The last few weeks our discussions have centered on musical controversies within 20th-century music. This week, let’s take a step further back in time to 18th-century France and explore a dispute over Italian and French opera that lasted two years.
During the 18th century, operas with both serious and comic plots grew in popularity. While those with serious plots had similar characteristics across borders, comic operas differed depending on the country in which they originated. Librettists always wrote the texts in their native tongue and included national traits. A librettist is the author of the text of the opera, as opposed to the composer, who writes the music. Italian comic operas, for instance, contained melodic arias (expressive solo sections) alternated with recitatives (style of singing that resembles speech), while many other countries included spoken dialogue throughout.
In 1752 the performance of La serva padrona, Pergolesi’s Italian intermezzo (a short, comic opera inserted between the acts of a serious opera) sparked a pamphlet dispute amongst literary intellects in Paris. Known as the Querelle des bouffons (“Quarrel of the comic actors”), this “war” between supporters of Italian opera tradition (opera buffa) and French opera tradition (opera comique) involved well-known voices including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Melchior Grimm. While many people wanted to stand firm for their native style of opera, others noticed the way Italian composers created memorable and expressive melodies.
Did the Querelle des bouffons ever resolve? Yes, it did resolve in 1754 when the Bouffons left Paris. It may sound like a silly controversy but to the people of that time, they believed they should support national styles in music. As a result, this led to the formation of various national traditions prevalent during the following century.