Courtesy of the Cornell University Department of Music

March 23, 2022

Styles Clash and Combine at ‘The Pleasures of the Quarrel’

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I’m sure everyone can relate to the experience of fighting about music with friends, desperately trying to prove that their tastes are the best. I know I’ve had to convince lots of my friends to become Swifties, or to give classical music a chance (I play violin and am a member of the Cornell Chamber Orchestra, so I’ve had lots of practice defending classical music). As it turns out, this is not actually a unique experience to our generation: supporters of the serious French opera and comedic Italian opera had similar disputes in 1753 at the Paris Opera.

The Quarrel of the Comic Actors was a battle of musical philosophies in Paris that took place between 1752 and 1754, with those favoring French opera on the King’s side, and those favoring Italian on the Queen’s. Only French opera sung in French was performed at the Paris Opera until 1752, but the public was curious about what was happening in Italy, where both comic and serious opera were being performed. The Paris Opera invited an Italian troupe to come perform short, comedic works with a more contemporary cast; the troupe was so successful that it stayed for two years and got people arguing about the two different styles. 

“The Pleasures of the Quarrel,” a mash-up of three operas from 1753, will debut at Bailey Hall on Sunday, March 27 at 3:00 p.m. The performance was curated by Prof Rebecca Harris-Warrick, music, who was intrigued by the quarrel and thought it would be “interesting to try to recreate the ambience of the time” by giving an example of each type of opera. “The goal is to try to make the people in the auditorium feel both that they’re in Bailey Hall, and they’re being transported back to 1753,” she said. “And when they’re in their 1753 reality, we want to make them feel like they’re rooting for one of these two sides.”

The project is a collaboration between the New York Baroque Dance Company, which specializes in reconstructed dances choreographed in period style, and the Cornell Chamber Orchestra. As Harris-Warrick recounted, “I wanted this to have student involvement so that they would benefit from exposure to new musical styles and the experience of playing for an opera. I didn’t want to just bring in a professional performance. I wanted to have a teaching element in the project.”

As a violinist in the Cornell Chamber Orchestra, I can say that this project is nothing like what we have done before: it is better. As violinist Kay McIlhenny ’25 said, “the opera pieces are unique because this time, we’ll be part of a much larger scale performance with so many different things going on at the same time.”

It is not lost on me that most people my age think classical music is boring. In the age of TikTok, countless members of Gen Z are used to scrolling through videos that are less than a minute long, so it has become harder to pay attention to something like a Tchaikovsky symphony which can last for over an hour. Today’s top hits are getting shorter and shorter, and songs usually under four minutes are replacing classics like Don McLean’s “American Pie,” lasting eight minutes and 37 seconds, and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” lasting seven minutes and 55 seconds. In fact, most of the longest songs in Billboard history have lasted around six minutes, with Taylor Swift’s ten-minute version of “All Too Well” breaking the record held since 1972 of the songs with the longest runtime, hitting number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

Suffice to say, it’s easy — and sad — to see that classical music is not in its prime, but it is not a dying art form. As McIlhenny puts it, “there is still so much to learn from classical music and there are still people who study it, listen to it and play it for leisure too. I just think that it may be not as accessible to some as the music that’s popular today, but only because there’s less exposure to it outside of the classical community.” 

“The Pleasures of the Quarrel” thus provides a perfect opportunity to share classical music with a broader community, breaking down its rigid rules of etiquette, making it more accessible and entertaining and reviving it for the public’s enjoyment. According to Harris-Warrick, “in order to make the performance more accessible, director Catherine Turocy added little spoken scenes where the singers are acting and which provide a way of understanding for people who walk in and don’t know anything about what’s going on.”

The first opera in the project, Titon et l’Aurore by Jean-Joseph de Mondonville, was promoted for its traditional French operatic values. The scene performed in this project comes from the prologue and features Prometheus, defying the gods by stealing fire from the heavens and bringing humans to life, and the god of Love, who ensures that the new humans will enjoy life. 

The second opera is Il Giocatore by Giovanni Maria Orlandi and Pietro Auletta, which at the time was the most performed comic intermezzo in Italian. The story concerns Baccocco and Serpilla, who are arguing about Baccocco’s gambling problem. Serpilla wants a divorce until she remembers the love they used to have.

The final opera, Les Troqueurs by Antoine Dauvergne, was performed at the Opéra Comique (a rival theater to the Paris Opera) at the height of the Quarrel of the Buffoons. The theater took advantage of the argument by passing off Dauvergne’s opera as an Italian intermezzo that just happened to have French text. According to Harris-Warrick, it was quickly revealed that the composer of Les Troqueurs was actually French, and the work was a big success. This opera explores the story of Lubin, who is questioning his choice to marry Margot and wondering if Fanchon, his friend Lucas’s fiancée, is more his type. Lucas and Lubin swap, and the two women just pretend to go along with it. The ballet that follows seamlessly blends French and Italian styles, demonstrating that sometimes things that seem to oppose each other actually go together perfectly.

Like the seamless blend of the seemingly opposite French and Italian styles in the conclusion of the work, maybe Gen Z and classical music are meant to go together too. For those who are interested in getting more into classical music, Harris-Warrick encourages everyone to “take courses in the music department. You can also go to the Music Library’s website under Streaming Audio and Video to access all kinds of recordings including the Metropolitan Opera for free, and check out The New York Times’s ‘5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Opera.’” Classical music is not just for the elite or intellectual — it is for everyone, and I truly believe that everyone would enjoy it if given the right experience.

“This has been a tough several years, so I’ve been planning this to bring people back together, and have them be really happy to be in the same place together, and having a good time smiling and laughing,” Harris-Warrick went on to say. “That’s what I want.” Classical music is rarely just hours of sitting in the audience listening to notes and chords that all sound the same, trying not to fall asleep. Sometimes, it’s reconstructed, exciting, interactive and stimulating. “The Pleasures of the Quarrel” are indeed – I encourage everyone to give it a try.

Freya Nangle is a Freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]