Félicien David established the genre of exotic music in the Romantic age. His symphonic ode Le Désert caused a sensation at its first performance in Paris. In music history he remained in the shadow of Hector Berlioz and passed into oblivion after his death.
The symphonic ode Le Désert, with words by Auguste Collin, was first performed on December 8, 1844, in Paris. It is written in three movements, for solo tenor, a speaker, chorus and orchestra. The opening of Part II “Hymn to the Night”, was especially popular. His masterpiece is the two-act opéra comique Lalla Roukh (1862), based on Thomas Moore’s “oriental romance” (1817).
- Hyperion CDA66470 Original 19th-century music for brass includes the nonet in C minor (1939, 4 movements, ca. 20 min.)
- Marco Polo 8.223376 Les brises d’Orient, Les Minarets (piano)
- Marco Polo 8.223492 Piano trios Nos. 2 and 3
Félicien-César David became an orphan at the age of five, the youngest of four small children. A few years later, at the advice of a former oboist who happened to live nearby, he was sent to the cathedral in Aix-en-Provence to be trained as a choirboy. Thereafter he worked in Aix for a few years and in 1830 moved to Paris. At the Paris conservatory he studied for another year as a penniless student. Through a friend he became attracted to Saint-Simonism, a socialist movement based on the writings of Claude-Henri de Rourroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825). At that time it had already spread as an almost religious cult throughout France, but it burned out soon. As a political movement it was a failure, but some of its ideas took root.
David joined the cause of Saint-Simonism officially in 1832 and became member of a Saint-Simonian community near Paris. Soon the government closed the community and imprisoned its leader, Barthélemy-Proper Enfantin. A small band of his followers decided to travel to the East and arrived in Constantinople in March 1833. In Cairo they were joined by Enfantin in October 1833. David stayed nearly two years in Egypt before returning to France.
Back in Paris he had a difficult time making a living, while composing pieces with an oriental flavor. The break-through came in 1844, when he finished his symphonic ode Le Désert. First performed on December 8, 1844, it had an instantaneous success. This overnight change of fortune enabled David to settle as a composer, writing many more works in the same vein. His greatest success came with the opera Lalla Roukh, which was first performed on 12 May, 1862. It received hundreds of performances. People came from all over France by special train.
In the 1860’s David received official public recognition, but after his death he was soon forgotten. His musical language is very conventional and only his orientalism was an inspiration for other composers.
- Dorothy Veinus Hagan, Félicien David 1810-1876; A Composer and a Cause, Syracuse University press, Syracuse, New York, 1985.