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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored

Tragédie Lyrique from Lully to Rameau; English Music in the Seventeenth Century

CHAPTER 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


The story is told of King Louis XIV of France that once a courtier fond of the brilliance and grandeur of Italian music brought before the king a young violinist who had studied under the finest Italian masters for several years, and bade him play the most dazzling piece he knew. When he was finished, the king sent for one of his own violinists and asked the man for a simple air from Cadmus et Hermione, an opera by his own court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. The violinist was mediocre, the air was plain, nor was Cadmus by any means one of Lully’s most impressive works. But when the air was finished, the king turned to the courtier and said, “All I can say, sir, is that that is my taste.”1

Invoking taste, the thing that is proverbially beyond dispute, is always a fine way of putting an end to an argument, especially when invoked by one to whom nobody may talk back. But while a king’s taste may not be disputed, it may still be worth investigating. Nor can we say we really understand a story unless we know who is telling it, and why.

Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored

fig. 3-1 Jean-Baptiste Lully, Superintendent of the King’s Music. Engraving by Henri Bonnart (1652–1711).

This particular story comes from a pamphlet, Comparaison de la musique italienne et de la musique française (“A comparison of French and Italian music”), issued in 1704 by one French aristocrat, Jean Laurent Lecerf de la Viéville, Lord of Freneuse, in answer to a like-named pamphlet, Paralèle des Italiens et des Français (“Differentiating the Italians from the French”), issued in 1702 by another French aristocrat, Abbé François Raguenet. It was the opening salvo of a press war that would last in France throughout the eighteenth century—that is, until the revolution of 1789 rendered all the old aristocratic controversies passé.

The reason why it enters into our story a little ahead of schedule, and why it was so very typical of France, is that the musician it defended had been dead for almost twenty years at the time of writing, and Cadmus, his second opera, had had its first performance more than thirty years before. Nowhere else in Europe had operas become classics, nor had any other composer of operas been exalted into a symbol not only of royal taste but of royal authority as well. Authority is what French music was all about, and Lully’s operas above all. They were the courtiest court operas that ever were.

Lurking behind the story, as behind every discussion of opera in France, was a political debate. It was touched off by Raguenet’s admiring description of castrato singing, probably the most vivid earwitness account ever penned of singers the likes of which we will never hear. Sometimes, wrote Raguenet (in the words of an anonymous eighteenth-century translator):

you hear a ritornello so charming that you think nothing in music can exceed it till on a sudden you perceive it was designed only to accompany a more charming air sung by one of these castrati, who, with a voice the most clear and at the same time equally soft, pierces the symphony of instruments and tops them with an agreeableness which they that hear it may conceive but will never be able to describe.

These pipes of theirs resemble that of the nightingale; their long-winded throats draw you in a manner out of your depth and make you lose your breath. They’ll execute passages of I know not how many bars together, they’ll have echoes on the same passages and swellings of a prodigious length, and then, with a chuckle in the throat, exactly like that of a nightingale, they’ll conclude with cadences of an equal length, and all this in the same breath.

Add to this that these soft—these charming voices acquire new charms by being in the mouth of a lover; what can be more affecting than the expressions of their sufferings in such tender passionate notes; in this the Italian lovers have a very great advantage over ours, whose hoarse masculine voices ill agree with the fine soft things they are to say to their mistresses. Besides, the Italian voices being equally strong as they are soft, we hear all they sing very distinctly, whereas half of it is lost upon our theatre unless we sit close to the stage or have the spirit of divination.2

And yet, Raguenet emphasizes, these desexed singers were not only the best male lovers, they were the best females as well:

Castrati can act what part they please, either a man or a woman as the cast of the piece requires, for they are so used to perform women’s parts that no actress in the world can do it better than they. Their voice is as soft as a woman’s and withal it’s much stronger; they are of a larger size than women, generally speaking, and appear consequently more majestic. Nay, they usually look handsomer on the stage than women themselves.3

To us, living in an age when sexual identity has become a “hot button,” Raguenet’s comfortable enjoyment of masculine cross-dressing is perhaps the most striking aspect of his description. It is a facet of a general comfort with artifice, and a willingness to accept all manner of make-believe, that contrasts strongly with more modern theatrical esthetics. But at the time the most provocative aspect of Raguenet’s discourse—and the one regarded as most potentially degenerate—was his ready receptivity to the purely sensuous pleasure of singing and his willingness to accept it as opera’s chief, most characteristic, and therefore most legitimate, delight. This went not only against the grain of Lecerf de la Viéville’s argument, which ends with strenuous exhortations to “yield to reason” and heed the admonitions that “reason pronounces for us” (that is, for us French)—it went against the whole history of operatic reception in France, and England too.

Opera had a difficult time getting started in France. Indeed, it had to succeed as politics before it had any chance of succeeding as art. Like their English counterparts, who also possessed a glorious tradition of spoken theater (as the Italians did not), the aristocrats of seventeenth-century France saw only a child’s babble in what the Italians called dramma per musica (drama “through” or “by means of” music). To their minds, the art of music and the art of drama simply would not mix. “Would you know what an Opera is?” wrote Saint-Evremond, an exiled French courtier and a famous wit, to the Duke of Buckingham.4 “I’ll tell you that it is an odd medley of poetry and music, wherein the poet and musician, equally confined one by the other, take a world of pains to compose a wretched performance.” Music in the theater, for the thinking French as for the thinking English, was at best an elegant bauble, more likely a nuisance. High tragedians made a point of spurning it. Pierre Corneille, the greatest playwright of mid-century France, would admit music only into what was known as a pièce à machines—a play that already adulterated its dramatic seriousness for the sake of spectacle in the form of flying machines on which gods descended or winged chariots took off. And even then, he wrote in 1650 in the preface to his drama Andromède, “I have been very careful to have nothing sung that is essential to the understanding of the play, since words that are sung are usually understood poorly by the audience.”5 But then artists and critics who value intellectual understanding have always resisted opera. From the beginning dramatic music has been reason’s foe, as indeed it was expressly designed to be.


(1) Jacques Bonnet, Histoire de la musique, Vol. III (Amsterdam, 1725), p. 322.

(2) Quoted in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 483 (translation slightly adapted).

(3) Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, pp. 485–86.

(4) Quoted in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, 2nd ed., p. 172.

(5) Pierre Corneille, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. I (Paris, 1834), p. 570.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-03.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-03.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-03.xml