France Music – From Lulli to Berlioz – Rameau and Gluck

By | January 16, 2022

Rameau and Gluck. – Much less sensitive than Couperin, J. Ph. Rameau, admirable technician, skilfully blends the French and Italian manner in works built with great confidence and vigor of accent, using the lively rhythms and pungent harmonies of a D Scarlatti.

According to, Rameau had in the musical world of the century. XVIII a part comparable to that of Voltaire in that of the letters. But he was above all a theorist, who in the practice of art brought the constant concern to justify his theories. He settled in Paris only in 1733 after having published his monumental Traité de l’harmonie and even afterwards he did not interrupt the research, exposed in numerous writings. Until the age of 50, he published no other musical works than the pieces for harpsichord; but then he wanted to show what he was capable of and attract public attention to his theories by writing a work. The representation of Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) was a considerable event not because Rameau changed the form of the musical tragedy introduced by Lulli, but because of the musical richness of the score. Rameau does not have the profound lyricism of Lulli, but he is one of the greatest masters of the form: his dances, his symphonic episodes are written with marvelous skill. A little dry at times, it excels in gallant and voluptuous scenes; it seldom rises to the pathetic, but sometimes reaches the grandiose. Although he did not ignore Italian music, he was only indirectly influenced by it: nothing is more French than Rameau’s melodies and his tendency to evoke images, portraits, environments through music. Like all his French contemporaries, he tries, according to the Du Bos precept, to “imitate nature”. Long fought by the belated admirers of Lulli, he became the champion of the opponents of the Italian Buffonisti (see), although he personally declared himself an admirer of Pergolesi. The representation of the Serva Padrona of these (1752), aroused endless controversies, in which D. Diderot, J. D’Alembert, France-M. Grimm, JJ Rousseau. The new generations were now tired of the opera-ballet, with its long mythological entanglements and preferred the painting of familiar customs and simple and human feelings. The Encyclopedists vigorously supported the Italian Buffonists and their French followers. With Les Troqueurs by A. Dauvergne there was the first French comic opera and the genre was nationalized so quickly in the hands of A. Philidor, by P.-A. Momigny and A.-E.-M. Grétry, who at the end of the century comic opera, freed from foreign influences, became a French specialty: Richard Coeur de Lion and Le déserteur they mark the beginning of a genre that after a century will still produce Carmen.

Meanwhile Gluck renewed Lulli’s musical tragedy. Author of comic operas on French librettos even before settling in Paris, with Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) he tries not without heaviness on Lulli’s recitatives; in 1777 he sets to music the same Armida already served to Lulli, thus using materials from the French opera, in which he knows how to infuse new spirit.

From this moment the French musicians disappeared; N. Piccinni, A. Sacchini, A. Salieri, then Spontini and Cherubini took over the theater while seconding, like Gluck, the tastes and habits of the French public. During the revolutionary era a great musician arose, J. Méhul, whose Joseph remains a masterpiece of simple and naive grace. J.-F. Lesueur, Berlioz’s teacher, wrote colorful scores in which they are the first announcements of musical romanticism.

Instrumental music. – In this area too, a revolution is taking place. In fact, around 1755 the harpsichordists abandon the traditional free and genre pieces to write sonatas, probably in the footsteps of Alsatians and Germans who settled in Paris, including J. Schobert, JG Eckardt, N.-J. Hüllmandel, J.-F. Edelmann. These artists exerted great influence on the young Mozart during his stay in Paris. At the same time the style of the solo and treble sonata evolves. The scheme is modified and the writing is simplified, while the sonatists are increasingly giving themselves to the art of opposing and combining two different themes. Mannheim’s musicians work for Paris, where artists from all over the world flock and where it is elaborated like this, with the fusion of Italian, French, German, the international language in which Mozart will express himself. The French have an important voice in this preparation: the knight of Saint-Georges, J.-B. Janson, France-J. Gossec wrote the first French symphonies, soon published in Paris; the concert flourishes, and an illustrious patron, A. de la Pouplinière, protector of Rameau, encourages new attempts. Towards 1780 France is at the forefront of musical nations.

But the Revolution interrupts this development bringing a great decadence in French musical art. Gossec, Lesueur, Méhul compose patriotic songs for immense choirs, sometimes accompanied by artillery salvoes. The favor of the general public turns to the theater; the violinist P.-F. Baillot will hear the quartets of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven under the Empire, but until the middle of the century. XIX chamber music is cultivated only in cenacles. Under the Restoration, Rossini and the Italian masters triumph, having as rivals only F-.A. Boïeldieu, whose graceful and sensitive melodies will be enjoyed throughout Northern Europe, D.-F. Auber, a somewhat cold but very lively stylist, L.-J. Hérold, France David, J.-FE Halévy. In 1828 Auber gives with La Muette de Portici the first model of the French romantic Grand Opéra. The following year Rossini with Guglielmo Tell definitively consecrates this genre, in which the French opera to Gluck-Méhul, the Italian to the Rossini and the German to the Weber are merged. This international genre, called “French opera” or Grand Opéra, was very popular all over the world and found its most advanced manifestation in the works of J. Meyerbeer, an Italianized and later broken German, gifted with great theatrical sense and skill in use. of voices and instruments. Robert the Devil (1831), The Huguenots (1836), The Prophet (1849) are models of this grandiloquent genre and far from the true French tradition. Meanwhile H. Berlioz wrote, amid the indifference of the public, Beatrice et Bénédict and the admirable score of the Troyens, which enjoyed success after the author’s death. At first Ch. Gounod’s Faust seemed revolutionary work, which today no longer seems so, but the voluptuous charm of the melody, the delicacy of the instrumentation have earned Faust a popularity that has not yet ceased.

France Music - From Lulli to Berlioz - Rameau and Gluck