Thursday, 8 February 2018


André Ernest Modeste Grétry
Today’s Quote of the Day comes to us from birthday boy André Ernest Modeste Grétry, born in this 8th day of February 1741 at the Prince-Bishopric of Liège, (present day French-speaking region in southern Belgium), the son of a poor family (his father was a struggling musician who, in all likelihood, assumed the same fate for his son as there existed no means to secure a financial nest for the boy’s future education). André would not only prove his father wrong in terms of future excellence, but would also prove successful where most struggling artists failed – and in a most grand manner – by bravely “breaking the rules” imposed upon society by leading officials during the French Revolutionary war. Certainly, his thought provoking quote: 

“There must be deviations from the rules in order to express almost anything... however only the man who is familiar with the rules may sometimes violate them for he alone can know that in certain cases the rule is not enough.” 

…wasn’t solely based on the rigid “rules” of musical style represented by different nations across Europe, but rather – respectively – a strong statement about standing up for oneself, one’s brethren, and the causes near and dear to one’s heart. From the perspective of posterity, Grétry was a man who broke all of the rules – even those that often dictated the son of a pauper and unsuccessful musician would not be taken with any merit should he even attempt to try.

For André, it seemed the rules imposed on society – by those seeking to oppress in order to gain, simply wouldn’t do. He, and he alone would decide what could be accomplished by someone, who by all appearances, would draw the common card of so many in his era - controlled and suppressed through the conventional heavy-handed dictations of an unjust society. Grétry would see before him a series of impenetrable doors, and one by one, smash right through them – not by violence, or threats thereof – but rather, by discipline, perseverance, and by never doubting he would succeed where others had failed.

And succeed, he did: he would find himself in high company (and in high demand), as music tutor to France’s Queen Marie Antoinette (a minor composer herself), who, on more than one occasion would cite the Grétry as her favorite; he would rub shoulders with Voltaire and, notably, would be the first musician who dared to write music for an ancient Roman instrument, previously known as the cornu – in André’s time as the “tuba curva.” 

A Tuba Curva
It was a bold move, especially considering the musical instrument’s stagnant state over millennia – thereby having to improvise on technique in order to make it sing – a chance even accomplished composers wouldn’t dare dram of trying in fear of falling flat on their face and damaging their career. In an age and society – that of Revolutionary Paris – where musicians were still often beggars, paupers, and seen as servants until one could prove himself viable for a handsome wage, to unhaltingly pick up said instrument and give it a go was a huge risk. But it would be a risk that paid off: big time. André would be commissioned to both compose and perform on the tuba curva at Voltaire's internment at the Panthéon.

But how did a man who seemed to have all odds stacked up against him according to the rigid rules of a society that, prior to the revolution, unspokenly dictated that the poor remain poor, and rich become richer?

The first step toward becoming the “most celebrated composer in Paris” in his prime would begin with baby steps: as a youth, it cost the family nothing to send André to the Church of St. Denis back in his hometown of Liège (it would not be until sometime after 1767 that Grétry would relocate to Paris – eventually becoming French citizen). It was there that the former young choirboy became a pupil of some heavy hitters in classical music who, sensing the young man's talent, offered their services in Composition (Jean-Pantaléon Leclerc), lessons on the keyboard (Nicolas Rennekin) – who also offered to André lessons in composition for the instrument, and, as for the pièce de résistance, the up-and-coming music maker was granted tutelage under one Henri Moreau, music master at the collegiate church of St. Paul. 

Below: Sinfonia from Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's "Il Flaminio." The 1735 opera buffa was a major success in Italy, reappearing on the Neapolitan stage over the course of 25 years. This opera - perhaps even this piece - may have been one of the works presented to the student Grétry during his early studies.

As word spread of the André’s increasing musical talents, he was offered a practical tuition after attending a performance produced by an Italian Opera company. Suddenly exposed to the grandeur of Baldassarre Galuppi, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi and their beautiful multi-faceted works, the impressionable (now a young man) decided Italy would be the place he would need to be in order to thrive by undertaking musical education there. Undaunted by the lack of funds provided for such a move, Grétry improvised: I’ll compose a mass, he thought... and I’ll dedicate it to the Canons of the Liège Cathedral – and see what comes of it. The move was a bold one, and the reward was swift: a certain Canon Hurley provided the funds needed for André to not only make his way to Rome, but to study at the capital’s Collège de Liège. For a period of some five years, André studied under the esteemed Italian musician and choirmaster in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Giovanni Battista Casali.

Under such masterful tutelage, Grétry would compose his first operetta for the Italian stage La Vendemmiatrice, which was met with universal applause. The word about this rags-to-riches-in-process story was now the talk of the town – and not only in Rome or back home in Liège: now, France – the big dog in town for classical music – was calling, inquiring of André: would you consider, perhaps, coming to Paris, and dedicating your life to French comic opera? ... for an appropriate wage, of course. Shortly after New Year’s Day in 1767, André Ernest Modeste Grétry made the move that would change his life forever.

