Remarks about Meyerbeer's  Le Prophète 
a 19th century French Grand Opera in Five Acts

on the occasion of the work's production in Münster, Germany 25th of September 2004

by Matthias Brzoska
editor of the new critical edition

(special to the Meyerbeer Fan Club)

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My remarks consider three main points: 

1. The central philosophical ideas of Meyerbeer's conception of historical Grand Opera and especially Le Prophète

2. The genesis of the work, and 

3. The genesis of the new edition. 

(Shortened English translations of the major citations are shown beside the originals).

I.  Meyerbeer's operatic reform: Philosophical ideas

At the time when Meyerbeer came to Paris with his first French projects, the so called "prophetistic" movement of French philosophers was popular (Ballanche, La Mennais, Saint-Simon).   They conceived a new interpretation of history which understood historical events as an "expiation" imposed on the social collective by providence so as to redeem mankind in stages:  The destruction of the Roman Empire would be an expiation for the dissipations of the ancient society, the quarrels of French Revolution would be an expiation for the decadence of the court society and the wars of the Reformation would be an expiation for the religious infidelity of the Reformation movement. By those trials humanity itself would gradually develop a new utopist unity of religion and society.

The artists played an important part in those philosophical systems: Those who proclaimed to be the prophets of society's development would illuminate the future and explain the manner of social development: La Mennais, founder of the neo-catholic school called the artists the "priests" (sacerdoce) of the new age and Saint-Simon called them the "avantgarde" of the future society. The new work of art would be an integral work of art combining all the effects of the different arts to illuminate the spirits and heart of the community of the future. The Opera - as the only existing integral work of art of the time - attracted of course the most interest as a vehicle for illumination of these ideals:  the leading representative of this philosophical school of music criticism, Joseph d'Ortigue, called for fundamental reform of French opera. The aim was to merge the German instrumental music of Beethoven and the operatic singing of Rossini into a comprehensive Gesamtkunstwerk. This 'art of the future' would thus be expressive of modern society as a whole.  D'Ortique regarded Rossini's last French opera, Guillaume Tell (1829), as a stepping stone toward this goal..

But it was Meyerbeer who finally was proclaimed as the creator of the dreamt-for new integral work of art:  After the première of his first Grand Opéra, Robert le diable (1831), d'Ortigue announced that his vision of the modern work of art was realized:

'The alliance dreamt about by the author of this article has already been created, and he is proud to announce the fruition of the alliance between the vocal genre created by Rossini and the instrumental one developed by Beethoven and applied to dramatic music by Weber.'

'Ainsi se réalise l'alliance que l'auteur de cet article ose maintenant se flatter d'avoir annoncée, celle du genre vocal créé par Rossini et du genre instrumental developpé par Beethoven et appliqué par Weber à la musique dramatique'

(Le Balcon, 122-123).

In fact Meyerbeer had achieved the fundamental operatic reform claimed by d'Ortigue in 1829:  By the time Meyerbeer died suddenly in 1864, the character of opera itself as a work of art had radically changed.  The style of Meyerbeerian grand opera was the recognized international model for music drama for almost a century. There were many consequences of this aesthetic reassessment: the setting of a libretto, which at the age of Rossini used to take a few weeks, became an intellectual collaboration between composers and librettists that might last years, even decades. New technical methods of composition were devised anew for each work and suited to each opera's individual dramatic concept. In through-composed scenic complexes, musical forms became individualized to a very high degree. Premières were staged after intensive historical and technical research by a whole staff of specialists, and the results of their work were documented in a livret de mise en scène.

But most important of all, opera became a platform for the expression of metaphysical and philosophical ideas. Meyerbeer's four main works may be seen as phases in a conceptual operatic discourse: Robert le diable shows the human being torn between entanglement in evil and metaphysical redemption. Les Huguenots sets the modern historical viewpoint of history as a collective social process following the philosophical ideas of his time. But certainly Le Prophète should be considered as the most important expression of the ideas of the so called "prophetist" movement of contemporary philosophy: The work shows the individual involved in the historical emergence of the modern European world. Finally, L'Africaine relates the same theme to the history of colonization, this time on a global scale. Meyerbeer's attitude is basically conservative and founded in his deep sense of religion. His historical operas are not operas on historical subjects, but operas taking the historical process itself as their subject.

