Gluck And Piccinni In Paris
Gluck at Vienna.--Iphigenia in Aulis.--A rehearsal at Sophie
Arnould's.--Gluck and Vestris.--Piccinni in Italy.--Piccinni in
Paris.--The two Iphigenias.--Iphigenia in Champagne.--Madeleine
Guimard, Vestris, and the Ballet.
Fifteen years before the French Revolution, of which, in the present
day, every one can trace the gradual approach, the important question
that occupied the capital of France was not the emancipation of the
peasants, nor the reorganisation of the judicial system, nor the
equalisation of the taxes all over the country; it was simply the merit
of Gluck as compared with Piccinni, and of Piccinni as compared with
Gluck. Paris was divided into two camps, each of which had its own
special music. The German master was declared by the partisans of the
Italian to be severe, unmelodious and heavy: by his own friends he was
considered profound, full of inspiration and eminently dramatic.
Piccinni, on the other hand, was accused by his enemies of frivolity and
insipidity, while his supporters maintained that his melodies touched
the heart, and that it was not the province of music to appeal to the
intellect. Fundamentally, the dispute was that which still exists as to
the superiority of German or Italian music. Severe classicists continue
to despise modern Italian composers as unintellectual, and the Italians
still sneer at the music of Germany as the "music of mathematics."
Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi have been undervalued in succession by the
critics of Germany, France and England; and although there can be no
question as to the inferiority of the last to the first-named of these
composers, Signor Verdi, if he pays any attention to the attacks of
which he is so constantly the object, can always console himself by
reflecting that, after all, not half so much has been said against his
operas as it was once the fashion to say against Rossini's. The
Italians, on the other hand, can be fairly reproached with this, that,
to the present day, they have never appreciated Don Giovanni. They
consent to play it in London, Paris and St. Petersburgh because the
musical public of the capitals know the work and are convinced that
nothing finer has ever been written; (this is, however, less in Paris
than in the other two capitals of the Italian Opera), but the singers
themselves do not in their hearts like Mozart. They are kind enough to
execute his music, because they are well paid for it, but that is all.
[Sidenote: GERMAN AND ITALIAN MUSIC.]
In the present century, which is above all an age of eclecticism, we
find the natural descendants of Piccinni going over to the Gluckists,
while the legitimate inheritors of Gluck abandon their succession to
adopt the facile forms and sometimes unmeaning if melodious phrases of
the Piccinnists. Certainly there are no traces of the grand old German
school in the light popular music of Herr Flotow (who, if not a German,
is a Germanised Russian); and, on the other hand, Signor Verdi in his
emphatic moments quite belies his Italian origin; indeed, there are
passages in several of this composer's operas which may be traced
directly not to Rossini, but to Meyerbeer.
The history of the quarrels between the Gluckists and Piccinnists has no
importance in connection with art. These disputes led to no sound
criticism, nor have the attacks and replies on either side added
anything to what was already known on the subject of music as applied to
the expression and illustration of human passion. As for deciding
between Gluckism and Piccinnism (I say nothing about the men, who
certainly were not equal in point of genius), that is impossible. It is
almost a question of organisation. It may be remarked, however, that no
composer ever began as a Gluckist (so to speak) and ended as a
Piccinnist, whereas Rossini, in his last and greatest work, approaches
the German style, and even Donizetti, in his latest and most dramatic
operas, exhibits somewhat of the same tendency. It will be remembered,
too, that the great Mozart, and in our own day Meyerbeer, wrote their
earlier operas in the Italian mode, and abandoned it when they
recognised its insufficiency for dramatic purposes. Indeed, Gluck's own
style, as we shall presently see, underwent a similar change. But it
would be rash to conclude from these instances, that Italians, writing
in the Italian style, have produced no great dramatic music. Rossini's
Otello and Bellini's Norma at once suggest themselves as convincing
proofs of the contrary.
All that remains now of the Gluck versus Piccinni contest is a number
of anecdotes, which are amusing, as showing the height musical
enthusiasm and musical prejudice had reached in Paris at an epoch when
music and the arts generally were about the last things that should have
occupied the French. But before calling attention to a few of the
principal incidents in this harmonious civil war, let me sketch the
early career of each of the great leaders.
Gluck was born, in 1712, of Bohemian parents, so that he was almost
certainly not of German but of Slavonian origin. Young Gluck learnt
the scale simultaneously with the alphabet (why should not all children
be taught to read from music-notes as they are taught to read from
ordinary typography?) and soon afterwards received lessons on the
violoncello, which, however, were put a stop to by the death of his
[Sidenote: CHILDHOOD OF GLUCK.]
Little Christopher was left an orphan at a very early age. Fortunately,
he had made sufficient progress on the violoncello to obtain an
engagement with a company of wandering musicians. Thus he contrived to
exist until the troupe had wandered as far as Vienna, where his talent
attracted the attention of a few sympathetic and generous men, who
enabled him to complete his musical education in peace.
After studying harmony and counterpoint, Gluck determined to leave the
capital of Germany for Italy; for in those days no one was accounted a
musician who had not derived a certain amount of his inspiration from
Italian sources. After studying four years under the celebrated Martini,
he felt that the time had come for him to produce a work of his own. His
"Artaxerxes" was given at Milan with success, and this opera was
followed by seven others, which were brought out either at Venice,
Cremona or Turin. Five years sufficed for Gluck to make an immense name
in Italy. His reputation even extended to the other countries of Europe
and the offers he received from the English were sufficiently liberal to
tempt the rising composer to pay a visit to London. Here, however, he
had to contend with the genius and celebrity of Handel, compared with
whom he was as yet but a composer of mediocrity. He returned to Vienna
not very well pleased with his reception in England, and soon afterwards
made his appearance once more in Italy, where he produced five other
works, all of which were successful. Hitherto Gluck's style had been
quite in accordance with the Italian taste, and the Italians did not
think of reproaching him with any want of melody. On the contrary, they
applauded his works, as if they had been signed by one of their most
esteemed masters. But if the Italians were satisfied with Gluck, Gluck
was not satisfied with the Italians; and it was not until he had left
Italy, that he discovered his true vein.
