Niccolò Piccinni (1728–1800) is one of history’s forgotten composers. He was, though, the most popular opera composer in Italy in the 1760s and 1770s – esteemed so highly he was brought to France as a rival to Gluck. On the strength of the two operas I’ve heard, however, the great composer had nothing to fear.
Piccinni’s first and greatest success was La Cecchina, ossia La buona figliuola (1760). Italy went mad for it: the public thought it the most perfect opera buffa, and didn’t want to hear anything else, while clothing styles, shops, cafés, and (later) railway stations were all alla Cecchina. It was even performed as far away as China, by Jesuits at the Peking court! Clément considered it the most remarkable opera buffa before Cimarosa’s Matrimonio segreto (1792); it’s the first opera with elaborate finales containing several scenes. Piccinni, in fact, sowed the seeds from which Mozart and, above all, Rossini would reap such splendid harvests.
From 1761, Fétis writes, Piccinni overshadowed all other dramatic composers. His setting of Metastasio’s Olimpiade that year was considered superior to all previous attempts – including Vivaldi’s, Pergolesi’s, and Hasse’s. Fétis suggests, though, that Piccinni displayed as much activity as genius; he wrote 10 operas that year alone, and was applauded in Turin, Modena, Bologna, Venice, Rome, and Naples. “Other musicians had hits; he alone had fans,” Fétis writes. “Never did enthusiasm for a composer last as long as it did for him.”
Rome, though, tired of his operas; and by the mid-1770s, his former pupil Anfossi had become their idol.
- Tragédie lyrique in 3 acts
- Libretto: Marmontel, after Philippe Quinault
- First performed : Opéra (2e salle du Palais-Royal), 27 January 1778, conducted by Pierre Montan Berton
An anti-Gluck faction – led by Louis XV’s mistress Mme Dubarry – invited Piccinni to Paris. He arrived at the end of 1776, muffled and shivering in a freezing winter – and unable to speak a word of French.
His future collaborator, the writer Jean-François Marmontel, gave him a revised libretto of Quinault’s Roland (originally set by Lully), and taught him the language, explaining each word, and marking the stresses.
“Piccinni,” Clément writes, “was in a disadvantageous condition, all questions of talent aside.” Gluck enjoyed the protection of Marie Antoinette and the favour of the musicians; envious and jealous of others’ successes, he plotted to ruin his rival and stop the performance of his work. (Gluck’s operas are noble and high-minded; the man himself could be surprisingly petty.)
Piccinni, on the other hand, seems to have been one of opera’s nice guys: everyone describes him as sweet-natured, gentle, rather timid, devoted to his art, and unused to conspiracies. Unaware of Gluck’s manoeuvres, he lived quietly at home with his family, composing his Roland for a year.
Gluck announced that he had started to compose a Roland himself, but, hearing of Piccinni’s effort, had thrown it into the fire. (Pougin suggests this was merely a lie, to spite his rival.) “So,” quipped the Abbé Arnaud, a fervent Gluckist, “we would have both an Orlando and an Orlandino!”
Then came the rehearsals. Singers, choristers, and musicians seemed in revolt against Piccinni and Marmontel, Pougin writes; they defied their suggestions, ignored their advice, and treated them with insolence, pride, and crudeness. Piccinni, unused to such hostility, would retire into a corner of the theatre, wring his hands, and raise his eyes to heaven. “Ah! toutte va mal, toutte!”
Fortunately, Marmontel was made of stronger stuff. When the most important parts were given to the understudies, Marmontel forced them to give them to the lead singers – prompting jokes that he was only Quinault’s understudy himself, and threats to cudgel him outside the theatre.
Piccinni, Clément writes, was more dead than alive when Roland premièred on 27 January 1778, . He expected a failure, and had resolved to return to Naples the next day. That might explain why he alone of his family was calm that night.
