Opera In France After The Departure Of Gluck
A few months before Gluck left Paris for the last time, an insurrection
broke out at the Opera. The revolutionary spirit was abroad in Paris.
The success of the American War of Independence, the tumultuous meetings
of the French Parliament, the increasing resistance to authority which
now manifested itself everywhere in France; all these stimulants to
revolt seem to have taken effect on the singers and dancers of the
Académie. The company resolved to carry on the theatre itself, for its
own benefit, and the director, Devismes, was called upon to abdicate.
The principal insurgents held what they called "Congress," at the house
of Madeleine Guimard, and the God of Dancing, Auguste Vestris, declared
loudly that he was the Washington of the affair.
[Sidenote: MADEMOISELLE GUIMARD.]
Every day some fresh act of insubordination was committed, and the
chiefs of the plot had to be forced to appear on the stage by the
direct interference of the police.
"The minister desires me to dance," said Mademoiselle Guimard on one of
these occasions; "eh bien qu'il y prenne garde, je pourrais bien le
The influential leader just named conducted the intrigue with great
skill and discretion.
"One thing, above all!" she said to her fellow conspirators; "no
combined resignations,--that is what ruined the Parliament."
To the minister, Amelot, the destroyer and reconstructor of the
Parliament of Dijon, Sophie Arnould observed, in reference to his
interference with the affairs of the Académie---
"You should remember, that it is easier to compose a parliament than to
compose an opera."
Auguste Vestris having spoken very insolently to Devismes, the latter
said to him---
"Do you know, sir, to whom you are speaking?"
"To whom? to the farmer of my talent," replied the dancer.
Things were brought to a crisis by the fêtes given to celebrate the
birth of Marie Antoinette's first child, December, 1778. The city of
Paris proposed to spend enormous sums in festivities and illuminations;
but the king and queen benevolently suggested that, instead of being
wasted in useless display, the money should be given away in marriage
portions to a hundred deserving young girls; and their majesties gave
fifty thousand francs themselves for the same object. Losing sight of
the Opera for the moment, I must relate, in as few words as possible, a
charming little anecdote that is told of one of the applicants for a
dowry. Lise was the name of this innocent and naïve young person, who,
on being asked some question respecting her lover, replied, that she had
none; and that she thought the municipality provided everything! The
municipality found the necessary admirer, and could have had no
difficulty in doing so, if we may judge from the graceful bust of Lise,
executed in marble by the celebrated sculptor, Houdon.
The Académie, which at this time belonged to the city, determined to
follow its example, and to give away at least one marriage portion.
Twelve hundred francs were subscribed and placed in the hands of
Mademoiselle Guimard, the treasurer elect. The nuptial banquet was to
take place at the winter Vauxhall (Gallicè "Wauxhall"); and all Paris
was in a state of eager excitement to be present at what promised to be
a most brilliant and original entertainment. It was not allowed,
however, to take place, the authorities choosing to look upon it as a
parody of the fête given by the city.
[Sidenote: AUGUSTE VESTRIS.]
The doors of the "Wauxhall" being closed to the subscribers,
Mademoiselle Guimard invited them to meet at her palace, in the Chaussée
d'Antin. The municipality again interfered; and in the middle of the
banquet Vestris and Dauberval were arrested by lettres de cachet and
taken to For-l'Evèque, on the ground that they had refused to dance the
Tuesday previous in the divertissement of Armide.
Gaetan Vestris was present at the arrest of his son, and excited the
mirth of the assembly by the pompous, though affectionate, manner in
which he bade him farewell. After embracing him tenderly, he said--
"Go, Augustus; go to prison. This is the grandest day of your life! Take
my carriage, and ask for the room of my friend, the King of Poland; and
live magnificently--charge everything to me."
On another occasion, when Gaetan was not so well pleased with his
Augustus, he said to him:
"What! the Queen of France does her duty, by requesting you to dance
before the King of Sweden, and you do not do yours? You shall no longer
bear my name. I will have no misunderstanding between the house of
Vestris and the house of Bourbon; they have hitherto always lived on
For his refusal to dance, Augustus was this time sentenced to six
months' imprisonment; but the opera goers were so eager for his
re-appearance that he was set free long before the expiration of the
He made his rentrée amid the groans and hisses of the audience, who
seemed determined to give him a lesson for his impertinence.
