French Opera From Lulli To The Death Of Rameau

Ramists and Lullists.--Rameau's Letters of nobility.--His

death.--Affairs of honour and love.--Sophie Arnould.--Madame

Favart.--Charles Edward at the Académie.

Lulli died in Paris, March 22nd, 1687, at the age of fifty-four. In

beating time with his walking stick during the performance of a Te

Deum which he had composed to celebrate the convalescence of Louis

XIV., he struck his
foot, and with so much violence that he died from

the effects of the blow. It is said[35] that this Te Deum produced a

great sensation, and that Lulli died satisfied, like a general expiring

on the battle field immediately after a victory.

All Lulli's operas are in five acts, but they are very short. "The

drama," says M. Halévy, "comprises but a small number of scenes; the

pieces are of a briefness to be envied; it is music summarized; two

phrases make an air. The task of the composer then was far from being

what it is now. The secret had not yet been discovered of those pieces,

those finales which have since been so admirably developed, linking

together in one well-conceived whole, a variety of situations which

assist the inspiration of the composer and sometimes call it forth.

There is certainly more music in one of the finales of a modern work

than in the five acts of an opera of Lulli's. We may add that the art of

instrumentation, since carried to such a high degree of brilliancy, was

then confined within very narrow limits, or rather this art did not

exist. The violins, violas, bass viols, hautboys, which at first formed

the entire arsenal of the composer, seldom did more than follow the

voices. Lulli, moreover, wrote only the vocal part and the bass of his

compositions. His pupils, Lalouette and Colasse, who were conductors

(chefs d'orchestre, or, as was said at that time, batteurs de

mesure) under his orders, filled up the orchestral parts in accordance

with his indications. This explains how, in the midst of all the details

with which he had to occupy himself, he could write such a great number

of works; but it does not diminish the idea one must form of his

facility, his intelligence, and his genius, for these works, rapidly as

they were composed, kept possession of the stage for more than a


The next great composer, in France, to Lulli, in point of time, was

Rameau. "Rameau" (in the words of the author from whom I have just

quoted, and whose opinion on such a subject cannot be too highly valued)

"elevated and strengthened the art; his harmonies were more solidly

woven, his orchestra was richer, his instrumentation more skilful, his

colouring more decided."

Dr. Burney, however, in his account of the French Opera of his period

(when Rameau's works were constantly being performed) speaks of the

music as monotonous in the extreme and without ryhthm or expression.

Indeed, he found nothing at the French Opera to admire but the dancing

and the decorations, and these alone (he tells us) seemed to give

pleasure to the audience. Nevertheless, the French journals of the

middle of the 18th century constantly informed their readers that Rameau

was the first musician in Europe, "though," as Grimm remarked, "Europe

scarcely knew the name of her first musician, knew none of his operas,

and could not have tolerated them on her stages."


Jean Phillippe Rameau was born the 25th September, 1683, at Dijon. He

studied music under the direction of his father, Jean Rameau, an

organist, and afterwards visited Italy, but does not appear to have

appreciated Italian music. On his return to France he wrote the music of

an opera founded on the Phèdre of Racine, and entitled Hippolyte et

Aricie. This work, which was produced in 1733, was received with much

applause and a good deal of hissing, but on the whole it obtained a

great success which was not diminished in the end by having been

contested in the first instance. Rameau had soon so many admirers of his

own, and met with so much opposition from the admirers of Lulli that two

parties of Lullists and of Ramists were formed. This was the first of

those foolish musical feuds of which Paris has witnessed so many, though

scarcely more than London. Indeed, London had already seen the disputes

between the partisans of Mrs. Tofts, the English singer, and Margarita

l'Epine, the Italian, as well as the more celebrated Handel and

Buononcini contests, and the quarrels between the friends of Faustina

and Cuzzoni. However, when Rameau produced his Castor and Pollux, in

1737, he was generally admitted by his compatriots to be the greatest

composer of the day, not only in France, but in all Europe--which, as

Grimm observed, was not acquainted with him. Gluck, however, is said[36]

to have expressed his admiration of the chorus, Que tout gémisse, and

M. Castil Blaze assures us, that "the fine things which this work

(Castor and Pollux) contains, would please in the present day."