The fundamental modernity of Meyerbeer's concept of opera was clear to his contemporaries. In discussing the première of Robert, Fétis described the work as 'une production remarquable dans l'histoire de l'art' (RM 26 Nov 1831, p. 336). Even in 1891 Hanslick could write, of Robert and Les Huguenots, that he found 'the dazzlingly new and entirely unique impression it made unforgettable' (Tagebuch, p. 105). To Verdi, writing in 1852, Le Prophète was a model for his own work:

 

' I have always under my eyes some scenes, between others the coronation of Le Prophète ! In this scene no other composer could have do better than Meyerbeer has done.'

'J'ai toujours sous mes yeux plusieurs [scènes], entre autres le couronnement dans Le Prophète! Dans cette scène aucun autre compositeur n'aurait mieux fait que Meyerbeer'

(letter to Scribe of 26 July 1852).

And Wagner, having seen Le Prophète for the first time, was even tempted to abandon his own operatic production:

' By this time I saw for the first time Le Prophète - the prophet of a new world: I was feeling happy and elevated, gave up all those revolted projects which seemed to me godless. ( … ) If the genius arrives and pulls us in other directions, an enthusiast follows gladly everywhere, even if he feels not able to achieve something in those ways.' 

"In dieser Zeit sah ich denn auch zum ersten Male den Propheten – den Propheten der neuen Welt: ich fühlte mich glücklich und erhoben, ließ alle wühlerischen Pläne fahren, die mir so gottlos erschienen [...] Kommt das Genie und wirft uns in andere Bahnen, so folgt ein Begeisterter gern überall hin, selbst wenn er sich unfähig fühlt, in diesen Bahnen etwas leisten zu können." 

(Brief an Theodor Uhlig, 13.3.1850)

(Unfortunately, Wagner changed his mind later, as we all know.)

The public as well understood the modernity of Meyerbeer's Prophète: After the works triumphant premières in Paris (16. April 1849) and a few weeks later in London, it was given in all major theaters of the world during the century – from the deepest provinces to the most distant colonies.

 

II.  The Genesis of Le Prophète

 

Soon after the première of Les Huguenots in 1836 Meyerbeer determined "to base his dramatic system on indestructible pillars with a third work" (letter of 20 May 1836, Briefwechsel,'II. p. 527). However, he encountered considerable difficulties. Although he considered a number of alternative subjects, he finally settled on two possible projects: L'Africaine and Le Prophète. The genesis of both works is closely interwoven. Meyerbeer began to work on L'Africaine first, but abandoned the project on 1 August 1838 when Marie Falcon, for whom he had intended the title role, had lost her voice. Meanwhile he established with Scribe some preliminary versions of the libretto of Le Prophète which remarkably differed from the later versions. Until now, we are unable to say which ones of those have been composed. What we know is that a first version of the score of Le Prophète was deposited with a Parisian notary on 25 March 1841, which left some traces in the autograph. For example, Meyerbeer had intended the exalted, missionary character of the title role for the leading tenor Gilbert Duprez, and fragments of his part can be discovered on sheets which were later covered by other sheets sewed on the old ones. Since Alan Armstrong edited some of those earlier versions in his thesis in 1990 some fragments of this score are reconstructed, and since the recent research done by Fabien Guilloux on the libretto-versions in the "Fonds Scribe", we know the dramatic structure of Scribes first versions, but we are unable to establish a clear chronology neither of the early libretto versions and the score of 1841 nor of between this score and the actual one.

We can generally establish two important conclusions of this research: The first consists in the fact, that the initial tragedy concerned much more the relation of Jean and Berthe than that of Jean and Fidès. The second conclusion shows, that most of the alterations concerning the part of Fidès, the support given to her religious significance and the reinforcement of the idea of "expiation" has not been part of Scribes first libretto, it was entirely the idea of Meyerbeer.

In Scribe's first libretto, Berthe is resolved to kill the Prophète, in revenge for his atrocities, as she doesn't know his identity with her beloved Jean. To manage a meeting with the prophet, she profits from the anabaptist idea to confiscate not only the material goods, but also the daughters of the citizens of Münster. The nicest of the girls should be crowned as queen of the anabaptists and married to the prophète. In a large scenic complex, the so-called "Choeur des mères"- Complexus, Berthe is chosen as the nicest, crowned as queen and introduced to Jean's Palais. In contrast, the part of Fidès is much less important: Her confrontation with Jean in the coronation scène is missing (because before it was the coronation-scene of Berthe) and her part at the end of the opera is much less important.

