Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Jean-Jacques Rousseau
264 years ago today, on October 18, 1752, France would bear witness to what may be arguably described as a Prelude to a Musical Revolution. It would begin at the royal court of King Louis XV of France – it’s chief instigator, the esteemed Swiss-born philosopher and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His arme de choix: a pandering, self authored pamphlet “Lettre sur la Musique Française” - a churlish treatise against the music of France (of which he contested was in poorly scant supply of anything revelatory), and of it’s musical future (of which he insisted would never come into existence) - not withstanding the “unfit” nature of the French language itself, which the emerging musician found most uncouth for distinguished ears.

How odd then, it must have appeared to the King, and later, to the French public, to have been introduced on that fateful autumn day to “Le Devin du Village”* an opera performed in French, and written in French by one of the nations most vocal adversaries, Rousseau himself. 

The introduction of Le Devin marked a turning point for 18th century musical France, a nation already in conteste with Italy – chiefly with it’s infiltration on national operatic culture and customs. Reigning King of the tragédie lyrique (the preferred form of musical stage drama for the French), Jean-Philippe Rameau, with his soul-wrenching oeuvre, was made to bear witness to the injection of the customs of the Italians, in the form of Italian burlettas (intermezzi) – light comic relief, performed in the Italian tongue, to balance out the serious nature of French libretti.

French king Louis XV was an early
supporter of Rousseau's composing
endeavors. He famously offered (and
was refused) life-long patronage of the
Results were immediate, and public reaction was as hotly divided as it was swift: French opera connoisseurs split into two sects: those who favored the change, and those who rallied against it – sometimes though violence. The public, it seemed, had no choice but to endure the makings of a revolution: the Italian company responsible for the musical interjection had officially received permission in 1752 to use what wiles they possessed to attempt to integrate the two very different formats. 

The answer to the question of the philosopher-cum-composer's true musical allegiance that must have plagued members of Louis' royal court would soon be revealed: Rousseau, in a most ingenious fashion (and undeniably spurned on by a raging competitive spirit following the successful run of young Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s comic opera La Serva Padrona – an Italian opera, by an Italian composer, performed by a visiting Italian troupe no less - which had held its premiere in Paris just two months prior to Le Devin’s premiere at Fontainebleau) would present his latest work as a sort of hybrid: designed and touted as an opera for the French, Le Devin would incorporate facets of the Italian opera buffa throughout – most notably in the use of recitative, and in it’s Overture, which employed the Italian style of fast, slow, fast in it's sections. The pandering to French interests on behalf of the composer would be further emphasized by the press, who were quick to point out that the libretto for the opera, written in the country’s native tongue, held the distinction of being the first operatic text to have been written by the composer of the same work. Almost immediately following Le Devin's public premiere, Rousseau's most important musical ally, Jean-Philippe Rameau - who was presently the undisputed king of opera in France - would turn into a rival. Compounding the matter was the fact that, according to Rameau - who had previously corresponded on a semi-frequent basis with the Swiss composer - Rousseau had once expressed through his letters to the Frenchman a showing of espousal to French traditions. The production, then, of Le Devin, using popular Italian styles was undoubtedly viewed by Rameau as the ultimate betrayal. It seemed Rousseau was making enemies in high places.

Public fallout - albeit temporarily - would quickly follow.

Overture of Le Devin, in the Italian Style: Allegro, Lent et gai, Allegro 

Rousseau may have thought his machinations infallible - soon however, just as we have seen in the fractured relationship between the two former allies, the operatic newcomer Rousseau’s ‘allegiance’ became inevitably blurred in the eyes and ears of the Parisian melophiles.

So heated was the public divide, it has been recorded by contemporary historians in the time of Rousseau that his own orchestra detested not only their maestro’s views on their countrymen, which they considered an attack on France itself – but also, of the composer’s rampant hypocrisy. It is said following a performance of Le Devin, the musicians took to the theater lobby, erecting hastily fashioned gallows, whereupon they proceeded to “burn” the composer in effigy!

