Legend tells that Ulysses was the first mariner and man able to escape the temptations of the Bay of Naples. He had heard of the bay’s infamous sirens – part women, part bird – that lured sailors to their death by singing so beautifully that no one could sail on without succumbing.
Close to the bay Ulysses plugged the ears of his crew with beeswax and bound himself to the mast until they had sailed safely out of range of the sirens’ audible temptation. Angry over their failure to seduce their prey, one of the sirens, Parthenope, drowned herself in the sea.
The original settlement on the bay was said to have grown on the spot where she washed ashore, claiming her name as its own (the area is now part of the city of Naples, Italy).
From that very moment, the city of Naples started his path in history and no one was able to escape anymore from his charming, least of all French composers.
Seduced by its beauty, its songs and its flavour, back in their country and far away from this fusion of heaven and hell, from high and low cultures that mix together uniquely, composers like Alkan, Poulenc, Godard and Debussy kept remembrance of this Ville Joyeuse deep in their earth, a city bestowed by God upon music and musicians.
Useless, in this cd, seek for that theoretical transaction of Italian-French music that since the first Parallèle des Italiens et des Français en ce que regarde la musique et les opéras (1702) by François Raguenet (1660–1722), a scholarly French priest, that caused a lively controversy because of its author’s manifest preference for Italian music. As we are over the Querelle des Bouffons, the essence of Daniele Adornetto’s project are composers between XIX and XX century and the way they perceive Neapolitan music into their production.
Close to the famous Claude Debussy, we found different perspectives of Parthenopean music. The first piece encountered was written by Charles Marie Valentin Alkan, a renowned virtuoso famous for an extremely complex technic. He chooses a standard approach in his Variations sur une Barcarolle napolitaine,  composed merely for showing his own pianist abilities as well as did H. Rosellen in his Santa Lucia (from the famous song with the same name).
Completely different and almost in contrast is the idea of Claude Debussy. Written in Dieppe in September 1904, L’Isle Joyeuse  could be considered as one of the greatest masterpieces of early twentieth-century pianism and a rare example of Debussy’s concert piece.
A shiny work, able to enter immediately and overwhelmingly in the collective imagination, where the euphoric happiness arising from the new love for Emma Bardac, married after leaving his first wife, becomes palpable.
The inspiration would come from a painting by Watteau named L’embarquement pour Cythère, so not from Neapolitan songs, which would explain the reason for the ancient spelling of “island” with isle, instead of ile.
As Les Collines d’Anacapri, Preludes No. 5 from Book 1, a quasi-tarantella where are still nature and environment to be the main protagonists. Alfredo Casella asked Debussy why he titled the piece with reference to hills, while on the small island of Capri there are slopes but not hilly landscapes. Debussy would have replied that knowing the wine of Anacapri, he had thought that wine is produced where there are hills.
The three-movement of Napoli – Suite pour le piano by Francis Poulenc is a typical French character piece. Written during a visit to Italy and finished in Nazelles in September 1925, it is conceived as a large-scale virtuoso piano music. The suite opens with a Barcarolle, a flowing cantilena.
The Nocturne which follows is similarly lyrical. The third movement, Caprice italien, suggest the bustle of Naples. All the three pieces are effective, exuberant, and extremely difficult under a technic profile, nevertheless, Poulenc never breaks his inner poetic where bright melodies, brisk rhythms and a lucid style always lead the pieces.
Deeply connected with Poulenc is even the Tarantelle by Henri Tomasi , composer and conductor of Corsican descent, a pupil of Gaubert at the Paris Conservatoire and winner of the Prix de Rome in 1927.
He was one of the founders, alongside Prokofiev, Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger, of the contemporary music group ‘Triton’. His vision of a Tarantelle is maybe the most iconoclastic, his use of rhythms of the original Dance as well as the main melody is a mere excuse to exposing a deconstructing idea of the piece.
More classical and traditional to the standard idea of the piece du salon are composers like
Chaminade, Pierné and Herz (the older of the cd).
They oppose to avant-guarde and impressionism ideas the main songs of the city. Its rhythms come back to the center of their music. If Gabriel Pierné in his Tarantelle  use several themes, well recognisable from the traditional repertoire, just for showing a good entertainment, Chaminade has a fascinating and almost dramatic idea of Neapolitan music.
Chanson Napolitaine is nearly a song of nostalgy full of recall from a journey in the past by that time, and that could never happen again. A wonderful idealisation of a city able to enchant his visitors putting in their souls indelible memories of joy and lightheartedness.
