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How Reliable Are Nineteenth-Century Reviews of Concerts and Operas?: Félicien David's Le Désert and His Grand Opéra Herculanum

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 April 2021

Ralph Locke
University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music
E-mail address:


The vast quantity of French-language music journalism and reportage in the nineteenth century can tempt us into citing one or another review that reflects our own view of the topic or work. We sometimes state or imply that a review stands for the attitudes and opinions of most musicians and music lovers of the day.

The idiosyncratic career of Félicien David was reported with great interest and vivacity by dozens of critics. Selected reviews reveal patterns that apply not just to David's works, but to nineteenth-century music generally. These patterns include: 1) the greater reliability of reviews by critics who were musically trained (e.g., Berlioz, Reyer, Gounod and Saint-Saëns), despite the possibility of bias; 2) critics sometimes conferring with each other before they wrote their review, or echoing each other's written opinions; 3) a willingness on the part of some critics to carry out a near-vendetta against a composer or work, whether for personal reasons (e.g., conflict of interest) or because of a deep-seated intolerance for any aesthetic and musical approaches that were at variance with the critic's own; 4) the sense of a positive mission, in writings by critics who were themselves prominent creative artists (see point 1); and 5) the power of a review to help determine the success or failure of a work, composer, or performer.

A recently published letter by Berlioz (translated here for the first time) reveals how conscious this remarkable composer-critic was of his own biases and aesthetic commitments, and how willingly he allowed them to shape his reaction to a new work by a younger, lesser-known composer. The responses of Berlioz and others to two works of David, Le Désert and Herculanum, provide the primary material for discussion. These responses include an insightful and previously undiscussed review (of Herculanum) by Ernest Reyer.

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Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 I wish to express my gratitude to Peter Bloom for sage advice on translating, and more generally for encouraging me over the course of four decades in my explorations of la vie musicale of nineteenth-century France. Thanks also to John Allison, Jacek Blaszkiewicz, Sylvia L’Écuyer, Hugh Macdonald, Jürgen Thym and Lesley A. Wright for timely help.

2 Wright, Lesley A., ed., Georges Bizet, Carmen: Dossier de presse parisienne (1875) (Weinsberg: Lucie Galland, 2001)Google Scholar.

3 One notable periodical aimed at youngish women, Le Magasin des demoiselles, included a musical supplement of quadrilles and other works for piano (solo and four-hands). I discuss quadrilles and, specifically, one published in the Magasin (by Henri Marx, on themes from Meyerbeer's opéra-comique Le Pardon de Ploërmel) on pp. 13–17 of my article ‘Nineteenth-Century Music: Quantity, Quality, Qualities’, Nineteenth-Century Music Review 1/1 (2004): 3–41. Berlioz's Voyage en Russie – later incorporated into his Memoirs – first appeared in instalments in this same magazine; for details, see Peter Bloom's immensely informative introduction to his critical edition: Mémoires d'Hector Berlioz de 1803 à 1865 et ses voyages en Italie, en Allemagne, en Russie et en Angleterre, écrits par lui-même (Paris: Vrin, 2019): 32, 34–7. (My review of Bloom's edition is forthcoming in the Journal of the American Musicological Society.)

4 The magazine was eventually sold to Louis Brandus, and continued publication until 1880. Further, see Ellis, Katharine, Music Criticism in Nineteenth-Century France: La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, 1834–1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 On the conflict of interest inherent when a critic reviewed a work published by the firm that he owned or for which he worked, see paragraph 24 of Emmanuel Reibel, ‘Carrières entre presse et opéra au XIXe siècle: Du mélange des genres au conflit d'intérêts’, in Presse et Opéra aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècle: Croisements, échanges, représentations, ed. Olivier Bara, Christophe Cave and Marie-Ève Thérenty, published online at the Médias 19,