Gluck was forty-six years of age when he brought out his Alcestis, the
first work composed in the style which is now regarded as peculiarly his
own. Alcestis, and Orpheus, by which it was followed, created a
great sensation in Germany, and when the Chevalier Gluck composed a work
"by command," in honour of the Emperor Joseph's marriage, it was played,
not perhaps by the greatest artists in Germany, but certainly by the
most distinguished, for the principal parts were distributed among four
arch-duchesses and an arch-duke. Where are the dukes and duchesses now
who could play, not with success, but without disastrous failure, in an
opera by Gluck?
[Sidenote: GLUCK AT VIENNA.]
It so happened that at Vienna, attached to the French embassy, lived a
certain M. du Rollet, who was in the habit of considering himself a
poet. To him Gluck confided his project of visiting Paris, and composing
for the French stage. Du Rollet not only encouraged the musician in his
intentions, but even promised him a libretto of his own writing. The
libretto was not good--indeed what libretto is?--except, perhaps, some
of Scribe's libretti for the light operas of Auber. But it must be
remembered that the Opéra Comique is only a development of the
vaudeville; and in the entire catalogue of serious operas, with the
exception of Metastasio's, a few by Romani and Da Ponte's Don Giovanni
(with a Mozart to interpret it), it is not easy to find any which, in a
literary and poetical sense, are not absurd. However, Du Rollet
arranged, or disarranged, Racine's Iphigénie, to suit the requirements
of the lyric stage, and handed over "the book" to the Chevalier Gluck.
Iphigenia in Aulis was composed in less than a year; but to write an
opera is one thing, to get it produced another. At that time the French
Opera was a close borough, in the hands of half a dozen native
composers, whose nationality was for the most part their only merit.
These musicians were not in the habit of positively refusing all chance
to foreign competitors; but they interposed all sorts of delays between
the acceptance and the production of their works, and did their best
generally to prevent their success. However, the Dauphiness Marie
Antoinette, had undertaken to introduce the great German composer to
Paris, and she smoothed the way for him so effectually, that soon after
his arrival in the French capital, Iphigenia in Aulis was accepted,
and actually put into rehearsal.
Gluck now found a terrible and apparently insurmountable obstacle to his
success in the ignorance and obstinacy of the orchestra. He was not the
man to be satisfied with slovenly execution, and many and severe were
the lessons he had to give the French musicians, in the course of almost
as many rehearsals as Meyerbeer requires in the present day, before he
felt justified in announcing his work as ready for representation. The
young Princess had requested the lieutenant of police to take the
necessary precautions against disturbances; and she herself, accompanied
by the Dauphin, the Count and Countess of Provence, the Duchesses of
Chartres and of Bourbon, and the Princess de Lamballe, entered the
theatre before the public were admitted. The ministers and all the
Court, with the exception of the king (Louis XV.) and Madame Du Barry
were present. Sophie Arnould was the Iphigenia, and is said to have been
admirable in that character, though the charming Sophie seems to have
owed most of her success to her acting rather than to her singing.
The first night of Iphigenia, Larrivée, who took the part of
Agamemnon, actually abstained from singing through his nose. This is
mentioned by the critics and memorialists of the time as something
incredible, and almost supernatural. It appears that Larrivée, in spite
of his nasal twang, was considered a very fine singer. The public of the
pit used to applaud him, but they would also say, when he had just
finished one of his airs, "That nose has really a magnificent voice!"
[Sidenote: IPHIGENIA IN AULIS.]
The success of Iphigenia was prodigious. Marie Antoinette herself gave
the signal of the applause, and it mattered little to the courtiers
whether they understood Gluck's grand, simple music, or not.
All they had to do, and all they did, was to follow the example of the
Never did poet, artist, or musician have a more enthusiastic patroness
than Marie Antoinette. She not only encouraged Gluck herself, but
visited with her severe displeasure all who ventured to treat him
disrespectfully. And it must be remembered that in those days a Grand
Seigneur paid a great artist, or a great writer, just what amount of
respect he thought fit. Thus, one Grand Seigneur had Voltaire caned
(and afterwards from pride or from cowardice refused his challenge),
while another struck Beaumarchais, and, after insulting him in the court
of justice over which he presided, summoned him to leave the bench and
come outside, that he might assassinate him.
The first person with whom Gluck came to an open rupture was the Prince
d'Hennin, the "Prince of Dwarfs," as he was called. The chevalier, in
spite of his despotic, unyielding nature, could not help giving way to
the charming Sophie Arnould, who, with a caprice permitted to her alone,
insisted on the rehearsals of Orpheus taking place in her own
apartments. The orchestra was playing, and Sophie Arnould was singing,
when suddenly the door opened, and in walked the Prince d'Hennin. This
was not a grand rehearsal, and all the vocalists were seated.
"I believe," said the Grand Seigneur, addressing Sophie Arnould in the
middle of her air, "that it is the custom in France to rise when any
one enters the room, especially if it be a person of some
Gluck leaped from his seat with rage, rushed towards the intruder, and
with his eyes flashing fire, said to him:--
"The custom in Germany, sir, is to rise only for those whom we esteem."
