Mehul, Etienne Nicolas



French writer of operas and songs; one of the last members of the old classical school of musicians in France, and a favorite composer of the great Napoleon. He was born at Givet, in Ardennes, where his father was a cook, and was able to give him only a very limited education. The boy began organ lessons with an old blind musician, and made such good progress that he became the organist of the Recollets Convent at the age of ten. Later he studied with Hauser, who was organist at the Convent of Lavaldieu, and, when he was fourteen, was made a deputy organist there. Went to Paris in 1778 and became a pupil of Ebelmann, teaching and writing sonatas. In 1779 he saw the first performance of Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride and was profoundly impressed by it. Gluck offered to give him some lessons, and soon discovered that Mehul was not fitted for church composition, which until that time had been his aim, and advised him to take up opera. His Cora et Alonzo was accepted by the Academy, but its appearance was postponed. Euphrosine et Coradin was produced with excellent results at the Opera Comique in 1790. Then followed Stratonice, the romantic story of a prince who loved his father's betrothed; Phrosine et Melidor; Le Jeune Henri; and Ariodant. By this time Mehul's musical reputation was firmly established, and in 1795 he was made a member of the Academy. During these years he had produced many works of lesser importance, among them compositions celebrating events of the Revolution and patriotic songs, as the famous Chant du Depart. This had caused him to be looked upon as a sort of musician of the people. In 1802 he was decorated with the cross of the Legion of Honor. His later works are L'Irato, a satire on the Italian opera buffa; Utal, a subject taken from Ossian, notable for the entire absence of violinns in the orchestral score; Les Aveugles de Tolede; and Joseph, considered his masterpiece. This last opera follows the simple story of the Bible and is entirely without women characters. It shows the influence of Gluck, but is original, having many beautiful passages, the words being very appropriate. Though generally using serious subjects, the composer brought out a few comic operas. Among the best of  them are Une Folie and Le Tresor Suppose. Mehul worked with unfailing industry, composing twenty-four operas in seventeen years besides his other works, but he became a victim of consumption, and was obliged to retire to Provence. He died at Paris. The music of Mehul was representative of the revolutionary spirit of France in much the same way that the songs of Halfdan Kjerulf were characteristic of Norway's struggles for liberty. His directness and strong emotion are qualities in which this fact is exemplified. He is distinctly a follower of Gluck, and still uses a form of his own. From a scientific standpoint he surpassed Gluck, but his dramatic insight or instinct was inferior to that of Gluck.