The Cd closes with the Austrian-born Henri Herz (1803 – 1888). Probably the most classical of all pieces introduced in this collection and one of the most typical example of music destinated to entertain the wealthy middle class and nobleman of Paris of the first half of the 19th Century. His Rondò-Caprice retrieves us that the witchery that a city like Naples has on people started years, century and millennium ago and will probably live everlastingly as long as its people will be able of his unlimited creativity and boundless imagination.
(Album Notes by Edmondo Filippini)
Benjamin Godard (b Paris, 18 Aug 1849; d Cannes, 10 Jan 1895). French composer. At the age of ten he was enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire where he studied with Henri Reber. Although he was considered a child prodigy as a violinist, he did not win any prizes at the Conservatoire, and his submissions in 1863 and 1864 for the Prix de Rome were unsuccessful. A prodigious worker, he soon began to establish a reputation as a composer in Germany and Spain as well as in France, and by the 1870s was well known throughout Europe and considered by many to be one of the most important of the young French composers of his day, frequently compared to the young Mozart on account of his early display of talent. Critics agree, however, that early adulation jeopardized his later career.
Godard composed works in most genres with the exception of church music, but ultimately he made his reputation as a composer of salon pieces for piano and of songs, albums of which were translated into English. Also active as a poet, he provided some of his own song-texts, as well as setting contemporary French poetry, mainly in a romantic vein. His style was deliberately traditional and, being of Jewish extraction, he shunned any influence of Wagner, whose opinions he despised, particularly when he was critical of Beethoven whom Godard idolized. Mendelssohn’s easily lyrical style may be identified at the root of much of Godard’s music, which is founded upon solidly traditional principles of harmony.
His early promise did not really develop in his later works, although his early death from consumption meant that he had no chance to mature fully as a composer. The Symphonie légendaire is somewhat unusual as a genre. More like a song cycle with orchestral interludes, it combines poems based on legends by Charles Grandmougin, Leconte de Lisle and Godard himself, among others, and is divided into three parts, the central section being religious and the outer parts rooted in folklore. In his Symphonie orientale his collecting of genuine oriental music and its fusion with western harmony was much admired. Among his operas, Jocelyn had a successful première in Brussels, while Le Dante was criticized for having too many triple-time arias. Most successful was La vivandière, an opera set in the period of the Revolution whose title refers to a military canteen-keeper who reunites a republican soldier with his royalist father. Set in the Vendée and employing onstage military music and folksongs, it was unfinished at the time of Godard’s death but was completed by Paul Vidal, and ran to over 80 performances. His piano pieces, often published with the usual elaborately illustrated covers that adorned salon-music, display a wide variety of styles. They range from simple pieces for children and amateurs to more virtuoso studies, the best of which show considerable compositional skill and some degree of textural sophistication. These include the highly successful 12 études artistiques, and Lanterne magique, which preoccupied Godard over a long period of time, and in which each song is prefaced by a poem by the composer himself. His songs have considerable charm and one or two numbers from his operas have survived in the repertory in their own right.
Where most early 20th-century historians soon forgot Godard, or afforded him only a passing mention, the influential English critic Arthur Hervey summed him up well in his history of 19th-century French music, as having somewhat abused his talent for commercial gain. He saw Godard’s music as ‘full of charm’ and ‘breathing a gentle spirit of melancholy’, and said of the composer: ‘he can conjure up visions of the past, stir up memories of forgotten days … the best that was in him was perhaps expressed in works of small calibre, songs and pianoforte pieces’.
Camille Saint-Säens: (b Paris, 9 Oct 1835; d Algiers, 16 Dec 1921). French composer, pianist, organist and writer. Like Mozart, to whom he was often compared, he was a brilliant craftsman, versatile and prolific, who contributed to every genre of French music. He was one of the leaders of the French musical renaissance of the 1870s.
Cecile Chaminade: (b Paris, 8 Aug 1857; d Monte Carlo, 13 April 1944). French composer and pianist. While it is striking that nearly all of Chaminade’s approximately 400 compositions were published, even more striking is the sharp decline in her reputation as the 20th century progressed. This is partly attributable to modernism and a general disparagement of late Romantic French music, but it is also due to the socio-aesthetic conditions affecting women and their music.
