Reyer, Louis Etienne Ernest



Celebrated French composer; born at Marseilles; was a pupil of the Barsotti Free School of Music. At the age of sixteen he went to Algiers in an official capacity for the French government, meanwhile keeping up his piano practise and beginning to compose, though without previous training in this line. Among these early works were several songs and a mass. In 1848 the Revolution changed his prospects, and he decided to follow a musical career. Returning to Paris he became a pupil of his aunt, Mme. Louise Farrenc. In 1850 his symphonic ode, Le Selam, with libretto by Theophile Gautier, was successfully produced at the Theatre Italien. This was followed by Maitre Wolfram, a comic opera in one act; Sacountala, a ballet; La Statue; and Erostrate. In 1884 the opera, Sigurd, was produced. The subject of this work is identical with that of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, but cannot be called a plagiarism, although Reyer's method of construction somewhat resembles that of Wagner's earlier works, Salammbo, a second grand opera, based on Flaubert's romance of ancient Carthage, was produced at Brussels in 1890. It possesses both dramatic and instrinsic musical worth, but did not attract much attention at first. His cantata, Victoire, an earlier work, was performed at the Grand Opera in 1859. Other works include a dramatic scene, several male choruses, sacred music, and songs.


Reyer is as well known in the capacity of a writer on music as he is in that of a composer. He contributed to a number of Parisian periodicals, and was musical critic to the Journal des Debats. In 1876 he succeeded David as a member of the Institut. Reyer was a warm admirer of the latter, and has been called his legitimate successor in music and literature. A collection of his best articles was published in 1875 under the title, Notes de Musique. In 1862 he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Of recent years he has been the librarian of the Grand Opera. This composer seems to have been unfortunate in producing his operas just a little after successful works with librettos sufficiently similar to prevent public appreciation of his own. Sigurd has been mentioned as a case in point; Le Selam suffered a like fate from the comparison with David's Le Desert; while La Statue, says Hervey, "arrived too soon," during the period when Tannhauser was hissed off the stage and Gounod's Faust was not yet unreservedly praised; however, it made a mark for Reyer as a rising composer. Bizet considered La Statue the most remarkable opera given in France for twenty years. It brought its composer a membership in the Academic.


Although a man of high ideals and firm convictions, Reyer has not been great enough to command public attention by the force of genius. His music is said to be deficient in originality and to reveal, at various stages of its growth, influences of the style of Gluck and Weber and of the orchestration of Berlioz and Wagner. Nevertheless, it exhibits an imagination, a knowledge and a dramatic instinct above the ordinary.