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

Brown, Bruce Alan


After the triumph of -ballet, the next major upheaval at the Opéra was not the arrival there in the 1770s of Gluck and other foreign composers, but rather an initially innocuous-seeming invasion of that same stage, in 1752, by a company of Italian singers. The controversy and flood of pamphlets that resulted, known as the "Querelle des Bouffons," has long been recognized as a musical camouflage for a larger political and religious crisis of the French state - namely, the Jansenist Parlementarians' opposition to the papal bull , which Louis XV had sought to enforce. As d'Alembert put it some years later, " the dictionary of certain people, , republican, , atheist... are as many synonomous terms."[26]  Supporters of the traditional and insurgent spectacles soon became identified by their physical positions within the theater itself: monarchist partisans of on the side of the king's box, the , those of Italian or Italianate opera grouping themselves in the . The Ritter Collection contains texts mainly from the latter faction, notably the by the , novelist, and professional music copyist Jean-Jacques Rousseau,

and the , one of the cleverest writings of the entire , by the Baron Grimm, a German diplomatic secretary resident in Paris. Ritter's copy is a later edition; the satire was originally published in 1753, the same year in which Grimm and Diderot initiated the handwritten but extensively circulated , by which Encyclopedist ideas were disseminated to the major Northern European courts. The prophet of Grimm's title is an indigent Bohemian fiddler, Gabriel Joannes Nepomucenus Franciscus de Paula Waldstorch, who at the beginning of the pamphlet is magically transported to the Paris Opéra, where he witnesses a performance of a . His commentary takes the form of a pseudo-biblical prophesy in 21 chapters, in which each of this spectacle's various features is analyzed, to devastating effect. The little book culminates in his vision of an "Opéra


[devoted], like that of the Italians, to great scenes and to passions, and to expression of all sorts, from the pathetic to the comic." In fact, the sparked relatively little change at the Opéra, at least in the short run; rather, it marked beginning of French in its modern sense.[27]  Inspired by the freshness and vigor of and such as Pergolesi's and Latilla's ,[28]  Parisian composers transformed the traditional sort of in - the form used by Favart for his parody of - into a much more substantial genre, which competed successfully for the many of the same upper-class spectators who patronized the royally patented spectacles.

As with works in the the more established genres, the scores of many of these ("comedies interspersed with arias") were engraved and offered to the public, a circumstance that provided fertile ground for Ritter's collecting. The care lavished upon the physical presentation of these works helped confer upon their genre a legitimacy that was otherwise lacking, in the view of many - principally on account of their "monstrous" mixture of sung numbers and spoken dialogue. One early example in the Ritter Collection

is Monsigny's of 1762, on a text by Sedaine. The composer's name is given as "M" followed by three stars, as Monsigny was from a noble, though impoverished, family. The profusion of ornament here, executed in a rather clumsy manner, gives a good impression of the genre's arriviste aspirations to legitimacy.

was an early landmark in the evolution of - not just because it was one of the first pieces given after the forced merger of the royally privileged Comédie Italienne with the fairground troupes, but also on account of the seriousness of both its subject matter and musical treatment. Whereas authors of in had cultivated an "esthétique du 'petit'" (to use a term proposed by Nathalie Rizzoni),[29]  in which close attention to language, in risqué humor and clever word-play, was uppermost, creators of the new spectacle had grander ambitions, with regard to both musical resources and the exploration of social and moral issues - primarily among the lower orders of society, issues that


had been left largely untouched by . There was a good deal of resemblance between the humble abode of the forester Richard of this opera,
as represented on the stage of the Comédie Italienne, and the domestic settings of the painter Greuze's moral scenes, as in the almost exactly contemporary :

The plot of , adapted from an English play by Dodsley, is of the "good king/bad ministers" type: an unspecified English king, lost in the forest while hunting, stumbles upon the house of his servant Richard where, unrecognized, he hears unpleasant truths about the lives of his subjects, expounds maxims on good governance and, in revealing his identity, halts the lecherous advances of one of his ministers toward Richard's fiancée Jenny. Monsigny as composer proved himself fully able to convey the force and novelty of the piece's situations. At the height of the drama, he ran together five musical numbers in a row, so as not to allow the audience's applause to destroy the theatrical illusion. The orchestral storm entr'acte at the heart of this sequence:

with its many crescendos and diminuendos, is probably the model for the more famous storm entr'acte in Beaumarchais's play . Elsewhere in the opera, Sedaine and Monsigny create static stage during which the audience is invited to appreciate the artful arrangement of the characters - at the start of Act III, for instance, as the opera's three women sing three different songs while doing household work, at first separately and then together; and also in the ensemble of stupefaction at the , as the king's identity is revealed. The painterly qualities of this opera were no accident: as the art historian Mark Ledbury has emphasized in a recent book, Sedaine was closely acquainted with Greuze, interested in his manner of staging human figures, and just as keen as the painter on using his talents to further goals of social reform.[32]  Their respective challenges to the supremacy of the "higher" genres - in the case of Sedaine, "history painting" in the case of Greuze, were quite parallel.

