voice texture of the work (p. 130). M1500.G194 1800. Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.

Thankfully, there was one other lead to follow: the work was scored for three vocalists. Looking up the lyrics revealed an author, and with it a likely date and place of the score’s composition. The text, properly titled Acis et Galatée, was drawn from an 1855 poem by Camille du Locle. Only twenty-two years old at the time, the author would later gain renown as director of the Opéra Comique in Paris and collaborator on the librettos of several Verdi operas.

However, this information was still not enough to identify the composer of my score, as du Locle’s poem was not, strictly speaking, the libretto for any particular opera. Rather, it was the text employed by each entrant in the Académie des Beaux-Arts’ prestigious Prix de Rome cantata competition of the same year. Du Locle’s lyrics would thus have been set to music by several of the most promising young composers in France, each hoping to win a pension to study at the Académie’s Villa Medici in Rome.

In attempting to identify the composer of an anonymous score, it is not the most welcome news to discover that up to six people might have set the exact same words, at the exact same time and place, in roughly the same musical style. Nor would any of the identified competitors in 1855 go on to become composers of any note, who might boast of a comprehensive catalogue of works to consult. Unlike the successful librettist du Locle, Jean Conte (winner of the grand prize), Victor Chéri (second place), and Charles Colin (“mention honorable”) have all but vanished from our collective musical memory. And if there were any other competitors, their names were not even recorded when the prizes were issued. It would appear that beautiful handwriting does not always translate into beautiful, memorable music: a review of the public performance of Conte’s first-place cantata offers only the muted praise of “d’une mélodie franche, d’une harmonie simple et correcte” (“a straightforward melody, a simple and correct harmony…”).

Such a critical reaction to premieres of winning cantatas does not seem to be uncommon, as the Académie had a knack for betting on the wrong horse. There are as many famous losers of the competition as there are winners, with the last of Maurice Ravel’s five failures—in 1905, already over a year after the first performance of his celebrated string quartet—prompting a Parisian music critic to decry the jury’s “natural aversion to original talents, [and] stubborn predilection for banality and mediocrity.”

Apparently, little had changed from 1830—the year of his ground-breaking Symphonie fantastique—when Hector Berlioz complained of having to remove the most original passages in his cantata in order to finally win the Prix on his fourth attempt. Like many after him, Berlioz would go on to criticize the conservatism of the judges, the absurdity of the selection process (the competitors were forced to present their orchestral cantatas on the piano, with little rehearsal, for the judgment of an Académie composed mostly of painters, sculptors, and engravers), as well as the extremely formulaic nature of the poetry imposed upon the composers.

In an 1836 newspaper article against the Prix, Berlioz complained that the poem used for the competition “begins, twenty-nine times out of thirty, with the twilight of dawn [“un lever de l’aurore”], and ends with a sense of despair as either hero or heroine does not fail to expire.” Written almost 20 years later, du Locle’s cantata fits Berlioz’s mould perfectly. It opens:

L’astre aux rayons d’argent sur les mers luit encore;

Cependant le zéphir matinal a frémi;

Les portes d’Orient s’entr’ouvrent à demi

Sous les doigts rosés de l’aurore…

The silver-beamed moon still shines on the seas;

Yet the morning zephyr shivers;

The gates of the Orient are now being opened

By the rose fingers of the aurora…

And true to the mythical story of Acis and Galatea, Acis does not fail to expire. Killed by the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus, he is finally turned into a river spirit by his lover Galatea.

Hector Berlioz's criticism that Prix de Rome texts begin "with the twilight of dawn" is illustrated in a manuscript page by the cantata's opening line, "The silver-beamed moon still shines on the seas."

Hector Berlioz’s criticism that Prix de Rome texts begin “with the twilight of dawn” is illustrated here by the cantata’s opening line, “The silver-beamed moon still shines on the seas” (p. 131). M1500.G194 1800. Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.

Not only was the content of cantata texts formulaic, their structure also adhered to a codified form, with regulations in place to ensure that composers displayed their skill at writing arias, duets, trios, and . Henri Maréchal, winner in 1870, describes a scenario quite close to du Locle’s libretto of 1855: “The foreground always features a young man in love with a forbidden young woman; in the back, a gentleman who is not happy. The young man sings, the lady as well; a duet follows, and finally the gentleman in the background intervenes, bringing about a trio in which the least fortunate of the three characters is killed.” Clearly, the formula had changed little in the time since Acis et Galatée was written.

In this close-up image of a passage from Galathée, the character Acis "falls, mortally wounded."

In this close-up image of a passage from Galathée, the character Acis “falls, mortally wounded” (p. 110). M1500.G194 1800. Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University

2018 marks fifty years since the Prix de Rome was finally abolished during the protest-filled year of 1968, when students across France rose up against the ossified traditions of their teachers. Once a contest that was as much coveted for the financial support and publicity it provided to the winners as it was derided for its myopic and often reactionary interpretation of the “best” and “most promising” young artists, the Prix today has largely been confined to the margins of biographies of famous French composers—often as a parable about the dangers of entrusting the identification of future “greatness” to a roomful of old pedants, too set in their ways to appreciate real artistic innovation.

Yet documents such as Houghton’s anonymous Galathée manuscript invite us to rediscover and reconsider a crucial part of French music history, usually forgotten if not prefaced by the name Berlioz, Bizet, or Ravel. Who composed this unpublished cantata? And how did the composer work within the poetic and structural constraints of du Locle’s text? Was it the winner, and if so, how might posterity consider the judges’ choice? If other scores from the 1855 Prix can be located, a side-by-side performance would even offer the rare chance to compare multiple settings of the exact same libretto. This, perhaps, is one silver lining of the codified, formulaic poetry and stifling selection process of the Académie’s competition: a unique and fascinating opportunity to explore how a single text, a single narrative structure, might be variously interpreted by multiple composers—an exemplary display of the musical refraction of language.

Leave a Reply