Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 2.djvu/528

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page needs to be proofread.


516

��OPERA.

��OPERA.

��The result of this conscientious endeavour to carry out a reform, which he believed to be not only desirable, but absolutely necessary, was a truly magnificent work, which, though its success at first seemed doubtful, soon found a place in the repertoire of every theatre in Europe. Even those most violently opposed to innovation felt compelled to applaud it ; for its dramatic force was irresistible, and in flow of Melody it was excelled by none of the best Operas of the period. But Gluck had not yet accomplished his full desire. Encouraged by the triumph of his first attempt in a new style, he carried out his principles still farther, in two other Operas, 'Alceste* (1767), and Paride ed Elena* (1769), which were not received at Vienna with very great favour. The critics of the day were not yet fully prepared for the amount of reform indicated in their construction. Metastasio and Hasse had reigned too long to be deposed in a moment ; and Gluck met with so much opposition, that he determined to make his next venture in Paris, where, in 1 774, he brought out his first French Opera, ' Iphigenie en Aulide,' under the patronage of his old pupil, Marie An- toinette. The result fully justified his reliance upon the critical discernment of an audience less easily influenced by the sensuous allurements of Italian Art than by the declamatory powers of their own old favourites, Lulli, and his great successor, Rameau, who both regarded the per- fection of Accompanied Recitative as a matter of far greater importance than a continuous flow of rhythmic melody. To Lulli's rhetorical purity, Gluck communicated an intensity of passion, which, though it would have scandalised the courtiers of the Grand Monarque, to whom the Voice of Nature was an unknown language, was welcome enough to those of Louis XVI. He enriched his scenic effects with an orchestral background with which the most ambitious at- tempts of Rameau would bear no comparison whatever. In place of Lulli's formal Fugue, and Rameau' s scarcely less inelastic Orchestral Pre- lude, he introduced an Overture, intended in his own words ' to prepare the audience for the action of the piece, and serve as a kind of argument to it.' Superior to both these popular Composers on their own ground, and gifted be- sides with a refinement of taste which lent charms of its own to every melodic phrase he wrote, it is not surprising that he should have taken Paris by storm. The new Opera was re- ceived with acclamation, and Parisian critics, with the Abbe 1 Arnaud at their head, proved that they not only appreciated its beauties, but thoroughly understood the principles upon which it was conceived. The only mistake they made a mistake which more modern critics have been only too ready to endorse lay in sup- posing that these principles were new. They were not new and it is well that we should state this fact clearly, because we shall have occasion to refer to it again. The abstract Ideal which in the year 1600 found its highest attainable ex- pression in Peri's 'Euridice,' was not merely

��analogous to, but absolutely identical with that which, in 1774, the rich genius of Gluck clothed in the outward form of 'Iphigenie en Aulide.* To compare the two works in the concrete would be manifestly absurd. Peri wrote at a time when Monodic Art was in its infancy, and, with all his talent, was at heart an incorrigible pedant. To more than a century and a half of technical experience Gluck added one grand qualification with which pedantry can in no wise co-exist a passionate love of Nature. Hence his irresistible power over all who heard him. A certain critic, speaking of a passage in 'Iphigenie en Tauride,' in which Orestes, after a Scene full of the most fearful agitation, exclaims ' Le calme rentre dans mon coeur ! ' found fault with it on the ground that the agitation still carried on in the Accompaniment belied the ex- pression of the words. ' Not so,' said Gluck. ' He mistakes physical exhaustion for calmness of heart. Has he not killed his mother?' Equally thoughtful was his defence of the well-known Movement, Caron t'appelle, in 'Iphigenie en Aulide,' against the charge of monotony ' My friend, in Hell the passions are extinguished, and the Voice, therefore, needs no inflexions.' Could Shakespeare himself have studied the passions of the human heart more deeply ?

Gluck's triumph was complete ; but it was short-lived. A reaction soon set in. Piccinni was invited to Paris in 1776, and with the as- sistance of Marmontel as his Librettist, produced two Operas 'Roland' and 'Atys' in the Ita- lian style, both of which excited general admira- tion. This however was not enough to satisfy the party spirit of a large body of malcontents, who, on the arrival of the Italian Composer, divided the Art-world of Paris into two rival fac- tions the Gluckiste and the Picdnniste which fought with a bitterness of prejudice infinitely greater than that displayed by the followers of Handel and Buononcini in London. Both parties were equally unjust to their opponents, and the battle raged with a violence proportioned to the unreasonableness of its exciting cause. The im- mense success which attended the production of Gluck's 'Iphigenie en Tauride 'in 1779 brought matters to a crisis. The Piccinnists, irritated at so signal a triumph on the opposite side, urged their favourite Composer to produce another Opera on the same subject. Nothing could pos- sibly have been more unfair to Piccinni. He was by far the most accomplished representative of the Italian School then living, and so deeply attached to its traditions that the task forced upon him was not so much beyond as opposed in every possible way to his powers. He brought out his version of the work in 1781 ; and, as might have been expected, it was a miserable failure : but this severe blow did not put an end to the pretensions of his party, and the feud was continued with undiminished violence on either side, until long after the Composer of ' Orfeo ' had retired into private life at Vienna. Its in- fluence upon Art has proved to be indelible. Few French Composers, with the exception of

��.

�� �