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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 6305

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The French musical drama continued without much chance in the hands of the Lulli school (for the musician had several skillful imitators and successors) till the appearance of Jean Philippe Rameau, who inaugurated a new era. This celebrated man was born in Auvergne in 1683, and was during his earlier life the organist of the Clermont cathedral church. Here he pursued the scientific researches in music which entitled him in the eyes of his admirers to be called the Newton of his art. He had reached the age of fifty without recognition as a dramatic composer, when the production of "Hippolyte et Aricie" excited a violent feud by creating a strong current of opposition to the music of Lulli. He produced works in rapid succession, and finally overcame all obstacles, and won for himself the name of being the greatest lyric composer which France up to that time had produced. His last opera, "Les Paladins," was given in 1760, the composer being then seventy-seven.

The bitterness of the art-feuds of that day, afterward shown in the Gluck-Piccini contest, was foreshadowed in that waged by Rameau against Lulli, and finally against the Italian newcomers, who sought to take possession of the French stage. The matter became a natioual quarrel, and it was considered an insult to France to prefer the music of an Italian to that of a Frenchman-an insult which was often settled by the rapier point, when tongue and pen had failed as arbitrators. The subject was keenly debated by journalists and pamphleteers, and the press groaned with essays to prove that Rameau was the first musician in Europe, though his works were utterly unknown outside of France. Perhaps no more valuable testimony to the character of these operas can be adduced than that of Baron Grimm:

"In his operas Rameau has overpowered all his predecessors by dint of harmony and quantity of notes. Some of his choruses are very fine. Lulli could only sustain his vocal psalmody by a simple bass; Rameau accompanied almost all his recitatives with the orchestra. These accompaniments are generally in bad taste; they drown the voice rather than support it, and force the singers to scream and howl in a manner which no ear of any delicacy can tolerate. We come away from an opera of Rameau's intoxicated with harmony and stupefied with the noise of voice and instruments. His taste is always Gothic, and, whether his subject is light or forcible, his style is equally heavy. He was not destitute of ideas, but did not know what use to make of them. In his recitatives the sound is continually in opposition to the sense, though they occasionally contain happy declamatory passages.... If he had formed himself in some of the schools of Italy, and thus acquired a notion of musical style and hahits of musical thought, he never would have said (as he did) that all poems were alike to him, and that he could set the 'Gazette de France' to music."

From this it may be gathered that Rameau, though a scientific and learned musician, lacked imagination, good taste, and dramatic insight-qualities which in the modern lyric school of France have been so preeminent. It may be

admitted, however, that he inspired a taste for sound musical science, and thus prepared the way for the great Gluck, who to all and more of Rameau's musical knowledge united the grand genius which makes him one of the giants of his art.

Though Rameau enjoyed supremacy over the serious opera, a great excitement was created in Paris by the arrival of an Italian company, who in 1752 obtained permission to perform Italian burlettas and intermezzi at the opera-house. The partisans of the French school took alarm, and the admirers of Lulli and Rameau forgot their bickerings to join forces against the foreign intruders. The battle-field was strewed with floods of ink, and the literati pelted each other with ferocious lampoons.

Among the literature of this controversy, one pamphlet has an imperishable place, Rousseau's famous "Lettre sur la Musique Fran?aise," in which the great sentimentalist espoused the cause of Italian music with an eloquence and acrimony rarely surpassed. The inconsistency of the author was as marked in this as in his private life. Not only did he at a later period become a great advocate of Gluck against Piocini, but, in spite of his argument that it was impossible to compose music to French words, that the language was quite unfit for it, that the French never had music and never would, he himself had composed a good deal of music to French words and produced a French opera, "Le Devin du Village." Diderot was also a warm partisan of the Italians. Pergolesi's beautiful music having been murdered by the French orchestra players at the Grand Opera-House, Diderot proposed for it the following witty and laconic inscription: "Hic Marsyas Apollinem."*

* Here Marsyas flayed Apollo.

Rousseau's opera, "Le Devin du Village," was performed with considerable success, in spite of the repugnance of the orchestral performers, of whom Rousseau always spoke in terms of unmeasured contempt, to do justice to the music. They burned Rousseau in effigy for his scoffs. "Well," said the author of the "Confessions," "I don't wonder that they should hang me now, after having so long put me to the torture."

The eloquence and abuse of the wits, however, did not long impair the supremacy of Rameau; for the Italian company returned to their own land, disheartened by their reception in the French capital. Though this composer commenced so late in life, he left thirty-six dramatic works. His greatest work was "Castor et Pollux." Thirty years later Grimm recognized its merits by admitting, in spite of the great faults of the composer, "It is the pivot on which the glory of French music turns." When Louis XIV. offered Rameau a title, he answered, touching his breast and forehead, "My nobility is here and here." This composer marked a step forward in French music, for he gave it more boldness and freedom, and was the first really scientific and well-equipped exponent of a national school. His choruses were full of energy and fire, his orchestral effects rich and massive. He died in 1764, and the mortuary music, composed by himself, was performed by a double orchestra and chorus from the Grand Opera.

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