Then turning to Sophie, he added:--
"I perceive, Mademoiselle, that you are not mistress in your own house.
I leave you, and shall never set foot here again."
When the story was told to Marie Antoinette, she was indignant with the
Prince, and compelled him to make amends to the chevalier for the insult
offered to him. The Prince's pride must have suffered terribly; for he
had to pay a visit to the composer, and to thank him for having assured
him in the plainest terms, that he looked upon him with great contempt.
This Prince d'Hennin was a favourite butt for the wit of the vivacious
Count de Lauragais, who, as the reader, perhaps, remembers, was one of
Sophie Arnould's earliest and most devoted admirers. One day when the
interesting Sophie was unwell, the Count asked her physician whether it
was not especially necessary to think of her spirits, and to keep away
everything that might tend to have a depressing effect upon them.
The doctor answered the Count's sagacious question in the affirmative.
[Sidenote: THE PRINCE D'HENNIN.]
"Above all," continued De Lauragais, "do you not consider it of the
greatest importance that the Prince d'Hennin should not be allowed to
The physician admitted that it would be as well she should not see the
prince; but De Lauragais was not satisfied with this, and he at last
persuaded the obliging doctor to put his opinion in the form of a direct
recommendation. In other words, he made him write a prescription for
Mdlle. Arnould, forbidding her to have any conversation with the Prince
d'Hennin. This prescription he sent to the prince's house, with a letter
calling his particular attention to it, and entreating him, for the sake
of Mdlle. Arnould's health, not to forget the injunction it contained.
The consequence was a duel, which, however, was attended with no bad
results, for, in the evening, the insultor and the insulted met at
Sophie Arnould's house.
It now became the fashion at the Court to attend the rehearsals of
Orpheus, which took place once more in the theatre. On these
occasions, the doors were besieged long before the performance
commenced; and numbers of persons were unable to gain admission. To see
Gluck at a rehearsal was infinitely more interesting than to see him at
one of the ordinary public representations. The composer had certain
habits; and from these he would not depart for any one. Thus, on
entering the orchestra, he would take his coat off to conduct at ease in
his shirt sleeves. Then he would remove his wig, and replace it by a
cotton night-cap of the remotest fashion. When the rehearsal was at an
end, he had no necessity to trouble himself about the articles of dress
which he had laid aside, for there was a general contest between the
dukes and princes of the Court as to who should hand them to him.
Orpheus is said to have been quite as successful as Iphigenia. One
thing, however, which sometimes makes me doubt the completeness of this
success, in a musical point of view, is the recorded fact, that "the
ballet, especially, was very fine." The ballet is certainly not the
first thing we think of in William Tell, or even in Robert. It
appears that Gluck himself objected positively to the introduction of
dancing into the opera of Orpheus. He held, and with evident reason,
that it would interfere with the seriousness and pathos of the general
action, and would, in short, spoil the piece. He was overruled by the
"Diou de la Danse." What could Gluck's opinion be worth in the eyes of
Auguste or of Gaetan Vestris, who held that there were only three great
men in Europe--Voltaire, Frederick of Prussia, and himself. No! the
dancer was determined to have his "Chacone," and he was as obstinate,
indeed, more obstinate, than Gluck himself.
"Write me the music of a chacone, Monsieur Gluck," said the god of
"A chacone!" exclaimed the indignant composer; "Do you think the Greeks,
whose manners we are endeavouring to depict, knew what a chacone was?"
[Sidenote: GLUCK AND VESTRIS.]
"Did they not!" replied Vestris, astonished at the information; and in a
tone of compassion, he added, "Then they are much to be pitied."
Alcestis, on its first production, did not meet with so much success
as Orpheus and Iphigenia. The piece itself was singularly
uninteresting; and this was made the pretext for a host of epigrams, of
which the sting fell, not upon the author, but upon the composer.
However, after a few representations, Alcestis began to attract the
public quite as much as the two previous works had done. Gluck's
detractors were discomfited, and the theatre was filled every evening
with his admirers. At this juncture, the composer of Alcestis was
thrown into great distress by the death of his favourite niece. He left
Paris, and his enemies, who had been unable to vanquish, now resolved to
I have said that Madame Du Barry did not honour the representation of
Gluck's operas with her presence. It was, in fact, she who headed the
opposition against him. She was mortified at not having some favourite
musician of her own to patronize when the Dauphiness had hers, and now
resolved to send to Italy for Piccinni, in the hope that when Gluck
returned, he would find himself neglected for the already celebrated
Italian composer. Baron de Breteuil, the French ambassador at Rome, was
instructed to offer Piccinni an annual salary of two thousand crowns if
he would go to Paris, and reside there. The Italian needed no pressing,
for he was as anxious to visit the French capital as Gluck himself had
been. Just then, however, Louis XV. died, by which the patroness of the
German composer, from Dauphiness, became Queen. Madame Du Barry's party
hesitated about bringing over a composer to whom they fancied Marie
Antoinette must be as hostile as they themselves were to Gluck. But the
Marquis Caraccioli, the Neapolitan ambassador at the Court of France,
had now taken the matter in hand, and from mere excess of patriotism,
had determined that Piccinni should make his appearance in Paris to
destroy the reputation of the German at a single blow. As for Marie
Antoinette, she not only did not think of opposing the Italian, but,
when he arrived, received him most graciously, and showed him every
possible kindness. But before introducing Piccinni to our readers as the
rival of Gluck in Paris, let us take a glance at his previous career in
his native land.
* * * * *
[Sidenote: NICOLAS PICCINNI.]
