Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians Gluck byWalter Rowlands
Marie Antoinette, married at fourteen and Queen of France at eighteen, found herself wearied and annoyed by the excessive etiquette of the French court, so different from the comparatively simple life she had led at Vienna. While dauphiness, she often expressed a wish for a country-house of her own where she could find freedom at times from the pomp and intrigues of the court, and very soon after his accession Louis XVI. offered her Little Trianon, which she joyfully accepted.
Built by Louis XV. for Madame du Barry, this charming residence lay in the midst of a park which was intended to serve both as a school of gardening and as a botanical garden, and united the various kinds of gardens then known, - French, Italian, and English. Marie Antoinette sacrificed the botanical garden, for which she did not much care, in order to improve and extend the English gardens, which she most admired, and which were then becoming the fashion on the Continent.
The world was taxed to furnish specimens of trees and plants for her garden. From North America alone came two hundred and thirty-nine kinds of trees and shrubs. Besides these, there were everywhere and always flowers; in the spring, lilacs, then syringas, snowballs, tuberoses, irises, tulips, hyacinths, and so through the floral calendar. In addition to these beauties, the park of Trianon was enhanced by all that the art of the landscape gardener could devise. Architecture added its gifts in the theatre, the Temple of Love, the Belvedere, and the palace, where the art of Lagrenée, of Gouthière, Houdon, and Clodion found expression. And there still remained the queen's favourite creation, the little hamlet of eight cottages, where she and her ladies played at farming, with its dairy, its mill, and its poultry yard.
"At Trianon there was no ceremony, no etiquette, no household, only friends. When the queen entered the salon, the ladies did not quit their work nor the men interrupt their game of billiards or of trictrac. It was the life of the château, with all its agreeable liberty, such as Marie Antoinette had always dreamed, such as was practised in that patriarchal family of the Hapsburgs, which was, as Goethe has said, 'Only the first bourgeoise family of the empire.'"
In spite of Marie Antoinette's many kindnesses to authors, it seems doubtful if she really cared for literature, but of music she was a constant lover. As a child she had played with Mozart and had received lessons from Gluck, and when she became queen she still took lessons both in music and singing.
Gluck was to her not only a great composer, he was one of the dear memories of her youth, her home, and her country, and also a hope for reform in French music, which she found monotonous. It was to please her that the directors of the Grand Opera invited Gluck to come to Paris and produce some of his works. The great reformer of opera had long wished for this opportunity, which he seized with alacrity, and set out from Vienna for Paris in the autumn of 1773. He was received with every kindness and encouragement by Marie Antoinette and the court, and proceeded to rehearse his "Iphigenia in Aulis" - not without difficulties, as he found the French singers and musicians even less inclined to reforms than those of Vienna. Gluck, however, supported by the protection of the dauphiness, made short work of those who held back. To the lady who sang the music of "Iphigenia," and who refused to obey him at rehearsal, he said, "Mademoiselle, I am here to bring out 'Iphigenia.' If you will sing, nothing can be better; if not, very well, I will go the queen and say, 'It is impossible to have my opera performed;' then I will take my seat in my carriage and return to Vienna." Doubtless this result would have been much to the prima donna's liking, but she had to submit.
"Iphigenia" was produced on April 19, 1774, and Marie Antoinette applauded from the royal box without ceasing. On the first representation, opinions were divided, but at the second performance the approval was unanimous. When Marie Antoinette became queen shortly afterward, she gave the composer a pension of six thousand francs, with the entrée to her morning receptions. He often visited her at Trianon, where the daughter of Maria Theresa was always gracious to the forester's gifted son. The next work of Gluck to be given in Paris was his "Orpheus and Eurydice," whose success was greater than that of the "Iphigenia," and caused Rousseau to publicly acknowledge that he was mistaken in asserting that the French language was unsuitable to set to music. He also said that the music of "Orpheus" had reconciled him to existence, and met the reproach that Gluck's work was lacking in melody with the words, "I believe that melody proceeds from every pore."
When the composer's next opera, "Alcestis," was produced, in 1776, the queen gave it her decided approbation, and loyally supported Gluck against the king's preference for the older form of opera, and the partisans of the Italian composer Piccini, who was Gluck's rival for the favour of the Parisians. Great was the battle between the warring factions, the "Gluckists" and the "Piccinists," whose differences of opinion sometimes even resulted in personal encounters in the theatre. Between the two composers themselves, matters were more pleasant. When Piccini's "Roland" was being studied, the composer, unused to conducting and unfamiliar with the French language, became confused at a rehearsal. Gluck happened to be present, and, rushing into the orchestra, threw off his wig and coat, and led the performance with such energy and skill that all went smooth again. On the other hand, Piccini, when he learned of the death of his whilom rival, expressed his respect for Gluck by starting a subscription for the establishment of an annual concert to be given upon the anniversary of the composer's death, at which nothing but his music should be performed.
Gluck's "Armida" was given its first presentation in 1777, and increased his fame so much that his bust was placed in the Grand Opera beside those of Lulli, Rameau, and Quinault. "Iphigenia in Tauris" was produced in 1779, with great success, but "Echo and Narcissus," the last opera which Gluck gave in Paris, was a failure. He left France for Vienna in the same year, never to return, though his royal pupil pressed him to do so in the most flattering manner.
Before taking leave of Gluck, let us read the eloquent words with which Ernest Newman closes his book on "Gluck and the Opera." "The musician speaks a language that is in its very essence more impermanent than the speech of any other art. Painting, sculpture, architecture, and poetry know no other foe than external nature, which may, indeed, destroy their creations and blot out the memory of the artist. But the musician's material is such that, however permanent may be the written record of his work, it depends not upon this, but upon the permanency in other men of the spirit that gave his music birth, whether it shall live in the minds of future generations. Year after year the language of the art grows richer and more complex, and work after work sinks into ever-deepening oblivion, until music that once thrilled men with delirious ecstasy becomes a dead thing, which here and there a student looks back upon in a mood of scarcely tolerant antiquarianism. In the temple of the art a hundred statues of the gods are overthrown; and a hundred others stand with arrested lips and inarticulate tongues, pale symbols of a vanished dominion which men no longer own. Yet here and there, through the ghostly twilight, comes the sound of some clear voice that has defied the courses of the years and the mutations of taste; and we hear the rich canorous tones of Gluck, not, perhaps, with all the vigour and the passion that once was theirs, but with the mellowed splendour given by the touch of time. Alone among his fellows he speaks our modern tongue, and chants the eternal passions of the race. He was, indeed, as Sophie Arnould called him, 'The musician of the soul;' and if we have added new strings to our lyre, and wrung from them a more poignant eloquence than ever stirred within the heart of Gluck, none the less do we perceive that music such as his comes to us from the days when there were giants in the land."