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Genre – The “ode-symphonie”

Although the “ode-symphonie” is little known today, it was one of the many expressions of Romanticism in music, and much in vogue after 1850. Félicien David invented this hybrid genre for his work, Le Désert (1844). The “ode-symphonie” makes equal use of elements found in the symphony, opera, cantata and oratorio. Formed of tableaux with titles rather than separated into acts, it interweaves declaimed verses, recitatives, arias and choruses, and features romances, ballades, prayers, duets, etc. Winning huge acclaim at its first performance, particularly from Berlioz, who saw David as a disciple of his symphonic research, Le Désert fostered new works based on this model. These included (as well as an ambitious Christophe Colomb by Félicien David himself), Clovis (Ferroud), Le Sélam (Reyer) or Vasco de Gama (Bizet). These works all tackled a historic subject, often oriental in nature, which was given a highly poetic treatment. The introduction of a speaker declaiming lines often full of imagery—like the narrators in the Passions or oratorios of the Baroque period—placed the spectator outside the action, reinforcing the work’s symphonic dimensions while preserving the dramatic intensity of opera. This equivocal output, distinctly modern but eminently personal (particularly in the case of David), may explain why the genre declined at the end of the century, even though works like La Mer by Victorin Joncières or Lutèce by Augusta Holmès are still noteworthy. The role of speaker was gradually replaced by a work that was exclusively sung, even though it maintained extremely porous borders with the new “dramatic symphony” (like Godard’s Le Tasse, in 1878).