Nicolas Piccinni, who was not less than fifty years of age when he left
Naples, for Paris, with the avowed purpose of outrivalling Gluck, was
born at Bari, in the Neapolitan territory, in 1728. His father was a
musician, and apparently an unsuccessful one, for he endeavoured to
disgust his son with the art he had himself practised, and absolutely
forbade him to touch any musical instrument. No doubt this injunction of
the father produced just the contrary of the effect intended. The
child's natural inclination for music became the more invincible the
more it was repressed, and little Nicolas contrived, every day, to
devote a few hours in secret to the study of the harpsichord, the piano
of that day. He knew nothing of music, but guided by his own instinct,
learnt something of its mysteries simply by experimenting (for it was
nothing more) on the instrument which his father had been imprudent
enough, as he would have said himself, to leave within his reach.
Gradually he learnt to play such airs as he happened to remember, and,
probably without being aware himself of the process he was pursuing,
studied the art of combining notes in a manner agreeable to the ear; in
other words, he acquired some elementary notions of harmony. And still
his father flattered himself that little Nicolas cared nothing for
music, and that nothing could ever make him a musician.
One day, old Piccinni had occasion to visit the Bishop of Bari. He took
his son with him, but left the little boy in one room while he conversed
on private business with His Eminence in another. Now it chanced that in
the room where Nicolas was left there was a magnificent harpsichord, and
the temptation was really too great for him. Harpsichords were not made
merely to be looked at, he doubtless thought. He went to the instrument,
examined it carefully, and struck a note. The tone was superb.
Next he ventured upon a few notes in succession; and, then, how he
longed to play an entire air!
There was no help for it; he must, at all events, play a few bars with
both hands. The harpsichord at home was execrable, and this one was
admirable--made by the Broadwood of harpsichord makers. He began, but,
carried away by the melody, soon forgot where he was, and what he was
The Bishop, and especially Piccinni père, were thunderstruck. There
was a roughness and poverty about the accompaniment which showed that
the young performer was far from having completed his studies in
harmony; but, at the same time, there was no mistaking the fire, the
true emotion, which characterised his playing. The father thought of
going into a violent passion, but the Bishop would not hear of such a
"Music is evidently the child's true vocation," said the worthy
ecclesiastic; "He must be a musician, and one day, perhaps, will be a
[Sidenote: PICCINNI AT NAPLES.]
The Bishop now would not let old Piccinni rest until he promised to send
his son to the Conservatory of Music, directed by the celebrated Leo.
The father was obliged to consent, and Nicolas was sent off to Naples.
Here he was confided to the care of an inferior professor, who was by no
means aware of the child's precocious talent. The latter was soon
disgusted with the routine of the class, and conceived the daring
project of composing a mass, being at the time scarcely acquainted even
with the rudiments of composition. He was conscious of the audacity of
the undertaking, and therefore confided it to no one; but, somehow or
other, the news got abroad that little Nicolas had composed a grand
mass, and, before long, Leo himself heard of it.
Then the great professor sent for the little pupil, who arrived
trembling from head to foot, thinking apparently that for a boy of his
age to compose a mass was a species of crime.
Leo was grave, but not so severe as the young composer had expected.
"You have written a mass?" he commenced.
"Excuse me, sir, I could not help it;" said the youthful Piccinni.
"Let me see it?"
Nicolas went to his room for the score, and brought it back, together
with the orchestral parts all carefully copied out.
After casting a rapid glance at the manuscript, Leo went into the
concert-room, assembled an orchestra, and distributed the orchestral
parts among the requisite number of executants.
Little Nicolas was in a state of great trepidation, for he saw plainly
that the professor was laughing at him. It was impossible to run away,
or he would doubtless have made his escape. Leo advanced towards him,
handed him the score, and with imperturbable gravity, requested him to
take his place at the desk in front of the orchestra. Nicolas, with the
courage of despair, took up his position, and gave the signal to the
orchestra which the merciless professor had placed under his command.
After his first emotion had passed away, Nicolas continued to beat time,
fancying that, after all, what he had composed, though doubtless bad,
was, perhaps, not ridiculous. The mass was executed from beginning to
end. As he approached the finale, all the young musician's fears
returned. He looked at the professor, and saw that he did not seem to be
in the slightest degree impressed by the performance. What did he,
what could he think of such a production?
"I pardon you this time," said the terrible maestro, when the last
chord had been struck; "but if ever you do such a thing again I will
punish you in such a manner that you will remember it as long as you
live. Instead of studying the principles of your art, you give yourself
up to all the wildness of your imagination, and when you have tutored
your ill-regulated ideas into something like shape, you produce what you
call a mass, and think, no doubt, that you have composed a masterpiece."
Nicolas burst into tears, and then began to tell Leo how he had been
annoyed by the dry and pedantic instruction of the sub-professor. Leo,
who, with all his coldness of manner, had a heart, clasped the boy in
his arms, told him not to be disheartened, but to persevere, for that he
had real talent; and finally promised that from that moment he himself
would superintend his studies.
[Sidenote: PICCINNI AND DURANTE.]
Leo died, and was succeeded by Durante, who used to say of young
Piccinni, "The others are my pupils, but this one is my son." Twelve
years after his entrance into the Conservatory the most promising of its
alumni left it and set about the composition of an opera. As Piccinni
was introduced by Prince Vintimille, the director of the theatre then
in vogue was unable to refuse him a hearing; but he represented to His
Highness the certainty of the young composer's work turning out a
failure. Piccinni's patron was not wanting in generosity.
"How much can you lose by his opera," he said to the manager, "supposing
it should be a complete fiasco?"
