Grétry was born in Liège on February 8, 1741, the son of a poor musician. He served as a choir boy at Saint-Denis , and at the age of 12 became a pupil of Leclerc. Grértry determined to study Italian opera after being bnspired by the works of Galuppi and Pergolesi. At 18, he composed a mass which he dedicated to the canons of the cathedral at Lièges. Canon Hurley funded Grétry’s move to Italy, where he studied under Casali atRome’s Collège de Liège for five years and achieved his first success with an Italian intermezzo, La Venedemmiatrice, at the Aliberti Theatre in Rome.
In 1767, Grétry decided to devote himself to the French opera comique, and accordingly moved to Paris . For two years the composer languished in poverty and obscurity, until his friend, the Swedish ambassador Count Creutz, helped him to acquire a libretto from Marmontel. Grétry set Le Huron to music in under six weeks, and upon its premiere in August 1768, it was a hit.
He followed it with two more hits – Lucile and Le Tableau parlant – and his stature in the world of French opera was established.
Over his long career, Grétry composed over fifty operas, the best-known of which are Zémire et Azor – Beauty and the Beast – in 1771 and Richard Coer de Lion in 1784. Zemire et Azor was reportedly a favorite of Mozart’s, who heard it while working on The Magic Flute.
Marie Antoinette appointed Grétry music director of Louis XVI’s court, and the composer lost much of his property during the Revolution. Nevertheless, he managed to rise above – or successfully navigate – the politics of the time and each of ’s successive governments vied for his favor. The old court showered him with rewards and distinctions, the republic made him an inspector of the conservatoire and Napoleon granted him the cross of the legion of honor and a pension.
The composer died at the Hermitage in Montmorency on September 24, 1813. Fifteen years later, his heart was transferred to his birthplace and in 1842, a bronze statue of Grétry was erected in Liège.