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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 10283

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


A distinguished place in the records of French music must be assigned to André Ernest Grétry, born at Liege in 1741. His career covered the most important changes in the art as colored and influenced by national tastes, and he is justly regarded as the father of comic opera in his adopted country. His childish life was one of much severe discipline and tribulation, for he was dedicated to music by his father, who was first violinist in the college of St. Denis when he was only six years old. He afterward wrote of this time in his "Essais sur la Musique": "The hour for the lesson afforded the teacher an opportunity to exercise his cruelty. He made us sing each in turn, and woe to him who made the least mistake; he was beaten unmercifully, the youngest as well as the oldest. He seemed to take pleasure in inventing torture. At times he would place us on a short round stick, from which we fell head over heels if we made the least movement. But that which made us tremble with fear was to see him knock down a pupil and beat him; for then we were sure he would treat some others in the same manner, one victim being insufficient to gratify his ferocity. To maltreat his pupils was a sort of mania with him; and he seemed to feel that his duty was performed in proportion to the cries and sobs which he drew forth."

In 1759 Grétry went to Rome, where he studied counterpoint for five years. Some of his works were received favorably by the Roman public, and he was made a member of the Philharmonic Society of Bologna. Pressed by pecuniary necessity, Grétry determined to go to Paris; but he stopped at Geneva on the route to earn money by singing-lessons. Here he met Voltaire at Ferney. "You are a musician and have genius," said the great man; "it is a very rare thing, and I take much interest in you." In spite of this, however, Voltaire would not write him the text for an opera. The philosopher of Ferney feared to trust his reputation with an unknown musician. When Grétry arrived in Paris he still found the same difficulty, as no distinguished poet was disposed to give him a libretto till he had made his powers recognized. After two years of starving and waiting, Marmontel gave him the text of "The Huron," which was brought out in 1769 and well received. Other successful works followed in rapid succession.

At this time Parisian frivolity thought it good taste to admire the rustic and naive. The idyls of Gessner and the pastorals of Florian were the favorite reading, and Watteau the popular painter. Gentlefolks, steeped in artifice, vice, and intrigue, masked their empty lives under the as sumption of Arcadian simplicity, and minced and ambled in the costumes of shepherds and shepherdesses. Marie Antoinette transformed her chalet of Petit Trianon into a farm, where she and her courtiers played at pastoral life-the farce preceding the tragedy of the Revolution. It was the effort of dazed society seeking change. Grétry followed the fashionable bent by composing pastoral comedies, and mounted on the wave of success.

In 1774 "Fausse Magie" was produced with the greatest applause. Rousseau was present, and the composer waited on him in his box, meeting a most cordial reception. On their way home after the opera, Grétry offered his new friend his arm to help him over an obstruction. Rousseau with a burst of rage said, "Let me make use of my own powers," and thenceforward the sentimental misanthrope refused to recognize the composer. About this time Grétry met the English humorist Hales, who afterward furnished him with many of his comic texts. The two combined to produce the "Jugement de Midas," a satire on the old style of music, which met with remarkable popular favor, though it was not so well received by the court.

The crowning work of this composer's life was given to the world in 1785. This was "Richard Coeur de Lion," and it proved one of the great musical events of the period. Paris was in ecstasies, and the judgment of succeeding generations has confirmed the contemporary verdict, as it is still a favorite opera in France and Germany. The works afterward composed by Grétry showed decadence in power. Singularly rich in fresh and sprightly ideas, he lacked depth and grandeur, and failed to suit the deeper and sounder taste which Cherubini and Méhul, great followers in the footsteps of Gluck, gratified by a series of noble masterpieces. Grétry's services to his art, however, by his production of comic operas full of lyric vivacity and sparkle, have never been forgotten nor underrated. His bust was placed in the opera-house during his lifetime, and he was made a member of the French Academy of Fine Arts and Inspector of the Conservatory. Grétry possessed qualities of heart which endeared him to all, and his death in 1813 was the occasion of a general outburst of lamentation. Deputations from the theatres and the Conservatory accompanied his remains to the cemetery, where Méhul pronounced an eloquent eulogium. In 1828 a nephew of Grétry caused the heart of him who was one of the glorious sons of Liege to be returned to his native city.