The manager named a sum equivalent to three hundred and twenty pounds.
"There is the money, then," said the prince, handing him at the same
time a purse. "If the Donne Dispetose (that was the name of Piccinni's
opera) should prove a failure, you may keep the money, otherwise you can
return it to me."
Logroscino was the favorite Italian composer of that day, and great was
the excitement when it was heard that the next new opera to be produced
was not of his writing. Evidently, his friends had only one course open
to them. They decided to hiss Logroscino's rival.
But the Florentine public had reckoned without Piccinni's genius. They
could not hiss a man whose music delighted them, and Piccinni's Donne
Dispetose threw them into ecstacies. Those who had come to hoot
remained to applaud. Piccinni's reputation had commenced, and it went on
increasing until at last his was the most popular name in all musical
Five years afterwards, Piccinni (who in the meanwhile had produced two
other operas) gave his celebrated Cecchina, otherwise La Buona
Figliuola, at Rome. The success of this work, of which the libretto is
founded on the story of Pamela, was almost unprecedented. It was
played everywhere in Italy, even at the marionette theatres; and still
there was not sufficient room for the public, who were all dying to see
it. This little opera filled every playhouse in the Italian peninsula,
and it had taken Piccinni ten days to write! The celebrated Tonelli,
who, being an Italian, had naturally heard of its success, happened to
pass through Rome when it was being played there. He was not by any
means persuaded that the music was good because the public applauded it;
but after hearing the melodious opera from beginning to end, he turned
to his friends and said, in a tone of sincere conviction, "This Piccinni
is a true inventor!"
Of course the Cecchina was heard of in France. Indeed, it was the
great reputation achieved by that opera which first rendered the
Parisians anxious to hear Piccinni, and which inspired Madame Du Barry
with the hope that in the Neapolitan composer she might find a
successful rival to the great German musician patronised by Marie
[Sidenote: GLUCK AND PICCINNI.]
Piccinni, after accepting the invitation to dispute the prize of
popularity in Paris with Gluck, resolved to commence a new opera
forthwith, and had no sooner reached the French capital than he asked
one of the most distinguished authors of the day to furnish him with a
libretto. Marmontel, to whom the request was made, gave him his
Roland, which was the Roland of Quinault cut down from five acts to
three. Unfortunately, Piccinni did not understand a word of French.
Marmontel was therefore obliged to write beneath each French word its
Italian equivalent, which caused it to be said that he was not only
Piccinni's poet, but also his dictionary.
Gluck was in Germany when Piccinni arrived, and on hearing of the
manoeuvres of Madame du Barry and the Marquis Caraccioli to supplant
him in the favour of the Parisian public, he fell into a violent
passion, and wrote a furious letter on the subject, which was made
public. Above all, he was enraged at the Academy having accepted from
his adversary an opera on the subject of Roland, for he had agreed to
compose an Orlando for them himself.
"Do you know that the Chevalier is coming back to us with an Armida
and an Orlando in his portfolio?" said the Abbé Arnaud, one of Gluck's
most fervent admirers.
"But Piccinni is also at work at an Orlando?" replied one of the
"So much the better," returned the Abbé, "for then we shall have an
Orlando and also an Orlandino."
Marmontel heard of this mot, which caused him to address some
unpleasant observations to the Abbé the first time he met him in
But the Abbé was not to be silenced. One night, when Gluck's Alceste
was being played, he happened to occupy the next seat to Marmontel.
Alceste played by Mademoiselle Lesueur, has, at the end of the second
act, to exclaim--
"Il me déchire le coeur."
"Ah, Mademoiselle," said the Academician quite aloud, "vous me
déchirez les oreilles."
"What a fortunate thing for you, Sir," said the Abbé, "if you could get
Of course the two armies had their generals. Among those of the
Piccinnists were some of the greatest literary men of the
day--Marmontel, La Harpe, D'Alembert, &c. The only writers on Gluck's
side were Suard, and the Abbé Arnaud, for Rousseau, much as he admired
Gluck, cannot be reckoned among his partisans. Suard, who wrote under a
pseudonym, generally contrived to raise the laugh against his
adversaries. The Abbé Arnaud, as we have seen, used to defend his
composer in society, and constituted himself his champion wherever there
appeared to be the least necessity, or even opportunity, of doing so.
Volumes upon volumes were written on each side; but of course no one was
The Gluckists persisted in saying that Piccinni would never be able to
compose anything better than concert music.
The Piccinnists, on the other hand, denied that Gluck had the gift of
melody, though they readily admitted that he had this advantage over his
adversary--he made a great deal more noise.
[Sidenote: GLUCK AND PICCINNI.]
In the meanwhile the rehearsals of Piccinni's Orlando, or
Orlandino, as the Abbé Arnaud called it, were not going on favourably.
The orchestra, which had been subdued by the energetic Gluck, rebelled
against Piccinni, who was quite in despair at the vast inferiority of
the French to the Italian musicians.
"Everything goes wrong," he said to Marmontel; "there is nothing to be
done with them."
Marmontel was then obliged to interfere himself. Profiting by Piccinni's
forbearance, directors, singers, and musicians were in the habit of
treating him with the coolest indifference. Once, when Marmontel went to
rehearsal, he found that none of the principal singers were present, and
that the opera was to be rehearsed with "doubles." The author of the
libretto was furious, and said he would never suffer the work of the
greatest musician in Italy to be left to the execution of "doubles."
