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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 3 Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored
Richard Taruskin

But of course the brave castrato voice referred to anything but itself. The one thing its brassy timbre never symbolized was actual eunuchhood. And so the last character a castrato might have effectively represented was Atys, or Attis, the hero of the ultimate courtly sacrifice-spectacle, known in its time as “the king’s opera” and cited not only as an operatic but as a literary classic by Voltaire, seventy-five years after its first production.9 Attis was a god of pre-Hellenic (Phrygian) religion, later taken over as a minor deity by the Greeks. Like Adonis, he was a beautiful youth over whom goddesses fought jealous battles. Cybele, the earth or mother goddess, fell in love with the unwitting and insouciant Attis, and so that none other shall ever know his love, caused him to castrate himself in a sudden frenzy. Like Adonis, he was worshiped by the Greeks as a god of vegetation who controlled the yearly round of wintry death and vernal resurrection.

In Quinault’s libretto, Cybele’s rival for the love of Attis is the nymph Sangaride, to whom Attis has actually declared his affections. At the end of the opera, Cybele causes Attis to kill Sangaride in his frenzy, and then to stab himself fatally. Before he can die, Cybele transforms him into a pine tree whose life is renewed yearly, so that she will be able to love it forever. According to a gossipy courtier who authored several highly revealing letters about the preparations for the Atys première and about the staging, this ending was contrived expressly so as to avoid having to show an act of castration on stage. The very avoidance, however, testified to everyone’s awareness of the real nature of the hero’s sacrifice and lent an added resonance to the contemporary subtext, no doubt well known to Lully and Quinault: “Word has it,” one of the letters divulges, “that the King recognizes himself in this Atys, apathetic to love, that Cybele strongly resembles the Queen, and Sangaride Mme. de Maintenon, who enraged the King when she wanted to marry the Duke of B****.”10

In other words, the opera gave symbolic representation to a love triangle that was even then being played out in the king’s own household; for “Mme. de Maintenon” (that is, Françoise d’Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon), the widow of a court poet and an influential royal adviser, became the second wife of Louis XIV in 1684. No wonder Atys became known as “the king’s opera.” It was, even beyond the obligatory prologue, an opera about the king. And in its famed artistic “chastity”—(almost) no comic interludes, (almost) no subplots, in short (almost) no popular “Venetian” trappings of any kind—Atys reflected on the artistic plane the same tendency toward serenity and exalted moderation that Mme. de Maintenon advocated in court life.

The third act of Atys, at once the most succinct of the opera’s five acts and the most varied, is a perfect model of courtly opera at the peak of its prestige. It begins with a short soliloquy for the title character, cast as an haute-contre, the highest French male voice range, a soft tenor shading into falsetto and the very antithesis of the plangent castrato (Ex. 3-4a). Atys laments the loss of Sangaride to her betrothed, King Celenus of Phrygia. This little number epitomizes Lully’s deliberate avoidance of big Italianate vocal display in the interests of dramatic realism; as the anonymous letter writer describes it, “all in half-tints: no big effects for the singers, no grand arias, but small courtly airs and recitatives over the bare continuo, and their alternation is what will give shape to the action.”

Atys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-4a Jean - Baptiste Lully, Atys, Act III, Atys’s opening air (sarabande)

Atys’s solo is just such a “courtly air” (air de cour). The text consists of a single quatrain, of which the first pair of lines (couplet) is used as a refrain to round it off into a miniature ABA (da capo) form. This little rounded entity is further enclosed between a pair of identical ritournelles, in which the first measure already discloses the characteristic meter and rhythm of the sarabande. Thus even the vocal solos reflect the underlying basis of the French court opera in the court ballet, and beyond that, in ballroom dance itself. The setting of the text is entirely syllabic and responsive to the contours, stresses, and lengths of the spoken language, reflecting the other underlying basis of the court opera, namely high-style theatrical declamation.

These values were hard-won. They ran counter to “musicianly” instincts, and Lully’s famous skills as autocratic disciplinarian, with unprecedented authority stemming directly from his patron the king, were necessary ones to the success of his undertaking—as the anonymous letter writer confirms in a delightfully written, somewhat cynical passage that conjures up a vivid sense of something new in music: haughty, easily offended authorial pride.

