The “Querelle des Bouffons” ("Quarrel of the Comic Actors") was a cultural war over the comparative merits of French and Italian opera styles. It was divided into two camps; the supporters of Italian music known as the coin de la reine, and the partisans of French music known as the coin du roi. However the querrelle had political and social implications with supporters of the royal establishment championing French opera, they saw as being forged on the principles of French classicism and absolutist ideology, while proponents of Enlightenment saw in Italian opera a vehicle for subversive attacks on that establishment. It may have started over different issues, but the ancien régime was, like before, at the heart of the conflict (Higgins, 2012).
Eustachio Bambini’s troupe of bouffons that performed opere buffe was formed in Milan in 1745, where the foundations of the future Paris repertory were already being formed. Bambini’s troupe had performed in Turin, Mantua, Venice and Munich finding its way Strasbourg in 1749. Whilst in Strasbourg Bambini signed an agreement to go to Rouen, France (Charlton, 2014, pp. 41).
Bambini’s troupe were eventually invited to perform in Paris in the summer of 1752. On August 1st 1752 their performance of La Serva padrona was staged at the Académie royale de musique before an elite audience (Higgins, 2012). This singular performance led to a two-year argument that opposed the most brilliant minds and was the spark that ignited the Querelle (Walker, 2013).
Pergolesi and La Serva padrona
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was a favourite of the French audience and his work La Serva padrona placed the composer at the heart of this dispute (Walker, 2013). Pergolesi’s favouritism is supported by Lazarevich who identified that ‘six out of the fourteen compositions performed during the Italian Season in Paris contained music by Pergolesi’ (Lazarevich, 1988, pp. 202).
La serva padrona was an intermezzo presented between acts of a serious opera. It was superb in its genre and because of this it became both a catalyst and a weapon in the war against the coin du roi. The fact that Geneva born French encyclopédiste and musician Jean-Jacques Rousseau could use it to oppose French opera was in itself a compliment of the highest order, and if the Italians had won that particular battle, then the Querelle was a confirmation of Pergolesi’s talent (Thuleen, 1991).
Intermezzo, Opera buffa and tragédie lyrique
The precursor to the opera buffa which arose in the late seventeenth century in Italy was the musical drama known as the intermezzo. This was a short piece, usually only one act long, which was produced between the acts of a longer more serious opera (Naxos, 2014).
Pergolesi's La serva padrona (1733) was typical of the later intermezzi and exhibited aspects that were to eventually become standard in the opera buffa. The term opera buffa began to be used around 1740 mostly to pieces that were not opera...