6 For basic information about Félicien David, his creative life, and the features and reception history of his works, all scholars are indebted to four biographies: Saint-Étienne, Sylvain, Biographie de Félicien David (Marseilles: Imprimerie de Marius Olive, 1845)Google Scholar; Azevedo, A[lexis], Félicien David: Coup d'oeil sur sa vie et son oeuvre (Paris: Heugel, 1863)Google Scholar; Brancour, René, Félicien David (Paris: Henri Laurens, [1909])Google Scholar; and Hagan, Dorothy Veinus, Félicien David 1810–1876: A Composer and a Cause (Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 1985)Google Scholar. I documented David's early involvement with a utopian-socialist movement (the Saint-Simonians) and noted echoes of that involvement in his work and later life, in my Music, Musicians, and the Saint-Simonians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

7 On the longstanding Germanocentrism in music criticism and aesthetics, see Richard Taruskin's extensive, trenchant entry on nationalism in Grove Music Online,

8 On the problem of what to call ‘classical music’, see Locke, Ralph P., ‘On Exoticism, Western Art Music, and the Words We Use’, Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 69/4 (2012): 318–28Google Scholar. I tend to prefer the phrase ‘Western art music’, in part because the latter allows us to apply analogous phrases to other cultures, e.g., ‘Hindustani art music’ for rāga-based improvisations (in contradistinction to ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ music-making of the same region).

9 John Adams, review of Stephen Walsh, Debussy: A Painter in Sounds, in New York Times Book Reviews, Sunday, 25 November 2018, 1, 18.

10 Félicien David, Le Désert, preface by David Gilbert (Munich: Musikproduktion Jürgen Höflich, 2015). According to the publisher, the performing parts are available from Schott (in Mainz). Another set of parts is at the Edwin A. Fleisher Library (in the Free Library of Philadelphia).

11 Slonimsky, Nicholas, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers since Beethoven's Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000 [1953])Google Scholar.

12 Berlioz, ‘Concert de M. Félicien David’, Journal des débats, 15 December 1844; original French text at and, more reliably transcribed, in Hector Berlioz, Critique musicale, 18231863, ed. H. Robert Cohen, Yves Gérard, Anne Bongrain and Marie Hélène Coudroy-Saghaï, 9 vols. to date (Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 1996–): vol. 5, 597–607.

13 Letter from Berlioz to the elder of his two sisters, Nanci Pal (c. 1 January 1845), in Nouvelles Lettres de Berlioz, de sa famille, de ses contemporains. ed. Peter Bloom, Joël-Marie Fauquet, Hugh J. Macdonald and Cécile Reynaud (Arles: Actes Sud/Palazzetto Bru Zane, 2016), 253.

14 For fuller accounts of Le Désert, see Hagan, Félicien David, 67–86; Richard Taruskin, Oxford History of Western Music, 6 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005): vol. 3, 386–92; my Music, Musicians, and the Saint-Simonians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 208–12; Laudon, Robert, The Dramatic Symphony: Issues and Explorations from Berlioz to Liszt (Hillsdale NY: Pendragon, 2012), 8198Google Scholar, 101, 112, 132 (possible influence on Act 1 prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin), and 133–4; and my chapter ‘The French Symphony: David, Gounod, and Bizet to Saint-Saëns, Franck, and Their Followers’, in The Nineteenth-Century Symphony, ed. D. Kern Holoman (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997), 163–94. In the latter, I erroneously stated that the spoken narration is unrhymed.

15 My review of an award-winning new recording of Le Désert, conducted by Laurence Equilbey, is available online at It provides links to sample tracks from the CD and also discusses the work's previous recording (from a 1989 concert in Berlin, conducted by Guido Maria Guida). The Guida recording has a more persuasive récitant; the Equilbey has more modern sound and offers the score in two ways: with narration and without narration. (The work was, to my knowledge, never performed without narration until Equilbey's recording tried it. The option turns out to be quite persuasive, especially if the listener reads the spoken strophes silently while listening.)

