A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Grétry, André

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1504640A Dictionary of Music and Musicians — Grétry, André

GRÉTRY, André Ernest Modeste, born Feb. 11, 1741, at Liége, on the ground-floor of a small house in the Rue des Récollets, now No. 28. His father, a poor violinist, placed him at 6 years old in the choir of St. Denis; but under the harsh treatment of his master the little chorister showed no aptitude for music, and at 11 was dismissed as incapable. His next master, Leclerc, as gentle as the former had been cruel, made him a good reader; and Renekin, organist, taught him harmony. His taste for music was however developed by listening to the operas of Pergolesi, Galuppi, Jomelli, etc., performed by a company of Italian singers with Resta as conductor. After a year spent in this manner an irresistible impulse urged him to compose; in vain the maître de chapelle tried to teach him counterpoint—he longed to give expression to the thoughts that were burning for utterance; and as his first attempt, produced at Liége in 1758 six small symphonies, and in 1759 a ' messe solennelle ' for 4 voices, none of which have been published. These compositions secured him the protection of the Chanoine du Harlez, who furnished him with the means of going to Rome. Leaving his native city in March 1759, he travelled on foot, with a smuggler for his companion[1]. On his arrival at Rome he was received into the 'Collège de Liége,' founded by a Liégeois named Darcis for the benefit of his townsmen, who were permitted to reside there for five years while completing their specific studies. His master for counterpoint and composition was Casali, who dismissed him as hopelessly ignorant. Grétry never did understand the science of harmony; his mission was to enforce the expression of words by melody, and to compose operas. During his stay in Rome he composed a 'De profundis' and some motets[2] which have not been published, and an intermezzo called 'Le Vendemmianti,' [App. p.658 "Vendemiatrice"] for the Aliberti theatre. Although the work of a foreigner this operetta was successful, and might have introduced him to more important theatres; but Grétry having read the score of Monsigny's 'Rose et Colas' came to the conclusion that French opéra-comique was his vocation. To get to Paris now became his one idea. He left Rome Jan. 1, 1767, and having reached Geneva asked Voltaire to write him a good libretto for an opera-comique, a task which Voltaire was incapable of performing and had the tact to decline. At Geneva he supported himself for a year by teaching singing; and produced 'Isabelle et Gertrude,' a one-act opera by Favart on a subject suggested by Voltaire, and previously set to music by Blaise.[3] At length, by the advice of the owner of Ferney himself, Grétry went to Paris, where he obtained from an amateur the libretto of 'Les Manages Samnites' in three acts. This work was not performed at that time, but its public rehearsals procured him the patronage of Count de Creutz the Swedish Ambassador, and as a consequence of that, a two-act libretto by Marmontel, 'Le Huron,' successfully performed Aug. 20, 1768. This opera was followed by 'Lucile' (1769), which contains the duet [App. p.658 "quartet"] 'Où peut-on être mieux qu'au sein de sa famille,' which became so popular and played so singular a part on more than one historical[4] occasion; and by 'Le Tableau parlant,' an original and extremely comic piece, and one of Grétry's very best. What life and spirit there are in this refined jesting! How natural and charming are the melodies, with their skilfully varied, but always animated rhythm! How prettily does Isabelle make fun of old Cassandre and his antiquated love-making! How appropriate, and how thoroughly in keeping is the action of each individual on the stage! How pointed and dramatic the duet between Pierrot and Columbine! Grimm was right in proclaiming 'Le Tableau parlant' a real masterpiece.