Upon this, Mademoiselle Bourgeois had the audacity to tell the
Academician that, after all, he was but the double of Quinault, whose
Roland (as we have seen) he had abridged. One of the chorus singers,
too, explained, that for his part he was not double at all, and that it
was a fortunate thing for M. Marmontel's shoulders that such was the
At last, when all seemed ready, and the day had been fixed for the first
representation, up came Vestris, the god of dancing, with a request for
some ballet music. It was for the thin but fascinating Madeleine
Guimard, who was not in the habit of being refused. Piccinni, without
delay, set about the music of her pas, and produced a gavot, which
was considered one of the most charming things in the Opera.
When Piccinni started for the theatre, the night of the first
representation, he took leave of his family as if he had been going to
execution. His wife and son wept abundantly, and all his friends were in
a state of despair.
"Come, my children," said Piccinni, at last; "this is unreasonable.
Remember that we are not among savages. We are living with the politest
and kindest nation in Europe. If they do not like me as a musician, they
will, at all events, respect me as a man and a stranger."
Piccinni's success was complete. It was impossible for the Gluckists to
deny it. Accordingly they said that they had never disputed Piccinni's
grace, nor his gift of melody, though his talent was spoiled by a
certain softness and effeminacy, which was observable in all his
Marie Antoinette, whom Madame du Barry and her clique had looked upon as
the natural enemy of Piccinni, because she was the avowed patroness of
Gluck, astonished both the cabals by sending for the Italian composer
and appointing him her singing-master. This was, doubtless, a great
honour for Piccinni, though a very unprofitable one; for he was not only
not paid for his lessons, but incurred considerable expense in going to
and from the palace, to say nothing of the costly binding of the operas
and other music, which he presented to the royal circle.
[Sidenote: PICCINNI'S SUCCESS.]
Beaumarchais had found precisely the same disadvantages attaching to the
post of Court music-master, when, in his youth, he gave lessons to the
daughters of Louis XV.
When Berton assumed the management of the Opera, he determined to make
the rival masters friends, and invited them to a magnificent supper,
where they were placed side by side. Gluck drank like a man and a
German, and before the supper was finished, was on thoroughly
confidential terms with his neighbour.
"The French are very good people," said he to Piccinni, "but they make
me laugh. They want us to write songs for them, and they can't sing."
The reconciliation appeared to be quite sincere; but the fact was, the
quarrel was not between two men, but between two parties. When the
direction of the Opera passed from the hands of Berton into those of
Devismes, a project of the latter, for making Piccinni and Gluck compose
an opera, at the same time, on the same subject, brought their
respective admirers once more into open collision. "Here," said Devismes
to Piccinni, "is a libretto on the story of Iphigenia in Tauris. M.
Gluck will treat the same subject; and the French public will then, for
the first time, have the pleasure of hearing two operas founded upon the
same incidents, and introducing the same characters, but composed by two
masters of entirely different schools."
"But," objected Piccinni, "if Gluck's opera is played first, the public
will think so much of it that they will not listen to mine."
"To avoid that inconvenience," replied the director, "we will play yours
"But Gluck will not permit it."
"I give you my word of honour," said Devismes, "that your opera shall be
put into rehearsal and brought out as soon as it is finished, and before
Piccinni went home, and at once set to work.
He had just finished his two first acts when he heard that Gluck had
come back from Germany with his Iphigenia in Tauris completed.
However, he had received the director's promise that his Iphigenia
should be produced first, and, relying upon Devismes's word of honour,
Piccinni merely resolved to finish his opera as quickly as possible, so
that the management might not be inconvenienced by having to wait for
it, now that Gluck's work, which was to come second, was ready for
Piccinni had not quite completed his Iphigenia, when, to his horror,
he heard that Gluck's was already in rehearsal! He rushed to Devismes,
reminded him of his promise, reproached him with want of faith, but all
to no purpose. The director of the Opera declared that he had received a
"command" to produce Gluck's work immediately, and that he had nothing
to do but to obey. He was very sorry, was in despair, &c.; but it was
absolutely necessary to play M. Gluck's opera first.
[Sidenote: THE TWO IPHIGENIAS.]
Piccinni felt that he was lost. He went to his friends, and told them
the whole affair.
"In the first place," said Guinguenée, the writer, "let me look at the
poem?" The poem was not merely bad, it was ridiculous. The manager had
taken advantage of Piccinni's ignorance of the French language to impose
upon him a libretto full of absurdities and common-places, such as no
sensible schoolboy would have put his name to. Guinguenée, at Piccinni's
request, re-wrote the whole piece--greatly, of course, to the annoyance
of the original author.
In the meanwhile the rehearsals of Gluck's Iphigenia were continued.
At the first of these, in the scene where Orestes, left alone in
prison, throws himself on a bench saying "Le calme rentre dans mon
coeur," the orchestra hesitated as if struck by the apparent
contradiction in the accompaniment, which is still of an agitated
character, though "Orestes" has declared that his heart is calm. "Go
on!" exclaimed Gluck; "he lies! He has killed his mother!"
The musicians of the Académie had a right, so many at a time, to find
substitutes to take their places at rehearsals. Not one profited by this
permission while Iphigenia was being brought out.
The Iphigenia in Tauris is known to be Gluck's masterpiece, and it is
by that wonderful work and by Orpheus that most persons judge of his
talent in the present day. Compared with the German's profound, serious,
and admirably dramatic production, Piccinni's Iphigenia stood but
little chance. In the first place, it was inferior to it; in the second,
the public were so delighted with Gluck's opera that they were not
disposed to give even a fair trial to another written on the same
subject. However, Piccinni's work was produced, and was listened to with
attention. An air, sung by Pylades to Orestes, was especially
admired, but on the whole the public seemed to be reserving their
judgment until the second representation.
