France took music as part of its gaieté Parisienne. She did not care to rival Germany in Masses and solemn chorales; she almost ignored Mozart when he came to Paris, but she forgot to be chauvinistic when her ears were charmed by Italian melodies. She madefêtes galantes out of her music; she specialized in forms fit for, or recalling, the dance—courantes, sarabandes, gigues, gavottes, minuets. Her music, like her morals, her manners, and her arts, circled around woman, and often took names that recalled her image—L’Enchanteresse, L’Ingénue, Mimi, Carillon de Cy thére.
In France, as in Italy, opera buff a was more popular than opera seria before Gluck came (1773). A troupe calling itself Opéra-Comique had installed itself in Paris in 1714; in 1762 it merged with the Comédie-Italienne; in 1780 this enlarged Opéra-Comique moved to a permanent home in the Salle Fa-vart. The man who made its fortune was François-André Philidor, who traveled through Europe as chess champion, and composed twenty-five operas, nearly all of a humorous turn, like Sancho Pança and Tom Jones,but showing good taste and finished art. His operas are now forgotten, but “Philidor’s defense” and “Philidor’s legacy” are still remembered as classic moves in chess. Ballet was a favorite interlude in French opera; here French grace found another outlet, and motion became poetry. Jean-Georges Noverre, ballet master at the Paris Opéra, wrote a once famous treatise on choreography—Lettres sur la danse et les ballets (1760); this prepared the way for Gluck’s reforms by advocating a return to Greek ideals of the dance, with naturalness of movement, simplicity of costume, and emphasis on dramatic significance rather than on abstract configurations or virtuoso feats.
Public concerts were now a part of life in all the major cities of France. In Paris the Concerts Spirituels (established in the Tuileries in 1725) set a high standard of instrumental music. While the Opéra-Comique played Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, the Concerts performed his Stabat Mater, which was so well received that it was repeated annually till 1800.20 The Concerts brought the compositions of Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Jommelli, Piccini, and the Bachs to French acceptance, and provided a platform for the leading virtuosos of the day.
These visiting performers agreed in one thing—that France lagged behind Germany, Austria, and Italy in music. The philosophes joined in this judgment. “It is a pity,” wrote Grimm (a German) “that people in this country understand so little of music”;21 he excepted Mlle. Fel, who sang with a lovely throat. Grimm concurred with Rousseau and Diderot in asking for a “return to nature” in opera; these three led the Italian faction in that Guerre des Bouffons which had begun with the presentation of an opera buff a by an Italian company in Paris. We have noted elsewhere this debate between French and Italian musical styles; it was not yet over, for Diderot was still fighting the “War of the Buffoons” in his Le Neveu de Rameau; and in his Troisiéme Entretien sur Le Fils naturel(1757) he called for a Messiah to redeem French opera from pompous declamation and fanciful artifice. “Let him come forward, who is to put true tragedy and true comedy upon the lyric [operatic] stage!”—and he gave as example of a fit text theIphigenia in Aulisof Euripides.22 Did Gluck, then in Vienna, hear that call? Voltaire repeated it prophetically in 1761:
It is to be hoped that some genius may arise, strong enough to convert the nation from this abuse [of artifice], and to impart to a stage production … the dignity and ethic spirit that it now lacks. … The tide of bad taste is rising,* insensibly submerging the memory of what was once the glory of the nation. Yet again I repeat: the opera must be set on a different footing, that it may no longer deserve the scorn with which it is regarded by all the nations of Europe.23
In 1773 Gluck arrived in Paris, and on April 19, 1774, he conducted there the French première of Iphigénie en Aulide. But that story must bide its time.