Le Magnifique, overture
(b. Liège, 8. February 1741 – d. Montmorency,24. September 1813)
The second of six children, André-Ernest-Modeste Grétrywas born to a violinist of the collegiate church of St. Denis in Liège, Belgium. He attended the choir school there, but because of the lack of compositional experience of the choirmasters, he was sent to study counterpoint with H.J. Renkin and Henri Moreau.The most influential experience of his compositional tutelage was the visit of an Italian comic opera troupe to Liège from 1753 to 1755.In 1760, after several successful compositions, Grétry departed for Rome to continue his studies at the Collège Darchis. Grétry went on to serve a patron in Geneva, where he had his first exposure to opéra comique.Several years later, Grétry traveled to Paris to seek out new patronage, though he was initially unsuccessful.By 1769, however, his compositions, such as the set of six opéras comiques composed with Jean François Marmontel and Josef Kohaut and his Le tableau parlant (1769), had become so popular that Grétry acquired substantial wealth and influence.In 1771, Grétry married Jeanne-Marie Grandon with whom he had three daughters, the second of which, Lucile, composed two operas of her own.Though his family absorbed a substantial portion of his time and devotion, Grétry was highly committed to the success of his compositions.In order to appeal to the largest audience possible and to the present government, Grétry referred to himself as a “born republican” in his 1801 memoirs, even though he had worked extensively for the French royal family and criticized revolutionary musical compositions.He acquired honors during both the Revolution and the Empire, but declined to take up the position to which he was appointed at the Paris Conservatoire.
Grétry is best known for his contributions to opéra comique and his service to Marie Antoinette as her personal director of music.Just before he ascended to this illustrious position in 1774, he composed the little-known comic opera, Le Magnifique, premiered March 4, 1773, at the Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris. This theater and its troupe hosted the premiere of many comic operas prior to its transformation into a leather market with the onslaught of the French Revolution. Grétry was particularly attracted to the libretto by Michel-Jean Sedaine for the scene in which Clementine, the chief female protagonist, expresses her love for Le Magnifique, the aristocratic hero, by dropping a rose.Grétry saw this scene as a challenge, pushing him to new means of musical expression because the orchestra would be responsible for depicting Clementine’s emotions, as there was no text.This scene became so popular that the Parisian people returned for subsequent performances solely to see this passionate moment again.
The overture likewise depicts silent action.As prisoners silently march on stage, the off-stage ensemble of horns, trumpets, timpani, and drums open the overture’s first movement. The off-stage drum proceeds to open the second and third movement with the same march-like motive. Le Magnifique represents one of the fist instances of programmatic music, in which silent action on stage is not only accompanied, but also depicted by the orchestra. The militaristic opening of the percussion followed by the dotted rhythm of the subsequent melodic material conforms to the characteristics of the French overture first established by Lully. The overture exemplifies salient features of the eighteenth-century galant style, including the prominence of melody, the separation of melody from bass, and a largely homophonic texture. Grétry, however, veers from the modulatory convention of his time in which visited keys are related by the circle of fifths. The third movement begins in E major, which has a ternary relationship to the C major of the first and second movements.Though lacking in rhythmic complexity, Grétry does make use of various orchestra timbres, alternating melodic material among different instrument groups and eliciting a call-and-response between the strings and the woodwinds.The manuscript source for the opera’s overture is a copy by Johann Heinrich Grave held at the Staatsbibliothek– Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung (Mus.ms. 8508/5) in Berlin.
The plot of Le Magnifique centers around a father, Horace, who is released from extended captivity by the beloved of his daughter Clementine—Le Magnifique.Le Magnifique does not know of Clementine’s affections, nor can she tell him, for the man left behind as her caretaker, Aldobrandin, has his own ambitions to marry her.Drama ensues as Le Magnifique’s reciprocated affections for Clementine are revealed, and the terrible secret of her father’s captivity comes to light.This type of rescue opera constitutes the plots of several of Sedaine’s works, and would later be an inspiration to Beethoven’s Fidelio. The term rescue opera refers to French opéras comiques composed around the Revolution in which an abduction by a tyrant occurs followed by an emancipation of the prisoner, usually by a commoner through some form of sacrifice, as to juxtapose the virtue of the rescuer to the evil of the tyrant. Though the hero of Le Magnifique does not conform to the typical class of the archetypal rescue opera hero, the foiling of the money hungry tyrant and the heroism embodied by the other servants of the victimized family still place Le Magnifique among the other rescue operas of the period preceding the Revolution.Sedaine also frequently represents the confrontation of innocence and cruelty, exemplified in Clementine’s pure love for Le Magnifique contrasted against Aldobrandin’s desire to marry her for the acquisition of her father’s estate. Like most comic operas, Le Magnifique demonstrates a distinction between classes, contrasting the upper class family with their lower class servants.One of the servants, Fabio, acts as the comic bass or basso buffundo, singing rapid notes in a low register where they do not speak well.Like Leporello from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Fabio serves as the lackey who attends to the bidding of the chief antagonist, Aldobrandin.
Though not one of Grétry’s most famous works, Le Magnifique is certainly seminal. In it, Grétry stretches his compositional prowess to new expressive levels as he propels the plot musically, rather than textually, yet maintains careful treatment of French declamation.
Beth Uhimchuk, 2016
André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, Ouverture du Magnifique. pour le Clavecin. de Grétry. 1773. Grave,Paris: 1773.Mus.mus. 8508/5.b.
For performance material please contact Ricordi, Milano. Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchner Stadtbibliothek, Munich.
210 x 297 mm