Great honours were paid to Rameau by Louis XV., who granted him letters

of nobility, and that only to render him worthy of a still higher mark

of favour, the order of St. Michael. The composer on receiving his

patent did not take the trouble to register it, upon which the king,

thinking Rameau was afraid of the expense, offered to defray all the

necessary charges himself. "Let me have the money, your Majesty," said

Rameau, "and I will apply it to some more useful purpose. Letters of

nobility to me? Castor and Dardanus gave them to me long ago!"


Rameau's letters of nobility were invalidated by not being registered,

but the order of St. Michael was given to him all the same.

The badge of the same order was refused unconditionally by Beaumarchais,

when it was offered to him by the Baron de Breteuil, minister of Louis

XVI., the author of the Marriage of Figaro observing that men whose

merit was acknowledged had no need of decorations.

Thus, too, Tintoretto refused knighthood at the hands of Henry III. of

France (of what value, by the way, was the barren compliment to Sir

Antony Vandyke, whom every one knows as a painter, and no one, scarcely,

as a knight)? Thus, the celebrated singer, Forst, of Mies, in Bohemia,

refused letters of nobility from Joseph I., Emperor of Germany, but

accepted a pension of three hundred florins, which was offered to him in

its place; and thus Beethoven being asked by the Prince von Hatzfeld,

Prussian ambassador at Vienna, whether he would rather have a

subscription of fifty ducats, which was due to him,[37] or the cross of

some order, replied briefly, with all readiness of determination--"Fifty


Besides being a very successful operatic composer, (he wrote thirty-six

works for the stage, of which twenty-two were represented at the

Académie Royale), Rameau was an admirable performer on the organ and

harpsichord, and wrote a great deal of excellent music for those two

instruments. He, moreover, distinguished himself by his important

discoveries in the science of harmony, which he published, defended, and

explained, in twenty works, more or less copious.

"Rameau's music," says M. Castil Blaze, "marks (in France) a progress.

Not that this master improved the taste of our nation: he possessed none

himself. Although he had visited the north of Italy, he had no idea that

it was possible to sing better than the hack-vocalists of our Opera.

Rameau never understood anything of Italian music; accordingly he did

not bring the forms of melody to perfection among us. The success of

Rameau was due to the fact, that he gave more life, warmth, and

movement, to our dramatic music. His ryhthmical airs (when the

irregularity of the words did not trouble him too much), the free,

energetic, and even daring character of his choruses, the richness of

his orchestra, raised this master at last to the highest rank, which he

maintained until his death. All this, however, is relative, comparative.

I must tell you in confidence, that these choruses, this orchestra, were

very badly constructed, and often incorrect in point of harmony.

Observe, too, if you please, that I do not go beyond our own frontiers,

lest I should meet a Scarlatti, a Handel, a Jomelli, a Pergolese, a

Sebastian Bach, and twenty other rivals, too formidable for our

compatriot, as regards operas, religious dramas, cantatas, and


[Sidenote: DEATH OF RAMEAU.]

Rameau died in 1764. The Opera undertook the direction of his funeral,

and caused a service for the repose of his soul to be celebrated in the

church of the Oratory. Several pieces from Castor and Pollux, and

other of his lyrical works, had been arranged for the ceremony, and were

introduced into the mass. The music was executed by the orchestra and

chorus of the Opera, both of which were doubled for the occasion. In

1766, on the second anniversary of Rameau's death, a mortuary mass,

written by Philidor, the celebrated chess player and composer (but one

of those minor composers of whose works it does not enter into our

limited plan to speak), was performed in the same church.

The chief singers of the Académie during the greater portion of Rameau's

career as a composer, were Jéliotte, Chassé, and Mademoiselle de Fel.

Jéliotte retired in 1775, and for nine years the French Opera was

without a respectable tenor. Chassé (baritone), and Mademoiselle de Fel,

were replaced, about the same time, by Larrivée, and the celebrated

Sophie Arnould, both of whom appeared afterwards in Gluck's operas.

