Opera in France

views updated

Opera in France

From Italy to France.

During the first half of the seventeenth century conditions in France improved after the violence that had been widespread in the country during the French Wars of Religion (1562–1698). A tentative stability returned to the country, and the state's economy and its political and cultural institutions revived. Under the control of powerful ministers like Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Mazarin, and Jean Baptiste Colbert, France's royal government played a key role in administering the country's economy and in shaping developments in the arts. Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) had been a particularly vigorous supporter of the development of French drama, but his successor Cardinal Mazarin was Italian-born and nourished Italian art forms at the French court, a controversial policy that did little to endear him to many of the French nobility. Between 1645 and his death in 1661, he commissioned Italian troupes to stage a number of operas at the French court. Mazarin had been named chief minister of France just before the death of Louis XIII in 1643, and during the long minority of Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715) he played a vital role in shaping French state policies. Mazarin raised money for his elaborate productions of Italian operas by means of new taxes, and this did little to promote a love of Italian opera among the French. During the series of rebellions known as the Fronde, Mazarin's support of Italian opera was widely criticized in Paris as one cause of the state's fiscal weakness, and for a time, the Cardinal, the Queen Mother, and Louis XIV were forced from the capital into exile. Mazarin's Italian artists, including many who had participated in the operas staged at court, were also threatened with imprisonment, and many fled Paris. Eventually, Mazarin succeeded in quelling the Fronde, and as he returned to a position of security, he continued to nourish the development of opera in Paris. Yet while his efforts to support the new art form continued until his death in 1661, they were always controversial. While some admired the music of the new Italian art form, many rejected it because its conventions ran counter to the styles of performances that were then fashionable in the French aristocratic society. The French court already enjoyed drama, particularly elevated tragedies of the kind that Pierre Corneille (1606–1684) was writing at the time. A popular song form of this era in French court production was the air de cour. These airs were written in verses or strophes, and used a lute or another instrument as accompaniment. Airs de cour figured commonly in France's most elaborate court entertainment, the ballet de cour, a lavish spectacle that mixed dancing, poetry, and music to present loose narratives drawn from antique legends and myth. These ballets featured elaborate costumes and sets that made use of the most up-to-date theatrical machinery of the time. Their music and choreography was highly developed by the early years of Louis XIV's reign, and the king himself and many of his nobles danced in these productions. Louis XIV grew up to be an excellent dancer, and he enjoyed his roles on stage. His title of the "Sun King" developed, in fact, from the role he played as Apollo, the Sun God, in the 1653 production of the Ballet de la nuit (The Ballet of the Night).

Characteristics of the Early Opera in France.

Since the late sixteenth century ballet had been a central preoccupation of the French court, and so it is not surprising to see that the earliest productions of Italian operas Mazarin patronized included a more notable role for dancing than had been the case in Italy. Three-act Italian operas were stretched to five to make room for generous interludes of dancing between the acts. In his efforts to try to nourish the development of the genre in Paris, Mazarin also imported several set designers and theatrical architects, and he spent enormous sums on stage machinery to produce spectacles he hoped might capture the imagination of the French court. As his power grew during the 1650s, he spent ever more lavishly on his efforts to promote Italian opera in France. Shortly before his death in 1661, Mazarin secured the services of Francesco Cavalli, then Venice's greatest composer of operas, to write an opera to commemorate the marriage of Louis XIV to the Spanish princess. Cavalli came to Paris for two years, and Mazarin brought the Italian stage designer Gaspare Vigarini to Paris to build an elaborate theatre with the most up-to-date stage machinery. But neither the theater nor Cavalli's opera was completed in time to celebrate the king's marriage. Another of Cavalli's Venetian operas was substituted at the last minute, and was performed in a makeshift hall in the Palace of the Louvre. When two years later both the new theater and Cavalli's commission, Ercole amante, were completed, Cardinal Mazarin was already dead, and little interest seems to have existed in the production of the work. Ercole was staged nonetheless because enormous sums had already been laid out for its production. Performed in Cardinal Mazarin's vast new theater, the Italians complained that Vigarini's stage machinery had been tampered with, while the audience found the theater's acoustics wanting and were unable to hear the music. The focal point of the lavish production was its ballets, staged by Jean-Baptiste Lully, a rising star in the French court. Together with Cavalli's musical drama, the production of Ercole amante lasted more than six hours, and those who commented upon it at the time focused more attention on the work's dances than they did on its drama. The work thus proved to be the last of the Italian operas staged in France. Francesco Cavalli returned to Italy, resolved never more to write for the theater, a resolution he soon broke upon his return to Venice. In Paris, the experience seems, too, to have soured French composers from any more experiments with the genre. It would not be for another decade that the king's composer and musical superintendent, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687) turned to compose opera, and although an Italian by birth, Lully was to mold the original Italian art form to suit French tastes.


