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Lost in the post: undiscovered Méhul

Tue Feb 7 2017

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Etienne Mehul

Six things you probably didn’t know about France’s revolutionary Romantic composer.

French composer Etienne Méhul was a musical innovator who helped drag music kicking and screaming into the 19th century. What’s more, his career spanned a remarkable time from the beginnings of the French Revolution to Napoleon.

Here are some things you might like to know about this Revolutionary composer:

1 He survived Revolutionary France’s Reign of Terror, but only just. In one case, censors described the libretto for the opera Mélidore et Phrosine as “not against us, but it must be for us”. Several lines were diplomatically added before the premiere.

2 Méhul and his librettists skilfully used allegory to make points they probably couldn’t have got away with by using contemporary French figures. Romans, Amazonians, Scottish nobles and Crusaders all feature as substitutes.

3 Smarting from bad reviews for his 1802 opera Une folie, Méhul (allegedly) challenged a critic to a duel, wounding but not killing the unlucky journalist.

4 Méhul’s 1806 opera Uthal is set in the Scottish Highlands. To mix things up (and to give it a brooding “Scottish atmosphere”), he removed all the violins and replaced them with violas.

5 Méhul’s Third and Fourth Symphonies were rediscovered by British musicologist David Charlton in 1979. We gave the London premiere of the Fourth back in 2010.

6 After the Revolution, Méhul endeared himself to the new Emperor Napoleon, and he was commissioned to write music for the new French Republic. His opera Les Amazones premiered in Paris in front of Napoleon in 1811. However, the singer playing the god Jupiter missed a cue to mount a flying chariot, and in a desperate attempt to recreate the intended effect attempted to hurl himself into the stalls! Eye-witness accounts claims the Emperor found it hilarious.

Hear ‘a best of Méhul’ with music from his many operas, plus selections from his contemporaries Mozart, Beethoven and Gluck at our concert Méhul: The First Romantic.

Friday 10 February, St John’s Smith Square


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