An Israélite's Progress
Halévy's Prix de Rome wanderjahre offer some further insights into the transition from German Jew to israélite. From the outset, in his travel diaries, he strikes the pose (and pretentiousness) of an intense French young romantic:
'The first thing that strikes a visitor on his arrival in Italy is the extreme superstition and corruption of the people….As soon as you cross the Alps, French morals disappear' (January 1821).
One story is that on his arrival in Rome, his fellow prize-winners ragged him that, as a Jew, he would have to sleep in the ghetto in the evenings, and that he was sufficiently convinced of this to prepare to set out. Biographers of Halévy have tended to attach some importance to these writings and events, without noting that they appear to have been standard fare for Prix de Rome laureates - indeed almost identical scribblings were made, and japes were noted, by Fromental's pupil (and future son-in-law) Georges Bizet after he in turn won the prize in 1859.
A more revealing tale is the one Halévy writes, in his diary in 1822. According to this, Halévy just happens to be wandering about Rome and in a picturesque part is told that he is in the ghetto. 'What is a ghetto?' he asks, and on being told that it is the quarter of the Jews:
'This aroused my curiosity. I knew there were Jews in Rome but had not heard anything about them. I decided to make use of the opportunity that chance had put in my way'.
On entering the synagogue:
'I don't know why I was moved. Perhaps it was the sight of those unfortunates worshipping the same God as had their forefathers of five thousand years ago'.
It then turns out, by an astounding coincidence, that this is the first night of Pesach (Passover), which Halévy apparently had not realized, and he is invited to a Seder-meal, giving room for much colourful description of the ghetto and its inhabitants.
There have been attempts to defend Halévy from 'a conscious attempt to distance himself from his origins', but there is really no other appropriate characterization of this farrago. In his description of the Rome congregation Halévy is almost consciously adopting the knowing role of the Wicked Son of the Passover Haggadah. It is really inconceivable, given his education and his upbringing, up to the time of his departure for Rome, in an observant household, that Halévy cannot have known of the ghetto, that he could have been amazed at a synagogue service, or not known the timing of Passover. What we have here is the deliberate rewriting of a visit to shul on Pesach as a picturesque feuillet d'album of a bourgeois (Gentile) tourist, the persona of a tyro romanticist which Halévy was perhaps trying on for size. It is perhaps appropriate to view this episode as an example of Fromental's chameleon instincts which were later summarized by his friend the writer Sainte-Beuve, and which were to carry him successfully through a career characterised, save for one brilliant exception, by competent mediocrity:
'He was like a bee who, having found himself not wholly at home in the hive, was in search of some place outside where he could make his honey.[….] He had an instinct for languages [….] a passion for dictionaries [….] His curiosity was insatiable. Everything interested, attracted, inspired him with the desire, or rather the regret, that he had not made the subject in question his life's work. If he read history, he would wish he had been a historian; if military tactics, the general of an army; if geology, a geologist; if politics, a man involved in world affairs [….]'
On his return to Paris in 1822 Halévy began his arduous ascent of the rungs of an musical career, and from this point on, until his wedding in 1842, we have hardly any indication of any interest or participation in Jewish life or ritual. Like many previous and subsequent winners of the Prix de Rome, he was to discover that it was no passport to instant success. From 1827 he was a professor at the Conservatoire, initially in harmony, later (1833) in counterpoint and from 1840 in composition. He supplemented this work by acting as chef du chant, first at the Théatre-Italien, then from 1829 at the Opéra itself. Over a dozen formulaic operas and ballets were composed with little success, until Halévy won a wonderful prize in life's lottery - a libretto by Eugéne Scribe, 'La Juive' (libretto 1833, opera produced 1835), which was to prove one of the most popular operas of the nineteenth century.