introduction: Jean-Baptiste Lully was one of the most prolific composers of the seventeenth century. His many operas defined the art long after his death, with later composers often defending their creations by recourse to Lully's example. In this excerpt from Sir John Hawkins A General History of the Science of Music (1776), the author related this comic anecdote about Lully, theatrical to the very end, and the fate of one of his creations.

A story is related of a conversation between Lully and his confessor in his last illness, which proves the archness of the one, and the folly of the other, to this purpose: for some years before the accident that occasioned his illness, Lully had been closely engaged in composing for the opera; the priest took occasion from hence to insinuate, that unless, as a testimony of his sincere repentance for all the errors of his past life he would throw the last of his compositions into the fire, he must expect no absolution. Lully at first would have excused himself, but after some opposition he acquiesced; and pointing to a drawer wherein the draft of Achilles and Polixene lay, it was taken out and burnt, and the confessor went away satisfied. Lully grew better, and was thought to be out of danger. One of the young princes, who loved Lully and his works, came to see him; and "What, Baptiste," says he to him, "have you thrown your opera into the fire? You were a fool for giving credit thus to a dreaming Jansenist, and burning good music." "Hush, hush, my Lord," answered Lully in a whisper, "I knew very well what I was about, I have a fair copy of it." Unhappily this ill-timed pleasure was followed by a relapse.

source: Sir John Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music. Vol. 2. (1776; reprint, with an introduction by Charles Cudworth, New York: Dover, 1963): 648.

Lully's Opera.

Although Lully had originally been born and raised in Italy, he had come to France early in life to serve as a dancer and violinist in the home of a relative of the king. Lully had been forced to flee Paris in 1652 during the Fronde, but when he returned his reputation grew, and he was soon given a position at court. During the 1650s he choreographed and wrote music for the ballets de cour and on occasion even danced beside the king. By 1661, he had been appointed superintendent of the court's music and a court composer. Other honors followed, but in the years immediately following Mazarin's death and the ill-fated productions of Cavalli's operas at Paris, Lully dedicated himself largely to providing light entertainments for the court. Until 1671, he collaborated with the great French playwright Molière on a number of comedy ballets, a French genre that mixed dialogue, dance, and song. In 1672, Lully purchased a royal monopoly to produce operas in Paris, and he founded the Royal Academy of Music, an institution that became known over the next century merely as the Opera, and which until the French Revolution possessed the sole right to produce French operas in Paris. Over the next fifteen years, Lully produced a series of beautiful operas that molded the Italian form to native French traditions of drama, music, and dance. His works came at a time when the tone of the French court was growing more serious, as Louis XIX abandoned his youthful frivolity under the influence of his pious second wife, Madame de Maintenon. Lully developed a style of recitative that adapted its Italian features to the traditions of French theater and drama. His solo songs resembled the airs de cour that had been popular in the ballets de cours. His operas featured ornate costumes, sets, and stage machinery, as well as many ballets and other dances. Most of them told stories based on mythological subjects, as can be seen in the titles of such works as Proserpine, Psyché, and Alceste. Others were based on medieval and Renaissance courtly romances, such as Roland and Amadis. They used a five-act format, a style derived from Aristotle's discussion of the ideal dramatic form. In contrast to the many plots and subplots typical of Italian dramma per musica of the time, Lully chose his librettos carefully, favoring works by the accomplished French poet Philippe Quinault. The productions he mounted were tragedies that conformed to the French canons of dramatic performance outlined in the laws of the unities. These rules were derived from sixteenth-century French humanist interpretations of Aristotle and had been established as canonical in the spoken tragedies favored by the Académie Française since the 1630s. These rules stipulated that all action in a drama should be confined to treating a single plot that occurred in one place and time. Like French tragedies of the seventeenth century, Lully's operas were thus conceived of as edifying and morally uplifting dramas, although many of their heroes referred in some way to Louis XIV, and thus served a role as royal propaganda. Lully also developed the form for the overture that introduced and began the opera. By the time of his death in 1687, the great composer's considerable operatic production had left France with a set of works that was largely to be considered "canonical" over the course of the next hundred years.