Lully is ranting at everybody. Everyone wants to shine in Atys, and there is no way to shine in this work of Lully’s. Everything is fashioned, calculated, measured so that the action of the drama progresses without ever slackening. This singer takes it upon himself to add ornaments, slowing down the beat; and in order to remain on stage longer and arouse a little more applause, drags out an air that Lully intended to be simple, short and natural. That dancer begs for a futile repetition; the violins want to play when Lully asks for flutes …,. Everybody seeks his own reflection in Atys. Lully has to defend his work.11

After Atys’s solo, the nymph Doris and her brother Idas enter to urge Atys to act on his passion and spurn his official duty as Celenus’s protégé and chief sacrificer to Cybele, thus crystallizing the moral dilemma on which the drama turns. Like most scenes of dialogue, it is carried by a rhythmically irregular recitative that alternates between measures containing four big beats and measures containing three. But when the two confidants come to their principal argument (“In love’s realm duty is helpless”), they come together in another minuscule air in minuet tempo, into which (and out of which) they slip almost imperceptibly: that is the deft “alternation that shapes the action,” in the words of the anonymous letter writer. And when they win Atys over, he joins them in a tiny trio in the style of an allemande with dotted rhythms recalling the imperious strains of the overture (Ex. 3-4b).

Atys, The King’s OperaAtys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-4b Jean - BaptisteLully, Atys, Act III, Air à trois (allemande)

Atys, The King’s Opera

fig. 3-5 Costume design by Jean Berain for the Sommeil (“sleep scene”) in Lully’s Atys (1676).

Left alone once again to reflect on his amorous prospects, Atys launches what appears to be another sarabande, heralded by another orchestral ritournelle. (Its giveaway rhythm is the accented and lengthened note on the second beat of the measure.) But he is quickly distracted by the counterclaim of duty and lapses into a recitative, from which he lapses further into sleep. This is an enchanted slumber that Cybele has engineered in order to apprise him of her love without having to confess it (degrading for a goddess). The scene thus conjured up is the most famous scene in the opera—the subtly erotic Sommeil, literally the “sleep scene” or “dream symphony,” so widely copied by later composers and librettists that it became a standard feature of the tragédie lyrique.

It begins with a Prelude (Ex. 3-4c) in which soft, sweet-toned whistle-flutes (what the French simply called flûtes, or recorders in English) are spotlighted in a somewhat concerto-like dialogue with the string band. The rocking rhythms, slurred two-by-two and surely performed with the characteristic French lilt (the so-called notes inégales), literally cradle the entranced title character and serve as the prologue to a charmed vision of Sleep himself (haute-contre), who sings a hypnotic refrain in alternation with his sons Morpheus (another haute-contre), Phobétor (bass), and Phantase or “Dream” (tenor).

Atys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-4c Jean-Baptiste Lully, Atys, Act III, Sommeil

Morpheus’s short recitative, in which he informs Atys that he has the honor (or in view of the outcome, the curse) of being loved by the exalted Cybele, introduces a typical process of alternating recitatives and accompanied airs with refrains, the chief refrain being the quatrain sung by the three sons of Sleep that continually reminds Atys that Cybele’s love exacts duty and constancy in return. Exhortations give way to a ballet of sweet dreams (des songes agréables), in which the minuet danced by the corps de ballet forms a refrain to alternate with that of the sons.

The ballet of the sweet dreams is suddenly disrupted by one of nightmares (songes funestes or “evil dreams”), who enter, heralded by a bass who warns against offending a divine love, to the strains of an allemande in pompous overture style, its regal rhythms reflecting the high station of the goddess at whose behest the nightmares have appeared. The chorus of evil dreams that follows (Ex. 3-4d) is in one of Lully’s specialty styles: the rapid-fire “patter chorus,” which reached its peak the next year with the chorus of “Trembleurs”—People from the Frozen Climates whose bodies quake and whose teeth chatter with the cold—in Lully and Quinault’s pastoral Isis. Having sung, the evil dreams launch into a lusty courante, full not only of the usual hemiolas but of rattling military tattoos as well. The nightmare sequence is dispelled by the awakening of the startled Atys and the arrival of Cybele herself, who comforts him, distressed though she is to learn, through an exchange of minuscule airs, that Atys properly reveres her but does not return her passion. Sangaride enters for a long scene in recitative that encloses the drama’s (would-be) turning point, when Cybele (alas, only temporarily) promises to aid her rival out of unselfish love for Atys. Her crucial decision is rendered as a maxim: “The gods protect the freedom of the heart,” set as a tiny march or allemande for the goddess, immediately repeated by the mortal pair.

Atys, The King’s OperaAtys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-4d Jean - Baptiste Lully, Atys, Choeur des Songes Funestes

Sangaride and Atys exit to seek the aid of Sangaride’s father, the river Sangarus. (His scene, in act IV, is the opera’s one comic divertissement.) Cybele’s confidant, the priestess Melissa, now enters to console the unhappy goddess, whose complaint that “the ungrateful Atys loves me not” is set against the all-but inevitable passus duriusculus, the chromatically descending tetrachord, in the continuo (Ex. 3-4e). She sings in recitative style throughout, while Melissa’s attempts to console her take the form of petits airs (little songs without repeats), the first of them a gavotte (Ex. 3-4f), identifiable by its characteristic two-quarter upbeat in quick “cut time” (two half notes to the bar).