It should firstly be emphasised that Halévy did not seek (now or at any other time) to write an opera on a Jewish theme. Moreover, if he had sought to do so, he was in no position to persuade Scribe to write such a libretto for him. Scribe was, certainly until the 1840s, the mightiest god of the European theatre. His complete works fill 76 volumes. He initiated the age of Grand Opera by transforming the traditions of the opera-comique to deal with historic and sensational events in his libretto for 'La Muette de Portici' (set by Auber in 1828), and had carried it substantially forward with `Robert le Diable', with which Meyerbeer took Paris by storm in 1831. Halévy had already produced a ballet-score, which had been allocated to him on a buggins-turn basis, to a book by Scribe based on `Manon Lescaut' in 1830. On a similar basis the director of the Opéra, Veron, doled out a commission to Halévy for an opera on a Scribe libretto. In these circumstances Halévy would have to set whatever Scribe drew out of his hat. Halévy was a naturally modest man, and intelligent enough to recognise that that his artistry, sound as it was, was never at the level of his very superior competence; certainly not significant enough to command any authority over such a librettist.
Secondly, any connection between the Jews of 'La Juive' and those in either the real world or in history must be regarded as purely coincidental. These characters, like all of Scribe's characters and story-lines, exist in a Scribean parallel universe, in which colourful historical or geographical milieux, sometimes vaguely corresponding to those of planet Earth, display a handful of characters who, as a consequence of some secret manoeuvrings in their own pasts and coincidences in the present, are forced to face some implausible crisis of choice or conscience, preferably accompanied by a simultaneous natural disaster. The randomness of the libretto may be demonstrated by the facts that as, originally conceived, the events took place not in Constance in the 15th century but in Goa during the Spanish Inquisition, and that Eléazar's famous Act IV air `Rachel, quand du seigneur', generally regarded as the moving high-point of the opera in eliciting sympathy for the Jews, was in its entirety an afterthought of the tenor Nourrit, who wrote its words and even, possibly, its music. A reading of the original libretto in fact makes it clear that it conforms closely to the crudest prejudices about Jewish love of money, hatred of Christians and general implacability.
How much more convenient it would be for the writer of this site if the above were not the case may easily be contemplated. But the fact remains that, despite claims to the contrary by recent writers, 'La Juive', whilst of great significance for the career of the Jew Fromental Halévy, has little to tell us about the changing role of the Jew in European society, and played no part in its story.
Fromental's success with 'La Juive' enabled him to marry, and to stake, with some success, despite the often erratic behaviour of his wife, a claim in the higher Jewish and Gentile social circles of Paris. He was prominent in Jewish charitable activities and wrote music for the Paris synagogue, and dined with many of the leading musicians, artists and poets.
The artist Eugene Delacroix, photographed by Nadar
As the popular taste in opera moved away from Scribean historical spectaculars towards the styles of his pupils Bizet, Gounod, and Offenbach, so Halévy's status as a one-hit wonder became accepted by the world, if not by the man himself. The artist Delacroix gives an appalling snapshot of Fromental's home life in his Journal for 5th February 1855:
`I went on to Halévy's house, where the heat from his stove was suffocating. His wretched wife has crammed his house with bric-a-brac and old furniture, and this new craze will end by driving him to a lunatic asylum. He has changed and looks much older, like a man who is being dragged on against his will. How can he possibly do serious work in this confusion? His new position at the Academy must take up a great deal of his time, and make it more and more difficult for him to find the peace and quiet he needs for his work. Left that inferno as quickly as possible. The breath of the streets seemed positively delicious'
This apparent concern for thwarted genius obscures the fact that after a long series of duds following `Charles VI' (1843), Halévy had all but stopped composing. Nonetheless by this time the towering success of `La Juive', which was rarely off the stage, had enabled him to establish himself as the leading French composer of his day (as opposed to two other residents of Paris, Meyerbeer who was always regarded either as Jew or German or both, and Rossini). His status in society at large was increasingly maintained, not through his music, but by accepting other public posts; becoming the Life Secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1854, sitting on the jury to decide Offenbach's new prize for an operetta in 1856 (the joint-winners were Bizet and another Halévy pupil, Lecoq), chairing a committee in 1858 to establish a universally agreed pitch for A above middle C. These activities also gave the nervous composer an excuse to avoid his profession as the pressure of his inspiration, never that high, evaporated. In 1862, after a long period of nervous debility, Fromental Halevy died in Nice.
Work in progress - more to follow!!