Let us have a look on the final scènes of the opera. They show the development of some main versions of the libretto:

The earliest version establishes a confrontation between Berthe who wants to kill Jean (... un poignard à la main, vient assassiner le prophète), followed by a madness-scene of Jean, his rescue by Fidès and finally the recognition of his identity.  During the development of the libretto versions, Jeans Duo with Berthe is replaced by his Duo with Fidès, and Berthe disappears more or less ("Berthe à un malaise") Different endings were tried out: Berthe and Jean killed in the final explosion-scene, the rescue of the two women and only Jean killed and finally Fidès and Jean killed. But this final version is still without any suicide-scene of Berthe (only later sketched in the margins of this source)

We don't know exactly what has been composed in the 1841 score, but it appears clear, that Meyerbeer was not at all satisfied with the result. Endless quarrels about the casting took place and delayed the production. The most important difficulty referred to the engagement of Pauline Viardot-Garcia, claimed absolutely necessary for the part of Fidès by Meyerbeer, while the Opera's favourite was Rosine Stolz (see letters Meyerbeer to Gouin 11.1. and 18.1.41)

Another difficulty arose in December 1843, when it transpired that Duprez was no longer up to the demands of the part. Meyerbeer deferred production, and over the next four years he conducted fruitless negotiations with the Opéra over alternative castings, coming to an agreement only when Nestor Roqueplan and Edmond Duponchel took over the directorship on 1 July 1847.

The most important result of this agreement was that Meyerbeer finally obtained the engagement of Pauline Viardot-Garcia. With Garcia, Meyerbeer had found a voice capable of executing this part as it was conceived since 1841. For her voice Meyerbeer entirely revised the part of Fidès, resulting in a unique role, one of the great contralto-parts of the century, demanding the vocal range of mezzo-soprano and soprano in its dramatic coloratura, but never entirely performed. The tenor part, on the other hand, was simplified for the lighter voice of Gustave Roger replacing Duprez, and as a result a new 5th act libretto was conceived and the original dramatic concept was revised. The parts of Berthe and Zaccharie found adequate casting with Jeanne-Anais Castellan and Nicolas Prosper Levasseur only after beginning of rehearsals in late december.

The most important date for us is September 12th 1848, when Meyerbeer arrived in Paris with his carefully revised score – Aimé Ambroise Leborne, copyist of the Opéra should begin to copy the parts on the 25th of September (see Briefwechsel Tk 16.Sept, p. 444), but finally Meyerbeer rendered the copying of the first two acts to Johannes Weber, his private secretary, who fulfilled this task in early november (see p.455) This leads us directly to the definitive version we edit right now.

 

III. The principles of the New Edition

 

Three main sources are at our disposal:  The score later published by Brandus, the autograph score, and a big part of the parts copied by Weber and Leborne for the Opera rehearsals.

The basis of a new edition of Meyerbeer's work was achieved, only because Sieghart Döhring rediscovered the autograph scores of the four main operas of Meyerbeer in 1981, which were lost since the Second World War, in the Bibliotheka Jagiellonska in Cracow, Poland.  The autograph score of the Prophète contains different stages of elaboration, but it does not possible to edit one of them without consulting and considering other sources. This is essentially due to Meyerbeer's procedure during composition, which generated a kind of sandwich-like structure of the source:  he conserved the sheets of earlier versions which he covered with the sheets representing later ones. Fortunately, he never used adhesives to put one sheet onto another one, he just sewed together the sheets at the margins. In the meantime, those seams have been removed, so that one cannot judge which sheet belongs to which version at first sight. In addition, Meyerbeer had a habit of making different stages of corrections in different colors: Basically he used black ink and made his first corrections also in different black inks; beside of the black stage of correction, throughout the score there is a layer of corrections in red ink. Different other corrections have been made with gray and red pencils. This explains the unreadable and, in some cases, impenetrable condition of the score. And so, in order to decipher the autograph score, further sources were necessary.

In the library of the Paris Opera, I found Leborne's copied material - literally tons of parts. Several hundred pounds of them are original materials from the premiere, which had to be compared, note for note, with others from the same source, and with the autograph score.

