On March 17, 1862, the Jewish French composer Jacques-François-Fromental-Élie Halévy died, aged 62. In a long career, during which he wrote some 40 operas, Halevy produced one lasting work – “La Juive” (the Jewess). During the 19th century it was one of France’s most popular operas, and is still staged today.
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He was usually known as Fromental Halévy, because the day he was born, May 27, 1799, was the feast day of Fromental, “oat grass” in French, in the French Republican calendar. His father, Elyahu Halfon, was a German Jew who changed his name to Elie Halévy when he moved to Paris. There he worked as a cantor and became the secretary of the Paris Consistoire, the organized Jewish community, although he thought of himself more as an “Israelite” culturally than a religious Jew. Fromental’s mother was Julie Meyer, from the Alsatian town of Merzeville.
Fromental Halévy was enrolled in the Paris Conservatory by age 9 or 10, and in 1819 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which entitled him to a year’s study at the Villa Medici there.
After returning to France, Halévy worked at the conservatory, teaching composition and harmony, among other subjects. He was also a chorus master at the Paris Opera.
Although he wrote a dozen operas, he had little success in getting them produced until he had the good fortune to be asked to score a libretto by Eugène Scribe, probably the leading librettist in Europe at the time. The book was “La Juive.”
“La Juive,” which takes place in 15th-century Germany, tells the story of Eleazar the Jew, whose two sons were executed as heretics after they were denounced by Count Brogni. Later, Eleazar rescues a young girl from a burning house and raises her as his own, calling her Rachel. The house had been Brogni’s, who after losing his family – including, he believes, his daughter – in the fire, became a priest and eventually the pope.
Now an adult, Rachel falls in love with a Jewish artist she knows as Samuel. He is actually Prince Leopold, who is not only Christian but also married. The punishment for a Jew and a Christian who have sexual relations is death for the Jew and excommunication for the Christian.
Samuel visits Rachel’s home on Seder night. After refusing to eat matza he reveals to his beloved his true identity, and urges her to run away with him. She refuses, and eventually she and Samuel/Leopold are denounced.
The plot ascends to increasingly unlikely heights of dramatic coincidence, but ends with Eleazar, whose greatest desire is to take revenge on Brogni for his sons’ deaths, revealing to the pope that Rachel is his daughter just as Rachel accepts her death sentence – for sleeping with Leopold – by plunging into a vat of boiling oil.
“La Juive” was a great success, but it can’t be said to be especially Jewish – neither in musical themes nor really in its presentation of Jewish life or values. Eleazar is distinguished mainly for his vengefulness, not unlike Shylock.
The work was the artistic and commercial peak of Halévy’s career, although he went to write more than a dozen operas after it and was invited to join the Academie des Beaux Arts. There, he headed the committee that was responsible for determining the orchestra’s concert pitch (the A above middle C).
Heinrich Heine wrote of Halévy that he was an artist, but one “without the slightest spark of genius.”
At his death, in Nice, on this date in 1862, Halévy left unfinished an opera called “Noé.” It was later completed by Georges Bizet, who married Halévy’s daughter Genevieve in 1869.
Heinrich Heine wrote of Halévy that he was an artist, but one ‘without the slightest spark of genius.’ At his death, he left ‘Noé,’ an unfinished opera.