Atys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-4e Jean-Baptiste Lully, Atys, Act III, Cybelés complaint

Atys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-4f Jean-Baptiste Lully, Atys, Act III, Melissa’s petit air (gavotte)

Finally, Melissa leaves Cybele alone on stage and the goddess delivers herself of an impassioned yet dignified lament, the most extended solo turn in the opera. Impassioned though it is, however, it is far from what one would expect from a contemporary Italian opera at such a point. Rather, it harks back directly to such masterworks of the early, courtly Italian style as Monteverdi’s famous lament for Ariadne—Lully surely knew it—in the otherwise lost opera Arianna of 1608, named for her (Ex. 3-4g). Introduced and concluded by a ritournelle in an elegiac sarabande style, Cybele’s lament (Ex. 3-4h), like Ariadne’s, is a recitative built around a three-fold textual and musical refrain: “Hope, so cherished, so sweet, Ah, … ah, why dost thou deceive me?” Between the two consecutive “Ahs,” Lully inserts a quarter rest, called a soupir (“sigh”) in French, on the downbeat. (A teaser: Was the rest called a sigh because it was used like this, or did Lully use it like this because it was called a sigh? The history of the term is not well enough established to answer the question, but it raises the prospect that even the most obviously “onomatopoietic” or “iconic” musical imitations are actually mediated through language concepts and are, in effect, puns.)

Atys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-4g Claudio Monteverdi, Lamento d’Arianna, refrain

Atys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-4h Jean-Baptiste Lully, Atys, Act III, Cybeles lament (sarabande)

As we see from the third act of Atys, French singing actors were rarely if ever called upon to contend with the full orchestra. Their scenes and confrontations were played against the bare figured bass in a stately, richly nuanced recitative whose supple rhythms in mixed meters caught the lofty cadence of French theatrical declamation. Lully, for whom French was a second language, was said to have modeled this style directly on the closely observed delivery—the contours, the tempos, the rhythms and the inflections—of La Champmeslé (Marie Desmares, 1642–98), the leading tragedienne of the spoken drama, who created most of the leading roles in the works of the great dramatist Jean Racine. Racine personally coached her, and thus indirectly coached Lully, whose tragédies en musique were exactly contemporaneous with Racine’s great tragedies for the legitimate stage. Cybele’s concluding lament in act III of Atys was an obvious instance of this musicalized tragic declamation.

Roulades and cadenzas would only have marred this lofty style, but Lully’s singers employed, as if in compensation, a rich repertoire of “graces” or agrémens: tiny conventional embellishments—shakes, slides, swells—that worked in harness with the bass harmony to punctuate the lines and to enhance their rhetorical projection. And there were all kinds of subtly graded transitions in and out of the petits airs, the tiny, simply structured couplets and quatrains set to dance rhythms, which animated the prosody while placing minimum barriers in the way of understanding.

This, then, was the perfect opera for snooty opera haters like Saint-Evremond: an eyeful of spectacle, one ear full of opulent instrumental timbre, the other ear full of high rhetorical declamation. Vocal melody was far from the first ingredient or the most potent one, and the singers were held forcibly in check. Vocal virtuosity was admitted only in a decorative capacity on a par with orchestral color and stage machinery, never as a metaphor for emotion run amok. For passions out of control, the title character’s harrowing final mad scene in Campra’s Idomenée marked the absolute limit (Ex. 3-5). The tragic agitation is conveyed by brusque orchestral roulades, not vocal ones, and by the use of extreme tonalities, whose timbres were darkened by lessened string resonance, and whose unfamiliar playing patterns and vocal placements caused the performers to strain.

Atys, The King’s OperaAtys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-5 André Campra, Idomenée, from the final mad scene

By contrast, virtuoso singing could only emanate from the lips of anonymous coryphées: soloists from the general corps, representing members of the crowd, shades, athletes, even planets—whatever the dramatic or allegorical circumstances required. The singing planet in Ex. 3-6—a brilliant ariette to greet a new heavenly constellation—is from Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, part of the fête de l’univers decreed by Jupiter. It embodies a kind of singing otherwise uncalled for in the opera—one that, while eminently theatrical, is essentially foreign to the dramatic purposes of the tragédie lyrique and therefore only suitable for an undramatic ornamental moment in a divertissement.