French Opera after Lully.

Lully's monopoly on opera production during his lifetime kept rivals at bay, and kept Paris as France's operatic center. After his death, several composers carried on Lully's traditions. Chief among his immediate successors was Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704), a composer who slipped into a centuries-long obscurity soon after his death. Charpentier's works have recently been revived, studied, and performed. His Medée has now been restored to its rightful place as a masterpiece of the French genre. Influenced by Lully's pattern of composition, Charpentier's Medée and two other operas he wrote for the Royal Academy have been seen as having their own individual voice, and providing a rich font of compositional invention. As in Lully's time, most of the plots of French opera still came from Greco-Roman Antiquity, though some were based on tales from medieval or contemporary literature and the Bible. In their emphasis on classical themes and on the avoidance of subplots, Lully and his successors' works influenced the Arcadian reforms that were underway in Italy in the years around 1700. Those efforts, centered in the Arcadian Academy of Rome, argued for a reform of Italian opera to remove subplots, comedy, and other crowd-pleasing innovations that aesthetic theorists judged were not in keeping with the serious moral tone they argued should pervade the genre. Although many French operas of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries displayed a fondness for tragic stories, elaborate dance and ballet were more frequently incorporated into these productions than elsewhere in Europe. At the same time other dramatic musical genres persisted, and like Lully's famous early collaborations with the playwright Molière in the production of comédie-ballets, later French composers wrote many works that combined singing, dancing, costumes, and a plot, but with lighter themes. These works, known as opéra-ballets and comédie-ballets, persisted throughout the eighteenth century.


introduction: Jean-Philippe Rameau first rose to prominence on the musical scene in France as a musical theorist, before becoming the country's greatest composer since Jean-Baptiste Lully. His operas were widely hailed as the successor to Lully's late seventeenth-century masterpieces. In his musical theory Rameau continued to outline principles that had been discussed since the Renaissance: music's foundation as the science of sound and its relationship to mathematics. The arguments built upon these principles led to his reputation as one of the most influential music theorists in the Western tradition.

However much progress music may have made until our time, it appears that the more sensitive the ear has become to the marvelous effects of this art, the less inquisitive the mind has been about its true principles. One might say that reason has lost its rights while experience has acquired a certain authority.

The surviving writings of the Ancients show us clearly that reason alone enabled them to discover most of the properties of music. Although experience still obliges us to accept the greater part of their rules, we neglect today all the advantages to be derived from the use of reason in favor of purely practical experience.

Even if experience can enlighten us concerning the different properties of music, it alone cannot lead us to discover the principle behind these properties with the precision appropriate to reason. Conclusions drawn from experience are often false, or at least leave us with doubts that only reason can dispel. How, for example, could we prove that our music is more perfect than that of the Ancients, since it no longer appears to produce the same effects they attributed to theirs? Should we answer that the more things become familiar the less they cause surprise, and that the admiration which they can originally inspire degenerates imperceptibly as we accustom ourselves to them, until what we admired becomes at last merely diverting? This would at best imply the equality of our music and not its superiority. But if through the exposition of an evident principle, from which we then draw just and certain conclusions, we can show that our music has attained the last degree of perfection and that the Ancients were far from this perfection, … we shall know where we stand. We shall better appreciate the force of the preceding claim. Knowing thus the scope of the art, we shall devote ourselves to it more willingly. Persons of taste and outstanding ability in this field will no longer fear a lack of the knowledge necessary for success. In short, the light of reason, dispelling the doubts into which experience can plunge us at any moment, will be the most certain guarantee of success that we can expect in this art.

