Gluckists vs. Piccinnists: The Final Smackdown

I promised to share some of my Marie Antoinette and/or Henry VIII research, and, since I finally got around to organizing my sloppy notes, here is the first!

Music is one of my favorite things (when I was a kid, I told everyone I was going to be an opera singer when I grew up–until I discovered I have a terrible singing voice!). So, I always love reading about composers and court music, of which both the 1780s and the 1520s had a plethora. Marie Antoinette and Henry VIII were both musical in their own ways (the portrait is MA at the spinet), and both enjoyed the finest instructors and performers. More about England later–this week we’re in France, in the middle of the last showdown between Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry.

The man caught in the middle was Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), one of the most important opera composers of the day. Born in Bavaria, his first position was in a Milan orchestra, where he received lessons from Giovanni Battista Sammartini. His first opera, Artaserse, premiered on December 26, 1741 to some success, and he traveled to London, Saxony, and Copenhagen before settling in Vienna in 1753. He became Kapellmeister to Empress Maria Theresa, and instructor to her children, including Archduchess Antoine (who seems to have been more enthusiastic than really talented!).

Gluck advocated the reform of opera, wanting to eliminate all that was “undramatic.” He insisted on focusing on human drama and passions, making the words and music of equal importance, doing away with folderol like mannered ballets. His best-known opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, had its first performance on October 5, 1762, with the famous castrato Guadagni in the title role.

In the 1770s, Gluck’s Viennese career was slipping a bit, so he was happy to accept an invitation from his former pupil to come to France. In 1774, he signed a contract to perform six works at the Paris Opera. The first, Iphigenie en Aulide, was to premier in April, and it sparked a war. Gluck knew his new style wouldn’t catch on right away with the French, stating “There will be considerable opposition because it will run counter to national prejudices against which reason is no defense.” But somehow the music got mixed up with Court factions! Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry (who detested Dauphine Marie Antoinette and her snooty Viennese ways!) and her supporters brought in the more conventional Italian composer Piccinni. It was the Gluckists vs. the Piccinnists!

It didn’t much help that Gluck refused to coddle tempermental French stars. To Sophie Arnould, the Iphigenie, who wanted more fancy arias for herself, he snapped, “”To sing great arias, you have to know how to sing.”

But in the end the Gluckists triumphed. The premier on April 19, 1774 was packed–even du Barry couldn’t stay away. Mari Antoinette came with her husband, the comte and comtesse de Provence (her brother and sister-in-law), the duchesses de Chartres and de Bourbon, and the princesse de Lamballe. The opera started at 5:30 p.m. and ran even longer than the usual five and a half hours because of the copious applause. Even Rousseau left the theater in tears.

The run of Iphigenie didn’t last long. At the end of April, Louis XV fell ill with smallpox and died. Gluck’s patron was now Queen, and she saw to it he spent several years traveling between Vienna and Paris. He sponsored many patrons in his turn, including Salieri.

I once saw a performance of Orfeo, blessedly NOT five hours long (more like three), and really enjoyed it. Great singing, but sadly no Gluckist/Piccinnist throwdown in the audience. What’s some of your favorite music? Which side in the G/P battle would you have been on?

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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