170. Grétry and the French Revolution: Pierre le Grand & Guillaume Tell

France was in turmoil. The Bastille fell in 1789; the Assemblée nationale declared a constitutional monarchy, and published the Rights of Man; Marat and the sans-culottes bayed for blood; aristocrats fled France; mayors and officials were murdered.

“The revolution of 1789 stamped seriousness and energy on the minds of men,” Larousse wrote in his Dictionnaire. “This was reflected even in music. Cherubini and Méhul introduced a severe style and pompous instrumentation even to the opéra-comique.”

The two operas we look at tonight are more interesting for their historical context than for their artistic merit, which is slight. Grétry, the composer of the Ancien Régime, was a conservative composer struggling to adapt to troubled times. (For more on Grétry, see here.)

Grétry responded – unsuccessfully, in Larousse and Fétis’s view – with Pierre le Grand, Lisbeth, Guillaume Tell, and Elisca. Fétis saw in these works only a tormented attempt to change his nature; his melodies lacked the freedom, naturalness, or verve of his youthful works; he was less inventor than timid imitator. Unlike Victor Hugo, Larousse thought, Grétry had neither the skill nor the force necessary to add a brass cord to his lyre, and make it vibrate with great dramatic passions.


  • Opéra comique in 3 acts
  • Libretto: Jean-Nicolas Bouilly
  • First performed: January 13, 1790

PIERRE LE GRAND [Peter the Great], Tsar of all Rus’TenorPhilippe Cauvy, ‘Philippe’
FRANÇOIS LE FORT, A minister and a friend of the TsarBasse-taille (bass-baritone)Simon Chénard
MENSHIKOFF, The governor of MoscowSpokenPierre-Philibert Granger
CATHERINE, A young widow who has retired in the villageSopranoLouise-Rosalie Lefebvre, “Madame Dugazon”
GEORGES-MORIN, A master carpenter with whom there lodge Catherine, Peter the Great, and Le FortBasse-taille (bass-baritone)Pierre-Marie Narbonne
GÉNEVIÈVE, Georges-Morin’s wifeSopranoFrançoise Carpentier, “Madame Gonthier”
CAROLINE, Georges-Morin and Géneviève’s daughterSopranoJeanne-Charlotte Schroeder, “Madame Saint-Aubin”
ALÉXIS, A young orphan, son of a rich bailiff, in love with CarolineSopranoSophie Renaud (“Mlle Renault la jeune”)
MATURIN, An old man, great-uncle and guardian of AléxisTenorCharles-Nicolas-Joseph-Justin Favart
The tabellionSpoken (?)Jean-René Lecoupay de la Rosière, “Rosière”

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Pierre le Grand (1790) was an opera for the Constitution. It presented a king as a man of the people, a labourer who worked with his hands and could earn his bread by the sweat of his brow (carpentry rather than Louis XVI’s clockmaking).

“It is difficult to choose a subject more likely to inspire great interest,” the Moniteur thought. “The sovereign of a vast empire, born with a boiling, impetuous character, capable of the greatest excesses, leaves his states to learn and give birth to the sciences and the arts; travelling as a private individual; toiling in worshops; eager for all knowledge that could lift his subjects out of barbarism; letting himself be led by a man of genius, who becomes his companion and his most intimate friend; forgetting his birth, his rank; trampling underfoot all the prejudices which shackle common souls; in love with a young Lithuanian, widow of a sergeant, who has been reduced to slavery, who has no fortune, but who is charming, agreeable, and brave above her sex; finally, placing the diadem on her head; this is certainly a character which could not fail to produce a real effect in the theatre, especially at a time when the rights of man seem to have been achieved, and when the citizens hope to become freer and happier, by greater equality…”

The opera is one of the earliest about the Russian czar who went incognito as a workman to learn how to build ships; Donizetti, Lortzing, and Meyerbeer dealt with the same subject in the 19th century.

Grétry’s score, though, seems to have been written on autopilot. The most notable number is Lefort’s couplets in Act II praising the monarch who wields the carpenter’s axe and hammer rather than the sceptre and the crown:

Grands Rois, superbes potentats,
Quittez vos Cours, vos diadèmes;
Ainsi que lui, sortez de vos Etats,
Voyagez, travaillez vous-mêmes;
Et vous verrez que la grandeur
Ne fait pas toujours le bonheur.

The opera ended with a couplet comparing Peter the Great and Louis XVI:

Si par des travaux assidus
Pierre fit fleurir son empire,
Louis par ses grandes vertus
Force tous les Français à dire :
Ciel, entends a prière
Qu’ici je fais,
Conserve ce bon père
A ses sujets.

When Marie Antoinette attended the 15th performance, all the spectators sang the now-famous couplet, shouting “Vive la Reine!” and “Vive Grétry!”. Such a spectacle, Brenet notes, was not enough for the radicals; other theatres soon depicted the cocarde, the capture of the Bastille, the civic oath, the decrees of the Assemblée nationale, with titles like Le Souper du Champ de Mars, La Famille patriote, La Confédération, La Fête du grenadier au retour de la Bastille.