The moral sublimity of Sedaine and Monsigny's drama was much admired, and also imitated; here is an illustration

from the final scene of Charles Collé's spoken-play version, in which the monarch is identified as Henry IV of France. Late in life, Monsigny himself thought highly enough of his score to
to choose it for prominent display, along with his medal from the Legion of Honor, in this portrait:

Printed scores were put to a variety of uses besides that of recording the successes of works and their creators. They could serve as the basis for productions outside the capital, whether in provincial or foreign troupes, or (since their music wasn't prohibitively difficult) by amateurs in so-called . Indeed, in his preface to the libretto of , Sedaine noted that he had taken care to record the actors' placement and actions, for the benefit of "Les Acteurs de Province." Ritter's copy of this opera's score contains numerous annotations and other signs of use in performance:

and other scores in the collection do as well; this partial cast-list
in the score to Méhul's of 1792 names just "philipe" and "michu." The score of the Julie by Dezède, from 1772, contains
the publisher Chevardière's extensive advertisement of works both operatic and instrumental, with a note at the bottom


specifying that he was willing to "ship throughout the kingdom [and to] foreign countries, whether to dealers or to private parties." (Curiously, this composer's name usually appeared in the form "M. [for 'Monsieur'] D. Z.";
the illegitimate son of a German prince, he was sure of only these two letters in his name.) scores exported to Vienna, via a formal arrangement with the librettist Favart, served not only for performances of the works in the court's French theater, but also as models for editions of serious Italian operas created there. Already in November of 1760 Favart had written to the director of the Viennese court's theaters, Giacomo Durazzo, that

People here desire that Messers Hasse and Gluck have their scores engraved... Why do Italian and German composers confide their productions only to copyists? One loses from their modesty..

Favart, Mémoires, 1: 113-14: "On désire ici que MM. Hasse et Gluck fassent imprimer leurs Partitions... Pourquoi les musiciens italiens et allemands ne confient-ils leurs productions qu'à des copistes? On perd à leur modestie...".

When a few years later Durazzo asked Favart to have the score of Gluck's reform opera engraved in Paris, he specified as a model not the score of a by Lully or Rameau, but that of an by Duni, , the frontispiece of which he particularly admired.[37] 


[26] D'Alembert, De la liberté de la musique (Paris, 1759), quoted in Elisabeth Cook, "Querelle des Bouffons," in Grove Opera, 3:1198-1200 (1199): "dans le Dictionnaire de certaines gens, Bouffoniste, Républicain, Frondeur, Athée... sont autant de termes synonimes."

[27] Ritter, History, 1:181.

[28] This opera, less well known than Pergolesi's famous intermezzo, was recently recorded by the Cappella de' Turchini, dir. Antonio Florio (Opus111 OPS 30 275/276, 2000).

[29] See Nathalie Rizzoni, Charles-François Pannard et l'esthétique du petit, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 2000:01 (Oxford: Votaire Foundation, 2000).

[30] Pierre-Alexandre Wille, drawing/watercolor of Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny's Le Roi et le fermier at the Comédie Italienne (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra), reproduced in Raphaëlle Legrand and Nicole Wild, eds., Regards sur l'opéra-comique: Trois siècles de vie théâtrale (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2002), p. 46

[32] See Mark Ledbury, Sedaine, Greuze and the boundaries of genre, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 380 (Oxford: Votaire Foundation, 2000).

[33] Engraving from Charles Collé, La Partie de chasse de Henri IV (Paris: Duchesne and Gueffier, 1765), engr. Hubert-François Bourguignon Gravelot after Jean-Baptiste Simonet (collection of the author)

[37] On this, see Bruce Alan Brown, "Durazzo, Duni, and the Frontispiece to Orfeo ed Euridice," Studies in eighteenth-century culture 19 (East Lansing: Colleagues Press, 1989), 71-97.

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