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

Brown, Bruce Alan


For Ritter, "Lully's greatest merit was that of having invented the form of the overture"; echoing a common prejudice of his time, he dismissed the composer's vocal writing as "an indistinct chaos."[18]  Jean-Philippe Rameau, on the other hand,

he saw as the creator of a new epoch of the French lyric stage, not just on account of his masterly handling of the orchestra, but also because "[h]is melodic movements concentrate to logical forms full of character."[20]  From a modern perspective, Rameau represents the application of rational, "Enlightened" principles to the notoriously irrational art form of opera.


Known mainly as a music theorist and an organist when he ventured to write his first opera in 1733, at the age of almost 50, Rameau was not content just to follow his instincts, but instead let his compositional choices be governed by his empirical knowledge of how certain chords and progressions worked upon the senses.[22]  The opera-going public was ill equipped to comprehend Rameau's theories, which he had written with a professional readership in mind. To reach a broader audience, the composer relied on one of the instigators of the grand project, the mathematician Jean le Rond d'Alembert, to explain them in more accessible language. The Ritter Collection contains a 1772 edition of


d'Alembert's , originally published in 1752, the final fold-out illustrations of which
provide a moment-by-moment analysis of Armide's famous monologue, in Act II of Lully's opera of that title, as she hovers over the sleeping Renaud, dagger in hand. In particular, this example shows both the actual bass line and the so-called "fundamental bass" made up of the roots of the successive chords; knowledge of both was necessary in order to understand how perfectly Lully's music reflected each new emotion experienced by the pagan sorceress.


Rameau's début at the Opéra was guaranteed to create a stir, if for no other reason than because his was a version of Racine's classic spoken tragedy (itself based on Euripides). Here is the title page of its score, from the Ritter Collection;

as is evident, it was available from two different music dealers, and also from the author ("L'Hauteur" [sic]) himself. Inevitably, some audience members were predisposed to hear evidence of pedantry in Rameau's music, and at least one scene of the opera gave them just cause. In Act II King Theseus (in a more canonical episode from Greek mythology) descends to Hell on an errand of mercy, and hears from the three Fates what is to befall him upon returning to the light of day. As first conceived by Rameau, the "Trio of the Fates" included an unearthly, enharmonic progression that was meant to convey the futility of Theseus's plight, as the Fates ask him "Where do you run, unfortunate one?"


The passage proved indigestible to the original performers, and to most others who heard it, and Rameau replaced it with a more conventional version before the premiere. The Ritter copy of the printed score shows this change quite graphically, in that the first version, which the composer proudly included - "for the record," so to speak - is covered up by a manuscript copy of the less offensive version, literally pinned into the score.


This is but one of a number of handwritten changes and additions in this score, which show either that it was used for an actual performance, or that its owner took great pains to make it "conforme à la représentation" - in conformity with the piece as actually performed.

The only other scores of operas by Rameau in Ritter's collection are both examples of the more genre of -ballet, in which even more emphasis is placed on dance and spectacle than in the already spectacle-rich genre of ; ever more were produced at the Opéra as the era of Louis XIV receded ever further into the past. In the one-act of 1748, one of Rameau's most popular pieces in this form, the familiar plot takes but a few minutes to unfold, after which all is . This being France, as soon as the sculptor Pygmalion's beloved statue receives the gift of life (during the "Silence d'un moment"),

and begins to move her limbs (to tentative phrases in the flutes), the first priority is to teach her to dance! This the Graces do first by demonstration ("Les Graces entrent en dansant"),
and then by guiding her through a miniature dance suite,
each dance fragment leading into the next without cadence.


This suite is about as efficient a way as can be imagined of teaching the various types of dances - whether to the statue, or to modern students of French music.

Each of these dances, as also the work's overture,

is notated on just two staves, convenient for playing at the harpsichord. There are frequent cues to indicate the instrumentation, helping the user of the score at least to recall the piece as it sounded in the theater. This sort of arrangement made the printed score less than


completely useful as a template for full, orchestrally accompanied performances of the work, but very attractive to purchasers who were themselves amateur musicians.


[18] Ritter, History, p. 158.

[19] Portrait of Jean-Philippe Rameau, by Jacques André Joseph Aved (Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts):

[20] Ibid., p. 159.

[21] Rameau - Le Site,

[22] For a thorough and penetrating exploration of this topic, see Thomas Christensen, Rameau and musical thought in the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[23] Armide's monologue - CD 1, tr. 21

[24] Trio des Parques - CD 2, tr. 22

[25] Pygmalion (Leonhardt CD) - tr. 6, through tr. 9

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