André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, the Orphée liégois, was the leading opéra comique composer of the late 18th century: a favourite with Marie Antoinette and the French public, and performed worldwide. Today, he is best remembered for Richard Coeur-de-lion, the first opera to use leitmotifs, but several of his operas have been rediscovered recently.
One might say, Thill-Lorrain wrote, the new genre of the opéra-comique was created expressly for Grétry; his mixture of levity and sensibility made him a virtuoso in it, and he produced masterpieces of perfect taste, verve, and ravishing beauty. Philidor, Curzon thought, may have superior science, Monsigny‘s expression at least as penetrating and true – but they lacked Grétry’s sense of poetry.
The Belgian was admired above all for his melody and the expression of his words. The Baron von Grimm believed Grétry was the composer who most happily adapted Italian melody to the character and spirit of the French language. He tried to make music ‘speak’; he devoted his improvisational gifts to perfectly adapting rhythm to the meaning of words he had to turn into melody (Thill-Lorrain).
Fétis, however, in a generally hostile article, argued that these qualities exaggerated became a defect. Too concerned with details, Grétry neglected the whole; he was less concerned with musical form than with setting a word that seemed important to him. Méhul said these details were witty, but not musical; while one wag called him ‘a man who makes lifelike portraits, but doesn’t know how to paint’.
Profound knowledge of writing music, purity of style, quality of melodic ideas, and musical colouring, Fétis thought, were nothing to Grétry. He had little knowledge of harmony or counterpoint; no interest in music other than his own; and apparently cared so little for instrumentation that his last 20 operas were orchestrated by another (one Passeron) – rather like Broadway composers today.
Grétry maintained that the orchestra’s role was to support the song, develop it, explain it sometimes, but always in second place; hence his inability to understand Mozart. “Mozart puts the statue in the orchestra, and the pedestal onstage,” he famously complained. In this, Fétis thought, he was no more advanced than the public of his day.
Le tableau parlant was one of three early successes in the space of a year that established Grétry’s reputation.
His talent for music was evident from childhood. He grew up in a poor but musical family; his father was first violinist at the collégiale de St Dénis, Liège. The boy himself entered the choir at six, but the experience was miserable; the choirmaster thought savage beatings were the best way to instil a love of singing.
His father withdrew Grétry, and placed him with one Leclerc, former music master at the Strasbourg cathedral; under a more sensitive teacher, the boy blossomed. He composed a motet, whose performance astonished even his former choirmaster. Six symphonies followed; all performed with success.
Performances of Pergolesi and other Italian opera buffa by an Italian troupe developed, he later remembered, his passionate taste for music.
At 18 (1759), Grétry was sent to Italy to perfect his musical education, setting out in the company of an old smuggler. He spent seven years in Rome, culminating in his first opera, La vendemmiatrice, a one-act intermezzo performed at the Aliberti Theatre during Carnival 1766. It was at once a success; Piccinni himself, the master of opera buffa, congratulated the young composer on not following the common path.
The young man could have stayed in Italy, but a French diplomat brought him the score of Monsigny’s opéra-comique Rose et Colas. Hitherto, Grétry had thought that French was clumsy and heavy compared to Italian; he was at once struck by the fit between the natural declamation of the words and the musical phrase. Now he realized that French could be sung naturally, he resolved at once to go to Paris.
He stopped in Geneva on his way, hoping to see Voltaire and secure a libretto. There, he remade a Favart libretto (Isabelle et Gertrude) with his music; its six performances were a triumph for such a small town as Geneva then was. Voltaire encouraged him to go to Paris, the only place where one could attain immortality quickly, and predicted fine successes for him … (But alas! no libretto.)
Those fine successes at first seemed remote. Grétry’s first opera in France, Les Mariages samnites (1768), was a failure. He performed it before the French court; “from the overture to the end,” Grétry remembered, “not a piece, not a phrase produced the least effect.” The élite public declared Grétry wasn’t born for music – but Abbé Arnaud (a prominent supporter of Gluck’s) and the Swedish ambassador de Creutz thought the musicians sabotaged the work. “These wretches are straining to flay you,” Arnaud comforted him. “You are not judged tonight! You will rise from there; I swear to you on my honour.” The fault, though, may not have been entirely with the musicians; a reprise in 1776 was received equally coldly. Mozart, however, composed eight variations on the opera’s march theme.
De Creutz approached the Encyclopédiste Jean-François Marmontel on Grétry’s behalf. “This young man is in despair, and on the point of drowning himself, if you don’t save him. He only asks for a lovely opéra-comique to make his fortune in Paris.” Marmontel, moved, provided the libretto to Le Huron (1768) … based on Voltaire’s Ingénu. And the two-act opera was a smash hit.