16 The phrase is impossible to translate. The Panthéon in Paris is a building in the fifth arrondissement, built originally as a church and, in 1791, repurposed by the government to honour the nation's heroes. ‘Lyrique’ most often implies not a combination of music and lyric (i.e., first-person or confessional) poetry but opera. (‘Les théâtres lyriques de Paris’ would have been understood by French speakers as meaning ‘the opera houses of Paris’.) Thus, the very name of the building in this fantasy sketched by Berlioz points to works that are not only ‘monumental’ (as he says) but also include sung text and involve or imply dramatic action.

17 Berlioz, ‘Concert de M. Félicien David’ (see n.12). This startling criticism of Haydn's and Mozart's symphonies – in part a bold defence of newer aesthetic principles and musico-structural initiatives by Berlioz and others of his day – deserves a more extended analysis, in conjunction with other writings on Haydn from 1800 onward. On the latter, see the early sections of Proksch, Bryan, Reviving Haydn: New Appreciations in the Twentieth Century (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2015)Google Scholar.

18 Berlioz, ‘Concert de M. Félicien David’. In the course of the review Berlioz shares an important bit of information: the composer had taught the tenor who sang the muezzin's call (in the beginning of Part 3) to sing the chromatic cadenza in ‘intervals smaller than a semitone’ in order to reflect Middle Eastern musical practice (Berlioz, ‘Concert de M. Félicien David’). This ‘Chant du muezzin’ uses much of the traditional Arabic text for the call (adhan), including ‘Allāhu ʾakbar’ and ‘Hayya ʿalā s-salāh’, i.e., ‘God is great [sometimes translated: greater] … Hasten to prayer’. The cadenza appeared in the published full and piano-vocal scores as a simple descending chromatic scale. Presumably David and/or his engravers did not know how to notate the Middle Eastern mode that he was trying to evoke. Perhaps David also suspected that no other tenor than M. Béfort would ever be able to (or even wish to) create that intentionally exotic effect.

19 Berlioz to his sister, Nanci Pal (c. 1 January 1845), in Nouvelles Lettres, 253.

20 On the history and aesthetics of programme music, see Kregor, Jonathan, Program Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Kregor, ed., Nineteenth-Century Programme Music: Creation, Negotiations, Reception (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018). See also my entries on absolute music, program music, program symphony and symphonic poem in Harvard Dictionary of Music, 4th edn, ed. Don Randel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1, 680–3, and 854–6. On earlier and related developments in, for example, symphonies of Haydn, and on public and critical reactions to the same, see Webster, James, Haydn's ‘Farewell’ Symphony and the Idea of Classical Style: Through-Composition and Cyclic Integration in His Instrumental Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Will, Richard, The Characteristic Symphony in the Age of Haydn and Beethoven (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Nicholas Mathew, ‘Interest and the Musical Histories of the Attention Economy’, in ‘Colloquy: Attention, Anxiety, and Audition's Histories’, ed. Brittan, Francesca and Raz, Carmel, Journal of the American Musicological Society 72/2 (2019): 541–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar (Mathew's contribution is pp. 547–52).

21 See the many excerpts from reviews of Christophe Colomb in Gunther Braam, ‘Christophe Colomb: ode-symphonie (1847)’, 21–38, in the smallish book that comes with the world-premiere recording (Ediciones singulares ES 1028). That book also contains a translation (by Charles Johnston) of Braam's chapter: pp. 57–74. The recording is part of a 3-CD set entitled Félicien David (18101876): Christophe Colomb; Musique de chambre, symphonique et sacrée, which is no. 4 in the series of ‘Portrait’ volumes (each of which is devoted to a bouquet of works by a single composer). ‘Portrait’ is one of three CD series being prepared and coordinated by the Centre de musique romantique français, located at the Palazzetto Bru Zane (Venice). On the scholars of the Centre/Palazzetto and the recordings that they enable, see my review of its CD recording of Messager's Les p'tites Michu in Nineteenth-Century Music Review, online first, 2019, doi:10.1017/S1479409819000454.

22 Recordings exist from the pre-electric era (e.g., Luisa Tetrazzini) to today (Sumi Jo, conducted by Richard Bonynge), plus a pricelessly inept rendering by Florence Foster Jenkins, recreated with spectacular accuracy by Meryl Streep in the 2016 movie Florence Foster Jenkins.

