André Grétry (1741 – 1813) born in Liege, Belgium was the most famous composer
in France during the Revolution. For twenty years before the storming of the Bastille in 1789
until twenty years after, he was dominant in the musical scene. Those years encompassed three
ruling phases of France, firstly by Louis XVI, then by the revolutionaries and lastly by
Napoleon. Grétry was a favourite with all three which makes him a rather unique figure.
To keep his fame, to say nothing of keeping his head, during that turbulent time seems remarkable.
'The musician learns to interrogate the passions,
to sound the depths of the human heart.'
Grétry wrote more than 70 operas and they were usually very popular. This situation was
completely serendipitous as there is no way he could make audiences like his music. He simply
wrote music that suited the times. His plain and simple style produced catchy tunes to popular
dance rhythms with words that parodied the political scene. They proved to be eminently 'singable'
and became the most well-known in France.
When the dauphin (later Louis XVI) married Marie Antoinette in 1770 a work of the ambitious
young Grétry was performed. By 1772 be had become the dominant figure of the new opera-
comiques. These operas, despite their name, are not comic but use any story-line as subject
with spoken dialogue between the songs and choruses, in contrast to the recitative – aria
style of traditional tragic opera.
Grétry was already receiving a court-granted pension, when in 1774 Marie Antoinette
appointed him as her music director. He taught her music but what instrument she learned is not
clear. Paintings show her playing the harp to accompany singers, implying that he trained her to
a proficient degree.
It seems ironic that the last music King Louis XVI heard before his imprisonment by his subjects,
was the Grétry favourite O Richard, o mon Roi!, sung by a subject and leading to
a king (Richard Coeur-de-Lion) being released from prison.
During the Revolution opera was the preferred relaxation in the evening after a busy day at the
guillotine. Grétry's music remained popular although less than formerly. Some revolutionaries
were suspicious of his links to the ancien regime and although he seems not to have been at
risk the music of one of his operas was publicly burned. This is surprising as his music, unlike
the stirring La Marseillaise of 1792, is too gentle to inflame political or patriotic
zeal for any camp.
The revolutionaries preferred a variant of the opera-comique. Composers now used the
spoken dialogue to declaim revolutionary themes with the songs performed by choruses rather than
soloists. Grétry yielded less to this change than his contemporaries, courageously
condemning their excesses. He, nevertheless, did write on popular subjects where oppression by
rulers was opposed, such as in his Guilliame Tell. His attempts to stay ahead of his rivals
led to hasty composition, poorer craftsmanship, and a loss of popularity. He remained an active
administrator as Inspector of the Paris Conservatoire.
On attaining dictatorial powers under a new regime, Napoleon, who liked simple melodies,
resurrected several Grétry operas. This hardly seems necessary when only one month in 50 years
lacked a performance of a Grétry work. Napoleon later revived Grétry's pension that
had ceased during the Revolution.
For many years Grétry lived in the villa formerly occupied by philosopher, and incidentally,
opera composer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau's fame made the villa a place of pilgrimage,
and one such visitor's account gives a little picture of Grétry. Baron de Freilly suggests,
sarcastically, his belief that Grétry was so self-centred he would wish only to admit pilgrims
to himself rather than to Rousseau memorabilia. Reflecting on the Baron's remarks, we note they
express his opinion rather than facts. Grétry would, of course, have learned something of
Rousseau from the endless stream who made the pilgrimage. He would know of Rousseau's fame
and the philosophical content of the Contrat social. He would also know this contrasted
sharply with Rousseau's desertion of his children and their untimely deaths in the poor-house.
Grétry might further contrast this with the deaths of his own three daughters, who also died
young, though they were never out of his loving care.
Although Grétry's fame declined he influenced major composers and still does. Mozart studied
Grétry's Zemire et Azor as a model for his own famous The Magic Flute. Even
here, though, Grétry was ahead of his more illustrious contemporary. Grétry's
idealisation of his characters and experimentations with orchestral colours foreshadowed
the next era in music, Romanticism. Beethoven also respected Grétry's achievements. He
became familiar with Grétry's music whilst playing viola in the Bonn opera orchestra and
composed variations on a Grétry theme, as had Mozart. Beethoven's sole opera,
Fidelio, is a 'rescue' opera of the type Grétry perfected.
An innovation of Grétry has had a profound effect on the development of opera. In
some operas he gave each important character an individual melody so that a listener would always
associate it with that character. Thus the story would have a unity and be more memorable and
appealing. Wagner, in his fifteen-hour long Der Ring des Nibelungen, took this principle
to new heights. Individual melodies are not only given to characters but to objects, emotions,
Nature, events, variously blended to suit the progress of the story.
Thus we see how one man survived a turbulent, violent time in history. Not a genius, just a gentle
soul, of possibly no great intellect, but within his limitations lived life to the full. Although
his music was universally popular it struggles to survive the test of time, even in France, but
his influence, though seldom recognised, will never die.