This task could not be completed with the means at my disposal. Yet I should express my gratitude for the sponsor of my project: The Fritz Thyssen Foundation gave us a long-term commitment, so that I could get the project on its way, together with my co-workers Andreas Jacob and Fabien Guilloux, and together with our publisher Ricordi.

After a screening of the sources, it appeared that our opera, simply stated, existed in two versions. The first version we simply call the "original version". It is the form of the work which Meyerbeer had worked out after the final agreement with the Opera's administration and which he had brought to Paris when the rehearsals began. So 'original version' means the original version of the Roger/Viardot version of December 1848, not the 1841 version, which is not reconstructible as I stated before, nor any other supposed intermediate version.

The other version is the known version of the printed score, which was published at later time by the publisher Brandus that we call Brandus-version. The latter differs from the original essentially by virtue of the massive cuts in it.

Three kinds of cuts can be distinguished: The first kind clearly has been made to strengthen the dramatic development and to shorten-up the recitatives. For example: at the beginning of the Grand Duo of 5th act, there first had been a short recognition-scene, where Fidès and Jean embrace each other, and just thereafter Fidès rejects her son: "Arrière, Prophete et fils du ciel etc..." It is clear, that the shortened version of the dialogue "Ma mère" – "Arrière" is more concentrated and concise in dramaturgic respects. This is the only kind of cuts we maintained in our edition – but we gave the cut mesures in the annexus.

The second kind of cuts is done to simplify the parts of some singers. Especially the part of Roger underwent massive cuts and simplifications. Johannes Weber, Meyerbeer's assistant during the Prophète's production, gave us an astonishing account of those cuts: Whatever Roger feared in his part, was simply cut. But what remained was often eliminated by Mme Roger. Weber depicts her really like dragon watching over the golden larynx of her beloved husband.

The philological consequences of those perpetual mutilations of the score where often horrifying the editorial staff. I gave examples in my Essen concert lecture, published here on the MFC- page, where you could see some exemples of the different stades of the autograph score. (please insert link to the lecture)

 

In all such cases of simplifying cuts, we give the last stage of the original Roger-version and we add the shortening variants of the Brandus-score in the annexus of the edition.

 

But the most important cuts were not made for dramaturgical aims or for the singers, but because of the simple need to reduce the time of performance. Meyerbeer's opera has Wagnerian dimensions quite unaccustomed for that time. In this regard, one has to know about the customs of the time, for example, to give the audience sufficient time in the intermissions to have supper. In addition, given the conditions of a live performance at that time, the complete version was simply an imposition on the singers. Today there is no reason not to present the complete version at least for a studio production. Therefore, our edition naturally gives the complete version with the abbreviation mesures of the Brandus-version in the annexus.

Meyerbeer, in his diaries, gave us a report of what happened around two weeks before the première at the general rehearsal:

 

'General repetition of all 5 acts. With the interacts during 1 h 20 minutes, it took from half past seven until one hour in the morning, a total of 4 hours and 16 minutes of music. So I have to cut at least 40 minutes of music; a hard and difficult task.'

"Generalprobe von allen 5 Akten. Sie dauerte mit den Entreakten, welche 1 Stunde 20 Minuten währten, von 1/2 8 bis 1 Uhr, also 4 Stunden 16 Minuten Musik. Ich muß also 40 Minuten Musik wenigstens schneiden: eine harte und schwierige Aufgabe." (Meyerbeers Tagebuch, 1.4.49)

 

Meyerbeer was not at all amused to cut over 40 minutes – at the end it was more then an hour – of his score in the last moment of the production. In the first acts, at this moment often rehearsed and well under way, he cut relatively cautiously. But the last two acts, which were still in the rehearsal process, underwent radical shortenings in the last minute: The whole 4th act "Choeur des Mères and Choix des reines"-complexus, at first only shortened, was eliminated, also eliminated were the scene between Fidès's Cavatine and Air of fifth act which is related in dramaturgic respects, the suicide scene of Berthe, the whole 5th act Tableau de Bacchanale and the Ouverture. In the other numbers, Meyerbeer used to preserve the substance of his music and cut out most of the musical repetitions in a number, so that the original Italian forms were destroyed. To fit with the rest and to fill up the harmonic progression from one part to another, he composed abbreviation-measures for harmonic modulation.

