Home » Uncategorized » Daniel Auber and the Fra Diavalo Overture

Daniel Auber and the Fra Diavalo Overture

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Daniel François Esprit Auber (January 29, 1782 –May 12/13, 1871) was a leading composer of French opera from the 1820s onwards.  The son of a Paris print-seller, he was born in Caen in Normandy on January 29, 1782. Though his father expected him to continue in the print-selling business, he also allowed his son to learn how to play several musical instruments. His first teacher was the Tirolean composer, Josef Alois Ladurner (1769–1851). At the age of twenty Auber was sent to London for business training, but he was obliged to leave England in 1804 when the Treaty of Amiens was breached.  Auber had already attempted musical composition, and at this period produced several concertos pour basse, modelled after the violoncellist Lamare, in whose name they were published. The praise given to his concerto for the violin, which was played at the Paris Conservatoire by Mazas, encouraged him to undertake a resetting of an old comic opera, Julie (1811). He also began to study with the renowned Luigi Cherubini.

In 1813 the unfavorable reception of his one-act debut opera Le Séjour militaire put an end for some years to his attempts as composer. But his failure in business, and the death of his father in 1819, compelled him once more to turn to music. He produced another opera, Le Testament et les billets-doux (1819), which was no better received than the former. But he persevered, and the next year was rewarded by the complete success of La Bergère châtelaine, an opera in three acts.  This was the first in a long series of brilliant successes. In 1822 began his long association with librettist August-Eugène Scribe. Their first opera, Leicester, shows evidence of the influence of Gioachino Rossini in its musical style. Auber soon developed his own voice, however: light, vivacious, graceful, and melodious—characteristically French.  Le maçon (1825) was his first major triumph, staying in the repertory until the twentieth century, with 525 performances at the Opéra-Comique alone. An ensemble from it found its way into Herold’s ballet La Somnambule (source of Bellini’s La sonnambula) as an air parlante, a way of explicating the plot through the words of a relevant operatic aria or salon piece.

Auber achieved another triumph in La muette de Portici (The Dumb Girl of Portici), also known as Masaniello after its hero, dealing with a seventeenth century Neapolitan revolt,. Produced in Paris in 1828, it rapidly became a European favorite, and the foundation work of a new genre, grand opera, that was consolidated by Rossini’s Guillaume Tell the following year. Its characteristic features are a private drama staged in the context of a significant historical event in which the chorus is dramatically engaged as a representative of the people, varied and piquant musical textures, grandiloquent marches, spectacular scenic effects and a statutory ballet. The duet from La Muette, Amour sacré de la patrie (meaning “Sacred Love of the Homeland”), was welcomed as a new Marseillaise.  Its performance at Brussels on August 25, 1830, in which the great tenor Adolphe Nourrit sang the leading tenor role, engendered a riot that became the signal for the Belgian Revolution that drove out the Dutch. La Muette broke ground also in its use of a ballerina in a leading role, the eponymous mute, and includes long passages of mime music.

Official and other dignities testified to the public appreciation of Auber’s works. In 1829 he was elected a member of the Institut de France. Fra Diavolo,which premiered on January 28, 1830, was his most successful opera. That same year, 1830, he was named director of the court concerts. The next year, on June 20, 1831, he had another big success, with Le Philtre, starring Adolphe Nourrit. The libretto was translated into Italian and set by Donizetti as L’elisir d’amore, one of the most successful comic operas of all time.  Two years later, on  February 27, 1833, Gustave III, his second grand opera, also triumphed and stayed in the repertory for years. The libretto was to be used twice more, first by Saverio Mercadante for Il reggente, with the action transferred to Scotland, and, next by Giuseppe Verdi, as Un ballo in maschera. Auber enjoyed several more successes, all at the Opéra-Comique. These were Le cheval de bronze (1835), L’Ambassadrice (1836), Le domino noir (1837), Les diamants de la couronne (1841) and La part du diable (1843).

In the meantime, in 1842, at the wish of King Louis Philippe, Auber succeeded Cherubini as director of the Conservatoire. Auber was also a member of the Legion of Honour from 1825, and attained the rank of commander in 1847.  That year also saw the premiere of Haydée, another opéra comique, even though it was on a serious subject. The tenor lead in Haydée was sung by the same Gustave Roger who, two years later, created the title role in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Le prophète at the Opéra. Napoleon III made Auber his Imperial Maître de Chapelle in 1857.  In his later years, Auber’s output slowed down considerably. The 1850s were marked by Manon Lescaut, an opéra comique with a tragic end (1856), and revisions of Le cheval de bronze and Fra Diavolo (both 1857). In 1861, Scribe died, and Auber produced only two more operas afterward. He had one major success in the 1860s with Le premier jour de bonheur (Opéra comique, 1868). Despite his slowdown in composing, he remained a well-loved figure, known for witty sayings and personal generosity. He survived the German siege of Paris in 1870–71, but died at age 89 during the upheaval of the Paris Commune on May 12 or 13, 1871.

The collaboration between Auber and Scribe produced 38 stage works between 1823 and 1864. For the next four decades, several of Auber’s operas held the stage in Paris and elsewhere.  One of Auber’s most successful and still familiar works in his popular, romantic vein is Fra Diavolo (1830; Brother Devil).  Others of his most popular operas are Fra Diavolo, Le cheval de bronze (The Bronze Horse), Les diamants de la couronne (The Crown Diamonds), and the seminal grand opera Masaniello or La muette de Portici (The Dumb Girl of Portici).  Le Domino Noir of 1837 was the Auber/Scribe work most frequently revived in its own century, achieving 1,209 performances by 1909.  Auber also wrote a considerable quantity of other music, vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular, though his religious cantatas and motets, written between 1852 and 1855, are little known.  He was respected by Rossini and Wagner, and much honored by the state in his life-time. His music is also thought to have influenced Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet, and Richard Strauss. Changing times and tastes led to the neglect of Auber’s music, with the exception of some of his overtures, in particular that for Les Diamants de la couronne (The Crown Jewels).

My collection includes the following works by Daniel Francois Auber:

Fra Diavalo: Overture.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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