How a Parisian composer’s experimental efforts resulted in a stylistic movement much closer to home.

One of history’s greatest and most notorious of culture wars was the so-called Querelle des Bouffons, which raged in Paris in the 1750s and 1760s. It was a quarrel of letters – although it is true that guards often had to be posted in the parterre of the Opéra to control the crowd when things got a bit rough – in which gossips, musicians, philosophers and wits all exchanged their views on which style was better: the French or the Italian.

The younger generation generally favoured the sexy tunefulness of the Italians, whereas an older generation emphasised a rich and proud French musical heritage in which declamation, poetry and elegant precision were valued. Meanwhile, many wondered if a new style of music might be possible, one which combined the best and most interesting elements of the two. Around 1765, one commentator remarked that “we are just beginning to realise that our opera lacks the aria phrased in the Italian manner.” He confirmed that experiments by a certain “well-known composer” were already bearing fruit and that “when we do learn how to use this [mixed]...

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