The third of four surviving children, Chaminade received her earliest musical instruction from her mother, a pianist and singer; her first pieces date from the mid-1860s. Because of paternal opposition to her enrolling at the Paris Conservatoire, she studied privately with members of its faculty: Félix Le Couppey, A.-F. Marmontel, M.-G.-A. Savard and Benjamin Godard. In the early 1880s Chaminade began to compose in earnest, and works such as the first piano trio op.11 (1880) and the Suite d’orchestre op.20 (1881) were well received. She essayed an opéra comique, La Sévillane, which had a private performance (23 February 1882). Other major works of the decade were the ballet symphonique Callirhoë op.37, performed at Marseilles on 16 March 1888; the popular Concertstück op.40 for piano and orchestra, which was given its première at Antwerp on 18 April 1888; and Les amazones, a symphonie dramatique, given on the same day. After 1890, with the notable exception of the Concertino op.107, commissioned by the Conservatoire (1902), and her only Piano Sonata (op.21, 1895), Chaminade composed mainly character pieces and mélodies. Though the narrower focus may have been due to financial, aesthetic or discriminatory considerations, this music became very popular, especially in England and the USA; and Chaminade helped to promote sales through extensive concert tours. From 1892 she performed regularly in England and became a welcome guest of Queen Victoria and others.
Meanwhile, enthusiasm grew in the USA, largely through the many Chaminade clubs formed around 1900, and in autumn 1908 she finally agreed to make the arduous journey there. She appeared in 12 cities, from Boston to St Louis. With the exception of the concert at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music in early November, which featured the Concertstück, the programme consisted of piano pieces and mélodies. The tour was a financial success; critical evaluation, however, was mixed. Many reviews practised a form of sexual aesthetics that was common in Chaminade’s career and that of many women composers in the 19th and 20th centuries (see Citron, 1988). Pieces deemed sweet and charming, especially the lyrical character pieces and songs, were criticized for being too feminine, while works that emphasize thematic development, such as the Concertstück, were considered too virile or masculine and hence unsuited to the womanly nature of the composer. Based also on assumptions about the relative value of large and small works, complex and simple style, and public and domestic music-making, this critical framework was largely responsible for the decline in Chaminade’s compositional reputation in the 20th century.
Prestigious awards began to come her way, culminating in admission to the Légion d’Honneur in 1913 – the first time it was granted to a female composer. Nonetheless, the award was belated and ironic considering that she had been largely ignored in France for some 20 years. In August 1901 Chaminade married Louis-Mathieu Carbonel, an elderly Marseilles music publisher, in what may have been a platonic arrangement; he died in 1907 and she never remarried. While her compositional activity eventually subsided because of World War I and deteriorating health, Chaminade made several recordings, many of them piano rolls, between 1901 and 1914. Aeolian produced additional piano rolls of her works after the war, now with the improved technology of the Duo-Art system. In later years, by which time she was feeling obsolete, she was tended by her niece, Antoinette Lorel, who attempted to promote Chaminade’s music after her death in 1944.
Chaminade was well aware of the social and personal difficulties facing a woman composer, and she suggested that perseverance and special circumstances were needed to overcome them. Her output is noteworthy among women composers for its quantity, its high percentage of published works and for the fact that a large portion – notably piano works and mélodies – was apparently composed expressly for publication and its attendant sales (Enoch was the main publisher). Chaminade composed almost 200 piano works, most of them character pieces (e.g. Scarf Dance, 1888), and more than 125 mélodies (e.g. L’anneau d’argent, 1891); these two genres formed the basis of her popularity. Stylistically, her music is tuneful and accessible, with memorable melodies, clear textures and mildly chromatic harmonies. Its emphasis on wit and colour is typically French. Many works seem inspired by dance, for example Scarf Dance and La lisonjera. Of her larger works, the one-movement Concertstück recalls aspects of Wagner and Liszt, while the three-movement Piano Sonata shows the formal and expressive experimentation that was typical of the genre by the late 19th century (see Citron, 1993, for a feminist analysis of the first movement). The mélodies are idiomatic for the voice and well-suited expressively and poetically to the ambience of the salon or the recital hall, the likely sites for such works. The Concertino has remained a staple of the flute repertory; while it is a large-scale work and thus represents a relatively small part of her output, the piece still provides a sense of the elegance and attractiveness of Chaminade’s music.
Charles-Valentin Alkan (b Paris, 30 Nov 1813; d Paris, 29 March 1888). French pianist and composer. His real name was Morhange. He was one of the leading piano virtuosos of the 19th century and one of its most unusual composers, remarkable in both technique and imagination, yet largely ignored by his own and succeeding generations.