Claude Louis de Chassé, Seigneur de Ponceau, a gentleman of a good

Breton family, gave up a commission in the army in 1721, to join the

Opera. He succeeded equally as a singer and as an actor, and also

distinguished himself by his skill in arranging tableaux. He it was who

first introduced on to the French stage immense masses of men, and

taught them to manoeuvre with precision. Louis XV. was so pleased

with the evolutions of Chassé's theatrical troops in an opera

represented at Fontainbleau, that he afterwards addressed him always as

"General." In 1738, Chassé left the Académie on the pretext that the

histrionic profession was not suited to a man of gentle birth.[38] But

the true reason is said to have been that having saved a considerable

sum of money, he found he could afford to throw up his engagement.

However, he invested the greater part of his fortune in a speculation

which failed, and was obliged to return to the stage a few years after

he had declared his intention of abandoning it for ever. On his

reappearance, the "gentlemanliness" of Chassé's execution was noticed,

but in a sarcastic, not a complimentary spirit.

"Ce n'est plus cette voix tonnante

Ce ne sont plus ses grands éclats;

C'est un gentilhomme qui chante

Et qui ne se fatigue pas--"

were lines circulated on the occasion of the Seigneur du Ponceau's

return to the Académie, where, however, he continued to sing with

success for a dozen years afterwards.


Jéliotte was one of the great favourites of fashionable Parisian society

(at least, among the women); but Chassé (also among the women) was one

of the most admired men in France. Among other triumphs of the same

kind, he had the honour of causing a duel between a Polish and a French

lady, who fought with pistols in the Bois de Boulogne. The latter was

wounded rather seriously, and on her recovery, was confined in a

convent, while her adversary was ordered to quit France. During the

little trouble which this affair caused in the polite world, Chassé

remained at home, reclining on a sofa after the manner of a delicate,

sensitive woman who has had the misfortune to see two of her adorers

risk their lives for her. In this style he received the visits of all

who came to compliment him on his good luck. Louis XV. thought it worth

while to send the Duke de Richelieu to tell him to put an end to his


"Explain to his Majesty," said Chassé to the Duke, "that it is not my

fault, but that of Providence, which has made me the most popular man in

the kingdom."

"Let me tell you, coxcomb, that you are only the third," said the Duke.

"I come next to the king."

It was indeed a fact that Madame de Polignac, and Madame de Nesle had

already fought for the affection of the Duke de Richelieu, when Madame

de Nesle received a wound in the shoulder.[39]

Sophie Arnould was a discovery made by the Princess of Modena at the Val

de Grâce, whither her royal highness had retired, according to the

fashion of the time, to atone, during a portion of Lent, for the sins

she had committed during the Carnival, and where she chanced to hear the

young girl singing a vesper hymn. The Princess spoke of Mademoiselle

Arnould's talents at the court, and, in spite of her mother's

opposition, (the parents kept a lodging house somewhere in Paris) she

was inscribed on the list of choristers at the king's chapel. Madame de

Pompadour, already struck by the beauty of her eyes, which are said to

have been enchantingly expressive, exclaimed when she heard her sing,

"Il y a là, de quoi faire une princesse."


Sophie Arnould (a charming name, which the bearer thereof owed in part

to her own good taste, and in no way to her godfathers and godmothers,

who christened her Anne-Madeleine) made her début in the year 1757, at

the age of thirteen. She wore a lilac dress, embroidered in silver. Her

talent, combined with her wonderful beauty, ensured her immediate

success, and before she had been on the stage a fortnight, all Paris was

in love with her. When she was announced to sing, the doors of the Opera

were besieged by such crowds that Fréron declared he scarcely thought

persons would give themselves so much trouble to enter into paradise.

