We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored
Richard Taruskin

The ultimate theatrical representation of power, the Lullian tragédie lyrique was from first to last a sumptuously outfitted—but, in another sense, quite thinly clad—metaphor for the grandeur and the authority of the court that it adorned. The monumental mythological or heroic-historical plots, some chosen by the king himself celebrated the implacable universal order and the supremacy of divine or divinely appointed rulers.

Themes of sacrifice and self-sacrifice predominated. Lully’s Alceste (1674), his second tragedie lyrique and one of his most successful, was based on the myth of Alcestis (as embodied in Euripides’ tragedy of the same name), about a queen who gives up her life so that her husband’s life-threatening malady may be cured. The adaptation was by Philippe Quinault (1635–88), a court poet and member of the Académie Française, who became Lully’s principal librettist. (The same Euripides tragedy would serve about ninety years later as plotline for a similarly lofty, French-style libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, a Vienna court poet, austerely set to music by the great opera reformer Christoph Willibald von Gluck to honor the Empress Maria Theresa for her devotion to her consort, who had died the year before.)

Drama As Court Ritual

fig. 3-2 Illuminated evening performance of Alceste, a tragédie en musique by Lully and Quinault, at the Marble Court of Versailles, 1674. Engraving by Jean Le Pautre (1618–1682).

Drama As Court Ritual

fig. 3-3 Jean-Philippe Rameau, portrait by Jacques Aved (1702–1766).

Idomenée (1712), a tragédie en musique by André Campra, a member of the post-Lully generation, concerns Idomeneus, the king of Crete during the Trojan Wars, who makes a hasty vow to Neptune to sacrifice the first living thing he espies on returning home in return for deliverance from a shipwreck, and is forced to sacrifice his own son at the cost of his throne and his sanity. (Its libretto, based on a fourth-century commentary to Virgil’s Aeneid, was later translated, revised, and expanded for Mozart’s Idomeneo, performed for the court of Munich in 1781.) Later, the almost identical biblical story of Jephtha (already the subject of an oratorio by Carissimi described in chapter 2), who makes a similar vow and suffers a similar fate, was turned into a tragédie en musique by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair (Jephté, 1732). By then, tastes had changed sufficiently to permit a happy ending: Jephtha’s daughter is spared in Montéclair’s opera by divine intervention. Lully’s greatest successor, Jean-Philippe Rameau, honored Louis XV with Castor et Pollux (1737), concerning the mythological twins, immortalized in the constellation Gemini, who were each tested and found willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the other.

A metaphor of grandeur and authority from first to last, beginning with the march-like ouverture or “opener” whose stilted dotted rhythms (enclosing a faster jiglike fugue) became for eighteenth-century composers—and even later ones—a universal code for pomp. The “French overture” was actually Cambert’s invention, in his pastorale Pomone (1671), performed a year before Lully managed to secure the royal patent and ruin his rival, meanwhile taking over all his stylistic innovations and expanding them into their “classic” form. Ex. 3-1 shows the beginnings of the two main sections of the ouverture to Lully’s opera Atys of 1676.

Drama As Court RitualDrama As Court Ritual

ex. 3-1a Jean-Baptiste Lully, Overture to Atys (1676), opening section

Drama As Court Ritual

ex. 3-1b Jean-Baptiste Lully, Overture to Atys (1676), beginning of middle section

What the ouverture served to introduce was an obligatory panegyric prologue of a full act’s duration, vastly outstripping its Italian courtly prototype. Here mythological beings were summoned to extol the French king’s magnificent person and his deeds of war and peace with choral pageantry and with suites of dances modeled on the actual ballet de cour, an elaborate ritual, in which the king himself took part, that symbolized the divinely instituted social hierarchy. (A description of “the King’s Grand Ball” by Pierre Rameau, Louis XV’s dancing master, may be found in Weiss and Taruskin, Music in the Western World, No. 54.) At times the mythological characters could be joshed a little, as in Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, where Louis XV’s successful mediation of the War of Polish Succession is symbolized textually by an amorous concord of Venus and Mars, the gods of love and war, and musically by a delightfully incongruous love duet of flute and trumpet that only Rameau, a master of the grotesque, could have brought off (Ex. 3-2); or as in Montéclair’s Jephté, where Roman deities scurry out of the way of the Holy Scripture. Such levity was tolerable in a prologue, for it only enhanced the exaltation of the king above his mythological admirers.

