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

adémie. 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.


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

faire sauter."

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.


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

good terms."

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

appointed term.

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.

* * * * *


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);[64] 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.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: GLUCK.]

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[65] 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.


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.

[Sidenote: SALIERI.]

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