“As far as music is concerned,” Mozart wrote from Paris on May 1, 1778, “I am surrounded by mere brute beasts. … Ask anyone you like—provided he is not a Frenchman born—and if he knows anything about the matter he will say exactly the same.... I shall thank Almighty God if I escape with my taste unspoiled.”56 These were hard words, but Grimm and Goldoni agreed with them;57 however, all three critics were foreigners. The musical taste of the upper-class Parisians reflected their manners, inclining to restraint of expression and regularity of form; it still echoed the age of Louis XIV. Yet it was precisely in these first years of the new reign that half of Paris lost restraint, and perhaps good manners, in the excitement of the battle over Piccini and Gluck. And note Julie de Lespinasse’s letter of September 22, 1774: “I go constantly to Orfé et Eurydice. I long to hear a dozen times a day that air which rends me, … ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice.’”58 Paris was not dead to music, though it imported more than it produced.
In 1751 François-Joseph Gossec, aged seventeen, came from his native Hainaut to Paris with a letter of introduction to Rameau. The old master secured for him a post as conductor of the private orchestra maintained by Alexandre-Joseph de La Popelinière. For that “band” Gossec composed (1754 f.) symphonies antedating Haydn’s first by five years, and in 1754 he published quartets antedating Haydn’s by a year. In 1760 he presented in the Church of St. Roch his Messe des Morts, which originated the idea of playing the wind instruments of the Tuba mirum outside the church. There was no end to Gossec’s enterprise and versatility. In 1784 he founded the École Royale du Chant, which became the nucleus of the renowned Paris Conservatoire de Musique. He achieved a moderate success in opera, comic and serious. He adjusted himself to the Revolution, and composed some of its most famous songs, including the “Hymn to the Supreme Being” for Robespierre’s celebration (June 8, 1794). He survived all political modulations, dying in 1829 at the age of ninety-five.
The dominant figure in the French opera of this period was André Grétry. Like so many others prominent in French music in the eighteenth century, he was an alien, born at Liège in 1741, son of a violinist. On the day of his first Communion, he tells us, he asked God to let him die at once unless he was destined to be a good man and a great musician. That day a rafter fell on his head and severely wounded him; he recovered, and concluded that a noble future was divinely promised him.59 From the age of sixteen he suffered periodically from internal hemorrhages, vomiting six cups of blood in a day; he was subject to fevers and occasional delirium, and at times he went almost mad from inability to stop some strain of music from turning round and round in his head. Even bad music could be forgiven to a man who was so tormented and yet kept his good cheer through seventy-two years.
At the age of seventeen he composed six symphonies, good enough to secure from a cathedral canon the means of going to Rome. If we may believe the engaging Mémoires which he published in 1797, he walked all the way.60 During his eight years in Italy he was influenced by the success of Pergolesi to compose comic operas. Coming to Paris (1767), he received encouragement from Diderot, Grimm, and Rousseau. He studied the dramatic art of Mile. Clairon, developed a special skill in adjusting his music to the accents and inflexions of dramatic speech, and achieved in his operas a lyric delicacy and tenderness that seemed to reflect the spirit of Rousseau, and the return to simplicity and sentiment in French life. He continued to be popular throughout the Revolution, which ordered his works to be published at the government’s expense; arias from his operas were sung by revolutionary crowds. Napoleon gave him a pension. Everybody liked him because he had so few of the stigmata of genius: he was kindly, affectionate, sociable, modest, spoke well of his rivals, and paid his debts. He loved Rousseau, though Rousseau had offended him; in his old age he bought the Hermitage, where Rousseau had lived. In that cottage, on September 24, 1813, while Napoleon was fighting all Europe, Grétry died.