A good illustration for the hectically way in which those last minute cuts were done is the history of Berthe's suicide scene: How to kill Berthe was, apparently since the 41 version, a lasting problem for the authors. I remember that in the 1841 versions, Berthe was either rescued with Fidès or killed with Jean in the final explosion scene. In march 48, as Meyerbeer and Scribe conceived the last version of the 5th act, Meyerbeer had the idea to get rid of Berthe by way of a new Trio:

 

"Stretta on the kind of anathema of the Trio of La Juive and a coda that Berthe should have alone " to loose what one loves is terrible, but to have to hate it is more awful; I feel that I won't survive this awful strike; my look trebles; my forces leave me, Farewell, poor Fidès. Jean I forgive you, repent, so we can see us again in heaven.' (she faints)

 

"Stretta sur le genre d'anathème du Trio de la Juive, et une Coda que Berthe aurait seule, " perdre ce qu'on aime est terrible, mais devoir le mépriser c'est plus affreux; je sens que je ne survivrai pas ce coup affreux; ma vue se trouble; mes forces m'abandonnent, Adieu, pauvre Fidès. Jean je te pardonne, repens-toi, pour que nous nous revoyons dans les cieux. Adieu."(elle tombe évanouie)"

 

For the moment, Berthe should just faint; but Meyerbeer had some doubts about this idea. At the margins of the cited sketch he noted: 'one will leave the public uncertain if she is dead or unconscious'

"on laissera le public dans l'incertitude si elle est morte ou évanouie."

This was not a very convincing solution, but nevertheless he composed with great eagerness at this important scene: First he conceived the scene with Cello-accompaniment. As late as the 16th of march 1849 – some two weeks before the general rehearsal, with the oboist Verroust he tried out the newly invented Saxophone Alto (in E flat) and he transposed not only the suicide scene for that instrument, but also the referring leitmotiv of the Pastorale-aria in Act 3 (Scène after No. 16). Berthe, even her death-scene composed, was still alive – Meyerbeer never put the suicidal stage-instruction in his score. Meyerbeers collaborator Johannes Weber related us in his Memories, by which laconic way finally the stage director killed both Berthe and her suicide-monologue:

'Finally, one morning, he (Meyerbeer) announced to me that the scene was suppressed. Bertha stabs herself, falls into the scenery and everything is said.'

"Enfin, un matin, il (Meyerbeer) m'annonca que la scène était supprimée. Bertha se donne un coup de poignard, tombe dans la coulisse, et tout est dit."

The Saxophone-suicide eliminated, Meyerbeer re-corrected also the Saxophone-instrumentation of the leitmotiv of 3rd act.

This the only time in our edition where we had to complete the original score with a stage-instruction taken from the Brandus-Version. We gave the Cello-version in the score and the saxophon-fragments in the annexus.

Meyerbeer tried to save some of the cut music: In the second edition of the Brandus-vocal score he reestablished together with Berthes later composed B-flat Major Cavatine (1st act, No 1 bis) the Ouverture (in a four-hand reduction made by Alkan), the original version of Jeans Prière from 3rd act, and the Bacchanale-Tableau of the 5th act.

In our edition we reestablish in the main corpus the original uncut versions and we give the abbreviating parts of the later Brandus-score in the annexes.

The only exception is the "Choeur des mères" complex and the scene of Fidès of the fifth act related to it in dramaturgic respect. 25th of april Meyerbeer performed in a concert the "Choeur des mères" - complex. (see Berlioz CG, t. III; P. 620) This is probably the reason why the Choeur des mères complex is missing in the autograph. For that, it is not reconstructible in full score, Alan Armstrong gave a transcription of the piano/vocal score of the Paris Opera material. Related to this problem is the original scene between Fidès' Cavatine and Air in the 5th act. It is a kind of vision, where Fidès sees Berthe committing the murdering of her beloved son. This scene, of course, makes no longer sense, since Berthe's plan for murder, which was exposed in the "Choeur des mères"-complexus, was cut out. For that reason, we gave the reconstructed scene only in the annex of the edition.

This is the present state of research. The work is done: More then 1100 pages of score, annexes of some 400 pages, a vocal-piano-score of some 800 pages, a critical apparatus of 624 manuscript pages, not to forget the edition of the four main versions of the libretto by Fabien Guilloux.

As we started the project, we didn't imagine that it would be of such a practical relevance – it was conceived as a purely scientific project. We could not imagine that Le Prophète would get its revival even before our work has been printed.

Matthias Brzoska, June, 2004


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