Saturday, 30 April 2016



The average present-day classical music enthusiast is almost certain to have a favorite genre, period, language and composer that stands exceedingly tall amongst all others in their personal catalogue of collected works of Classical Music.

The never-ending argument over which nation produced the "best," most impacting and effective music is a debate as old as the history of Western Classical Music itself. From composer to fanatic, royal patron to chastising critic, it seems everyone had a dog in the fight to have their respective nations considered at the forefront of musical ingenuity.

In a new segment I am calling “A Europe Divided,” I will take the reader back in time, re-visiting 17th to 20th century musical Europe, taking a peek at the real feelings of composers regarding their contemporary neighbors across the continent as each nation competes to make their own unique style known and claim their home country[1] the Mecca of Classical Music.

Each entry is in the form of extracted portions from the private correspondence of each maestro.
Today’s inaugural post pits Italy against France, with Italy taking the victory.

*Words highlighted in brown are reflective of the composers' own inflections contained within their respective letters.

Stay tuned to to read France’s expert rebuttal!


Our first extract comes from 19th century Romantic composer Giuseppe Verdi. Written at Genoa in December of 1869, the Italian master of the Opera offers to the director of the Paris Opéra, Camille du Locle, his two cents on the possibility of residing in and composing for France:

“I know perfectly well that success is impossible for me if I cannot write as my heart dictates, free of any outside influence whatsoever, without having to keep in mind I am writing for Paris and not for the inhabitants of, say, the moon…I’m no composer for Paris…my ideas of art are too different from those held in your country. I believe in inspiration: you people believe in construction…I desire the enthusiasm you lack, in feeling and judging. I strive for art, in whatever form it may appear, but never for the amusement, artifice, or system you prefer…I have reason enough to say that my ideas are completely different from yours, and still more: my backbone isn’t pliable enough for me to give way and deny my convictions, which are profound and deeply rooted in me.”

-Giuseppe Verdi, Dec 7, 1869 Genoa to French librettist and director of the Paris Opéra regarding the French style, and composing for France.

Bella Figlia dell’amore, Rigoletto; Giuseppe Verdi

Our second extract comes from the pen of 18th century Classical era Composer Christoph Willibald Gluck, and is interpreted from a modern perspective. At first glance, Gluck's letter appears to praise the French style over that of Italy, however from the hindsight offered by that most revealing of all perspectives, posterity, we will soon discover a possible motive for the composer's otherwise feigned praise.*

Although born in what is now part of Germany, this celebrated court composer and teacher would relocate to Paris in 1773, composing some eight operas for the Parisian Stage. In spite of this move to France, spurned on by the Paris Opéra, then in vogue across Europe, Gluck would personally experience much frustration from his own perspective of artistic ideals, complaining* to French poet and critic Jean François de la Harpe just four years after his arrival on the nation of his distaste for the Parisian style and admiration for facets of the Italian Opera (which, as a whole, he also detested). 

The following extract, and the thinly veiled anti-French sentiment*  held by the composer seems rather ironic, as even Gluck himself readily admits to the economic success experienced by composing in both the Italian and French styles (he would later, very successfully, seek to combine the best aspects of both forms for his operas for the Parisian stage).

It does remain pertinent to note that Gluck's claim to fame was that of an operatic reformist, who, in addition to finding certain aspects of the French opera distasteful, sought to reform the Italian opera seria and opera buffa genres (which he also found distasteful) into a more uniform art by attaching as much gravity to the libretti as to the music offered by his works. Gluck's modus operandi for creating such a monumental undertaking was to combine only the best aspects of the French opera with that of the Italian, and dispense with the "defects" of both. In the quote below, we will see Gluck fluctuate between allegiance to the styles of both nations. The sarcastic wit,* however, in reference to the Italian form (as previously seen in his opera Orpheus ed Euridice, which was originally set to an Italian libretto, and retained some features of the Italian style, such as the casting of an alto castrato in the role of Orpheus), runs delectably thick:

* (see footnotes:[2])

