Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/André Ernest Modeste Grétry

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GRÉTRY, Andre Ernest Modeste (1741-1813), a celebrated composer of French opera, was born at Liége, February 11, 1741. He received his first musical education in the maitrise of the college of St Denis, where his father, a poor musician, occasionally acted as violinist. Leclerc and Renekin were his early masters. But of greater importance was the practical tuition he received by attending the performance of an Italian opera company. Here he heard the operas of Galuppi, Pergolesi, and other masters ; and the desire of completing his own studies in Italy was the immediate result. To find the necessary means he composed in 1759 a mass which he dedicated to the canons of the Lie ge cathedral, who in return sent him to the College de Lie ge at Rome, founded by a citizen of Liege for the benefit of his townsmen studying in Rome. Here Gre try resided for five years, studiously employed in completing his musical education under Casali. His proficiency in harmony and counterpoint was, however, according to his own confession, at all times very moderate. Neither was any deep scholarship required for the style of composition to which he soon exclusively devoted himself. His first great success was achieved by an Italian intermezzo or operetta, Le vendemiatrici, composed for the Aliberti theatre in Rome, and received with universal applause. It is said that the study of the score of one of Monsigny s operas, lent to him by a secretary of the French embassy in Rome, decided Gretry to devote himself to French comic opera. On New- Year s Day 1 767 he accordingly left Rome, and after a short stay at Geneva (where he made the acquaintance of Voltaire, and produced another operetta) went to Paris. There for two years he had to contend with the difficulties incident to poverty and obscurity. He was, however, not without friends, and by the intercession of one of these, Count Creutz, the Swedish ambassador, Gre try obtained a libretto from the celebrated Marmontel, which he set to music in less than six weeks, and which, on its performance in August 1768, met with unparalleled suc cess. The name of the opera was Le Huron. Two others, Lucile and Le Tableau Parlant, soon followed, and thence forth Gre try s position as the leading composer of comic opera was safely established. Of the fifty operas which embody his musical activity only two or three have sur vived, and perhaps as many more are worth remembering. His masterpieces are Zemire et Azor and Richard Oceur de Lion, the first produced in 1771, the second in 1784. The latter in an indirect way became connected with a great historic event. In it occurs the celebrated romance, Richard, 6 mon roi, I umvsrs fabandonne, which was sung at the banquet "fatal as that of Thyestes," remarks Carlyle given by the bodyguard to the officers of the Versailles garrison on October 3, 1789. The Marseillaise not long afterwards became the reply of the people to the expression of loyalty borrowed from Grdtry s opera. The composer himself was not uninfluenced by the great events he witnessed, and the titles of some of his operas, such as La Rosiere RepiMicaine and La Fete de la liaison suffici ently indicate the epoch to which they belong ; but they are mere pieces de circonstance, and the republican enthu siasm displayed is not genuine. Little more successful was Gre try in his dealings with classical subjects, and none of his operas belonging to that class are worth remembering. His genuine power lies in the delineation of character, and in the expression of tender and typically French sentiment. For the first-named purpose the careful and truly admirable fidelity with which his music is wedded to the words is invaluable. In this respect Grdtry s works are indeed representative of French operatic music at its best. The structure of his concerted pieces on the other hand is fre quently flimsy, and his instrumentation so feeble that the orchestral parts of some of his works had to be rewritten by other composers, in order to make them acceptable to modern audiences. Of his deficiencies of harmonization Gre try himself was well aware, and his confessions in this respect are strangely at variance with the self-sufficient tone which pervades his literary effusions on musical and even on political and social topics. During the Revolution Gre try lost much of his property, but the successive Govern ments of France vied in favouring the composer, regardless of political differences. From the old court he received distinctions and rewards of all kinds; the republic made him an inspector of the Conservatoire; Napoleon granted him the cross of the legion of honour and a pension. Gretry died September 24, 1813, at the Hermitage in Montmorency, formerly the house of Rousseau. Fifteen years later his heart was transferred to his birthplace, permission having been obtained after a tedious lawsuit, "in 1842 GnHry s colossal statue in bronze was inaugurated at Liege.