After the excellent guided tour of Rousseau’s house we had a ten-minute break before the next tour began. Purely by chance I had come to Montmorency on the one day of the month when there was a guided tour of the temporary exhibition on the composer André-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813).
Although I have never seen any of Grétry’s operas, which are rarely if ever performed, I knew a few things about him because I had once visited his birth house in Liège, Belgium.
Grétry composed about fifty operas, mainly comic operas, which were extremely popular during his lifetime but forgotten soon after his death. (I suppose you could say he was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his generation.)
An unusual aspect of Grétry’s career was that his popularity survived all the political upheavals of his time. He was just as popular during and after the French Revolution as before. First the King, then the Republic and then Napoléon all gave him awards and honors.
On our tour, which was conducted by one of the women who had organized the Grétry exhibition, we learned that Grétry had been a fervent admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1798 Grétry bought the Hermitage in Montmorency precisely because Rousseau had once lived there, even though only for less than two years.
In Montmorency, Grétry set about writing autobiographical books that were closely modeled on Rousseau’s later works, the difference being that Grétry by all accounts was not a talented writer and had little to say that was of any interest. His books were not successful and some of them were not even published.
The Grétry exhibition, however, turned out to be very interesting, especially since we were given a first-hand tour by one of the organizers. It included books, documents and portraits from various sources including, unusually, the French National Library, which is normally reluctant to loan out any valuable items from its collection. The immediate reason for having the exhibition in 2013 was that this was the two hundredth anniversary of Grétry’s death.
Unlike Rousseau, Grétry died in Montmorency. When he felt the end was coming, he asked to be transported to Montmorency so he could die in the Hermitage — a house which by the way no longer exists, since it was demolished for the most part in 1861 to make room for a psychiatric clinic.
On our tour of the Grétry exhibition I was surprised to learn that Rousseau in his earlier years had also been a composer of operas, which was another reason for Grétry’s admiration of him. I have never heard any of Rousseau’s operas, though some of them were quite successful at the time. King Louis XV liked one of Rousseau’s operas so much that he granted him a pension, which Rousseau turned down.
Rousseau was also a musicologist who contributed several articles on music to Diderot’s Encylopédie.
The Orangerie, which dates from 1719, is now used as a music school called the Conservatoire André E.M. Grétry — named after the composer who lived in the Hermitage in Montmorency starting in 1798, and also died there in 1813. Originally this Orangerie belonged to the Castle of Crozat, which no longer exists.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: Grétry’s birth house in Liège, Belgium