The next evening came; but when the curtain drew up, Piccinni
discovered, to his great alarm, that something had happened to
Mademoiselle Laguerre, who was entrusted with the principal part.
Iphigenia was unable to stand upright. She rolled first to one side,
then to the other; hesitated, stammered, repeated the words, made eyes
at the pit; in short, Mdlle. Laguerre was intoxicated!
"This is not 'Iphigenia in Tauris,'" said Sophie Arnould; "this is
'Iphigenia in Champagne.'"
That night, the facetious heroine was sent, by order of the king, to
sleep at For-l'Evèque, where she was detained two days. A little
imprisonment appears to have done her good. The evening of her
re-appearance, Mademoiselle Laguerre, with considerable tact, applied a
couplet expressive of remorse to her own peculiar situation, and,
moreover, sang divinely.
[Sidenote: IPHIGENIA IN CHAMPAGNE.]
While the Gluck and Piccinni disputes were at their height, a story is
told of one amateur, doubtless not without sympathizers, who retired in
disgust to the country and sang the praises of the birds and their
gratuitous performances in a poem, which ended as follows:--
Là n'est point d'art, d'ennui scientifique;
Piccinni, Gluck n'ont point noté les airs;
Nature seule en dicta la musique,
Et Marmontel n'en a pas fait les vers.
The contest between Gluck and Piccinni (or rather between the Gluckists
and Piccinnists) was brought to an end by the death of the former. An
attempt was afterwards made to set up Sacchini against Piccinni; but
Sacchini being, as regards the practice of his art, as much a Piccinnist
as a Gluckist, this manoeuvre could not be expected to have much
The French revolution ruined Piccinni, who thereupon retired to Italy.
Seven years afterwards he returned to France, and, having occasion to
present a petition to Napoleon, was graciously received by the First
Consul in the Palace of the Luxembourg.
"Sit down," said Napoleon to Piccinni, who was standing; "a man of your
merit stands in no one's presence."
Piccinni now retired to Passy; but he was an old man, his health had
forsaken him, and, in a few months, he died, and was buried in the
cemetery of the suburb which he had chosen for his retreat.
In the present day, Gluck appears to have vanquished Piccinni, because,
at long intervals, one of Gluck's grandly constructed operas is
performed, whereas the music of his former rival is never heard at all.
But this, by no means, proves that Piccinni's melodies were not
charming, and that the connoisseurs of the eighteenth century were not
right in applauding them. The works that endure are not those which
contain the greatest number of beauties, but those of which the form is
most perfect. Gluck was a composer of larger conceptions, and of more
powerful genius than his Italian rival; and it may be said that he built
up monuments of stone while Piccinni was laying out parterres of
flowers. But if the flowers were beautiful while they lasted, what does
it matter to the eighteenth century that they are dead now, when even
the marble temples of Gluck are antiquated and moss-grown?
I cannot take leave of the Gluck and Piccinni period without saying a
few words about its principal dancers, foremost among whom stood
Madeleine Guimard, the thin, the fascinating, the ever young, and the
two Vestrises--Gaetan, the Julius of that Cæsar-like family, and Auguste
One evening when Madeleine Guimard was dancing in Les fêtes de l'hymen
et de l'amour, a very heavy cloud fell from the theatrical heavens upon
one of her beautiful arms, and broke it. A mass was said for
Mademoiselle Guimard's broken arm in the church of Notre Dame.
[Sidenote: MADELEINE GUIMARD.]
Houdon, the sculptor, moulded Mademoiselle Guimard's foot.
Fragonard, the painter, decorated Mademoiselle Guimard's magnificent,
luxuriously-furnished hotel. In his mural pictures he made a point of
introducing the face and figure of the divinity of the place, until at
last he fell in love with his model, and, presuming so far as to show
signs of jealousy, was replaced by David--yes Louis David, the fierce
and virtuous republican!
David, the great painter of the republic and of the empire was, of
course, at this time, but a very young man. He was, in fact, only a
student, and Madeleine Guimard, finding that the decoration of her
"Temple of Terpsichore" (as the danseuse's artistic and voluptuous
palace was called) did not quite satisfy his aspirations, gave him the
stipend he was to have received for covering her walls with fantastic
designs, to continue his studies in the classical style according to his
This was charity of a really thoughtful and delicate kind. As an
instance of simple bountiful generosity and kindheartedness, I may
mention Madeleine Guimard's conduct during the severe winter of 1768,
when she herself visited all the poor in her neighbourhood, and gave to
each destitute family enough to live on for a year. Marmontel, deeply
affected by this beneficence, addressed the celebrated epistle to her
"Est il bien vrai, jeune et belle damnée," &c.
"Not yet Magdalen repentant, but already Magdalen charitable," exclaimed
a preacher in allusion to Madeleine Guimard's good action, (which soon
became known all over Paris, though the dancer herself had not said a
word about it); and he added, "the hand which knows so well how to give
alms will not be rejected by St. Peter when it knocks at the gate of
Madeleine Guimard, with all her powers of fascination, was not beautiful
nor even pretty, and she was notoriously thin. Byron used to say of thin
women, that if they were old, they reminded him of spiders, if young and
pretty, of dried butterflies. Madeleine Guimard's theatrical friends, of
course, compared her to a spider. Behind the scenes she was known as
L'araignée. Another of her names was La squelette des grâces. Sophie
Arnould, it will be remembered, called her "a little silk-worm," for the
sake of the joke about "la feuille," and once, when she was dancing
between two male dancers in a pas de trois representing two satyrs
fighting for a nymph, an uncivil spectator said of the exhibition that
it was like "two dogs fighting for a bone."
