Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/641

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GRETRY.
629
 

'Basile, 1 act (1792); 'Les deux Couvents,' 3 acts (1792); 'Joseph Barra,' 1 act (1794), a pièce de circonstance; 'Callias,' 1 act (1794), a republican piece, of which the so-called Greek music is justly forgotten, though one of Hoffmann's lines has survived—

'Quand nous serous soumis, nous n'existerons plus!';

'Lisbeth,' 3 acts (1797), which contains a romance that has not yet lost its charm; 'Le Barbier de village,' 1 act (1797); and 'Elisca,' 3 acts (1799), which was a fiasco.

Long as this list is, it does not include all Grétry's dramatic works. Not content with supplying pieces for the Opéra Comique, his ambition was to distinguish himself at the Académie de Musique. Here he produced 'Céphale et Procris,' 3 acts (1775), of which the only number worthy of notice was the duet 'Donne-la moi'; 'Les trois Ages de l'Opera' (1778), a prologue received with indifference; 'Andromaque,' 3 acts (1780), the principal rôle of which is accompanied throughout by 3 flutes in harmony; 'Emilie' ('la Belle Esclave' 1781), unsuccessfully introduced as the 5th act of the ballet 'La Fête de Mirza'; 'La double Epreuve, ou Colinette à la Cour,' 3 acts (1782), the finale of the first act full of dramatic truth; 'L'Embarras des richesses,' 3 acts (1782), a complete failure; 'La Caravane du Caire,' 3 acts (1784), the words by the Count de Provence, afterwards Louis XVIII—as complete a success, owing principally to the ballets, and the picturesque scene of the bazaar; it was performed no less than 506 times; 'Panurge dans l'île des Lanternes,' 3 acts (1785), a not very lively comic opera; 'Amphitryon,' 3 acts (1788), badly received; 'Aspasie,' 3 acts (1789), a partial success; 'Denys le Tyran' (1794), 1 act, a pièce de circonstance which the composer did well not to publish; 'La Rosière républicaine' (1794), 1 act, another pièce de circonstance performed under the title 'La Fête de la raison'—one of the scenes represented a church with an organ on the stage to accompany the sacred choruses; 'Anacréom chez Polycrate,' 3 acts (1797), containing an air and a trio long favourites; 'Le Casque et les Colombes,' 1 act (1801), performed only 3 times; and 'Delphis et Mopsa,' 2 acts (1803), which met with but little better fate.

The question arises, out of all these 50 operas produced in Paris, how many are there besides 'Le Tableau parlant' which deserve special attention? 'Zémire et Azor,' 'L'Amant jaloux,' 'L'Epreuve villageoise,' and above all 'Richard,' which is still performed with success, and of which nearly every number deserves to be specified, are those we should select. In treating subjects of a more ambitious stamp, such as 'Pierre le Grand' and 'Guillaume Tell,' Grétry did violence to his nature. Broad and vigorous conceptions were not within his range, because they require not only sustained effort, but a thorough mastery of harmony and instrumentation, and this he did not possess. He scarcely ever wrote for more than two voices, and is manifestly perplexed by the entrance of a third, as a glance at the trio-duet in 'Zémire et Azor' will show. 'You might drive a coach and four between the bass and the first fiddle' was wittily said of his thin harmonies. But though it may be thought necessary at the present day to reinforce his meagre orchestration, his basses are so well chosen, and form such good harmony, that it is often extremely difficult to add complementary parts to the two in the original score.[1] And Grétry's instrumentation though poor is not wanting in colour when occasion serves. Moreover he was aware of his defects as well as of his capacities. 'In the midst of popular applause how dissatisfied an artist often feels with his own work!' he exclaims at the end of his analysis of 'Huron.' Elsewhere in speaking of his works as a whole, he puts the following words into Gluck's mouth, 'You received from Nature the gift of appropriate melody, but in giving you this talent she withheld that of strict and complicated harmony.' This is true self-knowledge, and by such remarks Grétry has shortened and simplified our task.

The qualities in his music which most excite our admiration are, his perfect understanding of the right proportions to be given both to the ensemble, and to each separate part of an opera, and his power of connecting and evolving the scenes, faithfully interpreting the words, and tracing the lineaments, so to speak, of his characters by means of this fidelity of expression in the music. While thus taking declamation as his guide, and believing that 'the most skilful musician was he who could best metamorphose declamation into melody,' Grétry little thought that the day would come when Méhul would say of him that 'what he wrote was very clever, but it was not music' ('il faisait de l'esprit et non de la musique'). No doubt he carried his system too far; he did not see that by trying to follow the words too literally a composer may deprive his phrases of ease and charm, and sacrifice the general effect for the sake of obtaining many trifling ones—a most serious fault. But in spite of his weakness for details—the defect of many a painter—Grétry is a model one never wearies of studying. He excelled in the simple pastoral style, in the touching and pathetic, and in comic opera at once comic and not trivial. By means of his rich imagination, thorough acquaintance with stage business, and love for dramatic truth, he created a whole world of characters drawn to the life; and by his great intelligence, and the essentially French bent of his genius he almost deserves to be called the 'Molière of music,' a title as overwhelming as it is honourable, but which his passionate admirers have not hesitated to bestow on him.

A witty and brilliant talker, and a friend of influential literary men, Grétry possessed many powerful patrons at the French court, and was

  1. 'Guillaume Tell' was reinstrumented by Berton and Rifaut; 'Richard' by Adolphe Adam; 'L'Epreuve villageoise' by Auber; and 'La fausse Magic' by Eugéne Prévost.