The feudin' fools of classical music
With the History Channel's "Hatfields & McCoys" series starting tonight, I thought it would be fun to take you back to the most ferocious feud in classical music history. Fortunately, it was a war of words and notes, not guns — as far as I know. Today on the New England Public Radio classical blog, it's the Querelle des Bouffons!
The French, as is well known, take their culture seriously. Very seriously. And they really get their backs up when they feel encroached upon by foreign culture influences. That's what happened in 1752 when a troupe of Italian comic actors (in French, "bouffons") under the direction of Eustachio Bambini — what a great name! — arrived in Paris with their version of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's intermezzo La serva padrona ("The Servant Girl as Mistress"), and thereby dealt a serious blow to the hegemony of the century-old French operatic tradition created by Louis XIV's opera czar, Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Listen to the Pergolesi today, and you might wonder how it could have sparked anything stronger than smiles and laughter. And in fact, Bambini & Co. were hardly an overnight sensation, not really catching on until about half-way through their two-year stay in Paris. But for some of the leading critics of the day, here was just the right ammunition to fire at the tired and stiff formulae of French opera. What melody (something of which the French language was incapable, they said)! What naturalness of invention (by contrast to what they heard as the tortured perversions of French composers)! Those were the opinions, at least, that emerged from such intellectual camps as the Philosophes and the Encylopédistes, who published their views in numerous letters and pamphlets, there being no blogs in the day.
Now, the fact that the leading spokespersons for the anti-French camp were a Swiss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (a sometimes composer in addition to everything else), and a German, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, did not exactly endear them to the staunch upholders of Frenchness, gathered under the banner of Lully. So the Lullistes fired back, with the greatest French composer of the day, Jean-Philippe Rameau leading the charge. There is some irony in this, since just a few years earlier, the big culture war in French opera was between the upholders of Lully's traditional operatic style and the Rameauneurs, advocates of the daringly original style of Rameau. But that's politics for you — yesterday's sworn enemy becomes today's ally.
It's easy now to take the attitude of "it all seems so silly" and "why can't we all just get along?" Nowadays, thanks primarily to the advocacy of conductor William Christie and his ensemble Les Arts Florissants, French Baroque opera from Lully to Rameau is more popular and oft-produced than at any time since its heyday. Last year's tercentennial of Pergolesi (who died at 26, years before the Querelle) sparked renewed interest in the music of the brilliant composer best-known today for this setting of the Passiontide text, Stabat Mater. Artistically, what ended up happening after the shouting died down was what just about always happens when two seemingly irreconcilable styles come into conflict: the best of the old absorbs the best of the new, and something new is born, in this case the opéra-comique. But as is so often the case, more was at stake in this hurling of pamphlets than the respective merits of French and Italian opera. Underlying the Querelle was the central ongoing conflict of the Enlightenment, between absolutism (French opera) and new political currents (Italian opera). Pretty soon, the guns would fire and the guillotines would fall, and it wouldn't just be about music.
Illustrations: Giovanni Battitsta Pergolesi (left), Kevin Costner as "Devil Anse" Hatfield (right)