The fascinating Sophie was as witty as she was beautiful, and her mots

(the most striking of which are quoted by M. A. Houssaye in his Galerie

du 18me. Siècle), were repeated by all the fashionable poets and

philosophers of Paris. Her suppers soon became celebrated, but her life

of pleasure did not cause her to forget the Opera. She is said to have

sung with "a limpid and melodious voice," and to have acted with "all

the grace and sentiment of a practiced comédienne."[40] Garrick saw her

when he was in Paris, and declared that she was the only actress on the

French stage who had really touched his heart.[41]

As an instance of the effect her singing had upon the public, I may

mention that in 1772, Mademoiselle Arnould refused to perform one

evening, and made her appearance among the audience, saying that she had

come to take a lesson of her rival, Mademoiselle Beaumesnil; that the

minister, de la Vrillière, instead of sending the capricious and

facetious vocalist to For-l'Evèque, in accordance with the request of

the directors, contented himself with reprimanding her; that a party

was formed to hiss her violently the next night of her appearance, as a

punishment for her impertinence; but that directly Sophie Arnould began

to sing, the conspirators were disarmed, and instead of hissing,

applauded her.

On the 1st of April, 1778, the day of Voltaire's coronation at the

Comédie Française, all the most celebrated actresses in Paris went to

compliment him. He returned their visits directly afterwards, and his

conversation with Sophie Arnould at the opera, is said to have been a

speaking duet of the most marvellous lightness and brilliancy.

* * * * *

When poor Sophie was getting old she continued to sing, and the Abbé

Galiani said of her voice that it was "the finest asthma he had ever

heard." This remark, however, belongs to the list of sharp things said

during the Gluck and Piccinni contests, described at some length in the

next chapter but one, and in which Sophie Arnould played an important


* * * * *

Mademoiselle Arnould's mots seem to me, for the most part, not very

susceptible of satisfactory translation. I will quote a few of them in

Sophie's own language.


Of the celebrated dancer, Madeleine Guimard, concerning whom I shall

have something to say a few pages further on, Sophie Arnould, reflecting

on Madeleine's remarkable thinness, observed "ce petit ver à soie

devrait être plus gras, elle ronge une si bonne feuille."[42]

Sophie was born in the room where Admiral Coligny was assassinated, and

where the Duchess de Montbazon lived for some time. "Je suis venue au

monde par une porte célèbre," she said.

One day, when a very dull work, Rameau's Zoroastre, was going to be

played at the Académie, Beaumarchais, whose tedious drama Les deux

amis had just been brought out at the Comédie Française, remarked to

Sophie Arnould that there would be no people at the opera that evening,

"Je vous demande pardon," was the reply, "vos deux amis nous en


Seeing the portraits of Sully and Choiseul on the same snuff-box, she

exclaimed, "C'est la recette et la dépense."

To a lady, whose beauty was her only recommendation, and who complained

that so many men made love to her, she said, "Eh ma chère il vous est

si facile des les éloigner; vous n'avez qu'à parler."

Sophie's affection for the Count de Lauragais, the most celebrated and,

seemingly, the most agreeable of her admirers, is said to have lasted

four years. This constancy was mutual, and the historians of the French

Opera speak of it as something not only unique but inexplicable and

almost miraculous. At last Mademoiselle Arnould, unwilling, perhaps, to

appear too original, determined to break with the Count; the mode,

however, of the rupture was by no means devoid of originality. One day,

by Mademoiselle Arnould's orders, a carriage was sent to the Hotel de

Lauragais, containing lace, ornaments, boxes of jewellery--and two

children; everything in fact that she owed to the Count. The Countess

was even more generous than Sophie. She accepted the children, and sent

back the lace, the jewellery, and the carriage.

A little while afterwards the Count de Lauragais fell in love with a

very pretty débutante in the ballet department of the Opera. Sophie

Arnould asked him how he was getting on with his new passion. The Count

confessed that he had not made much progress in her affections, and

complained that he always found a certain knight of Malta in her

apartments when he called upon her.

"You may well fear him," said Sophie, "Il est là pour chasser les



This certainly looks like a direct reproach of inconstancy, and from

Sophie's sending the Count back all his presents, it is tolerably clear

that she felt herself aggrieved. He was of a violently jealous

disposition, though he had no cause for jealousy as far as Sophie was

concerned. Indeed, she appears naturally to have been of a romantic

disposition, and a tendency to romance though it may mislead a girl yet

does not deprave her.

