The production, promulgation, and politics of opera in France during the Enlightenment

Brown, Bruce Alan


Nearly all the works I have mentioned thus far were no longer performed during Ritter's lifetime; the few revivals he mentions - of Monsigny's in 1843 (with its orchestration retouched by Adolphe Adam), and of Pergolesi's , in 1862 - are rare exceptions.[43]  But the works produced at the Opéra during the 1770s by Christoph Gluck were, for Ritter, the cornerstone of the modern repertory.

He owned original scores of two of them - , of 1774, and of 1776 (the latter reworked from the Viennese version of nine years earlier), but from his it is clear that Ritter knew Gluck's other major works too, as well as the critical literature on them. He quotes, approvingly, the entire preface to the 1769 printed score of the original Italian ,[45]  and accurately relates Gluck's program for reform to the current situation of opera in Paris - including the artificially incited that pitted Gluck's operas against those of the Italian Piccinni. The story of this second foreign invasion of the Opéra, which brought an end to the insularity of French serious opera, is too well known to require that it be rehearsed here.


But it may be useful to consider a few ways in which original scores in the Ritter Collection make the political and international dimensions of this episode tangible.

In coming to Paris to overturn the repertory of the Académie Royale de Musique, Gluck benefitted greatly from the patronage of his former music student Marie Antoinette - born a Habsburg Archduchess, later French Dauphine and then Queen. Covering all bets, Gluck dedicated to the new king, Louis XVI:

comparing the lavishness of his patronage rather implausibly to that of Augustus Caesar, the Medici, and Louis XIV, while also planting in the opera an obvious piece of musical homage to the queen. During the Act-II Henri Larrivée, as Achilles, sang the rousing air "Chantez, célébrez votre Reine!," addressing his words ostensibly to his betrothed, Iphigenia, but directing his gaze to the queen in her box.


Niccolò Piccinni dedicated his first Parisian opera, , of 1778, to this same queen -

a rather cynical gesture, given that one of his principal supporters was the queen's rival at court, the late king's mistress Madame Du Barry. (Note Piccinni's authenticating signature on the title page.) In his dedication of the score,
Piccinni writes with unusual candor of the difficulties he had encountered in coming to France: "Transplanted, isolated, in a country where everything was new to me, intimidated in my work by a thousand difficulties, I had need of all my courage...". Indeed, with this opera Piccinni was taking on not just Gluck and his well organized champions, but also the legacy of Lully, in that was a resetting, in Italianate musical dress, of Quinault's century-old text for that composer. (Gluck had just recently undertaken a new setting of the same author's .) Despite such solecisms as a 13-measure melisma


sung by Médor in illustration of the word "naufrage," or "shipwreck," during his assertion that love had him from such a catastrophe, Piccinni's opera was well received. But as Ritter wrote in his ,

Though Piccini succeeded temporarily, time has since adjusted all those party differences. Piccini's works are forgotten; while Gluck's are still performed, and attract the admiration of the connoisseur."

Ibid., 1:184-5.


[43] See Ritter, History, 2:50 and 56.

[44] Portrait of Christoph Willibald Gluck, engr. Simon-Charles Miger after Jean-Silfrède Duplessis, ca. 1790 (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département de la Musique, Fonds estampes Gluck 003):

[45] Ibid., 1:176-9.

[46] "Chantez, célébrez votre Reine!" - CD 1, tr. 33

  • Delivered as part of the Ritter Colloquium Series sponsored by the Department of Music at Tufts University, October 17, 2003.
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