Grétry now showed his versatility by composing no less than 3 operas, all produced in 1770—'Le Sylvain,' of which not even the over-rated duet 'Dans le sein d'un père' survives; 'Les deux Avares,' which contains a good comic duet, a march, and a Janissaries' chorus, still heard with pleasure; and 'L'Amitié à l'épreuve,' an indifferent comedy in two acts, reduced to one in 1775 by Favart, without improving either piece or music. 'Zémire et Azor' (Dec. 16, 1771) at once placed Grétry in the rank of creative artists. His fertility in ideas was marvellous, and he regularly supplied both the Comédie Italienne and the Théâtre Favart, where he produced successively 'L'Ami de la maison,' 3 acts (Fontainebleau Oct. 1771, and Paris March 14, 1772); 'Le Magnifique,' 3 acts (1773), the overture of which contains the air 'Vive Henri IV' most effectively combined with another subject; 'La Rosière de Salency' in 4 acts, afterwards reduced to 3 (1774), which contains a remarkable duet between two jealous young women, and the pretty melody 'Ma barque légère,' so well arranged by Dussek for the piano; 'La fausse Magie,' 2 acts, with the syllabic duet between the two old men, an excellent piece; 'Les Manages Samnites,' a work which he rewrote several times but which never became popular, though the march supplied Mozart with a theme for Variations; 'Matroco,' a burlesque in 4 acts composed for the court-theatre at Fontainebleau (1777) and unsuccessfully performed in Paris (1778) against the wish of Grétry; 'Le Jugement de Midas,' 3 acts (1778), in which he satirised French music of the old style, and especially the manner in which it was rendered by the singers of the Académie; 'L'Amant jaloux,' 3 acts (1778)—in the 2nd act an exquisite serenade; 'Les Evénements imprévus' (1779), in 3 acts, containing 2 airs once popular, now forgotten; 'Aucassin et Nicolette,' 3 acts (1780), in which he endeavoured unsuccessfully to imitate ancient music; 'Thalie au Nouveau Théâtre,' a prologue for the inauguration of the Salle Favart (1783); 'Théodore et Paulin,' lyric comedy in 3 acts, which failed at first, and was afterwards given in 2 acts under the title of 'L'Epreuve villageoise' with marked and well-merited success; 'Richard Cœur de Lion,' 3 acts (Oct. 21, 1784), the finest of all his works, containing the air, 'O Richard, ô mon roi, l'univers t'abandonne,' which became of historic importance at Versailles, Oct. 1, 1789; and 'fièvre brulante,' on which Beethoven wrote variations. 'Les Méprises par ressemblance,' opera in 3 acts (1786) now justly forgotten; 'Le Comte d' Albert,' 2 acts (1787), the success of which was secured by Mme. Dugazon; 'La Suite du Comte d'Albert,' 1 act (1787); 'Le Prisonnier Anglais,' 3 acts (1787), revived in 1793 as 'Clarice et Belton,' without making a more favourable impression; 'Le Rival confident,' opera in 2 acts, which failed in spite of a pleasing arietta and a graceful rondo; 'Raoul Barbe-Bleue,' 3 acts (1789), a weak production quickly forgotten; 'Pierre le Grand,' 3 acts (1790), in which the search after local colouring is somewhat too apparent; 'Guillaume Tell,' in 3 acts (1791), containing a round and a quartet, long favourites; '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.[5] 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 the recipient of pensions and distinctions of all kinds. In 1785 the municipality of Paris named one of the streets near the Comédie Italienne after him, and in the previous year the Prince-Bishop of Liege had made him one of his privy-councillors. On the foundation of the Conservatoire he was appointed an inspector, a post which he resigned in a year. When the Institut was formed at the same time (1795) he was chosen to fill one of the three places reserved for musical composers. Napoleon made him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, on the institution of the order in 1802, and also granted him a pension to compensate for his losses by the Revolution.