When he set out to go to the theatre, his family and servants wept. When he picked up his hat to leave, his wife threw herself into his arms, sobbing. “My children, we aren’t among barbarians,” Piccinni comforted them. “We are among the most polite, gentle people in Europe. If they don’t want me as a musician, they will respect me as a man and a foreigner. Goodbye, and have good hope. I’m leaving calmly, and I’ll be back the same, no matter what the opera’s success.”
To Piccinni’s astonishment, and the consternation of the Gluckistes, Roland was a success. The public brought him home in triumph. One critic of the time even hailed it as a masterpiece of energy and sensitivity. The work was performed more than 20 times in the year of its première, and produced again in 1779, 1780, 1783, 1786, and 1792.
Fétis finds some real beauties in the score, but thinks the general coldness of style justified to some degree the attacks of Gluck’s partisans. The score, he considers, doesn’t show the author of Alessandro nelle Indie (1758) or l’Olimpiade, two of Piccinni’s best opera seria; the language and conventions of French theatre, so different to the Italian, paralyzed Piccinni’s imagination. The melodies are sweet and graceful, but lack force.
Pougin acknowledges it doesn’t rank with Gluck’s masterpieces – Piccinni’s melodic vein was more abundant than Gluck’s, his music more touching and tender, but Gluck is superior by truth of expression, vigour of colouring, and dramatic power – but says it’s full of charm, elegant grace, and chivalry.
It would be nice to write positively about the work. Piccinni seems an endearing little man. Unfortunately, the only recording (Dynamic, 2001) is an ordeal: more than three hours of inadequate singers with bad French in a live, sometimes shrill and squally, recording. The story itself is dull, and the music often insipid or trivial – notable chiefly for fusing French tragédie lyrique with Italianate cadenzas. Perhaps a better recording would bring out the work’s merits.
Fourteen more French operas followed, both tragédies lyriques and opéras-comiques. “Piccinni seemed at this time the only composer capable of dethroning his predecessor Lully,” Clément wrote. Atys (1780) was so successful Gluck himself worried he would be forgotten – but its success didn’t last long. Piccinni was also appointed music director at the Opéra Italien from 1778, and presented some of his Italian successes.
IPHIGÉNIE EN TAURIDE
- Opera in 4 acts
- Libretto: A. du Congé Dubreuil, after Euripides
- First performed : Académie Royale de Musique (2e salle du Palais-Royal), Paris, 22 January 1781
Piccinni’s best-known opera today, though, is a historical footnote. Jacques de Vismes, director of the Opéra, asked both Gluck and Piccinni to compose an Iphigénie en Tauride. Piccinni was in an invidious position.
Gluck was a genius; and Iphigénie en Tauride his masterpiece. After its triumph, Piccinni sat on his score for two years before friends persuaded him to produce it – mistakenly, both Clément and Fétis thought, since he exposed himself to certain defeat.
It didn’t help that the soprano was completely sloshed. “When the heroine appeared it was seen at once that Iphigénie, Mlle Laguerre, could not stand upright! She rolled about to all the compass points of the stage, hesitated, made faces at the orchestra – in short, she was drunk! Of course the opera was a failure, and before she could be removed from the stage, a facetious individual sung out: ‘This is not Iphigénie en Tauride, this is Iphigénie en Champagne!’
“For her misdemeanor ‘her ladyship’ was sent to Fort l’Evêque, where two days of imprisonment seems to have had a very beneficial effect upon her, for she came out and sang divinely the first night of her release.” (Frederick Crowest, A Book of Musical Anecdotes, Bentley, 1878, in Stephen Brook, ed., Opera: A Penguin Anthology, 1995)
Piccinni’s treatment lacks Gluck’s dramatic effects or claustrophobic tension. Gluck omits the overture, but plunges straight into the drama with a mighty storm, the chorus of priestesses, and Iphigénie’s vision of her family’s ruin; Piccinni opens with a Haydnesque overture (attractive, but not related to the work), then Iphigénie, alone, tells the audience she doesn’t want to marry Thoas. She narrates the vision of the storm (in a few measures), then expresses some general feelings about hope. It’s conventional and undramatic (despite some nice horns). We get the storm – and an earthquake – at the end of the act, with a double chorus. The Scythians look forward to sacrificing the victims, in a splendidly jaunty tune; the priestesses (rather dully) wish they wouldn’t. The huge ensemble, Italianate melody and French declamation anticipate grand opera.
