The very atmosphere was reeking with the prophecy of imminent change. Versailles itself did not escape the contagion. Courtiers and aristocrats, in worshiping the beautiful ideals set up by the new school, which were as far removed as possible from their own effete civilization, did not realize that they were playing with the fire which was to burn out the whole social edifice of France with such a terrible conflagration; for, back and beneath all this, there was a people groaning under long centuries of accumulated wrong, in whose imbruted hearts the theories applauded by their oppressors with a sort of doctrinaire delight were working with a fatal fever.
In this strange condition of affairs Gluck found his new sphere of labor—Gluck, himself overflowing with the revolutionary spirit, full of the enthusiasm of reform. At first he carried everything before him. Protected by royalty, he produced, on the basis of an admirable libretto by Du Rollet, one of the great wits of the time, “Iphigenia in Aulis.” It was enthusiastically received. The critics, delighted to establish the reputation of one especially favored by the Dau-phiness Marie Antoinette, exhausted superlatives on the new opera. The Abbe Arnaud, one of the leading dilettanti, exclaimed: “With such music one might found a new religion!” To be sure, the connoisseurs could not understand the complexities of the music; but, following the rule of all connoisseurs before or since, they considered it all the more learned and profound. So led, the general public clapped their hands, and agreed to consider Gluck as a great composer. He was called the Hercules of music; the opera-house was crammed night after night; his footsteps were dogged in the streets by admiring enthusiasts; the wits and poets occupied themselves with composing sonnets in his praise; brilliant courtiers and fine ladies showered valuable gifts on the new musical oracle; he was hailed as the exponent of Rousseauism in music. We read that it was considered to be a priceless privilege to be admitted to the rehearsal of a new opera, to see Gluck conduct in nightcap and dressing-gown.
Fresh adaptations of “Orpheus and Eurydice” and of “Alceste” were produced. The first, brought out in 1784, was received with an enthusiasm which could be contented only with forty-nine consecutive performances. The second act of this work has been called one of the most astonishing productions of the human mind. The public began to show signs of fickleness, however, on the production of the “Alceste.” On the first night a murmur arose among the spectators: “The piece has fallen.” Abbe Arnaud, Gluck’s devoted defender, arose in his box and replied: “Yes! fallen from heaven.” While Mademoiselle Levasseur was singing one of the great airs, a voice was heard to say, “Ah! you tear out my ears;” to which the caustic rejoinder was: “How fortunate, if it is to give you others!”