Music and Letters 87.1 (2006) 113-115
Nicolas-Etienne Framery (1745-1810) lived and worked through a turbulent period in French history and French music—the latter, for most authors of the time, indistinguishable from operatic music. Framery may seem a less obvious target for a detailed literary study than certain of his contemporaries, such as Sedaine and Marmontel, but he had aspirations to compose as well as write and adapt librettos. Mark Darlow reminds us that he occupied, in a somewhat shadowy fashion (and with no known salary) the role of 'surintendant de la musique' for the Comte d'Artois (the future Charles X). As with other provincials in Paris, Framery's artistic aspirations went hand in hand with a desire for worldly advancement (he was, as Darlow puts it with perhaps needless caution, 'far from devoid of social ambition' (p. 28)); but he was politically indifferent, or astute, enough to survive the Revolution and play a role in the Institut de France under the Empire.
By that time, compositional ambitions had long been abandoned. Even early in his career, Framery's involvement with opera, mainly opéra comique, was mostly literary; and eventually it became more theoretical than practical, as producing new librettos, and translating and adapting existing ones, gave way to critical and theoretical writing. The trajectory of his career is epitomized by two prize-winning works: in his twenties, for the 'Académie des palinods' at Rouen, he was awarded the prize for an original ode on a religious topic; in 1802, for the Institut de France, he won a prize for his austere Discours, still clinging to the tired concept of the 'période', on the association of declamation and melody.
Darlow has done a thorough job in excavating information about Framery and assessing his contribution to letters and to opera, providing a rounded view of his work and its context. A natural partiality inclines him to rate Framery's contribution rather more highly than usual, rejecting the suggestion that he was marginal within French musical and literary culture. But there is something paradoxical about him reflected in Darlow's first main chapter heading, 'Reluctant Modernist'. If he was part of any advanced movement, it was that which favoured the development of French music through its Italianization. Although this could be construed as modernization, it was a project launched even before the Querelle des Bouffons, and associated with more senior philosophes writing when Framery was a child.
Framery's contributions to opéra comique show him as well able to swim with prevailing currents, including the Diderot-inspired movement to develop sentiment within comic opera. But while it is right to say that 'Framery's librettos are indicators of the development of sensibility' (p. 49), this statement does not seem entirely consistent with the assertion, on the following page, that they were 'fundamental to the development of the comic genre . . . after 1762'. Framery admittedly accomplished most when 'freed of the obligation of starting work from scratch' (p. 215), and I doubt whether the history of opéra comique would have been noticeably different without him. That, however, does not invalidate the present enterprise, all the more useful for concentrating on a typical, rather than an eccentric, figure.
Rather than a chronological approach, which could have been confusing when his subject engaged in such diverse activities, Darlow devotes chapters to Framery's involvement with French operas, then to parody of Italian works 'as cultural translation', and to the Italian composers with whose work Framery was involved. There follow studies of his work as journalist, journal editor, and critic, of his activity in cultural administration, and finally of his late contribution to music theory. Framery was no Gluckist, and his hostility to Gluck continues to resound in the Encyclopédie méthodique, which would have taken a different slant had it remained in the hands of the original editors, Arnaud and Suard. But nor was he a Piccinniste; he had...