A few years ago, some inclusively-minded ‘cultural’ oracle proclaimed ‘All operas are left-wing’. Well, I suppose many works written from the Enlightenment onwards might be described as conveying a ‘liberal’ message, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Verdi’s Don Carlos being obvious examples. In Brussels, Auber’s La Muette de Portici, inspired by the Neapolitan revolt against the Spaniards, touched off a real-life revolution against the House of Orange.
But the truth is that none of this can be said of early opera, once a closed book, but now an important part of the modern repertoire. From the philosophical and historical researches of the Florentine Camerata, to the dawn of the Enlightenment and beyond, opera manifested itself as an art form which, with its casts of heroes, gods and wise princes, tended to glorify absolute monarchy. Absolute monarchs, after all, more often than not paid the piper. True, opera prospered in republican Hamburg and for a meteoric but glittering period in constitutional England under Handel, Bononcini and other composers of the first rate. In London, however, the art remained very much an exotic import, and it is perhaps significant that the Dutch Republic, for all its wealth and love of novelty, remained an operatic desert.
Yet a revolution lay on the horizon. Naples was very far from being a rechtsstaat, let alone a democracy, but in the streets of the most musical of European capitals the common people sang from morning to night, finding a freedom in music they were denied in the field of politics. It was in Naples in 1733 that a brilliant young composer, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, produced a simple one-act comic opera La Serva Padrona, which employed folk-song like arias to tell a charming burlesque story of a cunning maid who tricks her elderly master into marrying her.
The piece was originally no more than an intermezzo inserted between the acts of Pergolesi’s opera seria Il Prigioniero Superbo, a work that rapidly disappeared from view. La Serva Patrona, however, was an immediate hit. Three years later Pergolesi lay dead at the age of 26, but his musical offspring survived to conquer Europe.
In 1752, La Serva Padrona was given in Paris by an itinerant Italian troupe of comic actors, who needed little singing talent to perform the simple work. Immediately the cause of this new form of opera was taken up by men of letters who, needless to say, had ulterior motives for their partisanship. The resultant controversy, conduced in the columns of newspapers and in pamphlets was celebrated as the "Querelle des Bouffons" (War of the Comedians) and may to some extent be seen as a proxy for the largely suppressed political arguments of the day.
The debate highlighted the differences between what was characterised as the vibrant and progressive character of Italian opera and the stultified traditions of French Tragédie-lyrique. Now this is an interpretation which may be strongly challenged, but what is without doubt is that in France, under the patronage of the absolute monarchy, an art-form had developed which had become exclusively French, for all its Italian roots.
In the operas of Monteverdi and Cavalli we find continuous streams of harmony with an absence of discrete songs or arias. This was the tradition that Jean-Baptiste Lully, himself an Italian by birth, had brought to the court of Louis XIV and which, after his death had continued as if preserved in aspic. Operas by Lully remained in the repertoire for decade after decade, and were joined by the imitative works of lesser talents such as Delalande and Destouches.
Certainly, with his début opera Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733 Jean-Phillipe Rameau had brought about a much-needed revolution in Tragédie-lyrique, but it remained still Tragédie-lyrique; sung in French, relying upon semi-declamatory vocal harmonies rather than melody, and eschewing the services of the talented and glamorous castrati who had taken the rest of Europe by storm.
As it happened, the 1752 performance of La Serva Padrona coincided with a revival of Destouche’s Omphale, a work which was now 51 years old. This was the catalyst for the philosophe Grimm, who launched a stinging attack upon the creaking work and upon the Opera itself. "The composer is dead" wrote Grimm, "and his work had little enough life in the first place".
Grimm’s Lettre sur Omphale whipped up an immediate storm, with men and women of fashion and learning taking up the cudgels either for the cause of cultured French opera or for the demotic, easy-going manners of the Italian interloper. Now came to the fray Grimm’s friend, the expatriate Swiss Jean-Jacques Rousseau, on this occasion motivated less by political ideology than by motives of revenge.
When Rousseau came to Paris in 1743, he had done so as a would-be composer and musical theorist, and his idol was the greatest living French composer, Rameau. The austere and cerebral Rameau, as famous for his works of musical theory and philosophy, as for his keyboard publications, had won new laurels when he started to compose opera at the relatively advanced age of 50. This giant, who had absurdly proclaimed music to be first among the sciences, was widely hailed in France as ‘The Newton of Music’.
The newcomer had brought with him a plan for a revolutionary new system of musical notation, which rapidly sank without trace. Rousseau brought also the sketches for an opéra-ballet entitled Les Muses galantes in blatant imitation of Rameau’s highly successful work Les Indes Galantes. The intended tribute was brusquely rebuffed by the notoriously rude Rameau, and Rousseau now conceived in his heart an implacable hatred for his former hero.
By 1752, however, Rousseau had himself found fame with Le Devin du Village, a miniature French comic opera of peasant life which was performed before Louis XV and the court at Fontainebleau to enormous acclaim. The king’s unmelodious voice was heard around the palace singing Rousseau’s hit aria J'ai perdu mon serviteur and Rousseau, had his daemon not led him in a different direction, could have claimed a freely-offered place as a favoured and cosseted court composer.
Now, with his place in the operatic pantheon apparently assured, Rousseau turned with relish to uphold the cause of Italian Opera buffa against the aristocratic grandeur of the Paris Opera and, therefore against the living symbol of that grandeur, Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Rameau, who himself had years before been denounced as an anti-traditionalist, remained aloof throughout the controversy, but it must have pained him deeply to see his wealthy patron, the fermier-général Le Riche de La Pouplinière, drawn to the side of the ‘Italians’.
Meanwhile Rousseau’s assault upon French opera in particular and French music in general became ever shriller. Finally in Lettre sur la musique Françoise, published the following year, he overstepped the mark completely.