Undaunted by the poverty stricken French capital, Grétry found himself in the company –and in the debt of the nobility, who would provide the composer with all he needed to begin his new life as “the leading composer of comic opera." It would be through the Swedish Ambassador, one Count Gustaff Philip Creutz, that André would be provided with his first libretto- written by the hand of the famed French historian and author Jean-François Marmontel, which, astonishingly, took the Grétry only six weeks to complete. Le Huron, the opera in question, proved to be a smashing success – a trend that seemed to continue with his successive operas – some 50 of them in total during a lifetime marred by an ongoing violent Revolution.

Below: the gorgeous air/duet "Ah! Que tu m'attendris!" from Act II of Grétry's Le Huron:

This is especially significant, as Grétry’s 1784 opera Richard, Coeur-de-lion, a largely “royalist” opera based on the myth of King Richard I of England's captivity at the hands of Leopold, Archduke of Austria and his rescue by the troubadour Blondel de Nesle, Richard’s lowly squire and one determined countess who gathers troops to violently storm the fortress in which the King is imprisoned, and successfully releases him (an opera not exactly in tune with the growing abolitionist and revolutionary movement in France at the time). Undeterred, Grétry was to stand up to his own convictions with the very real possibility he would lose his head in the process, by breaking the cardinal rules of Liberté, égalité, (et) fraternité. Grétry would, unshakingly, allow for an impromptu performance of “O Richard, O mon Roi, l'univers t'abandonne,” an air that appeared in Grétry’s Coeur-de-Lion before a command of French Officers of the Versailles garrison – sung to them by their own bodyguard no less - on October 3, 1789. 

Shockingly, instead of reacting in a state of revilement or erupting into violence (for the air contradicted everything the French Revolutionaries stood for) the Frenchmen commended and, amazingly, respected André’s loyalty to his beliefs and his courage. Of course, one can also see whilst scanning the lyrics of the air similarities to the then-current belief structure in France – although as if reversed through a mirror: it was the opinion of the French, most of whom lived in utter squalor and were rapt by hunger and disease, that the “Austrian” invader (Queen Marie Antoinette) was largely responsible by using state funds to indulge in luxury back at her private apartments at the Palace of Versailles – further stripping the already fragile economy to it’s core. (Just as in Grétry's opera, it was an Austrian Royal who was the villain); and, of course, there is the “lowly” (i.e. pauper) squire who set off the incidences for the Countess – a female warrior (égalité) – to form a band of troops in order to “storm” the fortress which held hostage a man deemed innocent of any crime. If one compares this to the famous storming of the Bastille by the citizens of France, one might come to understand why this bizarre reaction of gratitude was so bestowed upon the composer.

Below: the air “O Richard, O mon Roi, l'univers t'abandonne,” from Grétry's 1784 opera Richard, Coeur-de-lion:

In fact, this incident alone would set in place the beginning of an enduring legacy: The fédérés (volunteers) of the French revolution, after hearing about the brazen incident, would march into the city of Paris, singing in unison what is now known as the French National Anthem: The Marseilaise, so inspired were they by the expression of loyalty displayed in Grétry’s opera – even though the Monarchy went against everything they believed in. 

Grétry wearing his Légion d'honneur medal,
presented to him by Napoleon.
As happens in war, much of one’s property would become destroyed, held hostage, or looted. In Grétry’s case (whose quizzical public adoration in Paris was unlike any other phenomenon witnessed in the midst of the French Terror), his status as a brave man did not render him exempt from this rule. But, as Grétry so eloquently stated in the quote above, rules are made to be broken

For reasons that many still don’t fully understand today, the successive governments of France would protect the life of the composer by vying for the public to hold him in high regard, regardless of political differences. He would receive numerous distinctions and awards during this period, and the newly formed Republic itself would make him an Inspector of the Conservatoire, and even Napoleon himself granted unto André the much distinguished cross of the legion of honour and gave him a pension to boot!

On July 14, 1795, The Convention accepted “La Marseillaise”, heavily inspired by Grétry’s opera and bravery as the Official National Anthem of France, making it the nation’s first ever anthem. Another rule –and record – “broken” to add to Grétry’s heavily laden belt of successes. The Anthem would experience a brief ban by Louis XVIII and Charles X, and, following this, would be briefly reinstated after the July Revolution of 1830.

At the end of Grétry’s fantastical life, another war would emerge, another “rule” – perhaps inspired by the man himself - smashed though, when the composer was laid to rest in Paris’ famed Père Lachaise Cemetery, much to the chagrin of those residing in the late composer’s hometown of Liège, who incessantly demanded the return of his body.

Bronze statue of André Grétry which contains the composer's heart at Liège.
Parisian and French authorities wouldn’t budge. So heavily steeped in their history, the body of André Grétry was now theirs to keep. 

This led to a litany of lawsuits that lasted some fifteen years until a final (and rather macabre) comprise was made: much like Frédéric Chopin, whose body lay at rest in ­­­­­­­the Père Lachaise Cemetery and his heart (allegedly) ensconced within a pillar at a church in the composer’s hometown of Warsaw (Poland), Grétry’s hometown would precede (and perhaps even influence the Chopin affair) by building from scratch a large bronze statue in the likeness of the composer, ensconced within it: André Grétry's heart - after having been removed from now long dead corpse (which itself would continue to lay at rest in Paris, at the very same future final resting place of Chopin). Finished in 1842, the un-beating heart whose music and tenacity beats heavily in our breast – and the lifelike statue in which it is contained - stands at the forecourt of the Théâtre Royal in Liège.

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