Music André Grétry
R.J. Arnold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0163


André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (b. 1741–d. 1813) was the most successful composer of opéra-comique in France in the last third of the 18th century, a period during which the genre was acquiring unprecedented profundity and social impact. Born in Liège, Belgium, he traveled to Rome for an apprenticeship before arriving in 1767 in Paris, where he remained for the rest of his career. Over the next three decades, he completed more than fifty stage works; most of these were on some level successful, and some—notably Lucile, Zémire et Azor, L’amant jaloux, La caravane du Caire, and Richard Coeur de Lion—were outstanding hits, performed many hundreds of times by the end of the century, and enduring into the 19th. He had enduring relationships with the principal licensed theaters of Paris: fifteen of his works were recitative operas for the Académie Royale de Musique; the remainder were produced for the Opéra Comique (frequently known also as the Comédie Italienne during Grétry’s career), mixing spoken dialogue with musical numbers. Although never formally dependent on aristocratic favor, he enjoyed warm relations with the court, and his music was particularly appreciated and promoted by Marie Antoinette. His productivity and prestige did not much diminish with the Revolution, but his creative vigor eventually gave out, and he retired from composition in 1803; his funeral in Paris in 1813 was on an enormous scale, generating spontaneous and prolonged public mourning. Grétry consistently argued that the operatic composer should be at the service of his text, setting aside personal ambition in order to facilitate communication of sentiment; as a result, he put intense effort into word setting, hoping to match his music to the infinite variety of human character. Grétry collaborated with a number of able and prestigious librettists, most frequently Jean-François Marmontel and Michel-Jean Sedaine, who worked to expand the sentimental possibilities of opéra-comique. Yet, Grétry was repeatedly praised for contributing music that raised occasionally mundane words to a new level of expressive directness: it was during his career that an opera became regarded as the work of a composer, rather than a writer. Avoiding patronage, and reliant on the vagaries of the market, Grétry represents an emergent stage in the evolution of the professional musician. He is now recognized as a pioneer in the use of meaningful recurring motifs, and in the increasing importance of overtures, but he was more notable for his intense connection with his public, evident especially in his gift for pleasing and memorable melody than for any objective innovations in compositional technique. The unassuming qualities of his music could account for its eclipse from the operatic repertoire after the first third of the 19th century, and the subsequent lack of scholarly attention.

Reference Works

Although Grétry earns a mention, generally brief, in almost all respectable musical-reference works, nothing comes close in reliability or scope to Charlton and Bartlet 2001, put together by the two leading scholars of Grétry and his period. Other comparable works offer little in terms of diversity of tone or approach from this, since almost all general accounts of Grétry are based heavily on his Mémoires (see Writings). As such, it is instructive also to look at a number of sources closer in date to Grétry’s own, such as Ginguené 1791 and Fétis 1837. The period after Grétry’s death saw the compilation of a large number of biographical dictionaries and similar reference works: although these are often wayward in fact and subjective in opinion, they can provide a more colorful understanding of how Grétry was regarded by his contemporaries. The guides to primary sources in Lenoir 1989 and Lenoir 1991 have no French equivalent, but it is unlikely that there is any rich source of specifically relevant primary materials, outside of the collections in Brussels and Liège.

  • Charlton, David, and M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet. “Grétry, André-Ernest-Modeste.” In Grove Music Online. 2001.

    The most complete and up-to-date source. The work list, in particular, is by far the most comprehensive, including such scattered non-operatic works as can be identified. It has not been superseded by subsequent discoveries.

  • Fétis, François-Joseph. “Grétry (André-Ernest-Modeste).” In Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique. Vol. 4, Ea–Gy. Edited by François-Joseph Fétis, 409–418. Brussels: Didot, 1837.

    Fétis was a critic and commentator of great prestige and insight and, as a compatriot of Grétry, regarded him with special concern. His monumental Biographie is the source of a number of minor factual errors but is an acute summation of the composer’s reputation.

  • Ginguené, Pierre-Louis. “France.” In Encyclopédie méthodique musique. Vol. 1, A–G. Edited by Nicolas-Étienne Framery, Pierre-Louis Ginguené, and Abbe Feytou, 621–622. Paris: Panckoucke, 1791.

    This article contain repeated allusions to Grétry. They are highly subjective in style, and Momigny’s articles in particular are marked by an evident hostility to Grétry. Nonetheless, their authors had direct personal experience of their subject, and their articles at least offer a valuable insight into the way music was discussed by Grétry’s contemporaries.

  • Lenoir, Yves, ed. Documents Grétry dans les collections de la Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier. Brussels: Bibliothèque Royale, 1989.

    An invaluable guide, containing some annotation and a number of plates, to the rich collections of the Brussels library. Also includes iconography and a discography.

  • Lenoir, Yves, ed. Lettres autographes conservées à la Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier. Brussels: Bibliothèque Royale, 1991.

    There are only seventeen letters in this collection, most already published, but they are carefully annotated and are reproduced in plate form.

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