Then Gaetan, magnificently attired, appeared on the stage, and addressed
the public as follows:--
"You wish my son to go down on his knees. I do not say that he does not
deserve your displeasure; but remember, that the dancer whom you have so
often applauded has not studied the pose you now require of him."
"Let him speak; let him endeavour to justify himself," cried a voice
from the pit.
"He shall speak; he shall justify himself," replied the father. And,
turning to his son, he added: "Dance, Auguste!"
Auguste danced; and every one in the theatre applauded.
The orchestra took no part in the operatic insurrection; and we have
seen that the musicians were not invited to contribute anything to the
dowry, offered by the Académie to virtue in love and in distress. De
Vismes proposed to reward his instrumentalists by giving up to them a
third of the receipts from some special representation of Gluck's
Iphigénie en Tauride. The band rejected the offer, as not sufficiently
liberal, and by refusing to play on the evening in question, made the
performance a failure.
The Academic revolt was at last put an end to, by the city of Paris
cancelling de Vismes's lease, and taking upon itself the management of
the theatre, de Vismes receiving a large sum in compensation, and the
appointment of director at a fixed salary.
* * * * *
[Sidenote: BEAUMARCHAIS AND GLUCK.]
Beaumarchais, while assisting the national revolution with the Marriage
of Figaro, is known to have aided in a more direct manner the
revolution which was now imminent at the opera. It is said, that he was
anxious to establish an operatic republic in the hope of being made
president of it himself. He is known to have been a good musician. I
have spoken of his having held the honourable, if not lucrative, post of
music-master to the daughters of Louis XV. (by whom he was as well paid
as was Piccinni by that monarch's successor); and a better proof of
his talent is afforded, by his having composed all the music of his
Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro, except the air of
Malbrook in the latter comedy.
Beaumarchais had been much impressed by the genius of Gluck. He met him
one evening in the foyer of the Opera, and spoke to him so clearly and
so well about music that the great composer said to him: "You must
surely be M. de Beaumarchais." They agreed to write an opera together,
and some years afterwards, when Gluck had left Paris for Vienna, the
poet sent the composer the libretto of Tarare. Gluck wrote to say
that he was delighted with the work, but that he was now too old to
undertake the task of setting it to music, and would entrust it to his
favourite pupil, Salieri.
Gluck benefited French opera in two ways. He endowed the Académie with
several master-pieces, and moreover, destroyed, or was the main
instrument in destroying, its old répertoire, which after the works of
Gluck and Piccinni was found intolerable. It was now no longer the
fashion to exclude foreign composers from the first musical theatre in
France, and Gluck and Piccinni were followed by Sacchini and Salieri.
Strange to say, Sacchini, when he first made his appearance at the
Académie with his Olympiade, was deprived of a hearing through the
jealousy of Gluck, who, on being informed, at Vienna, that the work in
question was in rehearsal, hurried to Paris and had influence enough to
get it withdrawn. Worse than this, when the Olympiade was produced at
the Comédie Italienne, with great success, Gluck and his partisans put a
stop to the representation by enforcing one of the privileges of the
Académie, which rendered it illegal for any other theatre to perform
operas with choruses or with more than seven singers on the stage.
* * * * *
No work by Sacchini or Salieri was produced at the Académie until after
the theatre in the Palais Royal was burnt down, in 1781. In this fire,
which took place about eighteen months after Gluck had retired from
Paris, and five months after the production of Piccinni's Iphigenia in
Tauris, the old répertoire would seem to have been consumed, for no
opera by Lulli was afterwards played in France, and only one by
Rameau,--Castor and Pollux, which, revived in 1791, was not favourably
* * * * *
It was in June, 1781, after a representation of Gluck's Orphée, that
the Académie Royale was burnt to the ground. Coronis (music by Rey,
the conductor of the orchestra) was the last piece of the evening, and
before it was finished, during the divertissement, one of the scenes
caught fire. Dauberval, the principal dancer, had enough presence of
mind to order the curtain down at once. The public wanted no more of
Coronis, and went quietly away without calling for the conclusion of
Rey's opera, and without having the least idea of what was taking place
behind the curtain. In the meanwhile the fire had spread on the stage
beyond the possibility of extinction. Singers, dancers, musicians, and
scene-shifters, rushed in terror from the theatre, and about a dozen
persons, who were unable to escape, perished in the conflagration.
