Gretry, Andre Ernest Modeste


Dramatic composer; born at Liege; was the son of a violinist in the St. Denis Collegiate Church, and became a choir-boy there. The choirmaster was so severe that Gretry received but little benefit from his instruction, and after five years was taken from the choir by his father and became a pupil of Renekin in harmony, and of Leclerc, under whom he grew into a skilled reader. During this time he heard the performances of a traveling Italian company then in Liege, and the operas of Pergolesi, Jommelli and others, fired him with a desire to compose. His first works were six symphonies and a four-part mass which, though never published, were produced at Liege, in 1758 and 1759, and interested the Canon du Harlez to the extent of furnishing Gretry with the means for study in Rome, where he journeyed on foot. For five years thereafter he was a pupil of Casali in counterpoint and composition, but strict musical theory was so foreign to his nature that he received but little benefit from his teachers, and from this time he followed his own will as a composer. Although he made several attempts at church music, he soon dropped that form of composition. He received some encouragement, however, from the success of his intermezzo La Vendemmiatrice, produced at Rome in 1765, and from the approval of Piccinni. About this time he read the score of the comic opera, Rose et Colas, by Monsigny, and at once felt that  he had found his niche in the musical world. With Paris as his ultimate objective point, he departed from Rome in 1767, going first to Voltaire at Geneva, with the modest request for a libretto to be used in a comic opera, which was denied, it is stated, out of conscious incompetency on the part of the great Frenchman. However, Gretry was undaunted; he taught for a year in Geneva and wrote new music for Favart's Isabelle et Gertrude, which was most favorably received on its production at the Geneva Theatre Voltaire then advised him to go to Paris, where for two years he sought in vain for the new libretto, finally beginning with Les Manages Samnites, an amateur work which, though it stopped short of performance, attracted at rehearsal the favorable attention of the Swedish Ambassador, who secured for Gretry the longed for libretto, the comedy Le Huron, by Marmontel. This was produced at the Opera Comique in 1768 with " the most overwhelming success," and was followed by Lucile and Le Tableau parlant, pronounced a masterpiece of comic opera. From this time forth Gretry's reputation was established as one of the first dramatic composers in France. Between fifty and sixty operas from his pen appeared at different theatres in Paris, out of which Le Tableau parlant, mentioned above, Zemire et Azor, L'amant jaloux, and L'epreuve villageoise, are considered the best; and more especially, Richard Cceur de Lion, which has survived the others as a favorite in Paris.

Gretry is considered an epoch-making genius in French comic opera. His ability was confined, however, to melody and a vivid sense of theatrical expression,, particularly in comedy, for serious drama was beyond his powers. He knew his own limitations, however, and had the sincerity which atones for many defects. He paid especial attention to detail and proportion in his work and followed the text of his librettos with a scrupulousness that lessened the purely musical effect, provoking the remark from his contemporary Mehul that his compositions were " very clever, but . . . not music." Gretry's influence remains, however, in the French school of comic opera, notably in the works of Adam, Auber and Boieldieu, and his admirers called him the " Moliere of music." Prior to his retirement in 1803 he was the recipient of many honors. He was appointed to several noteworthy positions, including that of an inspector of the Paris Conservatory in 1795. In 1784 he had been made privy-councillor by the Prince-Bishop of his native place, and on the establishment of the Institut he was chosen one of the three representatives of musical composition. A bust of him was placed in the foyer of the Grand Opera, and a marble statue in the vestibule of the Opera Comique. In 1802 Napoleon entitled him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and granted him a munificent pension in consideration of his services to French music, and the losses he had suffered during the Revolution. The last ten years of his life were spent at I'Ermitage, a country house formerly belonging to Rousseau, near Montmorency. Gretry had previously published two theoretical works Memoires ou Essais sur la musique, based on his peculiar views of the relation of music to declamation, and Methode simple d'harmonie. In addition to the works previously mentioned, he composed a requiem; six motets; a de profundis; a number of quartets; sonatas; and orchestral works. He died at I'Ermitage, and his funeral in Paris was a fitting close to his life in that city. In 1842 a statue was erected to his memory in Liege.