While the Gluck-Piccini battle was at its height, an amateur who was disgusted with the contest returned to the country and sang the praises of the birds and their gratuitous performances in the following epigram:
point d’art, d’ennui scientifique;
Piccini, Gluck, n’ont point note les airs.
Nature seule en dicta la musique,
Et Marmontel n’en a pas fait les vers.”
The sentiment of this was probably applauded by the many who were wearied of the bitter recriminations, which degraded the art which they professed to serve.
During the period when Gluck and Piccini were composing for the French opera, its affairs flourished liberally under the sway of De Vismes. Gluck, Piccini, and Rameau wrote serious operas, while Piccini, Sacchini, Anfossi, and Paisiello composed comic operas. The ballet flourished with unsurpassed splendor, and on the whole it may be said that never has the opera presented more magnificence at Paris than during the time France was on the eve of the Reign of Terror. The gay capital was thronged with great singers, the traditions of whose artistic ability compare favorably with those of a more recent period.
The witty and beautiful Sophie Arnould, who had a train of princes at her feet, was the principal exponent of Gluck’s heroines, while Mile. La-guerre was the mainstay of the Piccinists. The rival factions made the names of these charming and capricious women their war-cries not less than those of the composers. The public bowed and cringed before these idols of the stage. Gaetan Vestris, the first of the family, known as the “Dieu de la Danse,” and who held that there were only three great men in Europe, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Voltaire, and himself, dared to dictate even to Gluck. “Write me the music of a chaconne, Monsieur Gluek,” said the god of dancing.
“A chaconne!” said the enraged composer. “Do you think the Greeks, whose manners we are endeavoring to depict, knew what a chaconne was?”
“Did they not?” replied Vestris, astonished at this news, and in a tone of compassion continued, “then they are much to be pitied.”
Vestris did not obtain his ballet music from the obdurate German; but, when Piccini’s rival “Iphigenie en Tauride” was produced, such beautiful dance measures were furnished by the Italian composer as gave Vestris the opportunity for one of his greatest triumphs.
The contest between Gluck and Piccini, or rather the cabals who adopted the two musicians as their figure-heads, was brought to an end by the death of the former. An attempt was made to set up Sacchini in his place, but it proved unavailing, as the new composer proved to be quite as much a follower of the prevailing Italian method as of the new school of Gluck. The French revolution swept away Piccini’s property, and he retired to Italy. Bad fortune pursued him, however. Queen Caroline of Naples conceived a dislike to him and used her influence to injure his career, out of a fit of wounded vanity.