23 Lalla-Roukh is now available in a superb recording (without its spoken dialogues) on Naxos 8.660338–39 (2 CDs). Further on Lalla-Roukh, see Morton J. Achter, Félicien David, Ambroise Thomas and French Opéra Lyrique, 1850–1870 (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1972), 107–35; Hagan, Félicien David, 163–78; and my essay in the recording's booklet: ‘Enchantment Rediscovered’, also available online (open-access) at Berlioz's high praise for the work is found in his feuilleton of 23 May 1862 in the Journal des débats,

24 Félicien David, Herculanum, with Véronique Gens, Edgaras Montvidas and other vocal soloists, Flemish Radio Choir, Brussels Philharmonic, cond. Hervé Niquet, Ediciones Singulares/Palazzetto Bru Zane (Centre de musique romantique française), no. 10 in their series ‘Opéra français’. See my review in American Record Guide 79/1 (January/February 2016): 92–5, which appeared, updated and lightly expanded, in the online opera magazine OperaToday, For box-office data for the years 1851–70, see Braam, ‘La Réception d’Herculanum dans la presse contemporaine’ / ‘The Reception of Herculanum in the Contemporary Press’, in the book accompanying the recording, pp. 31–51 (31–3) and (in English) 77–98 (77–9). The article's English translation is by Mark Wiggins. One report indicates that tickets were being resold on the black market at four to five times their original price (ibid., 49; in English, 95).

25 See the excerpts from the 12 reviews in Braam, ‘La Réception’, 35–6 (and, in the translated version, pp. 81–3). To be sure, they were assisted by the fact that the melody is sung twice by Hélios in Act 1 and a third time in Act 2 – and all three times to the same words (‘Je veux aimer toujours / dans l'air que tu respires, / Déesse de la volupté!’). The melody is also one of the work's strongest. Among the 12 critics who praised it were such prominent figures as Jacques-Léopold Heugel, Hector Berlioz (see below), Joseph d'Ortigue, Paul Scudo and Albert de Lasalle. Still, twelve critics independently singling it out? For numerous excerpts of reviews of Christophe Colomb showing similarly suspicious overlaps, see Braam, ‘Christophe Colomb’.

26 ‘L'air d'amour qu'il chante est une de ces mélodies éoliennes que M. Félicien David excelle à filer; mélange ineffable de suavité grecque et de nonchalance créole. – Ainsi chanterait Daphnis berçant Chloé dans un hamac suspendu aux palmiers d'une île tropicale’; Paul de Saint-Victor, La Presse, 6 March 1859, quoted in Braam, ‘Réception’, 35 – translation mine, incorporating one detail from Wiggins's on pp. 81–2.

27 In other words, in the nineteenth century, créole (or Créole) did not primarily refer to a person of mixed European and native origin, even though, when applied to language, the word did imply (as it still does) a dialect that blended vocabulary and syntax from a European language and a native one. See the entries in the French online historical dictionary Trésor informatique de la langue française informatisé,

28 Berlioz, imagination ablaze, evoked the sounds of breeze-animated harp in Lélio, ou Le Retour à la vie (mvt v), first performed in 1832. In 1856, three years before Herculanum, Georges Kastner brought the rich history of the Aeolian harp to public attention in a fascinating treatise. See his La Harpe d’Éole: Études sur les rapports des phénomènes sonores de la nature avec la science et l'art (Paris: Brandus, Dufour, 1856). The treatise ends with a musical work by Kastner that relates to matters discussed in the treatise and is entitled Stephen ou La Harpe d’Éole: Grand Monologue lyrique avec choeurs.