Gluck depicts Oreste’s guilt for killing his mother, and the persecuting Furies in a famous, innovative sequence. In Piccinni, Orestes’ vision of his mother is in accompanied recitative, then leads into the statelier version of ‘Dieux qui me poursuivez’.
Given Piccinni was meant to represent the Italianate style, his strengths, surprisingly, lie in the choruses and the orchestral passages – whether extended ‘symphonic’ ones like the storm, or accompaniment (e.g. the woodwind phrase accompanying Pilade’s entry). His arias aren’t particularly memorable; Thoas’ aria, Iphigénie’s at the start of Act III, or her mourning the death of her family, aren’t on the level of Gluck’s. There’s no trio for the scene where Iphigénie offers to free one of the two Greeks; instead, a (conventional) grand trio ends the act, as Pylade bids his allies farewell. The recognition scene is, however, arguably better prepared than in Gluck: Iphigénie suspects the victim is Orestes; she won’t kill him without knowing his identity, and presses for more information. I also like Iphigénie’s brief aria with chorus when Oreste tells her he and her parents are dead.
The next year, Gluck returned to Vienna – but Piccinni found himself involved in another rivalry, with Sacchini. The court asked both to produce an opera at Fontainebleau; Sacchini’s Chimène was performed only once, but Louis XVI asked Piccinni’s Didon to be performed three more times. The work was considered Piccinni’s French masterpiece, and performed well into the 19th century.
Piccinni was named singing master at the École royale de musique et de déclamation ; more opéras-comiques followed ; but many of his late works left audiences cold. After several failures in a row, and the loss of his pension, Piccinni decided in 1791 to return to Naples.
He received a pension from the king, but was suspected of revolutionary tendencies, particularly because his daughter married a young French resident of Naples. Two former pupils accused him of Jacobinism; as a result, Ercole al Termodonte failed. On his return from Venice (where he staged a couple more operas), he was placed under house arrest for four years.
Clément records that Piccinni’s philosophic calm and resignation never left him, despite his imprisonment and poverty; he occupied himself by writing psalms for convents. His captivity ended when Naples signed a peace treaty with the French Republic. The tenor Giacomo David (father of the great Rossinian tenor) arranged a new engagement with a Venetian impresario, but, in Rome, the French commission of arts persuaded him to return to Paris.
There, Piccinni received a standing ovation at the Opéra, and a pension of 2400 francs from the Directoire, besides 5000 francs to settle his most urgent needs. His pension was restored, but reduced from 3000 to 1000 francs – comfort of a sort, but restricted comfort for an old man with a family, Clément thought. The Consulate made him an inspector of the Conservatoire – but he was already dead. He passed away on 17 May 1800, at Passy.
Despite the famous Querelle, Clément thought that Gluck and Piccinni had the same aim of dramatic truth– but Piccinni conserved the traditional forms of lyric pieces, while Gluck invented new types of arias, and gave the central role to the orchestra (as Wagner later would). Nevertheless, Piccinni developed the orchestra’s role, and placed it in intimate rapport with the subject. The overture of Diane et Endymion – which describes the freshness of the dawn, birdsong, and all nature revived by the sun – proves, Clément thought, that Piccinni didn’t recoil before a daring conception or an infraction of theatrical norms, if it seemed useful to express his thoughts. “Gluck may have vanquished his rival, but Piccinni was defeated with honour.”
- Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
- Arthur Pougin, introduction to Roland (score), Paris: Théodore Michaelis, n.d.