"I think that I have shown that there is neither measure nor melody in French music, because the language is not capable of them; that French singing is a continual squalling, insupportable to an unprejudiced ear; that its harmony is crude and devoid of expression and suggests only the padding of a pupil; that French ‘airs’ are not airs; that French recitative is not recitative. From this I conclude that the French have no music and cannot have any; or that if they ever have, it will be so much the worse for them."
Paris reacted with outrage. Rousseau’s free pass at the Opéra was summarily withdrawn, he was allegedly abused and kicked when he attempted to enter the building and the members of the orchestra burned him in effigy. With characteristic paranoia, Jean-Jacques decided that there must be a plot to murder him and in 1754, he decamped to his Genevan birthplace. This was to be the first leg of that tormented yet productive journey through an unsympathetic Switzerland which led him, catastrophically, to England before his final return to France,
Now Rameau, who had carefully avoided being drawn into the opera controversy, could not resist taking a swipe at his stricken tormentor, and he launched an attack on Rousseau's contributions to the musical entries in the Encyclopédie. To Rameau’s chagrin he now became the personal object of counter-attacks from d'Alembert and Diderot. The lasting legacy of this quarrel was Diderot’s brilliant satirical dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau.
Wounded by the criticism from his fellow-intellectuals, Rameau retreated into a crabbed and disillusioned old age and died in 1764 at the then considerable age of eighty-one. The daring and dazzling effects of his last, unperformed, stage work Les Boréades proved that for all his disenchantment he remained the unchallenged king of French opera.
In 1767 Rousseau fled to France from England in panic, his head whirling with fantasies of planned kidnap and assassination. He relocated to Paris in 1770 and lived in quiet seclusion, a shadow of his former self.
Now to Paris came Christoph Willibald Gluck, the ennobled scion of Bohemian foresters. In Vienna Gluck had been music tutor to the Hapsburg princess Marie Antoinette, who in 1770 his pupil married the Dauphin, the future Louis XVI . In 1774, the same year that Marie Antoinette became Queen of France, Gluck obtained a contract to write for the Paris Opéra.
Years before, Gluck had declared himself a disciple of Rousseau. Orfeo ed Euridice, received its premiere at Vienna in 1762, and with its tiny cast and pure melodies stripped of superfluous ornament, Gluck seemed to have realised the apotheosis of the type of opera exemplified by La Serva Padrona and Le Devin du Village.
Yet Orfeo had been this and much more. Gluck’s little masterpiece consciously integrated drama, music and dance in a manner more reminiscent of the stage works of Rameau. His first work for Paris Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) took the process a stage further, in effect synthesising the French tradition of Tragédie-lyrique with that of Italian opera.
Yet the premiere of Gluck’s superb work gave rise to a storm of controversy. Unlike the Querelle des Bouffons, which had deep intellectual roots, the inspiration of this row seemed to owe more to a general chauvinistic resentment of a clever foreigner who had set out to teach the French their business. So, with a breathtaking absence of logic the patriotic party chose as their champion an Italian Niccolò Piccinni, whose light-hearted if somewhat lightweight opere buffe had amused the Parisian public for years. In her memoirs the celebrated portraitist Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun gives a vivid picture of the new battleground.
‘The love of music was so general that it occasioned a serious quarrel between those who were called Gluckists and Piccinists. All amateurs were divided into two opposing factions. The usual field of battle was the garden of the Palais Royal. There the partisans of Gluck and the partisans of Piccini went at each other with such violence that there was more than one duel to record.’
1774 saw the premiere of a recast and extended version of Orfeo, translated into French with the former castrato title role now given to a tenor, in accordance with Parisian taste. The production was generally well received, and in that year a poignant meeting took place between the ailing and reclusive Jean-Jacques and his admirer, the glamorous Chevalier. The two men got on remarkably well. Rousseau died four years later, one of his last published writings being an enthusiastic review of Gluck's opera Alceste, a reinterpretation of the very same story which had inspired one of Lully’s greatest masterpieces.
So, in a sense, the story had come full circle, with little more than a decade to run before the world-shattering events of 1789. In 1779 Gluck suffered a stroke and returned to Vienna, leaving the Paris Opera in the capable hands of his protégé Antonio Salieri,
In 1787, the year of Gluck’s death, Salieri scored a huge triumph with Tarare, to the libretto of Beaumarchais. In the tradition of Gluck’s reforms Salieri’s music served the drama, and what a drama! The death of a royal tyrant and his replacement by a patriotic and popular commander uncannily reflected the unstoppable march of French history. As the people crown Tarare, the final chorus proclaims ‘Your greatness comes not from your rank, but from your character.’
The politics of opera had been replaced by the opera of politics.
- Mike Smith
- Mike Smith, is Chairman of the Conservative Democratic Alliance (CDA). He was formerly on the Executive Council of the Conservative Monday Club. He is a Chartered Surveyor. Distinguished members of Mr Keith-Smith's family include James Keith, the legendary Prussian Field-Marshal, and his brother George Keith, hereditary Earl Marischal of Scotland and friend of Frederick the Great. Through his paternal grandmother he is descended from Frederick Philipse, Dutch-born merchant of New Amsterdam. Distinguished members of the family who subsequently made their life in England included General Sir Frederick Philipse Robinson. Smith was a member of the Conservative Party for 32 years, attaining area rank and serving for several years as Vice-Chairman of Portsmouth South Conservatives. In 2002 he was expelled from the party for attacking Iain Duncan Smith in print. Challenging this unlawful expulsion with a writ, he was readmitted and his costs paid by Central Office. In the 2005 General Election he stood as the UKIP candidate for Portsmouth North. Smith recently won a major test case for libel over the internet against a former schoolteacher.