At first, Curzon wrote, some only heard the Italian style, but soon realized the novelty: true and varied expression of characters and situations, picturesque grace, and the amiable and natural fusion of melody and words. Grimm judged that the young man’s first attempt was a masterpiece that placed him immediately in the front rank, next to Philidor.
Grétry’s fortunes changed at once; formerly neglected, he was suddenly besieged with solicitations to set libretti. Fétis, however, notes the agreeable melodies and Grétry’s natural talent for setting words, but finds the musical forms inelegant – surprisingly so for a composer who had lived in Italy for nearly a decade. The work lacks Grétry’s most characteristic music, Curzon agreed, but it was a milestone, a point of departure for Grétry’s dramatic career.
Next came the one-act Lucile (January 1769), an opéra-comique about a bride who suddenly learns that her father is working-class. The work was received with surprise, then became a fad, Curzon wrote: surprise because audiences were unaccustomed to seeing familial sentiment treated seriously; a fad because they recognized their own feelings depicted onstage. The opera, he concluded, is obviously naïve and simple, but fresh and light. The once-famous quartet “Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de sa famille?” was almost obligatory at domestic celebrations and prize-givings, and, after the Restoration, became a Royalist hymn.
LE TABLEAU PARLANT
- Comédie in 1 act and verse, mêlée d’ariettes
- Libretto: Louis Anseaume
- Created: Opéra-Comique (Hôtel de Bourgogne), 20 September 1769
The elderly Cassandre plans to marry his ward Isabelle. She, though, loves his nephew Léandre, who has been away in Cayenne (French Guiana) for two years. Léandre returns, and the two lovers reunite … watched by Cassandre, hiding behind his portrait. Isabelle resolves to tell her guardian the truth, and practices before the painting. “Monsieur, this is the lover my heart has chosen; I can only love him. Will you give him to me?” And the portrait responds: “OUI.” The story draws on the Commedia dell’Arte; Colombine and Pierrot appear as the servants.
The light comedy was a riposte to Grétry’s critics, who complained that his earlier pieces were too sentimental, and made them cry; while his enemies said that he may succeed in the languorous genre, but would surely fail in a really comic piece. Le Tableau parlant, Grétry wrote, seemed the best response he could make.
He wrote the work in a good mood: “For two months, singing and laughing was my whole occupation.” He was so consumed with his subject that after dining with the Swedish ambassador de Creutz, he wrote four pieces of music without stopping.
The success of the piece, Grétry remembered, wasn’t as immediate as its predecessors. After the first performance, he asked Edigio Duni, composer of the comédie mêlée d’ariettes (proto-opéra comique), if he was happy with the work; Duni replied that he had heard a good duet.
But the work’s success grew with each performance, Gretry recalled; the actors, who at first didn’t dare to give themselves over to gaiety, ended by being charming. Grimm praised it as a model of comic and buffo music; it was, he thought, absolutely new music, unprecedented in France. “The composer will go far if he lives.” (At the time, Grétry was ill, coughing blood.) “His clear and easy style means that the success of his works is never in doubt for a moment, and can please both the ignorant and the connoisseurs.” Rousseau no less was a fan, and asked the composer to copy out one of the arias.
From this moment, Fétis wrote, Grétry was firmly considered one of the best French composers.
Le Tableau parlant (1769) remained in the repertoire of the Opéra-Comique until the 1860s. “This charming work has survived the various revolutions that music has experienced,” Fétis wrote. “In spite of the unfavourable conditions of the comédie lyrique, where the arias follow each other rapidly, and in which the same scene contains several; despite the feeble instrumentation and old-fashioned forms of this work, we still hear it with pleasure, because the melodies are charming, natural, expressive.”
From the vantage point of 250 years later, it’s hard to see why the work impressed the French so much. Sure, Gluck and his revolution were still five years away from Paris, but Monsigny’s dramatically and musically more inventive operas had been around for a decade.
Le Tableau parlant merely seems trivial. The ‘comedy’ of the plot is pallid compared to Mozart, Rossini, or Auber, to say nothing of Offenbach. While the music is easy on the ear, nothing is on the level of, say, “Ô Richard, Ô mon roi”, “Une fièvre brulante”, “Si l’univers entier m’oublie”, or “Je crains de lui parler la nuit” from Richard Cœur-de-Lion.
