Méhul, Étienne Nicolas (1763–1817)

Méhul was born at Givet in Ardennes to Jean-François Méhul, a wine merchant, and his wife Marie-Cécile (née Keuly). His first music lessons came from a blind local organist, but he had innate aptitude and was sent to study with a German musician and organist, Wilhelm Hanser, at the monastery of Lavaldieu, a few miles from Givet. Here Méhul developed his lifelong love of flowers.

In 1778 or 1779 he went to Paris and began to study with Jean-Frédéric Edelmann, a harpsichord player and friend of Méhul's idol Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Méhul's first published composition was a book of piano pieces in 1783. He also arranged airs from popular operas and by the late 1780s he had begun to think about an operatic career for himself.

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.

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. 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 led by Dennis Brain.)

 

Mehul in 1799

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Overture: La Chasse de Jeune Henri
edb 04001
30.00
 
Méhul / R R Hall