Claude Debussy: (b St Germain-en-Laye, 22 Aug 1862; d Paris, 25 March 1918). French composer. One of the most important musicians of his time, his harmonic innovations had a profound influence on generations of composers. He made a decisive move away from Wagnerism in his only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande, and in his works for piano and for orchestra he created new genres and revealed a range of timbre and colour which indicated a highly original musical aesthetic.
Francis Poulenc: (b Paris, 7 Jan 1899; d Paris, 30 Jan 1963). French composer and pianist. During the first half of his career the simplicity and directness of his writing led many critics away from thinking of him as a serious composer. Gradually, since World War II, it has become clear that the absence from his music of linguistic complexity in no way argues a corresponding absence of feeling or technique; and that while, in the field of French religious music, he disputes supremacy with Messiaen, in that of the mélodie he is the most distinguished composer since the death of Fauré.
Gabriel Pierné (b Metz, 16 Aug 1863; d Ploujean, Finistère, 17 July 1937). French composer and conductor. His parents were musicians: his baritone father introduced him to singing and his mother to the piano. When Lorraine was annexed by Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the family moved to Paris where Pierné became a student at the Conservatoire. He won premiers prix for organ (at 16, Marmontel's class), harmony (at 17, Durand's class), counterpoint (at 18) and second prix for organ (Franck's class). He was also in Massenet's composition class, and at 19 he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Edith. After three years in Rome at the Villa Medici, he returned to Paris, to teach at his parents' private school of piano and singing; one of his pupils for piano, Louise Bergon, became his wife in 1890. In that year he succeeded Franck as organist at Ste Clotilde, a post he retained until 1898.
In 1903 he became deputy conductor of the Concerts Colonne. When Edouard Colonne died in 1910 Pierné was appointed principal conductor, remaining president and director of the orchestra until 1933. At the Concerts Colonne he conducted the symphonic repertory of Mozart, Beethoven and Berlioz, he made Franck's works better known, and he conducted first performances of works by leading composers of the time, notably Debussy (Ibéria, Images, Jeux, Chansons de Bilitis and Khamma), Ravel (Une barque sur l'océan, Tzigane, and the first suite from Daphnis et Chloé over a year before the première of the complete ballet) and Roussel (Pour une fête de printemps). For Diaghilev's Ballets Russes he conducted the première of Stravinsky's Firebird. From March 1928 to May 1931 he recorded extensively with the Concerts Colonne orchestra for the French Odéon company, including some interesting Berlioz performances (reissued on CD) and works by Ravel.
While Pierné's principal activity was conducting during the musical season in Paris, entailing at least 48 different programmes a year, he was able to devote himself to composition during the summer months, which he spent with his wife and their three children at their house at Ploujean in Brittany. The period of Pierné’s compositional activity (1880–1936) falls into three distinct periods. The first was dominated by the piano works, mélodies, incidental music and the light early operas. At the threshold of the 20th century he embarked on the ten years of vocal-orchestral frescos, the triptych of oratorios (La croisade des enfants, Les enfants à Bethléem, Saint François d'Assise) which were followed by the Piano Quintet, a work typical of the manner of the second period, on the one hand, and on the other some solid concertante works and other orchestral pieces. The final period, 1916–36, was dominated by the chamber music, the best of the ballet scores (above all Cydalise et le chèvre-pied), the comic opera Fragonard and the Divertissements sur un thème pastoral for orchestra.
Pierné forged a very personal language, classical in form and modern in spirit, balancing technique and individuality, discipline and instinct. From Massenet he learnt the art of melody, and a lightness of touch that is evident in such works as the operatic comedy On ne badine pas avec l'amour, staged in 1910. Meanwhile Franck imbued him with the high consciousness of art, the sense of vast architectural structures and the taste for religiously inspired music, which yielded not only the oratorios, but also instrumental works such as the Paysages franciscains (1919). Pierné was influenced by Saint-Saëns's notion of ‘ars gallica’; he composed a number of works inspired by early French dance forms. He was also open to the style of his contemporaries and was attracted to the exoticism that was much in vogue at the time: oriental scales, pentatonic modes and Spanish-Basque rhythms (for instance, in the second movement of the Quintet). His rostrum at the Concerts Colonne was like an observation post from which he surveyed contemporary musical trends, freely absorbing many of them into his own personal style. That style is pure and refined, incorporating gentle humour and a palpable charm, as well as intermittent gravity and mystical depth. While there is abundant melodic invention, thematic designs tend towards brevity. In terms of form, Pierné shared a preference for cyclical structure and chromatic development. His later style owed something to Debussy's harmonies, to Ravel's luxuriant orchestration, and to Roussel's dynamism.
