Fromental Élie Halévy, Jacques François (1799-1862)

by Hervé Roten

It is in the synagogue that music composers like Fromental Halévy (1799-1862), Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) and Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) received their first musical education.

Elie Lévy (1760-1826), father of Fromental Halévy, native of Furth, small town situated north of Nuremberg, was a cantor at the synagogue. After the declaration of Human Rights, he settles down in France. In 1798, he marries Julie Mayer, a Jewish woman from Lorraine region, and have their first son : Jacques François Fromental Elias Lévy is born in Paris in 1799. After the decree of 1808 ordering the Jews to get registered by the state, Elie Lévy changes his name into Halévy, in reference certainly to the XIIth century Sefardi philosopher and musician, Juda Halévy.

Raised with the synagogue’s chants, young Fromental reveals himself particularly talented for music. At the age of 10, he enters the Music School of Paris and follows the class of Cherubini two years later. At the age of 20 he receives the Grand Prize of Rome. In Vienna, he spends time with Beethoven, but he is more admiring of Mozart. After his difficult beginning with lyrical art, he suddenly becomes famous in 1835 with his opera La Juive, on a libretto by Scribe. This success was explosive in Europe during almost one century. It was translated in many languages and performed many times. It was then forgotten until mid XXth century.

In 1840, Fromental Halévy is appointed teacher of composition in the Music School of Paris; his students will be Gounod, Bizet, Saint-Saëns… Tempted a time by politics, he runs for the National Assembly elections, without success. Member of the Beaux-Arts Academy since 1836, he is appointed perpetual secretary in 1854. Despite this total integration in French politics and culture, Halévy continues to collaborate with the Jewish community, but keeping his distance with the too strict orthodoxy.

He writes various vocal music pieces for the synagogue. Vayehi binsoa is a solemn piece accompanying the release of the Torah from the tabernacle. The psalm 115 is sung during the ceremonies of Pessah, Chavouot and Soukkot. As for the psalm 118, it is a piece composed by Halévy for his nephew’s wedding, M. Edgar Rodrigues with Mlle Louise Mayer, on May 2nd 1858.

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