A career so successful was likely to intoxicate, and it is not to be wondered at that Grétry had a firm belief in his own merits, and thought himself almost infallible. He has left us several records of his vanity both artistic and intellectual. The first is his 'Mémoires ou Essais sur la musique,' published in 1 vol. in 1789, and reprinted in 1797 with two additional vols., said to have been edited by his friend Legrand, a professor of rhetoric. The first part only is interesting, and as has been aptly said, it should be called 'Essais sur ma musique.' In 1802 he brought out 'Méthode simple pour apprendre à préluder en peu de temps avec toutes les resources de l'harmonie,' a pamphlet of 95 pages with lithograph portrait, in which he exhibits both the insufficiency of his studies, and his want of natural talent for harmony. His 3 vols 'De la Vérité: ce que nous fumes, ce que nous sommes, ce que nous devrions être' (1803) are simply a pretentious statement of his political and social opinions, with remarks on the feelings, and the best means of exciting and expressing them by music.

Grétry had bought 'l'Ermitage' near Montmorency, formerly the residence of Rousseau, and it was there he died, Sept. 24, 1813. Three days afterwards (27th) Paris honoured his remains with a splendid funeral; touching and eloquent eulogiums were pronounced over his grave by Bouilly on behalf of the dramatic authors, and Méhul in the name of the musicians. A year later, at a special meeting on Oct. 1, 1814, Joachim de Breton, permanent secretary of the Académie des Beaux-Arts read a 'Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages d'André Ernest Grétry.' Since then many biographies and critiques have been published; the most important are—'Grétry en famille' (Paris 1815, 12mo.) by A. J. Grétry, his nephew; 'Recueil de lettres écrites a Grétry, ou à son sujet,' by the Comte de Livry (Paris, 1809, 8vo.); 'Essai sur Grétry' (Liége 1821, 8vo.) by M. de Gerlache, and Fétis's article. [See Framery.]

There are many portraits of Grétry. One of the best was drawn and engraved by 'his friend' Moreau the younger. Another engraving is by Cathelin (1785), from the portrait by Madame Lebrun, with the lines:

'Par des plaisirs réels et de fausses alarmes
Ce puissaut Enchauteur calme ou trouble nos sens;
Mais de son amitié peut-on goûter les charmes
Sans égaler au moins son cœur à ses talents.'

Besides these there are Isabey's portrait engraved by P. Simon; that taken by the 'physionotrace' and engraved by Quenedey in 1808; those of Forget and P. Adam; and finally Maurin's lithograph from the portrait by Robert Lefèvre. In his youth he is said to have resembled Pergolesi both in face and figure. Comte Livry had a statue made of him in marble, and placed it at the entrance of the old Théâtre Feydeau; it is not known what has become of it. The 'foyer' of the present Opéra Comique, contains only a bust of him. In 1842 a statue by Geefs was inaugurated at Liége; being colossal it is not a good representation, as Grétry was small in stature, and of delicate health.

Grétry had three daughters. The second, Lucile, born in Paris 1773, was only 13 when her one-act opera 'Le Mariage d' Antonio,' instrumented by her father, was successfully performed at the Opéra Comique (1786). In 1787 she produced 'Toinette et Louis,' in 2 acts, which was not well received. This gifted young musician made an unhappy marriage, and died in 1793.

We may mention in conclusion that Grétry spent his last years in writing 6 vols of 'Réflexions sur l'art,' which however have not been published. He also left 5 MS. operas in 3 acts—'Alcindor et Zaïde '; 'Ziméo'; 'Electre'; 'Diogène et Alexandre'; 'Les Maures d'Espagne'; and 'Zelmar, ou l'Asile,' in one act. [App. p.658 "a complete edition of Grétry's works has recently been undertaken by the firm of Breitkopf & Härtel. Seven volumes have already appeared (1887)."]
[ G. C. ]
  1. These details are taken from Grétry's 'Mémoires.'
  2. An autograph 'Confiteor' for four voices and orchestra is in the library of the Paris Conservatoire.
  3. Performed in Paris in 1765. Blaise's ariettes are printed in the 'Théâtre de M. Favart' (vol ix).
  4. See the article Où peut on être mieux.
  5. 'Guillaume Tell' was reinstrumented by Berton and Rifaut; 'Richard' by Adolphe Adam; 'L'Epreuve villageoise' by Auber; and 'La fausse Magic' by Eugéne Prévost.