Pierné was elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1925 and was also made a Commandeur of the Légion d'Honneur in 1935. His cousin Paul Pierné (1874–1952) was also a composer.
Henri Herz (b Vienna, 6 Jan 1803; d Paris, 5 Jan 1888). Austrian pianist, composer and teacher, active in France. His earliest music lessons were with his father, and he later studied in Koblenz with the organist Daniel Hünten. He was a prodigy, performing and composing from the age of eight. In April 1816 he gained admission to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied with Pradher (piano), Dourlen (harmony and composition) and Reicha (counterpoint and fugue); he subsequently became a professor of piano there (1842–74), and with his brother Jacques Simon Herz (b Frankfurt, 31 Dec 1794; d Nice, 27 Jan 1880), founded the Ecole Spéciale de Piano de Paris.
Herz became one of the most famous virtuosos and popular composers in Paris in the 1830s and 40s. He travelled widely, touring the European continent (including Russia), South America and the USA, which he crossed three times (1845–51), and wrote a memoir of his experiences. His compositions consist largely of variations and fantasies on themes by other composers, but they also include eight piano concertos, various dances, salon pieces and exercises, amounting to some 225 works with opus numbers, and the same number again without.
In the early 1830s Schumann used Herz's Piano Concerto no.1 as the model for his own (unfinished) Piano Concerto in F (Macdonald), and took a theme by Herz as the basis of his Phantasie satyrique. However, his later perception was that Herz's compositions exemplified the hollow state of the Parisian virtuosos in the second third of the 19th century, and he levelled sharp criticism at Herz in his reviews in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Many of Herz's works are nevertheless of considerable merit; in particular the first two of the Trois nocturnes caractéristiques (1828) are fine examples of the genre. His variations on ‘Non più mesta’ from Rossini's La Cenerentola (c1831) were particularly popular with his contemporaries; each variation exhibits a different facet of the pianist's technical skill, including glissandos in 3rds, rapid scales and arpeggios and taxing dotted-note passages. Along with Chopin, Czerny, Pixis and Thalberg, Herz was asked by Liszt to contribute to Hexaméron, a set of variations on a theme from Bellini's I puritani, intended for performance at a benefit concert for Italian refugees in 1837. Herz's variation (the fourth) was cast in a legato e grazioso style, in moto perpetuo.
Herz was also involved in piano manufacture, establishing his own factory in 1851. His instruments were regarded by his contemporaries as equal to those of Erard and Pleyel, and one of his pianos won first prize at the Paris Exhibition of 1855. Although he was later accused of pirating another's invention, he also invented and marketed the ‘dactylion’, designed to strengthen pianists' fingers.
Henri Tomasi (b Marseilles, 17 Aug 1901; d Paris, 13 Jan 1971). French composer and conductor of Corsican descent. A pupil of Gaubert and others at the Paris Conservatoire, he won the Prix de Rome in 1927 and the Grand Prix de la Musique Française in 1952. During the 1930s he was one of the founders, alongside Prokofiev, Poulenc, Milhaud and Honegger, of the contemporary music group ‘Triton’. He divided his career equally between composing and conducting, and he conducted at many opera houses throughout the world. As a prolific composer, his orchestral music is important, especially the concertos he wrote for solo instruments and orchestra. However, he was attracted above all to the theatre, and it was two of his operas, L'Atlantide and Miguel Mañara, that established his reputation. Miguel Mañara tells of a mystical Don Juan who has renounced debauchery. The composer's own origins are reflected in Sampiero Corso, which deals with the oppression of Corsica by the Genoese in the 16th century. In Ulysse, Ulysses is demystified, returning amid ordinary sailors. Tomasi's postwar works reflect a disillusionment with mankind; L'éloge de la folie, which he described as a cross between opera and ballet, includes references to Nazism and napalm. Tomasi also composed several ballets, and several of his orchestral works were adapted for dance. Before his death he had been working on an operatic version of Hamlet.
His music is intensely direct in feeling, occasionally dissonant and highly coloured; he absorbed influences from his French contemporaries while retaining an individual voice.
