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JEAN BAPTISTE LOUIS GRESSET (1709-1777)

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Originally appearing in Volume V12, Page 584 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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JEAN BAPTISTE LOUIS GRESSET (1709-1777), French poet and dramatist, was born at Amiens on the 29th of August 1709. His poem Vert Vert is his main title to fame. He spent, however, the last twenty-five years of his life in regretting the frivolity which enabled him to produce this most charming of poems. He was brought up by the Jesuits of Amiens. He was accepted as a novice at the age of sixteen, and sent to pursue his studies at the College Louis le Grand in Paris. After completing his course he was appointed, being then under twenty years of age, to a post as assistant master in a college at Rouen. He published Vert Vert at Rouen in 1734. It is a story, in itself exceedingly humorous, showing how a parrot, the delight of a convent, whose talk was all of prayers and pious ejaculations, was conveyed to another convent as a visitor to please the nuns. On the way he falls among bad companions, forgets his convent language, and shocks the sisters on arrival by profane swearing. He is sent back in disgrace, punished by solitude and plain bread, presently repents, reforms and is killed by kindness. The story, however, is nothing. The treatment of the subject, the applause. It is said that the study of the score of one of Monsigny's operas, lent to him by a secretary of the French embassy in Rome, decided Gretry to devote himself to French comic opera. On New Year's day 1767 he accordingly left Rome, and after a short stay at Geneva (where he made the acquaintance of Voltaire, and produced another operetta) went to Paris. There for two years he had to contend with the difficulties incident to poverty and obscurity. He was, however, not without friends, and by the intercession of Count Creutz, the Swedish ambassador, Gretry obtained a libretto from Marmontel, which he set to music in less than six weeks, and which, on its performance in August 1768, met with unparalleled success. The name of the opera was Le Huron. Two others, Lucile and Le Tableau parlant, soon followed, and thenceforth Gretry's position as the leading composer of comic opera was safely established. Altogether he composed some fifty operas. His masterpieces are Zemire et Azor and Richard Cceur de Lion,—the first produced in 1771, the second in 1784. The latter in an indirect way became connected with a great historic event. In it occurs the celebrated romance, 0 Richard, o mon roi, l'univers t'abandonne, which was sung at the banquet—" fatal as that of Thyestes," remarks Carlyle—given by the bodyguard to the officers of the Versailles garrison on October 3, 1789. The Marseillaise not long after-wards became the reply of the people to the expression of loyalty borrowed from Gretry's opera. The composer himself was not uninfluenced by the great events he witnwsed, and the titles of some of his operas, such as La Rosiere republicaine and La Fete de la raison, sufficiently indicate the epoch to which they belong; but they are mere pieces de circonstance, and the republican enthusiasm displayed is not genuine. Little more successful was Gretry in his dealings with classical subjects. His genuine power lay in the delineation of character and in the expression of tender and typically French sentiment. The structure of his concerted pieces on the other hand is frequently flimsy, and his instrumentation so feeble that the orchestral parts of some of his works had to be rewritten by other composers, in order to make them acceptable to modern audiences. During the revolution Gretry lost much of his property, but the successive governments of France vied in favouring the composer, regardless of political differences. From the old court he received distinctions and rewards of all kinds; the republic made him an inspector of the conservatoire; Napoleon granted him the cross of the legion of honour and a pension. Gretry died on the 24th of September 1813, at the Hermitage in Montmorency, formerly the house of Rousseau. Fifteen years after his death Gretry's heart was transferred to his birthplace, permission having been obtained after a tedious lawsuit. In 1842 a colossal bronze statue of the composer was set up at Liege. See Michael Brenet, Vie de Gretry (Paris, 1884) ; Joach. le Breton, Notice historique sur la vie et les ouvrages de Gretry (Paris, T814); A. Gretry (his nephew), Gretry en famille (Paris, 1814) ; Felix van Hulst, Gretry (Liege, 1842); L. D. S. Notice biographique sur Gretry (Bruxelles, 1869).
End of Article: JEAN BAPTISTE LOUIS GRESSET (1709-1777)
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