Arts & Culture | Operatic Disputes | Classical Era | Classical
When, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, French critics came into contact with Italian opera, many felt that the musical freedom of the Italians offered something that French opera, so closely tied to theatrical declamatory traditions, made impossible.
The Abbé Raguenet, enamoured of Italian singing and the supporting instrumental skills, mocked French opera, which was staunchly defended as more ‘rational’ by Le Cerf de la Viéville.
The operatic debut of Rameau was also greeted by criticism. Most writers sided with the Ramistes, acknowledging the splendour of his Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), but a few conservative Lullistes accused him of betraying the Lully tradition and admitting Italian features.
The most heated of the disputes was the Querelle des Bouffons of the early 1750s, when an Italian troupe gave brief, farcical operas in the exalted surroundings of the Opéra. This was closely linked to constitutional, political and religious disputes of the time, which led to the coin du roi (‘king’s corner’) asserting the noble traditions of the tragédie lyrique and criticizing the Italians’ emphasis on the aria and the feebleness of recitative, while the coin de la reine (‘queen’s corner’), along with the ‘rationalist’ Encyclopédists, praised the relative clarity of Italian line and harmony. The controversy flared up in 1753 and petered out the next year, as quickly as it had risen.
Gluck’s arrival provoked a fresh controversy: Gluckistes v. Piccinnistes. Piccinni was imported in 1776 as Gluck’s rival, a role he neither wanted nor felt himself able to fulfil and indeed specifically disclaimed. Matters grew worse when the two composers were set to work on the same topics – to fuel the dispute, both were to compose a Roland, and later an Iphigénie en Tauride. Gluck abandoned Roland. Piccinni agreed to set Iphigénie only if his would precede Gluck’s, but it was delayed two years and was only moderately successful, partly because the leading soprano was drunk at the second performance (it was dubbed Iphigénie en Champagne). While the Gluckistes aimed to create a new, reformed French opera, the Piccinnistes wanted to show the superiority of Italian music; the rivalry was essentially one of styles. Gluck, ultimately, was the victor; Piccinni was an able dramatist but his gifts were not on the scale of Gluck’s and the marriage of Italian music and French forms was always ill-conceived.
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