The periodical “The Athenaeum Journal of Nature, Science, and the Fine Arts" payed homage to the event in the coming century by running a detail describing the vitriolic occasion (as originally recorded by the 18th century Belgian-turned-French composer André Grétry):

"In how severe a strife "Le Devin" was nurtured we may judge from the circumstance of the French orchestral players conspiring - so Gretry tells us - to hang Jean Jacques in effigy. "Well," replied the Swiss, "I don't wonder they should hang me now, after having so long put me to the torture." But the fiddlers built their gallows in vain..."
-pp. 455

Curiously, as the tempest between the public sects began to simmer, Le Devin would go on to become one of the most frequented and adored operas of it’s time, and even earned an honor from the King himself: Louis XV reportedly offered to the Swiss import a life-long pension: an honor highly prized amongst so many gifted composers past, most of whom spent entire lifetimes (often in vain) pandering to noble and royal patrons for the same endowment. Rousseau is said to have refused the honor - he still made a handsome profit from subsequent performances of the work, however: Le Devin would reach infamy status when it was performed at the royal nuptials of the future king, Louis XV’s grandson, Louis XVI to the ill-fated Marie Antoinette. Even the Salzburg wunderkind, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, would reference Rousseau's magnum opus in 1768 in his early singspiel Bastien und Bastienne. [2] Later composers of note in the many years that followed would also pay tribute: German phenomenon Ludwig van Beethoven, like Mozart before him, drew inspiration from Rousseau's pièce de résistance by rearranging the duet "Non, Colette n'est point trompeuse" from the fourth scene of Le Devin, which he would include in his Aus den Liedern verschiedener Völker (Songs of Various Nationalities) in the early 19th century.

In just under two years spent delighting (and enraging) audiences in France, public clamor began to settle. The formerly righteous became complacent, and, just as hastily as they had arrived on France, the Italians took swift leave from the country in 1754, much to the delight of the French public, which celebrated the exodus with a production of maestro Rameau’s delectable Castor et Pollux.

An air so fair, it is worth a second share: the stunningly gorgeous
Tristes apprêts, Pâles flambeaux performed by French soprano Agnès
Mellon, from Jean Philippe Rameau’s Castor et Pollux

A diarist writing at the time described the shift with a modicum of incredulity:
“Who would have thought, after eighteen months of such marked eagerness for this entertainment, the lot of the Bouffons[2] was decided, and that they would be naturalized in France?...If our rage for a thing is strong, happily it is not lasting. Levity misleads us, but reason brings us back…”
as the writer surmises reasons for the collapse, he continues:
“…the monotony of the scene; the shame of not knowing the language, which people were too indolent to learn; love of novelty; want of opposition; - all conquered to produce indifference, and enthusiasm was succeeded by ennui. Such is our character in respect to amusements: we value a plaything only so long as our possession of it is disputed: let us have it without opposition, and we care no more about it.”
A testament for the ages, indeed.

Enjoy below Colette’s most beloved aria "J'ai perdu tout mon Bonheur," from Scene I of Le Devin Du Village. Sung by soprano Gabriela Bürgler:

[1]From "Querelle des Bouffons" (The Quarrel of the Comic Actors - i.e. Buffoons) the colloquial name given to the warring musical philosophies of French and Italian opera. Also said to have been used as a pejorative ("Buffoons") by those in favor of French tradition.
[2]Albeit indirectly: the French librettist Charles Favart had parodied Le Devin, which in turn was later translated into German, which in turn was later set to music by Mozart.
*"The Village Soothsayer" (Fortune Teller).
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1 comment:

  1. classical_music_fan20 October 2016 at 16:15

    This is gold! I had no idea so many philosophers were composers (or authors) until I started reading your blog. Another great article Rose! You're really on a roll!!