A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Noverre, Jean
NOVERRE, Jean Georges, born in Paris, April 29, 1727. His father, who had formerly served under Charles XII, intended him for the army, but his love of dancing and the theatre were invincible, and he became the great authority on dancing, and the reformer of the French ballet. A pupil of the celebrated dancer Dupré, he made his début before the court at Fontainebleau in 1743, but apparently without success, as we find him soon afterwards well received at Berlin. In 1747 he returned to Paris, and composed several ballets for the Opéra Comique, the success of which aroused so much jealousy as to induce him to accept Garrick's invitation to London in 1755. There he spent two years, profiting in more ways than one, as may be seen by the more extended knowledge and more elevated imagination of his ballets of that date. He returned to Paris hoping for the appointment of ballet-master to the Académie, but failing this, he accepted a lucrative engagement at the large theatre of Lyons. Here, in conjunction with Granier, he produced three ballets (1758 and 59) of which the scenarios were printed. Here also he published his 'Lettres sur la Danse et les Ballets' (1760, 1 vol. 8vo), which attracted general notice, and greatly increased his reputation. Remaining still without a summons to Paris, he found a patron in the Duke of Wirtemberg, for whom he composed no less than twenty divertissements and ballets pantomimes. The Empress Maria Theresa next summoned him to Vienna, as director of the court-fêtes, and dancing-master to the Imperial family; and here again he composed a dozen ballets for the court theatre, the scenarios of which were printed separately. On the marriage of Archduke Ferdinand, Noverre received the order of Christ, and permission to take part in the wedding fêtes at Milan, when he produced several new ballets, afterwards given in Vienna.
On his return to Paris in 1775, Noverre obtained, through his former pupil Marie Antoinette, now Queen of France, the long-coveted post of 'Maître des ballets en chef' at the Académie. In addition to revivals of earlier works he composed specially for the Opéra 'Les Caprices de Galathée' (Sept. 30, 1776); 'Annette et Lubin' (June 9, 1778); 'Les petits Riens' (June 11, 1778), for which Mozart wrote twelve pieces; and 'Médée' (Jan. 30, 1780). He also arranged the divertissements of several operas by Gluck and Piccinni. On the outbreak of the Revolution he fled to London, and there produced two of his best ballets, 'Les Noces de Thétis' and 'Iphigénie en Aulide.' After so successful a career he was justified in looking forward to an old age of affluence, but during the Revolution he lost the savings of 50 years and was reduced to poverty, which he bore with dignity and resignation. His death took place at St. Germain en Laye in 1810, in the end of October, according to Choron and Fayolle, on Nov. 19, according to Fétis. Some give 1807, but that is apparently a mistake.
Noverre several times remodelled his standard work. An edition published at St. Petersburg (1803–4) 'Lettres sur la Danse, sur les Ballets et les Arts,' 4 vols., scarce, and apparently unknown to Fétis, contains analyses of numerous ballets. The best-known is the Paris edition of 1807, 'Lettres sur les Arts imitateurs en général, et sur la Danse en particulier,' 2 vols., with portrait engraved by Roger after Guerin, and the following lines by Imbert:—
Da feu de son génie il anima la danse:
Aux beaux jours de la Grèce il sut la rappeler;
Et, recouvrant par lui leur antique éloquence,
Les gestes et les pas apprirent à parler
which give a good summary of what Noverre effected. He invented the ballet d'action, reformed the costume of the dancers, abolished routine in favour of taste, compelled composers to conform their music to the situations in the drama and the sentiments of the characters, and succeeded in making the pantomime appeal to the intellect as well as to the eye.Among Noverre's writings may be specified 'Observations sur la construction d'une nouvelle Salle de l'Opéra' (Amsterdam, 1787); and 'Lettres à un artiste sur les fêtes publiques' (Year IX.). The MS. notes of an eminent bibliophile allude to another, 'Théorie et pratique de la Danse en général,' which seems not to have been printed, and was doubtless intended for the 'Dictionnaire de la Danse,' projected by Noverre, but not finished.
[ G. C. ]