" seemed to me that the French language was not much accentuated and had no determined quantity like the Italian tongue. I was also struck by another discrepancy between the singers of the two nations; if I found in the one voices more soft and flexible, the others seemed to me to put more force and energy in their action; thence I concluded that Italian singing would not suit the French…in subsequently looking over the scores of some of your old operas…in [which] shakes, cadences and other defects of these airs are overloaded…I am now fully convinced that the music of the Italian masters is music par excellence, is in fact, music…I agree with you that, of all my compositions, Orphée is the only one that is tolerable. I humbly ask pardon from heaven for having deafened my auditors by my other operas; the number of times they have been performed and the applause the public has thought fit to bestow on them do not prevent my seeing that they are pitiable.”[2]

-Gluck, Oct 12 1777 to poet and critic Jean François de la Harpe
It is fair to note that as much as Gluck seemed to despise the "overloading" of "shakes, cadences and other defects" found in previous French operas, the German-born émigré also wrote extensively about the excessive showmanship displayed by what he called "the foolish vanity of the singers and the mistaken compliance of the composers" then commonplace in the Italian Opera Seria and Opera Bufa genres. Historically, much emphasis has been placed on Gluck's distaste for the dazzling acrobatics of the Italian opera and the composers subsequent placehold as a French Reformist. As we have already seen, however, by reviewing the personal correspondence of Gluck in the extract displayed above, it would be more precise to state that the Bohemian raised composer disliked facets of the Opera of both nations.

This sentiment is further reflected by the response of the French public, who grew increasingly combative in their personal critiques of both Gluck and his integration of French-Italian immersion. On one side of the fence, there were the French traditionalists, who both enjoyed and preferred the standard display of poetic, musical and stage spectacle for their operas, and spoken drama for their tragedies, thank you very much. On the other, those progressive fanatics who welcomed the change brought forth by artists such as Gluck.

This minor rumble that had only begun to heat up following the otherwise successful premiere of Orphée in 1774 would soon boil over as even professional critics began to offer their much impassioned two cents on the matter.

Things would really take a turn for the worse when Gluck, whilst listing the aspects of the Italian opera which he despised, finished his critique with a promise that would prove rather daunting for the Traditionalists when he stated in his preface to the French version of his 1776 opera Alceste that his goal was to do away with the "abuses which had crept into the Italian opera," promising to bring into France the more traditional Italian form of days past, which he called "..the grandest and most important theater of our day." Gluck would also remain adamant the Opera not conform to the French desire to end the performance with an extended ballet. This rather bold praise for the traditions of Italy was likely viewed as a thinly-veiled threat of total reform to the traditional music of Italy in France, and seemed to detract even the progressives in favor of change.

J’ai Perdu Mon Eurydice, Orphée et Eurydice; Gluck

Keep posted to unravelingmusicalmyths for ROUND II: FRANCE TOPPLES ITALY!

Preview (video):

Stunning, mesmerizing France:

Tristes Apprêts, Pâles Flambeaux, Castor et Pollux; Jean-Philippe Rameau:


[1] or in some cases, adopted country.

[2] *Gluck's statement about Orphée's "tolerability" was actually in reference to the French re-tooling of the opera, previously written in a more Italian-fluent style (in terms of libretto and casting) in spite of the work itself being a "reformist" piece against the complicated plots and vocal acrobatics of the Italian Opera. In the same letter, Gluck readily relents to the French taste for "methodical" singing and adjusts Orphée accordingly. What makes this observation, and the entire letter itself ironic is the fact that Gluck's sentiments, from the perspective of posterity, appear arguably akin to feigned praise (in an attempt to earn the critic's - and therefore the French public's - affections) at best, and jestful at worst (referring to the monotony of the French style of singing as "[a] regular, and methodical motif de chant." The composer would later flee Paris in a disdained spirit (and in poor health) never to return following a very dodgy period of fickle adherence to the French form, and after the disastrous premiere of his 1779 opera Echo e Narcisse.




No comments:

Post a Comment