[Sidenote: MADELINE GUIMARD.]
Madeleine Guimard is said to have preserved her youth and beauty in a
marvellous manner, besides which, she had such a perfect acquaintance
with all the mysteries of the toilet, that by the arts of dress and
adornment alone, she could have made herself look young when she was
already beginning to grow old. Marie-Antoinette used to consult her
about her costume and the arrangement of her hair, and once when, for
insubordination at the theatre, she had been ordered to For-l'Evèque,
the danseuse is reported to have said to her maid, "never mind,
Gothon, I have written to the Queen to tell her that I have discovered a
style of coiffure; we shall be free before the evening."
I have not space to describe Mademoiselle Guimard's private theatre,
nor to speak of her liaison with the Prince de Soubise, nor of her
elopement with a German prince, whom the Prince de Soubise pursued,
wounding him and killing three of his servants, nor of her ultimate
marriage with a humble "professor of graces" at the Conservatory of
Paris. I must mention, however, that in her decadence Madeleine Guimard
visited London (a dozen Princes de Soubise would have followed her with
drawn swords if she had attempted to leave Paris during her prime); and
that Lord Mount Edgcumbe, the author of the interesting "Musical
Reminiscences," saw her dance at the King's Theatre in the year 1789.
This was the year of the taking of the Bastille, when a Parisian artist
might well have been glad to make a little tour abroad. The dancers who
had appeared at the beginning of the season had been insufferably bad,
and the manager was at last compelled to send to Paris for more and
better performers. Amongst them, says Lord Mount Edgcumbe, "came the
famous Mademoiselle Guimard, then near sixty years old, but still full
of grace and gentility, and she had never possessed more." Madeleine
Guimard had ceased to be the rage in Paris for nearly ten years, ("Vers
1780," says M. A. Houssaye, in his "Galerie du Dix-huitième Siècle",
elle tomba peu à peu dans l'oubli"), but she was not sixty or even
fifty years of age when she came to London. M. Castil Blaze, an
excellent authority in such matters, tells us in his "Histoire de
l'Académie Royale de Musique," that she was born in 1743.
[Sidenote: THE VESTRIS FAMILY.]
By way of contrast to Madeleine Guimard, I may call attention to
Mademoiselle Théodore, a young, pretty and accomplished danseuse, who
hesitated before she embraced a theatrical career, and actually
consulted Jean Jacques Rousseau on the subject; who remained virtuous
even on the boards of the Académie Royale; and who married Dauberval,
the celebrated dancer, as any respectable bourgeoise (if Dauberval had
not been a dancer) might have done. Perhaps some aspiring but timid and
scrupulous Mademoiselle Théodore of the present day would like to know
what Rousseau thought about the perils of the stage? He replied to the
letter of the danseuse that he could give her no advice as to her
conduct if she determined to join the Opera; that in his own quiet path
he found it difficult to lead a pure irreproachable life: how then
could he guide her in one which was surrounded with dangers and
Vestris, I mean Vestris the First, the founder of the family, was as
celebrated as Mademoiselle Guimard for his youthfulness in old age. M.
Castil Blaze, the historian of the French Opera, saw him fifty-two years
after his début at the Académie, which took place in 1748, and
declares that he danced with as much success as ever, going through the
steps of the minuet "avec autant de grâce que de noblesse." Gaetan
left the stage soon after the triumphant success of his son Auguste, but
re-appeared and took part in certain special performances in 1795, 1799
and 1800. On the occasion of the young Vestris's début, his father, in
court dress, sword at side, and hat in hand, appeared with him on the
stage. After a short but dignified address to the public on the
importance of the art he professed, and the hopes he had formed of the
inheritor of his name, he turned to Auguste and said, "Now, my son,
exhibit your talent to the public! Your father is looking at you!"
The Vestris family, which was very numerous, and very united, always
went in a body to the opera when Auguste danced, and at other times made
a point of stopping away. "Auguste is a better dancer than I am," the
old Vestris would say; "he had Gaetan Vestris for his father, an
advantage which nature refused me."
"If," said Gaetan, on another occasion, "le dieu de la danse (a title
which he had himself given him) touches the ground from time to time, he
does so in order not to humiliate his comrades."
This notion appears to have inspired Moore with the lines he addressed
in London to a celebrated dancer.
"---- You'd swear
When her delicate feet in the dance twinkle round,
That her steps are of light, that her home is the air,
And she only par complaisance touches the ground."
[Sidenote: THE VESTRIS FAMILY.]
The Vestrises (whose real name was Vestri) came from Florence. Gaetan,
known as le beau Vestris, had three brothers, all dancers, and this
illustrious family has had representatives for upwards of a century in
the best theatres of Italy, France and England. The last celebrated
dancer of the name who appeared in England, was Charles Vestris, whose
wife was the sister of Ronzi di Begnis. Charles Vestris was Auguste's
nephew. His father, Auguste's brother, was Stefano Vestris, a stage poet
of no ability, and Mr. Ebers, in his "Seven Years of the King's
Theatre," tells us (giving us therein another proof of the excellent
esprit de famille which always animated the Vestrises) that when
Charles Vestris and his wife entered into their annual engagement, "the
poet was invariably included in the agreement, at a rate of
remuneration for his services to which his consanguinity to those
performers was his chief title."
We can form some notion of Auguste Vestris's style from that of Perrot
(now ballet-master at the St. Petersburgh Opera), who was his favourite
pupil, and who is certainly by far the most graceful and expressive
dancer that the opera goers of the present day have seen.
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