Atys, The King’s OperaAtys, The King’s Opera

ex. 3-6 Jean-Philippe Rameau, Castor et Pollux, Act V, ariette, Brillez, brillez astres nouveaux

Atys, The King’s Opera

fig. 3-6 Costume designs for Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (1737).

The resplendent general impression to which this coldly dazzling ariette contributed took precedence over the personality of any particular participant. The concert of myriad forces in perfect harness under the aegis of a mastermind was the real message, whatever the story. While even the prejudiced Saint-Evremond had to admit that “no man can perform better than Lully upon an ill-conceived subject,” he turned it into a barb: “I don’t question but that in operas at the Palace-Royal, Lully is 100 times more thought of than Theseus or Cadmus,” his mythological heroes. But that was all right, since the king was even more thought of than Lully.

Rameau’s planetary ariette shows the influence of a later Italian style than Lully could have known. (We will give it fuller consideration when we turn to the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti and George Frideric Handel.) In a sense it belongs to another age; but although Rameau is obviously later than Lully, and novel enough to have inspired resistance, he is not essentially different; and that is important to keep in mind. The eighteenth-century philosopher Denis Diderot had it right when he called Lully Monsieur Ut–mi–ut–sol (C–E–C–G)—roughly, “Mr. Music”—but called Rameau Monsieur Utremifasollasiututut (CDEFGABCCC)!12 For the Rameau style was the Lully style advanced—in no way challenged, but intensified: richer in harmony, more sumptuous in sonority, more laden in texture, more heroic in rhythm and rhetoric, more impressively masterminded than ever.

When André Campra said of the fifty-year-old Rameau’s first opera that it contained enough music for ten operas, he did not mean it as a compliment. That same opera, Hyppolite et Aricie (1733), was the very first musical work to which the adjective “baroque” was attached, and as we know, that was no compliment either. Rameau’s prodigality of invention and complexity of style were taken by some as a hubris, a representation of personal power and therefore a lèse-majesté (an affront to the sovereign), offensive not only to the memory of the great founder, whose works were in effect the first true “classics” in the history of music, sacramentally perpetuated in repertory, but also to what the founder’s style had memorialized.

Indeed, if (as we have done) one compares Lully’s dulcet Atys of 1676 with Rameau’s pungent, even violent Castor et Pollux of 1737, one can experience a bit of a shock—until one reckons that the span of time separating these two works is greater than the span that separates Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli from Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (or, more recently, Bach’s Mass in B Minor from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, or Verdi’s Il Trovatore from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). Then the shock of the new gives way to amazement at the hold of tradition, a hold that testifies first of all to the potency of administrative centralism and absolute political authority.

The real challenge, to look ahead briefly, came about fifteen years later, with the so-callecl Guerre des Bouffons, the “War of the Buffoons,” an endless press debate that followed the first performances of Italian commercial opera in Paris, when the French court opera received, according to the great philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “a blow from which it never recovered.”13 Rousseau was a dilettante composer in addition to being a philosopher, and he had an interest in seeing the grand machinery of the official French style, with which he could never hope to cope, replaced with the sketchy “natural” spontaneity of the Italians. He even rode the coattails of the Italians in Paris to some popular success with his own little rustic one-acter called Le Devin du village (“The village soothsayer”).

Bur of course Rousseau was much more than a musician, and his incense interest in the War of the Buffoons suggests that much more than music was at stake. Historians now agree that what seems a ludicrously inflated press scuffle about opera was in fact a coded episode, and an important one, in the ongoing battle between political absolutism and Enlightenment that raged throughout the eighteenth century. As always, the Italian commercial opera—epitomized this time by a farce (we’ll take a close look at it later) in which a plucky maidservant cows and dominates her master, subverting the social hierarchy it was the business of the French opera to affirm—exemplified and stimulated the politics of opposition.


(9) Voltaire, Le siècle de Louis XIV (1751), cited in Lois Rosow, “Atys,” New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. I (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 242.

(10) Letter of August 1675, ed. Jean Duron in booklet accompanying Atys, de M. de Lully, recording by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, Harmonia Mundi France HMC 1257.59 (1987), p. 21.

(11) Letter of August 1675, Atys booklet, p. 21.

(12) See Denis Diderot, Les bijoux indiscrets, Au Monomotapa (Paris: Durand, 1748).

(13) J. J. Rousseau, Confessions (New York: Modern Library [Random House], n.d.), p. 395; see also Rousseau’s Lettre sur la musique française (1753), in Strunk, Source Readings, pp. 636–54.

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. 22 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03004.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 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03004.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 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-03004.xml