We shall meet with the charming Sophie again during the Gluck and

Piccinni period, and once again when the revolution had invaded the

Opera, and had ruined some of the chief operatic celebrities. During her

last illness, in telling her confessor the unedifying story of her life,

she had to speak of the jealous fury of the Count de Lauragais, whom she

had really loved.[43]

"My poor child, how much you have suffered!" said the kind priest.

"Ah! c'était le bon temps! j'était si malheureuse!" exclaimed Sophie.

* * * * *

Sophie Arnould's rival and successor at the Opera was Mademoiselle

Laguerre, who, if she had not the wit of Sophie, had considerably more

than her prudence, and who died, leaving a fortune of about £180,000.

* * * * *

Among the celebrated French singers of the 18th century, Madame Favart

must not be forgotten. This vocalist was for many years the glory and

the chief support of the Opéra Comique, which, in 1762, combined with

the Comédie Italienne to form but one establishment. There was so much

similarity in the styles of the performances at these two operatic

theatres, that for seven years before the union was effected, the

favourite piece at the one house was La Serva Padrona, at the other,

La Servante Maitresse, that is to say, Pergolese's favourite work

translated into French.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: MADAME FAVART.]

The history of the Opera in France during the latter half of the 18th

century abounds in excellent anecdotes; and several very interesting

ones are told of Marshal Saxe. This brave man was much loved by the

beautiful women of his day. In M. Scribe's admirable play of Adrienne

Lecouvreur, Maurice de Saxe is made to say, that whatever celebrity he

may attain, his name will never be mentioned without recalling that of

Adrienne Lecouvreur. Some genealogist, without affectation, ought to

tell us how many persons illustrious in the arts are descendants of

Marshal Saxe, or of Adrienne Lecouvreur, or of both. It would be an

interesting list, at the head of which the names of George Sand, and of

Francoeur the mathematician, might figure. But I was about to say,

that the mention of the great Maurice de Saxe recalled to me not only

Adrienne Lecouvreur, but also the charming Fifine Desaigles, one of the

fairest and most fascinating of blondes, the beautiful and talented

Madame Favart, and a good many other theatrical fair ones. When the

Marshal died, poor Fifine went into mourning for him, and wore black,

even on the stage, for as many days as it appeared to her that his

passionate affection for her had lasted. It is uncertain whether or not

the warrior's love for Madame Favart was returned. The Marshal said it

was; the lady said it was not; the lady's husband said he didn't know.

The best story told about Marshal Saxe and Madame Favart, or rather

Mademoiselle Chantilly, which was at that time her name, is one relating

to her elopement with Favart from Maestricht, during the siege.

Mademoiselle Chantilly was a member of the operatic troupe engaged by

the Marshal to follow the army of Flanders,[44] and of which Favart was

the director. Marshal Saxe became deeply enamoured of the young prima

donna, and made proposals to her of a nature partly flattering, partly

the reverse. Mademoiselle Chantilly, however, preferred Favart, and

contrived to escape with him one dark and stormy night. Indeed, so

tempestuous was it, that a bridge, which formed the communication

between the main body of the army and a corps on the other side of the

river, was carried away, leaving the detached regiments quite at the

mercy of the enemy. The next morning an officer visited the Marshal in

his tent, and found him in a state of great grief and agitation.

"It is a sad affair, no doubt," said the visitor; "but it can be


"Remedied!" exclaimed the distressed hero; "no; all hope is lost; I am

in despair!"

The officer showed that the bridge might be repaired in such and such a

manner; upon which, the great commander, whom no military disaster could

depress, but who was now profoundly afflicted by the loss of a very

charming singer, replied--

"Are you talking about the bridge? That can be mended in a couple of

hours. I was thinking of Chantilly. Perfidious girl! she has deserted


* * * * *

Among the historical persons who figured at the Académie Musique about

the middle of the 18th century, we must not forget Charles Edward, who

was taken prisoner there. The Duke de Biron had been ordered to see to

his arrest, and on the evening of the 11th December, when it was known

that he intended to visit the Opera, surrounded the building with twelve

hundred guards as soon as the Young Pretender had entered it. The prince

was taken to Vincennes, and kept there four days. He was then liberated,

and expelled from France in accordance with the terms of the treaty of

1748, so humiliating to the French arms.


