Halévy was born in Paris, the son of a cantor, Elie Halfon Halévy, who was the secretary of the Jewish community of Paris, a writer and a teacher of Hebrew, and a French Jewish mother. The name Fromental, by which he was generally known, reflects that he was born on the feast-day of that name in the French Revolutionary calendar which was still operative at that time. He entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine or ten (accounts differ), in 1809, becoming a pupil and later protegé of Cherubini. After two second-place attempts, he won the Prix de Rome in 1819: his cantata subject was Herminie.

As he had to delay his departure to Rome because of the death of his mother, he was able to accept the first commission that brought him to public attention - a ' Marche Funebre et De Profundis en Hebreu ' for three part choir, tenor and orchestra, which was commissioned by the Consistoire Israélite du Département de la Seine, for a public service in memory of the assassinated duc de Berry, performed on March 24, 1820. Later, his brother Léon recalled that the De Profundis, "infused with religious fervor, created a sensation, and attracted interest to the young laureate of the institute."

Halévy was chorus master at the Théâtre Italien, while he struggled to get an opera performed. With the very modest success of L'artisan, at the Opéra-Comique in 1827, Halévy moved on to be chorus master at the Opéra. The same year he became professor of harmony and accompaniment at the Conservatoire, where he was professor of counterpoint and fugue in 1833 and of composition in 1840. He was elected to the Institut de France in 1836.

With his opera La Juive, in 1835, Halévy attained not only his first major triumph, but gave the world a work that was to be one of the cornerstones of the French repertory for a century, with the role of Eléazar one of the great favorites of tenors such as Enrico Caruso. The opera's most famous aria is Eléazar's "Rachel, quand du Seigneur" . Its orchestral ritornello is the one quotation from Halévy that Berlioz included in his Treatise on Orchestration, for its first orchestral use of the valved French horn. It is probable however that this aria was inserted only at the request of the great tenor Adolphe Nourrit, who premiered the role and may have suggested the aria's text. La Juive is one of the grandest of grand operas, with major choruses, a spectacular procession in Act I, and impressive celebrations in Act III. It culminates with the heroine plunging into a vat of boiling water in Act V. Mahler admired it greatly, stating: "I am absolutely overwhelmed by this wonderful, majestic work. I regard it as one of the greatest operas ever created". Other admirters included Richard Wagner who wrote an enthusiastic review of its premiere for the German press (Wagner never showed towards Halévy the anti-Jewish animus that was so notorious a feature of his writings on Meyerbeer).

After La Juive Halévy's real successes were relatively few, although at least three operas, L'eclair, La reine de Chypre and Charles VI should be mentioned. As Heine commented, Halévy was an artist, but 'without the slightest spark of genius'. He however became a leading bureaucrat of the arts, becoming Secretary of the Academy and presiding over committees to determine the standard pitch of orchestral A, to award prizes for operettas, and so on. The artist Delacroix offers a chilling portrait of Halévy's decline in his diaries (5th February 1855):

‘I went on to Halévy’s house, where the heat from his stove was suffocating. His wretched wife has crammed his house with bric-a-brac and old furniture, and this new craze will end by driving him to a lunatic asylum. He has changed and looks much older, like a man who is being dragged on against his will. How can he possibly do serious work in this confusion? His new position at the Academy must take up a great deal of his time, and make it more and more difficult for him to find the peace and quiet he needs for his work. Left that inferno as quickly as possible. The breath of the streets seemed positively delicious’

Halévy died in retirement at Nice.

[edit] Works

Halévy wrote some forty operas in all, including:


Clari (1828), in Italian; a modest success, even with Maria Malibran in the starring role

La Dilettante d'Avignon (1828)

Ludovic (1833), an opera that had been begun by Hérold, scoring a more solid success

La Juive (1835), his first resounding, international success

L'Éclair (1835), also a great success, in the same season

Guido et Ginevra (1838), mediocre

Le Shérif, which Hector Berlioz referred to as a "delightful comic opera"

Le Guitarréro (1841), mediocre

La Reine de Chypre (1841) praised by Richard Wagner, perhaps the most successful 19th century opera yet to be revived in the post war period and be made available on CD.

Charles VI (1843) (successfully revived at Compiègne in 2005)

Les Mousquetaires de la reine (1846), a light costume romance

Le Val d'Andorre, (1848), a huge success, according to Berlioz....

La fée aux roses (1849)

La Tempesta (1850), in Italian, after Shakespeare's The Tempest

La Dame de pique (1850) (after Prosper Merimée)

Le Juif errant (1852) after a play by Sue

Le nabab (1853)

Jaguarita l'Indienne (1855)

La Magicienne(1858)

Halévy also wrote for the ballet, provided incidental music for a French version of Aeschylus's Prometheus Enchained, and wrote cantatas.

[edit] Halévy's Family

Halévy's brother was the writer and historian Léon Halévy, who wrote an early biography of his brother and was the father of Ludovic Halévy, librettist of many French operas, including Bizet's Carmen.

Halévy's wife, Léonie, who had experienced serious mental problems during their marriage, underwent a remarkable recovery after his death and became a talented sculptress. (She was 20 years younger than he). Their daughter Genéviève married the composer Bizet, who had been one of Halévy's pupils at the Conservatoire. After Bizet's death, and an alliance with Delaborde, the son of Charles-Valentin Alkan, Genéviève married a banker with Rothschild connections and became a leading Parisian hostess. Amongst the guests at her soirées was the young Marcel Proust, who used her as a model of the Duchesse de Guermantes in his epic In Search of Lost Time.

Find current performances of Operas by Halevy