Étienne Méhul


Étienne Méhul : biography

22 June 1763 – 18 October 1817

Vocal music

  • Chant du départ (1794)
  • (1794)
  • (1804)
  • (1808)
  • (1811)


  • (1793)
  • (1800)
  • Persée et Andromède (1810) (together with music by Haydn, Paer and Steibelt)

Incidental music for plays

  • (by Marie-Joseph Chénier)
  • (by Alexandre Duval)



Méhul’s most important contribution to music was his operas. He led the generation of composers who emerged in France in the 1790s, which included his friend and rival Luigi Cherubini and his outright enemy Jean-François Le Sueur. Méhul followed the example of the operas which Gluck had written for Paris in the 1770s and applied Gluck’s "reforms" to opéra comique (a genre which mixed music with spoken dialogue and was not necessarily at all "comic" in mood). But he pushed music in a more Romantic direction, showing an increased use of dissonance and an interest in psychological states such as anger and jealousy, thus foreshadowing later Romantic composers such as Weber and Berlioz. Indeed, Méhul was the very first composer to be styled a Romantic; a critic used the term in La chronique de Paris on 1 April 1793 when reviewing Méhul’s Le jeune sage et le vieux fou.Orga (2002)

Méhul’s main musical concern was that everything should serve to increase the dramatic impact. As his admirer Berlioz wrote:[Méhul] was fully convinced that in truly dramatic music, when the importance of the situation deserves the sacrifice, the composer should not hesitate as between a pretty musical effect that is foreign to the scenic or dramatic character, and a series of accents that are true but do not yield any surface pleasure. He was convinced that musical expressiveness is a lovely flower, delicate and rare, of exquisite fragrance, which does not bloom without culture, and which a breath can wither; that it does not dwell in melody alone, but that everything concurs either to create or destroy it – melody, harmony, modulation, rhythm, instrumentation, the choice of deep or high registers for the voices or instruments, a quick or slow tempo, and the several degrees of volume in the sound emitted.Berlioz p.354

One way in which Méhul increased dramatic expressivity was to experiment with orchestration. For example, in Uthal, an opera set in the Highlands of Scotland, he eliminated violins from the orchestra, replacing them with the darker sounds of violas in order to add local colour.Charlton (1993) p.644 Méhul’s La chasse du jeune Henri (Young Henri’s Hunt) provides a more humorous example, with its expanded horn section portraying yelping hounds as well as giving hunting calls. (Sir Thomas Beecham frequently programmed this piece to showcase the Royal Philharmonic horn section.)

Méhul’s key works of the 1790s were Euphrosine, Stratonice, Mélidore et Phrosine and Ariodant.Charlton (1994) p.127 Ariodant, though a failure at its premiere in 1799, has come in for particular praise from critics. Elizabeth Bartlet calls it "Mehul’s best work of the decade and a highpoint of Revolutionary opera".Bartlet p.x It deals with the same tale of passion and jealousy as Handel’s 1735 opera Ariodante. As in many of his other operas, Mehul makes use of a structural device called the "reminiscence motif", a musical theme associated with a particular character or idea in the opera. This device looks forward to the leitmotifs in Richard Wagner’s music dramas. In Ariodant, the reminiscence motif is the cri de fureur ("cry of fury"), expressing the emotion of jealousy.

Around 1800, the popularity of such stormy dramas began to wane, replaced by a fashion for the lighter opéra comiques of composers such as François-Adrien Boieldieu. In addition, Mehul’s friend Napoleon told him he preferred a more comic style of opera. As a Corsican, Napoleon’s cultural background was Italian, and he loved the opera buffa of composers like Paisiello and Cimarosa. Méhul responded with L’irato ("The Angry Man"), a one-act comedy premiered as the work of the Italian composer "Fiorelli" in 1801. When it became an immediate success, Méhul revealed the hoax he had played.Berlioz p.352 Méhul also continued to compose works in a more serious vein. Joseph, based on the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, is the most famous of these later operas, but its success in France was short-lived. In Germany, however, it won many admirers throughout the nineteenth century, including Wagner.Charlton (1993) A melody from Joseph is very similar to a popular folk melody widely known in Germany which was used as a song in the Imperial German Navy, and adapted, notoriously, as the tune for the co-national anthem of Nazi Germany, the Horst-Wessel-Lied. It is unclear, however, whether Méhul’s melody was the actual provenance of the melody..