Piccini’s arrival in Paris had been kept a close secret while he was working on the new opera, but Abbe du Rollet ferreted it out, and acquainted Gluck, which piece of news the great German took with philosophical disdain. Indeed, he attended the rehearsal of “Roland;” and when his rival, in despair over his ignorance of French and the stupidity of the orchestra, threw down the baton in despair, Gluck took it up, and by his magnetic authority brought order out of chaos and restored tranquillity, a help as much, probably, the fruit of condescension and contempt as of generosity.
Still Gluck was not easy in mind over this intrigue of his enemies, and wrote a bitter letter, which was made public, and aggravated the war of public feeling. Epigrams and accusations flew back and forth like hailstones.*
* See article on Gluck in “Great German Composers.”
“Do you know that the Chevalier (Gluck’s title) has an Armida and Orlando in his portfolio?” said Abbe Arnaud to a Piccinist.
“But Piccini is also at work on an Orlando,” was the retort.
“So much the better,” returned the abbe, “for then we shall have an Orlando and also an Orlandino,” was the keen answer.
The public attention was stimulated by the war of pamphlets, lampoons, and newspaper articles. Many of the great literati were Piccinists, among them Marmontel, La Harpe, D’Alembert, etc. Suard du Rollet and Jean Jacques Rousseau fought in the opposite ranks. Although the nation was trembling on the verge of revolution, and the French had just lost their hold on the East Indies; though Mirabeau was thundering in the tribune, and Jacobin clubs were commencing their baleful work, soon to drench Paris in blood, all factions and discords were forgotten. The question was no longer, “Is he a Jansenist, a Molinist, an Encyclopaedist, a philosopher, a free-thinker?” One question only was thought of: “Is he a Gluckist or Piccinist?” and on the answer often depended the peace of families and the cement of long-established friendships.
Piccini’s opera was a brilliant success with the fickle Parisians, though the Gluckists sneered at it as pretty concert music. The retort was that Gluck had no gift of melody, though they admitted he had the advantage over his rival of making more noise. The poor Italian was so much distressed by the fierce contest that he and his family were in despair on the night of the first representation. He could only say to his weeping wife and son: “Come, my children, this is unreasonable. Remember that we are not among savages; we are living with the politest and kindest nation in Europe. If they do not like me as a musician, they will at all events respect me as a man and a stranger.” To do justico to Piccini, a mild and timid man, he never took part in the controversy, and always spoke of his opponent with profound respect and admiration.