For decades, eighteenth-century Paris had been declining into a baroque backwater. Spectacles at the opera, once considered fit for a king, had become “hell for the ears,” wrote playwright Carlos Goldoni. Then, in 1774, with the crowning of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, Paris became one of the world’s most vibrant musical centers.
Austrian composer Christophe-Willibald Gluck, protégé of the queen, introduced a new kind of tragic opera—dramatic, human and closer to nature. The expressive pantomime known as ballet d’action, forerunner of the modern ballet, replaced stately court dancing. Along the boulevards, people whistled lighter tunes from the Italian opera, where the queen’s favorite composer, André Modeste Grétry, ruled supreme.
This book recounts Gluck’s remaking of the grand operatic tragedy—long symbolic of absolute monarchy—and the vehement quarrels between those who embraced reform and those who preferred familiar baroque tunes or the sweeter melodies of Italy. The turmoil was an important element in the ferment that led to the French Revolution and the beheading of the queen.