  • Drame lyrique in 3 acts and prose
  • Libretto: Michel-Jean Sedaine, after Antoine Lemierre’s play (1766)
  • First performed: Opéra-Comique (1ère salle Favart), Paris, 9 April 1791

GUESLERBaritoneSimon Chénard
GUILLAUME TELLTenorPhilippe Cauvy, “Philippe”
MADAME TELLSopranoDesforges
MARIE, Guillaume Tell’s daughterSopranoRose Renaud
MELKTAL, The sonTenorElvion
MELKTAL, The fatherBaritonePierre-Marie Narbonne
An officer Solier
An old man Favard
Surlemann Granger
A traveller Menier
Traveller’s wife Lescaut
Traveller’s little girl Chénard
Soldiers, village boys and girls, peopleChorus 

SETTING: Switzerland, 13th century

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Tell, on the other hand, shows a popular revolt: the masses rising up to purge the land of tyranny in the name of liberty. The overture to Guillaume Tell is one of Grétry’s best: the pastoral calm of Switzerland (with the famous Ranz des Vaches, later used in Rossini’s superior overture) invaded by storm and strife. The revolutionary energy must be felt, Grétry wrote in his Mémoires, but through this terrible feeling, some rustic features indicate the honesty of the Swiss; they seem to say ‘We rebel only to conserve our virtues’.

The work was a triumph, and a staple of the repertoire throughout the Revolutionary period. Afterwards, it was forbidden by imperial censure, and not performed until 1828, with libretto and score heavily modified – ‘mutilated’, Clément writes.

Contemporary critics praised its moving scenes full of patriotism, hatred of oppression, and love of liberty; and the Swiss local colour. Musicologists post-1828 were less impressed: “We’ve since seen real genius at work,” Clément wrote. “Grétry went to great lengths to reach the height of his subject. He completely failed. The singular thing is that his contemporaries understood no better than he all that could be drawn from such a lofty, picturesque, and moving drama. Critics of the time unanimously praised the broad and deep style, the originality of the composer. We cannot ratify such a judgement today.”

The first act is staggeringly naïve: half an hour of jolly peasants playing pat-a-cake, singing mildly risqué songs about hazelnuts, and celebrating weddings until the welcome news arrives that the Austrians (hiss, boo) have blinded old Melktal, and the opera can begin. It’s less opera than operetta, and seems to be aimed at children. The first number with any weight is Guesler’s entrance aria midway through Act II; in the same act, a through-composed scene shows the famous incident of the apple. The act ends with the infuriated people grabbing pitchforks and heading off to topple the Austrian regime – less Swiss than militant sans-culottes fed up with Marie Antoinette. The brief third act lacks the majesty and serenity of Rossini’s finale; the most notable piece is a folk song about Roland at Roncevaux.

By 1791, the constitutional monarchy of the Assemblée nationale was rapidly unravelling. Guillaume Tell appeared on April 9; Louis XVI and his family tried to escape France a couple of months later. The king was executed on 21 January 1793, Marie Antoinette on 14 October of the same year.

By 1794, nearly all of Grétry’s pre-Revolutionary works had been proscribed, and the composer had lost most of his earlier popularity. ‘Nearly all’; the exception was Guillaume Tell, now subtitled The Swiss Sans-culottes. The librettist even ended the work with the French workers arriving to help their Helvetian cousins, singing the Marseillaise.

Under the Republic, Grétry composed pieces for revolutionary festivals: La Rosière républicaine (2 Sept 1794, originally titled la Fête de la Raison), which Castil-Blaze called an outrage to the Catholic faith, an odious and gross manifestation of atheism; Le Congrès des rois (1794), “une suite de caricatures sans liaison et sans motif” (Journal de Paris), composed by several musicians; Joseph Bara (5 June 1794), attended by the mother of the dead drummer boy; and Denys le Tyran, maître d’école à Corinthe (23 August 1794).

Later critics complained that this one-act historic opera was in bad taste. For Denys, read Louis. Denys is mistreated by the children he teaches, gets drunk with a cobbler, drops his tiara, and is condemned to be beaten with rods at the foot of a statue of Liberty. If the piece was a Saturnalia, Clément judged, Grétry sinned in lending his talent, because the court had showered him with benefits. The ‘tyrant’ Louis XVI had given him a pension of 1000 francs from the Opéra coffers, and added another pension of 1000 écus. Grétry had the belated shame not to engrave the score.


  • Michel Brenet, Grétry : Sa vie et ses œuvres, Paris : Gauthier-Villars, 1884
  • 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
  • Le Citoyen Grétry, Memoires ou essais sur la musique, Paris : Imprimerie de la République, An V
  • David Le Marrec, “Guillaume Tell – l’opéra politique, familial et grivois de Grétry”, Carnets sur Sol, 22 September 2015
  • Édouard Regoir, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry : célèbre compositeur belge, Brussels : Schott frères, 1883

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