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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

Piccinni’s rustic sentiment and Gluck’s classical simplicity, though the one was directed at a bourgeois audience and the other at an aristocratic one, were really two sides of the same naturalistic coin. Both were equally, though differently, a sign of the intellectual, philosophical, and (ultimately) social changes that were taking place over the course of the eighteenth century. The famous rivalry that marked (or marred) their later careers might thus seem entirely gratuitous and therefore ironic from our historical vantage point. But although the two composers could have had no inkling of it in the 1760s, when they first became international celebrities, they were on a collision course.

Gluck naturally gravitated toward Paris, the half-forgotten point of origin for most of his innovatory departures. Having Gallicized the opera seria, he would now try his hand at the real thing—actual tragédies lyriques, some of them to librettos originally prepared as much as ninety years earlier for Lully. He arrived in the French capital in 1773 at the invitation of his former singing pupil in Vienna, none other than the princess Marie-Antoinette, the eighteen-year-old wife of the crown prince (dauphin) who the next year would be crowned Louis XVI (“Louis the last,” as it turned out).

Under Marie-Antoinette’s protection, Gluck at first enjoyed fantastic success. He even got old Rousseau to recant the brash claim he had made twenty years before, in the heat of buffoon-battle. After seeing Iphigénie en Aulide, Gluck’s first tragédie lyrique, on a much-softened libretto after Euripides’s bloody tragedy of sacrifice (adapted by Jean Racine), Rousseau confessed to Gluck that “you have realized what I held to be impossible to this very day”—namely, a viable opera on a French text.10 The irony was that the same stylistic mixture that had spelled “Gallic” reform of Italian opera in Vienna was now read by the French as a revitalizing Italianization of their own heritage. Only a Bohemian—a complete outsider to both proud traditions—could have brought it off.

The best symbol of this hybridization of idioms was Orphée et Eurydice, a new version of Gluck’s original “reform” opera, which amounted to a French readaptation of what had already been a Gallicized version of opera seria. Besides translating the libretto, this meant recasting the male title role so that an haut-contre, a French high tenor, could sing it instead of a castrato. Gluck also added some colorfully orchestrated instrumental interludes portraying the beauties of the Elysian fields, which are now performed no matter which version of the opera is employed.

In the summer of 1776, Gluck learned that the Neapolitan ambassador had summoned Piccinni to Paris for no other purpose than to be Gluck’s rival, and had even “leaked” to him a copy of the very libretto Gluck was then working on (Roland, adapted from a tragédie lyrique formerly set by Lully, with a plot taken from French medieval history). Gluck, mortified, pulled out of the project, feeling with ample justification that he was being set up for a flop. “I feel certain,” he wrote to one of his old librettists after burning what he’d written of the opera, “that a certain Politician of my acquaintance will offer dinner and supper to three-quarters of Paris in order to win fans for M. Piccinni….”11 A couple of years later, though, it happened again, when Piccinni was induced to write an opera on the same story (albeit to a different libretto) as Gluck’s last Parisian offering, a mythological tragedy loosely based on Iphigenia in Tauris, a famous play by Euripides whose story had already furnished the plot for quite a number of operas. The two settings were performed two years apart, Gluck’s in 1779 and Piccinni’s in 1781.

Their partisans (especially Jean François Marmontel, Piccinni’s French librettist and sponsor) worked hard to cast the two composers as polar opposites—Gluck as the apostle of “dramatic” opera, Piccinni of “musical.” Compared with the Querelle des Bouffons, however, the querelle des Gluckistes et Piccinistes was just a tempest in a teapot. The stakes, for one thing, were much lower. The main battle—the “noble simplification” and sentimentalization of an encrusted court art—was won before this later quarrel even started, and its protagonists, privately on friendly terms, were more nearly allies than rivals.


(10) J. J. Rousseau, Extrait d’une réponse du petit faiseur à son prête-nom, sur un morceau de l’Orphée de M. le chevalier Gluck (Geneva, 1781).

(11) Letter from Gluck to François Louis Du Roullet, in L’Année litteraire, 1777; quoted in Einstein, Gluck, pp. 146–47.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09003.xml