The production, promulgation, and politics of opera in France during the Enlightenment

Brown, Bruce Alan


The production, promulgation, and politics of opera in France during the Enlightenment


The musical materials in the Frédéric Louis Ritter Collection - a time capsule of historic scores and books on music that have slumbered peacefully for the better part of a century - have many stories to tell. This much one would conclude simply from the titles of the contributions to this series of colloquia, which divide the musical landscape represented in Ritter's collection into English, German, French and theoretical terrain. Another set of stories told by the materials, necessarily supplemented by a certain amount of research, would revolve around the collector himself -

or rather, around both him and his wife, Fanny Raymond Ritter, who had an ample share in his musical and professional activities. Certain of Ritter's books and scores carry inscriptions recording the time, place, and source of his acquisition of them - as in this one from his score of Rameau's opera ,
which suggests that the mother tongue of this native of Strasbourg was German rather than French, despite the form in which his name usually appears in American sources.[2]  In another score, that of Gluck's of 1774, one still finds the business card of the book dealer in Poughkeepsie from whom Ritter bought it; he had finally moved there in 1874, seven years after assuming the first professorship of music at Vassar College:


These scores' connection to Ritter's life and work emerges also from his writings. At several points in his he mentions specific scores, and notes in his "Introductory" remarks that


I never accepted any judgment, any opinion, of an important historical fact, or æsthetic appreciation of important works, that marked or prepared an era in music, until after a conscientious, careful examination, comparison, and study of the most reliable sources which were at my disposal, and most of which are in my own possession...

Ritter, History of Music in the Form of Lectures, 2 vols. (Boston: Ditson, 1870-4), 1:12.


He added that his collecting activity was necessary, given the "utter want of musical libraries and of private collections, on this continent...". Some of these very scores were no doubt also used in his and his wife's remarkable series of "historical recitals," given at both Vassar and New York beginning in 1868 or 1869,[4]  which, as Ritter explained, "we destined to serve as æsthetical illustrations of different remarkable schools and periods of musical art."[5]  French opera of the Ancien Régime was among these "remarkable schools," as one can tell from the presence of works by Lully and Rameau on their programs. Recitals per se, as a type of performance, were something of a novelty then, and all the more ones that were organized historically; in this respect the Ritters' endeavors were fully on a par with developments in European concert life.

Though limited in number, the French operatic materials in Ritter's collection provide a fairly complete picture of the main developments in both serious and comic genres. But modern editions of the same works can do the same thing; what is particularly interesting about scores, and to a lesser extent, books, is what they can tell us about the "material culture" of French opera - the ways in which it was advertised and distributed to different sectors of an ever-expanding market. Nearly every French opera that achieved some degree of success with audiences was printed and offered for sale to the public - in stark contrast to the situation in Italy, where a more rapid rotation of operatic repertory and a music publishing industry in steep decline meant that most opera scores circulated in manuscript. Many of these early scores of French operas exhibit aspects of the works that are evident, or not as prominent, in modern editions - such things as dedications, composers' signatures, publishers' catalogues, and hand-written changes or additions that point to their actual use in performance, whether in a professional or an amateur setting. Finally, in surveying these materials we see considerable evidence not only of the turbulent state of French spectacles, but


also of the conscription of opera into a wider struggle between upholders of the old social order, on the one hand, and advocates of a more modern-looking civil society, on the other.


[1] Photo of Frédéric Louis Ritter: Tufts Journal (online), article "Berger grant will illuminate Ritter Collection,"

[2] According to the anonymously written entry on Ritter in Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, ed. James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, 6 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1887-9; online at, "His father came from a Spanish family, and the name was originally Caballero.

[4] The earlier date is given by Ritter in Music in America (New York: Scribner, 1883), 386-7 (quoted in Petra Meyer Frasier, "'Woman as a Musician': American Feminism in 1876," Sonneck Society for American Music Bulletin, 24:1 [Spring 1998]; available online at; the later one is given in the entry on Ritter in Appleton's Cyclopedia.

[5] Ritter, History, p. 11.

  • Delivered as part of the Ritter Colloquium Series sponsored by the Department of Music at Tufts University, October 17, 2003.
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