Madeleine Guimard was nearly burnt to death in her dressing-room, which
was surrounded by flames. One of the carpenters, however, penetrated
into her loge, wrapped her up in a counterpane (she was entirely
undressed), and bore her triumphantly through the fire to a place of
"Save my child! save my child!" cried Rey, in despair; and as soon as he
saw the score of Coronis out of danger he went away, giving the flames
full permission to burn everything else. All the manuscripts were saved,
thanks to the courageous exertions of Lefebrvre, the librarian, who
remained below in the music room even while the stage was burning, until
the last sheet had been removed.
"The Opera is burnt down," said a Parisian to a Parisian the next
"So much the better," was the reply. "It had been there such a time!"
This remark was ingenious but not true, for the Académie Royale de
Musique had only been standing eighteen years. It was burnt down before,
in 1768, on which occasion Voltaire, in a letter to M. d'Argental, wrote
as follows: "on dit que ce spectacle était si mauvais qu'il fallait tôt
ou tard que la vengeance divine éclatât." The theatre destroyed by fire
in 1763 was in the Palais Royal, and it was reconstructed on the
same spot. After the fire of 1781, the Porte St. Martin theatre was
built, and the Opera was carried on there ten years, after which it was
removed to the opera-house in the Rue Richelieu, which was pulled down
after the assassination of the Duc de Berri. But we are advancing beyond
the limits of the present chapter.
[Sidenote: THE NEW OPERA HOUSE.]
The new Opera House was built in eighty-six days. The members of the
company received orders not to leave Paris, and during the interval
were paid their salaries regularly as if for performing. The work began
on the 2nd of August, and was finished on the 27th of October. Lenoir,
the architect, had told Marie Antoinette that the theatre could be
completed in time for the first performance to take place on the 30th of
"Say the 31st," replied the queen; "and if on that day I receive the key
of my box, I promise you the Order of St. Michael in exchange."
The key was sent to her majesty on the 26th, who not only decorated
Lenoir with the cordon of St. Michael, but also conferred on him a
pension of six thousand francs; and on the 27th the theatre was opened
to the public.
* * * * *
In 1784, Sacchini's Chimène, adapted from Il Gran Cid, an opera he
had written for the King's Theatre in 1778, was produced at the Académie
with great success. The principal part in this work was sustained by
Huberti, a singer much admired by Piccinni, who wrote some airs in the
cantabile style specially for her, and said that, without her, his
opera of Dido, in which she played the principal part, was "without
Dido." M. Castil Blaze tells us that she was the first true singer who
appeared at the Académie. Grimm declares, that she sang like Todi and
acted like Clairon. Finally, when Madame de Saint Huberti was performing
at Strasburgh, in 1787, a young officer of artillery, named Napoleon
Bonaparte, addressed the following witty and complimentary verses to
"Romains qui vous vantez d'une illustre origine
Voyez d'où dépendait votre empire naissant:
Didon n'eut pas de charme assez puissant
Pour arrêter la fuite où son amant s'obstine;
Mais si l'autre Didon, ornement de ces lieux,
Eût été reine de Carthage,
Il eût, pour la servir, abandonné ces dieux,
Et votre beau pays serait encore sauvage."
Sacchini's first opera, OEdipe à Colosse, was not produced at the
Académie until 1787, a few months after his death. It was now no
question, of whether he was a worthy successor of Gluck or a formidable
opponent to Piccinni. His opera was admired for itself, and the public
applauded it with genuine enthusiasm.
In the meanwhile, Salieri, the direct inheritor of Gluck's mantle (as
far as that poetic garment could be transferred by the mere will of the
original possessor) had brought out his Danaides--announced at first
as the work of Gluck himself and composed under his auspices. Salieri
had also set Tarare to music. "This is the first libretto of modern
times," says M. Castil Blaze, "in which the author has ventured to join
buffoonery to tragedy--a happy alliance, which permits the musician to
vary his colours and display all the resources of genius and art." The
routine-lovers of the French Académie, the pedants, the blunderers,
were indignant with the new work; and its author entrusted Figaro with
the task of defending it.
"Either you must write nothing interesting," said Figaro, "or fools will
run you down."
The same author then notices, as a remarkable coincidence, that
"Beaumarchais and Da Ponte, at four hundred leagues distance from one
another, invented, at the same time, the class of opera since known as
"romantic." Beaumarchais's Tarare had been intended for Gluck; Da
Ponte's Don Giovanni, as every one knows, found its true composer in
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