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Daniel Auber: Daniel Auber (b. Caen, 29 Jan 1782; d. Paris, 12 May 1871).
Daniel Auber was one of the leading figures in that sophisticated world of French opera that lies between the grand and the light known as opera* comique. He was born in Normandy and came from an artistic and vaguely aristocratic family. His grandfather had gone to seek his fortune in Paris and became official artist and sculptor at the court of Louis XVI. His father was also a court official and passed on to his son a great love of music, horses and painting. Later making a modest fortune as a shopkeeper, he hoped that his son Daniel would be able to combine business and art and sent him to London in 1802 to learn the trade of selling paintings. In London he wrote several songs which had public performances and was gradually drawn more and more toward a career in music. He returned to France in 1804, settled in Paris, studied for a time with Cherubini, then gave himself wholly to composition.
He became friendly with a distinguished French cellist, Jacques La Marre (later spelt Lamare) who was much admired by Clementi. Daniel Auber wrote four 'cello concertos which were published under Lamare's name in 1804 and well received on the strength of his popularity. When it eventually became known that Daniel Auber was the composer it gave him a ready-made reputation and led to him writing a violin con-certo for Jacques Mazas which was played with great success at the Conservatoire and afterwards in London by Sainton.
Daniel Auber was by nature a peculiarly timid person, modest and shy - so much so that he was said never to have attended the performance of any of his own works. His first attempt at opera was predictably modest, a setting of a libretto by Jacques Marie Boutet de Monville, L'Erreur d'un moment, which had previously been set by Dezede. It was given an amateur performance at the Salle Doyen in 1805 and another opera, Couvin, was privately performed in 1812. He also wrote a mass in that year from which he later extracted material for use in the opera Masaniello. His first public stage performance came with Le Sejour militaire at the Paris Opera-Comique on the 27th February 1813. It was a failure and for the next six years Daniel Auber made no further assaults on the operatic stage but lived an obscure and perilous existence performing various menial musical tasks. In 1819 Le Testament et les billets-doux was equally unsuccessful but, by now, he was certain of his vocation and was rewarded by the general acclaim of his La Bergere chatelaine which opened at the Opera-Comique on the 27th January 1820. This was two days before his thirty-eighth birthday - so it had been a long, hard road.
From now on he was to write a regular series of operatic successes, most of his best works being the result of his regular collaboration with Eugene Scribe, one of the finest librettists of the day. He was to write almost fifty operas, the last Reve d 'amour premiered at the Opera-Comique in 1869. Daniel Auber, in spite of his fame, remained the quiet, gentle, epicurean Parisian gentleman who shunned publicity to such an extent that he never appeared in public as a conductor. With characteristic modesty he said that if he ever listened to one of his own works he would probably never write another note.
He became a member of the Academie in 1829 and received many awards both in France and abroad. He was appointed Director of the Conservatoire in 1 842 and remained in this post until he died in 1871. In 1857 he was graced by Napoleon III with the title of 'maitre de chapelle'. He wrote a modest number of songs, a few orchestral and chamber compositions, five piano works and a very successful ballet Marco Spada, based on the libretto of his opera of the same name which was written in 1852. The music for the 1857 ballet was not taken from the opera but adapted from many of his most popular works.
Daniel Auber's reputation might be said to rest firmly on his operatic writings though today very few of them are performed, and even the names that are known to all, Le Cheval de bronze, Le Domino noir, Les Diamants de la couronne, are remembered for their light, vivacious and tuneful overtures - as with so many of Rossini's works. At the time these works had tremendous esteem. Les Diamants de la couronne was a major success in Paris in 1841 and an even greater one in London three years later. In these opera comique scores Daniel Auber epitomised the grace and elegance of the genre, combining vitality and the simple amorous grace of the popular French chanson, with a very careful and lucid setting of words. In this he followed in the steps of Bo'ieldieu and proved himself a strong rival of such contemporaries as Adam and Herold. His orchestration was particularly apt and brilliant. The works of these composers were the intermediate step between the comic operas of Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti and the frivolous operettas of Offenbach, Lecocq and Messager. The opera comique regularly introduced dialogue and was thus able to add extra strength to dramatic characters in the plot.
Daniel Auber had the depth of musical imagination to be able to step aside from his lighter works and write in more serious vein. The work that established his European reputation was the five-act opera La Muette de Portici, more commonly known abroad as Masaniello - the name of its leading character. The overture and much that follows owes a strong debt to Rossini, but it was rich enough in dramatic effects, subtle instrumentation and original harmonies to win high praise from no less a high-priest of opera than Wagner. Within twelve years of its premiere it had been performed a hundred times at the Paris Opera and by 1880 had received 500 French performances. It was performed many times in New York and London in the 1800s and there was a successful Berlin revival in 1953. Another work to gain international favour was the three-act opera comique, Fra Diavolo first produced in 1830, with a strong musical score and a well constructed plot. This also travelled the world in the 1800s and was revived in New York in 1910, Berlin in 1934, at La Scala, Milan in the same year, by the Sadler's Wells company in London in 1935, in Berlin in 1936 and in Stockholm in 1948. It remains popular in Germany and has provided a good tenor role for many singers including Bonci and Schipa.
There is a slight prejudice against French opera abroad, in favour of the German and Italian schools, but there is always a probability that the delights of opera comique will get a deserved and rewarding reassessment. The works of Daniel Auber will certainly stand revival when the climate is right, and then the merits of both his operatic and orchestral works will get their due appreciation.
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