Grétry founded a

school of musical composition in France which has since been cultivated with signal success, that of lyric comedy. The efforts of Lulli and Rameau had been turned in another direction. The former had done little more than set courtly pageants to music, though he had done this with great skill and tact, enriching them with a variety of concerted and orchestral pieces, and showing much fertility in the invention alike of pathetic and lively melodies. Rameau followed in the footsteps of Lulli, but expanded and crystallized his ideas into a more scientific form. He had indeed carried his love of form to a radical extreme. Jean Jacques Rousseau, who extended his taste for nature and simplicity to music, blamed him severely as one who neglected genuine natural tune for far-fetched harmonies, on the ground that "music is a child of nature, and has a language of its own for expressing emotional transports, which can not be learned from thorough bass rules." Again Rousseau, in his forcible tract on French music, says of Rameau, from whose school Grétry's music was such a significant departure:

"One must confess that M. Rameau possesses very great talent, much fire and euphony, and a considerable knowledge of harmonious combinations and effects; one must also grant him the art of appropriating the ideas of others by changing their character, adorning and developing them, and turning them around in all manner of ways, On the other hand, he shows less facility in inventing new ones. Altogether he has more skill than fertility, more knowledge than genius, or rather genius smothered by knowledge, but always force, grace, and very often a beautiful cantileana. His recitative is not as natural but much more varied than that of Lulli; admirable in a few scenes, but bad as a rule." Rousseau continues to reproach Rameau with a too powerful instrumentation, compared with Italian simplicity, and sums up that nobody knew better than Rameau how to conceive the spirit of single passages and to produce artistic contrasts, but that he entirely failed to give his operas "a happy and much-to-be-desired unity." In another part of the quoted passage Rousseau says that Rameau stands far beneath Lulli in esprit and artistic tact, but that he is often superior to him in dramatic expression.

A clear understanding of the musical position of Rameau is necessary to fully appreciate the place of Grétry, his antithesis as a composer. For a short time the popularity of Rameau had been shaken by an Italian opera company, called by the French Les Bouffons, who had created a genuine sensation by their performance of airy and sparkling operettas, entirely removed in spirit from the ponderous productions of the prevailing school. Though the Italian comedians did not meet with permanent success, the suave charm of their music left behind it memories which became fruitful.*

* In its infancy Italian comic opera formed the intermezzo between the acts of a serious opera, and-similar to the

Greek sylvan drama which followed the tragic trilogy-was

frequently a parody on the piece which preceded it; though

more frequently still (as in Pergolcsi's "Serra Padrona") it

was not a satire on any particular subject, but designed to

heighten the ideal artistic effect of the serious opera by

broad comedy. Having acquired a complete form on the boards

of the small theatres, it was transferred to the larger

stage. Though it lacked the external splendor and consummate

vocalization of the elder sister, its simpler forms endowed

it with a more characteristic rendering of actual life.

It furnished the point of departure for the lively and facile genius of Grétry, who laid the foundation stones of that lyric comedywhich has flourished in France with so much luxuriance. From the outset merriment and humor were by no means the sole object of the French comic opera, as in the case of its Italian sister. Grétry did not neglect to turn the nobler emotions to account, and by a judicious admixture of sentiment he gave an ideal coloring to his works, which made them singularly fascinating and original. Around Grétry flourished several disciples and imitators, and for twenty years this charming hybrid between opera and vaudeville engrossed French musical talent, to the exclusion of other forms of composition. It was only when Gluck * appeared on the scene, and by his commanding genius restored serious opera to its supremacy, that Grotry's repute was overshadowed. From this decline in public favor he never fully recovered, for the master left behind him gifted disciples, who embodied his traditions, and were inspired by his lofty aims-preeminently so in the case of Cherubini, perhaps the greatest name in French music. While French comic opera, since the days of Grétry, has become modified in some of its forms, it preserves the spirit and coloring which he so happily imparted to it, and looks back to him as its founder and lawgiver.

*See article on "Gluck," in "The Great German Composers"

(a companion volume to this), in which his connection with

French music is discussed.

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