29 Créole (in writings by Balzac and others) often suggested that the person in question was happily inactive and relaxed and lived in isolation from the stresses of his or her original (civilized, stressful, European) homeland – qualities that seem consistent with Saint-Victor's use of the term. See, again, Trésor informatique de la langue française informatisé,

30 Ernest Reyer, review of Herculanum, in Le Courrier de Paris, 8 March 1859, full text transcribed by Nizam Ketanneh at My translation is a bit free, to capture Reyer's meaning and tone in idiomatic English. ‘Toutes les préventions que pouvaient avoir contre son aptitude dramatique ceux qui s'obstinaient à le considérer seulement comme un symphoniste habile, doivent avoir disparu aujourd'hui. Les mélodies d’Herculanum sont si faciles à retenir, et j'en ai retenu une telle quantité, que j'aurais pu en noircir les dix colonnes de ce feuilleton, si un feuilleton musical s'imprimait sur du papier à musique. Je voudrais bien savoir le nom de l’éditeur qui, dans ce cas là, aurait eu le droit de me faire un procès, car un éditeur ne peut manquer à une si belle œuvre.’

31 Reyer, review of Herculanum: ‘coups de tamtam et de grosse caisse frappés pianissimo et se détachant sur un léger roulement de timbales’.

32 Unfortunately, this and several other dances were omitted in the opera's only recording.

33 Berlioz's review (Journal des débats, 12 March 1859) is reprinted in its entirety in Berlioz, Critique musicale, vol. 9, 475–86; also at and, incompletely, in the book accompanying the recording (with translation by Mary Pardoe, but I have made my own here).

34 Sylvia L’Écuyer, ‘Félicien David's Herculanum: Staging the Apocalyptic Sublime’, in the programme book for the Summer 2017 performances of Herculanum at Wexford Festival Opera, pp. 18–21 (here 20).

35 Braam, ‘Réception’, 44–6 (91–3 in the translation by Wiggins).

36 ‘Les passions humaines, il ne les sent pas et il ne saurait les reproduire … Il ne trouve que des accents efféminés’. Léon Escudier, review in La France musicale, 13 March 1859, quoted in Braam, ‘Réception’, 45 (translation freely based on that of Wiggins in Braam, ‘Reception’, 92).

37 The recording, conducted by Hervé Niquet, is no. 18 in the Opéra français series from the Centre de musique romantique française (on the Bru Zane label, BZ1033, 2 CDs). The opera was already slightly familiar to vocal fanciers because of Joan Sutherland's memorable recording of a solo passage from the Act 1 soprano/tenor duet (‘Ce Sarrasin disait’). See my review of the Niquet recording: American Record Guide 82 (Jan./Feb. 2019): 100–102, lightly revised and uploaded (with links to selected tracks) to the online arts-magazine The Arts Fuse:

38 Gunther Braam, ‘La Réception du Tribut de Zamora’, in the smallish book accompanying the work's first recording: pp. 20–31 (translated by Charles Johnston as ‘The Reception of Le Tribut de Zamora’, in ibid., 64–75).

39 The piece, entitled La Nuit, was recorded in 2001 by Roberto Diaz, with pianist Robert Koenig (Naxos 8.555262). It can also be heard in several highly accomplished performances on YouTube.

40 An informative biography of David, written by his childhood friend and future librettist Sylvain Saint-Étienne (see n.6), appeared within a year of the premiere of Le Désert.

41 Macdonald, Hugh, Saint-Saëns and the Stage: Operas, Plays, Pageants, a Ballet and a Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 168CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See the work's first recording, Ediciones singulares ES1027 (2 CDs), the essays in the accompanying book, and my review of the recording: American Record Guide 80 (Sept./Oct. 2017): 140–41, uploaded (lightly revised and with links to recorded tracks) to the online arts-magazine The Arts Fuse:

42 Macdonald, Saint-Saëns, 6.

43 On the double careers of many music critics (e.g., journalist-cum-theatre-administrator), see Reibel, ‘Carrières entre presse et opéra au XIXe siècle’, especially paragraphs 9–12 (on critics who were trained musicians – often at least sometime-composers – and could therefore adduce musical details in a competent fashion when writing).

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How Reliable Are Nineteenth-Century Reviews of Concerts and Operas?: Félicien David's Le Désert and His Grand Opéra Herculanum
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