Hector Berlioz revered him, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had his operas performed in Weimar, Carl Maria von Weber conducted them in Dresden, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms appreciated him: Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, born in the small Belgian town of Givet in the Ardennes on 22 June 1763. At the age of ten, he already served as the organist of his home town’s Franciscan church. In 1778, he moved to Paris for good, where he received further training at the hands of a pupil of Christoph Willibald Gluck. His enthusiasm for Gluck’s operatic works led him to begin writing for the stage at an early point in his career.
Méhul composed around 40 operas over the course of his lifetime, but only very few of them achieved a truly sustained success. “Joseph en Eqypte” (1807) is considered to be his most important stage work. Carl Maria von Weber launched his tenure at Deutsche Oper at Morettisches Theater in Dresden with a performance of this work, under the German title “Jakob und seine Söhne”, on 30 January 1817. With its Old Testament subject matter, the opera, which was often performed after Napoleon had granted religious freedom in France, reflected the mindset of an entire era.
From 1790, new operas and ballets by Méhul were performed in Paris almost every year. One aspect that certainly increased the composer’s popularity significantly was that he decided to participate in the government’s celebrations and festivities honouring the Revolution. He composed the “Hymne à la raison” for this purpose in 1793, followed one year later by the famous “Chant du départ”, which has been sung on such occasions ever since and was considered one of the most popular mass songs in France beside Rouget de Lisle’s Marseillaise. During the subsequent period, Méhul created a wealth of other works dedicated to current political events, patriotic hymns, cantatas and the like, which were often performed with great vocal and instrumental extravagance.
Méhul was indeed an artist of republican convictions and he described his own composition style with the terms simplicity, greatness and resolve. He was interested both in continuing programmatic music of the French tradition and in innovations in harmonics, melody and orchestration. To create a certain atmosphere, such as the Ossianic twilight of his opera “Uthal” (1806), for instance, he entirely eschewed the use of violins in the orchestra’s string section. Brahms, who was impressed by the score of this work, later also chose this unusual sound foundation for the first movement “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” of his German Requiem.
By far the largest part of Méhul’s extant oeuvre consists of his stage works – among them the Revolution opera “Horatius Coclès” (1794), which glorifies democratic civic virtue – followed by a large number of compositions for political occasions. Symphonic works (only two of six symphonies have survived and both show an inclination towards Haydn and Beethoven) and church and piano music take a much lesser place in his collected works. In 1795, the composer was appointed one of the inspectors of the reorganised conservatory and a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. Along with François-Joseph Gossec, André-Ernest-Modest Grétry and Luigi Cherubini, Méhul was considered one of the leading French composers during the age of the Revolution.
When his operas no longer proved to be as successful as “Joseph” (1807) – the taste of the Parisian audience had begun to favour the Italian composer Gaspare Spontini at the beginning of the new century – Méhul descended into melancholy. He withdrew from public life and dedicated himself to floriculture. He died in Paris on 18 October 1817.
As of November 2019