Théodore Dubois: (b Rosnay, Marne, 24 Aug 1837; d Paris, 11 June 1924). French composer, organist and teacher. He was born into a modest, non-musical family in a village near Reims. His father was a basket maker, his grandfather a primary school teacher. When he made rapid progress in his piano studies with Louis Fanart, choirmaster of Reims Cathedral, the mayor of Rosnay, the Vicomte Eugène de Breuil, introduced him to professors at the Paris Conservatoire and provided lodging when he was accepted there in 1854. Studying the piano with Marmontel, the organ with Benoist, harmony with Bazin, and fugue and counterpoint with Ambroise Thomas, Dubois earned a series of prizes in harmony (1856), fugue (1857) and the organ (1859) before winning the Prix de Rome in composition in 1861. At the Villa Medici in Rome he became enamoured of Palestrina’s music and began friendships with his future colleagues, Paladilhe, Guiraud, Bourgault-Ducoudray and Massenet. While at the Conservatoire, he played the organ at St Louis-des-Invalides from 1855, and after 1858 at Ste Clotilde (under César Franck); he was choirmaster there from 1863 to 1869 and at the Société des Concerts in the early 1870s. He then moved to the Madeleine, and replaced Saint-Saëns as organist in 1877. He also taught at the Conservatoire, starting with harmony (1871–91), then composition (1891–6), then serving as inspector of musical education (1884–96) and finally as director of the Conservatoire (1896–1905). Believing that students should have a solid understanding of theory before studying modern masters, he published a number of theoretical treatises. Praised for their clarity and precision and translated into other languages, some are still used today. His other writings include Notice sur Charles Gounod (Paris, 1894) and ‘L’enseignement musical’ (EMDC, II/vi, 1931, pp.3437–71).
Musically, Dubois is perhaps best known for his religious works, some of which have remained in the repertory of French churches for decades. The oratorio Les sept paroles du Christ (1867), for example, was performed by the Société des Concerts twice in 1872 and continued to be used at Good Friday concerts until well into the 20th century. Ernest Reyer, who attended its première at Ste Clotilde, said the score was ‘as important as a comic opera, its style resembling 16th-century Italian music given new life with modern harmonies and varied rhythms’. Le paradis perdu won the City of Paris Prize and was performed twice at the Concerts Colonne in 1878. The intervallic writing and phrasing in his sacred works make it easy music to sing, while the skilful use of vocal groups produces a grand effect. Despite the banality of certain repetitions in its Gloria, the Messe brève in E for three voices was reputedly sung ‘almost everywhere’, while the Messe solennelle de Saint-Rémi and the Messe de la Délivrance (which cites Parsifal in its Sanctus) were enjoyed for their dramatic, grandiose effects. Throughout his life, Dubois also wrote secular works for chorus, especially for unaccompanied male chorus. Except for a patriotic sonnet, France (1916), his choral scenes are generally on themes of nature.
Although Dubois’ dramatic works are less well known today, many were published by the prestigious house of Heugel. For the most part, they present simple, idealistic love stories in rustic, picturesque settings, perhaps reflecting Dubois’ own background (many were written in Rosnay, where he returned to compose each summer). Despite their banal subjects, two modest one-act comic operas, La Guzla de l’émir (1873) and Le pain bis (1879), were praised for ‘having all that it takes to succeed’. The première of his three-act ballet, La farandole, commissioned by the Opéra in 1882 and set in Provence, was reputedly the first occasion during which electricity was used extensively at the Opéra. Here and in his two subsequent operas, Aben-Hamet (1884) and the popular Xavière (composed between 1886 and 1894), light, graceful melodies and poetic fantasy abound, in marked contrast with the austerity of his sacred music. In one section of Xavière the priest recounts the legend of St Francis and the birds; in another, Dubois incorporates indigenous French folksongs provided by Vincent d’Indy. While using short, periodic, melodic structures inspired by Gounod, these works also make reference to Wagner, whose music Dubois had heard in Bayreuth. The third act of Aben-Hamet incorporates melodic and harmonic aspects of the Tristan Prelude, while Xavière employs leitmotifs and continuous dialogue with symphonic accompaniment. The grand opéra Circé (1896) never reached the stage, although it reflected the national obsession with exotic enchantresses who use their beauty to liberate their countries from oppressive invaders.
Dubois’ interest in instrumental music grew after he helped to found the Société Nationale in 1871. The overture Frithiof, first performed by the Société Nationale in 1880, entered the repertory of all the principal French orchestras of the time. His oeuvre includes more than 200 chamber works of uneven quality, as well as several sets of songs and piano pieces.
Dubois was a man of discipline and integrity, well liked by his peers. His music was admired for its French character and solid construction, elegance and charm, and purity of style and sentiment. Although he resisted becoming too much involved in the most important musical debates of the time, the clarity and idealism of his music were enough to win him the seat vacated by Gounod in 1894 at the Académie des Beaux-Arts.