Drama As Court RitualDrama As Court Ritual

ex. 3-2 Jean-Philippe Rameau, Castor et Pollux, Prologue

Throughout the spectacle that followed, dancing—ceremonial movement accompanied by les vingt-quatre violons du Roi (“the twenty-four royal fiddlers”), the grandest and most disciplined orchestra in Europe—would furnish a lavish symbolic counterpoint to the words. Sometimes the dance enlarged directly on the dramatic action, sometimes it contrasted with it, as when Jupiter, in the second act of Castor et Pollux, orders up a lengthy divertissement or dance-diversion just to show his errant son what pleasures he will have to give up if he goes through with his planned self-sacrifice.

Everything reached culmination in a monumental chaconne or passacaille, a stately choral dance over one of the ground basses described in chapter 2. It often went on for hundreds of measures, enlisting all the dramatis personae for the purpose of announcing an explicit moral. “C’est la valeur qui fait les Dieux/Et la beauté fait les Déesses” (“Valor makes gods and beauty goddesses”) is the one proclaimed in Castor et Pollux; and the metaphorical signifance of the final dance is spelled out with special clarity in that opera. “C’est la fête de l’univers!” (“Let the whole universe rejoice!”), Jupiter declares, and his words are taken up as a refrain by the ensemble, representing all the planets and the stars in the sky in an orgy of royal panegyric.

The champion Lully passacaille comes from the fifth act of Armide (1686), his last tragédie en musique, composed to a libretto adapted by Quinault at Louis XIV’s behest from a celebrated episode in Tasso’s 1581 epic Gerusalemme liberata concerning the love of Armida, a Saracen sorceress, for Rinaldo, a crusader, culminating in her conversion and her renunciation of pagan vengefulness in favor of Christian humility and conciliation. (The story became the subject of close to one hundred operas and ballets, from Monteverdi in the early seventeenth century to Dvořák in the early twentieth.) The work was kept in repertory until 1766, eighty years after its première—a record run, not to be matched till Mozart, whose late operas never left the standard repertory.

Drama As Court Ritual

fig. 3-4 Destruction of the magic palace at the conclusion of Lully’s Armide (1686). Stage design for the original production by Jean Berain.

The passacaille (Ex. 3-3), which if performed complete (that is, with all repeats observed) lasts upwards of twelve minutes, comprises a divertissement performed by a troupe of allegorical Pleasures and amants fortunés (happy lovers) to entertain Renaud (Rinaldo) while Armide seeks advice from the Underworld on what to do about her love-sickness. The fact that it is based largely on the traditional descending minor tetrachord (occasionally garnished chromatically into the passus duriusculus) is a tip-off to the audience that things will not end as happily as they did in Tasso’s original, but with a denouement better suited to the requirements of the French court and its mores. And sure enough, when Armide returns Renaud surprises her with the declaration that he will sacrifice love to duty and leave her; Armide, enraged, humiliated, and despairing, orders the destruction of her magic palace (and Renaud within it) then departs on a flying chariot. Thus Renaud, the true hero of the tale (and the royal patron’s surrogate) ends up sacrificing not only love but life itself on the altar of social obligation.

Drama As Court RitualDrama As Court Ritual

ex. 3-3 Jean-Baptiste Lully, Armide, Passacaille, beginning

The contemporary allegorical relevance of the plot, proclaimed at the first in the prologue and affirmed at the last by the passacaille, was what really counted in a tragédie lyrique. To drive it home the players wore “modern dress,” adapted from contemporary court regalia, just as the dances they performed were the sarabandes, the gavottes, and the passepieds of their own ballroom, albeit performed at a supreme level of execution. Thus the theatrical pageant was no mere reminiscence of a social dance, it was a social dance enacted by professional proxies. The whole drama was conceived as a sublimated court ritual. Royal and noble spectators did not seek transcendence of contemporary reality but rather its cosmic confirmation. They did not value the kind of verisimilitude that makes the imaginary seem real. They wanted just the opposite: to see the real—that is, themselves—projected into the domain of fable and archetype.

Along with this feast of symbolic movement and rich sonority went an unparalleled, completely un-Italianate prejudice against virtuoso singing, which was abjured not only for the usual negative reasons—uppity singers symbolizing a polity in disarray—but for more positive reasons having to do with the theatrical traditions of France. Here verisimilitude of a very particular sort—fidelity to articulate language, which is the first thing to go in florid, legato, “operatic” singing—suddenly loomed very large. The lead performers in French court opera remained nominally acteurs, and the voice of the castrato went unheard in the land—even when, in Lully’s Atys (1676), after Ovid, the plot actually hinged on castration.

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. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03003.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03003.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03003.xml