The best pieces include:
- the scampering, good-humoured overture;
- the trio “Il faut partir, ô peine extrême”: where Cassandre announces he’s leaving, Isabelle pretends to weep, and the maid Colombine feels sorry for her mistress;
- Cassandre’s aria “Pour tromper un pauvre vieillard”
- Pierrot’s ariette “Notre vaisseau, dans une paix profonde ”, describing the ship crossing the ocean to Cayenne, with a fine setting of the phrase “Tout-à-la-fois la mort et le tombeau”
- The Léandre / Isabelle duet “Votre amant souffrait même peine »
Evidently Grétry’s contemporaries heard more in it than we can today. One prude even complained that he could not listen to the work twice, because the accompaniments were shockingly indecent. (Richard Strauss would probably have been fatal.)
Or we could say that this is undemanding fare for an audience who would have found Mozart too difficult and novel.
And to be fair, the 1965 RAI recording (Michel Sénéchal as Cassandre, and a largely Italian cast) probably doesn’t do the work justice.
By 1774, Grétry had become France’s leading opéra-comique composer, and Marie Antoinette’s private music director. One of the streets near the Théâtre Italien was renamed after him; his bust was placed in the foyer of the Opéra, and his marble statue under the vestibule of the Opéra-Comique.
His later works include:
- Zémire et Azor (1771), Beauty and the Beast set in Persia. “God has given the charming Grétry to France!” Grimm exclaimed. The work was regularly revived until the 1860s – but the instrumentation (never Grétry’s strong point) seemed too simple for 19th century audiences; Adolphe Adam added brass and cornets à pistons. Beecham’s 1955 live mono recording is almost unlistenable; and Doneux’s 1974 EMI recording (with Mady Mesplé) too expensive.
- Le Magnifique (1773), a failure in its day, but a really attractive score.
- L’Amant jaloux (1778), which La Harpe considered the masterpiece to that point of the opéra-comique. We’ll review it in the next fortnight; certainly, it influenced Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
- La Caravane du Caire (1783), Panurge dans l’île des lanternes (1785), and Anacréon chez Polycrate (1797) : three of his most popular works, which introduced the genre of demi-caractère and even the genre bouffe to the Opéra. Few works were performed as often, Fétis wrote; the Caravane was for a long time the financial resource of the Opéra administration.
- Richard Cœur-de-Lion (1784), the pinnacle of his career
- L’épreuve villageoise (1784), which remained in the Opéra-Comique repertoire until the late 1880s.
By the late 1780s, however, Grétry’s reputation had slumped. Cherubini and Méhul introduced a more learned harmony and stronger instrumentation; Grétry’s attempts to emulate them in Pierre le Grand (1790), Guillaume Tell (1791), Lisbeth (1797), and Elisca (1799) are, Fétis says, timid imitations. (David LeMarrec thinks more highly of Guillaume Tell, as well as the equally neglected serious operas Céphale et Procris and Andromaque.)
Then came the Revolution. Under the Ancien Régime, Grétry received a pension of 1000 écus from Louis XVI, and a pension of 1,000 francs from the Opéra on the king’s request. Now, he composed politically correct works such as Joseph Barra and Denys le tyran (both 1794). Since the ‘tyrant’ was his former royal benefactor, critics have since accused him of ingratitude. Napoleon later awarded the composer a pension of 4,000 francs and the Légion d’honneur. Grétry was obviously a survivor.
Grétry bought Rousseau’s former home, l’Ermitage, at Montmorency. He planned to finish his days quietly there, but the murder of a neighbor in 1811 changed his resolution. He returned to Paris, but, on his doctor’s orders, went back to the countryside, where he died in 1813. Some 300,000 people attended his funeral. And Paris and Liège quarrelled over where his heart should lie.
- Michel Brenet, Grétry : Sa vie et ses œuvres, Paris : Gauthier-Villars, 1884
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Henri de Curzon, Les musiciens célèbres : Grétry, Paris : Henri Laurens, 1907
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
- Le Citoyen Grétry, Memoires ou essais sur la musique, Paris : Imprimerie de la République, An V
- P. Leusueur-Destourets, Éloge académique de Grétry, Brussels, 1826
- P. Long des Clavières, La jeunesse de Grétry et ses débuts à Paris, Besançon : Imprimerie Jacques et Demontrond, 1920
- Édouard Regoir, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry : célèbre compositeur belge, Brussels : Schott frères, 1883
- [Michel Materne] Thil-Lorrain, Les gloires nationales : Histoire de Grétry, Brussels : Librairie de Callewaert frères, éditeurs, 1884
- Félix van Hulst, Grétry, Liège: Félix Gudart, 1842