If modern musicians (i.e., since Zarlino) had attempted to justify their practices, as did the Ancients, they would certainly have put an end to prejudices [of others] unfavor able to them; this might even have led them to give up those prejudices with which they themselves are still obsessed and of which they have great difficulty ridding themselves. Experience is too kind to them. It seduces them, so to speak, making them neglect to study the beauties which it enables them to discover daily. Their knowledge, then, is theirs alone; they do not have the gift of communicating it. Because they do not perceive this at all, they are often more astonished that others do not understand them than they are at their own inability to make themselves understood. This reproach is a bit strong, I admit, but I set it forth, deserving it perhaps myself despite all my efforts. In any case, I wish this reproach could produce on others the effect that it has had on me. It is chiefly to restore the noble emulation that once flourished that I have ventured to share with the public my new researches in an art to which I have sought to give all its natural simplicity; the mind may thus understand its properties as easily as the ear perceives them.

No one man can exhaust material as profound as this. It is almost inevitable that he will forget something, despite all his pains; but at least his new discoveries, added to those which have already appeared on the same subject, represent so many more paths cleared for those able to go further.

Music is a science which should have definite rules; these rules should be drawn from an evident principle; and this principle cannot really be known to us without the aid of mathematics. Notwithstanding all the experience I may have acquired in music from being associated with it for so long, I must confess that only with the aid of mathematics did my ideas become clear and did light replace a certain obscurity of which I was unaware before. Though I did not know how to distinguish the principle from the rules, the principle soon offered itself to me in a manner convincing in its simplicity. I then recognized that the consequences it revealed constituted so many rules following from this principle. The true sense of these rules, their proper application, their relationships, their sequence (the simplest always introducing the less simple, and so on by degrees), and finally the choice of terms: all this, I say, of which I was ignorant before, developed in my mind with clarity and precision. I could not help thinking that it would be desirable (as someone said to me one day while I was applauding the perfection of our modern music) for the knowledge of musicians of this century to equal the beauties of their compositions. It is not enough to feel the effects of a science or an art. One must also conceptualize these effects in order to render them intelligible. That is the end to which I have principally applied myself in the body of this work, which I have divided into four books.

source: Jean-Philippe Rameau, Treatise on Harmony. Trans. Philip Gossett (New York: Dover, 1971): xxxiii–xxxv.

Jean-Philippe Rameau.

While a number of competent composers continued to write for the Parisian Opera in the generation or two after Lully's death, none attracted the attention or controversy that Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) did. Rameau reinvigorated the French tradition of opera and his works helped to sustain its popularity until the later eighteenth century. The composer began writing for the stage relatively late in life, after he had already had a successful career as a music theorist. Despite his late start, he left behind an enormous opus of works in many different genres. While Lully's works for the operatic stage had been largely tragedies, and had eventually discarded all comic elements, Rameau wrote tragedies, lyric comedies, operatic ballets, and heroic pastoral dramas. His works made use of some of the by-now canonical traditions of Lully—that is, they combined brilliant poetry and delicately created recitative with dance and choruses. But Rameau employed a broader range of themes than Lully, and his work reveals a generally lighter dramatic touch. He also adopted the most popular Italian innovations of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to the French stage. Among those influences he derived from Italian opera was the use of the da capo style of aria—that is, one in which the aria followed an "ABA" organization scheme. In other regards, too, Rameau tried to blend the best of new Italian opera with French style, and he fashioned carefully composed recitatives and arias that conveyed the character's emotions. French audiences cared greatly about their opera and operatic traditions, and not everyone approved of Rameau's innovations. These included a larger and more diverse orchestra; bold, new harmonies and dissonances; expressive rhythms; and richer orchestrations than those of the generally restrained operas of Lully and his followers. A whole party of critics declared itself supporters of Lully, and rejected Rameau's new works as discordant, sentimental, and emotionally overwrought. Others praised Rameau and his new, thoughtful writing. Still others criticized any and all efforts to bring Italian styles into French music, arguing that French styles were far superior and could only be damaged by foreign imports. In this way French opera remained an arena both for great entertainment and for serious commentary and criticism about the very concept of cultural identity in France throughout the eighteenth century.


James R. Anthony, French Baroque Music: From Beaujoyeulx to Rameau (London: Batsford, 1978).

James R. Anthony, et al, eds., French Baroque Masters: Lully, Charpentier, Lalande, Couperin, Rameau (London: Macmillan, 1986).

Charles William Dill, Monstrous Opera: Rameau and the Tragic Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

Donald Jay Grout, A Short History of Opera, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965).

Michael F. Robinson, Opera Before Mozart (London: Hutchinson, 1978).

see also Dance: The Rise of the Ballet in France