The servants of the Young Pretender, and with them one of the retinue of

the Princess de Talmont, whose antiquated charms had detained the

Chevalier de St. Georges at Paris, were sent to the Bastille, upon which

the princess wrote the following letter to M. de Maurepas:--

"The king, sir, has just covered himself with immortal glory by

arresting Prince Edward. I have no doubt but that His Majesty will order

a Te Deum to be sung, to thank God for so brilliant a victory. But as

Placide, my lacquey, taken in this memorable expedition, can add nothing

to His Majesty's laurels, I beg you to send him back to me."

"The only Englishman the regiment of French guards has taken throughout

the war!" exclaimed the Princess de Conti, when she heard of the arrest.

* * * * *

There was a curious literary apparition at the Académie in 1750, on the

occasion of the revival of Thétis et Pélée, when Fontenelle, the

author of the libretto of that opera, entered a box, and sat down just

where he had taken his place sixty years before, on the first night of

its production. The public, delighted, no doubt, to see that men could

live so long, and get so much enjoyment out of life, applauded with


* * * * *


In this necessarily incomplete history of the Opera (anything like a

full narrative of its rise and progress, with particulars of the lives

of all the great composers and singers, would fill ten large volumes and

would probably not find a hundred readers) there are some forms of the

lyric drama to which I can scarcely do more than allude. My great

difficulty is to know what to omit, but I think that in addressing

English readers I am justified in passing hastily over the Pulcinella

Operas of Italy and the Opéra Comique of France. I shall say very little

about the ballad operas of England, which are no longer played, which

led to nothing, and which do not interest me personally. The lowest

style of Italian comic opera, again, has not only exercised no

influence, but has never attained even a moderate amount of success in

this country. Not so the Opéra Comique of France, if Auber is to be

taken as its representative. But the author of the Muette de Portici,

Gustave III., and Fra Diavolo, is not only the greatest dramatic

composer France has produced, but one of the greatest dramatic composers

of the century. By his masterly concerted pieces and finales he has

given an importance to the Opéra Comique which it did not possess

before his time, and if he had never written works of that class at all

he would still be one of the favourite composers of the English public,

esteemed and studied by musicians, and admired by all classes. The

French historians of the Opéra Comique show that, as regards the

dramatic form, it has its origin in the vaudeville, many of the old

opéras comiques being, in fact, little more than vaudevilles, with

original airs in place of songs adapted to tunes already known. In a

musical point of view, however, the French owe their lyrical comedy to

the Italians. Monsigny, Philidor, Grétry, the founders of the style,

were felicitous imitators of the Pergoleses, the Leos, the Vincis, and

the Piccinnis. "In Le Déserteur, Le Roi et le Fermier, Le Maréchal

Ferrant, Le Tableau Parlant, we are struck," says M. Scudo, the

excellent musical critic of the Révue des Deux Mondes, "as Dr. Burney

was, in 1770, to find more than one recollection of La Serva Padrona,

La Cecchina, and other opera buffas by the first masters of the

Neapolitan school. The influence of Cimarosa, Paisiello, Anfossi, may be

remarked in the works of Dalayrac, Berton, Boieldieu, and Nicolo.

Boieldieu afterwards imitated Rossini to some extent in La Dame

Blanche, but the chief followers of this great Italian master in France

have been Hérold and Auber." This brings us down to the present day,

when we find Meyerbeer, the composer of great choral and orchestral

schemes, the cultivator of musico-dramatic "effects" on a large scale,

writing for the Opéra Comique; and in spite of the spoken dialogue in

the Etoile du Nord and the Pardon de Ploermel, it is impossible not

to place those important and broadly conceived lyrical dramas in the

class of grand opera.