The Comédie-Française by the numbers, 1680-1793

The Comédie-Française in 1790, by Antoine Meunier

The Comédie-Française in 1790, by Antoine Meunier. (Bibliothèque en ligne Gallica, ARK btv1b10303194d)

Almost every evening at the playhouse of the Comédie-Française in Paris from 1680 to 1793, once the curtain had fallen and the theatre crowd had gone home, a designated member of the troupe retired to the box office (no doubt with a verre!) to count the evening’s proceeds, and enter the ticket sales by category in a folio-sized register. One hundred and thirteen of these registers, which allowed the troupe’s actors to divvy up the nightly proceeds, have remained in the possession of the troupe for over three centuries.

Register for the 1680-81 season (Paris, 1680)

Register for the 1680-81 season (Paris, 1680).

During the past decade an international team of scholars and developers has made digital versions of the registers available on the website of the Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP), and extracted the data they contain into a searchable database. Now a new volume of open-access, bilingual essays, Databases, Revenues, and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793 | Données, recettes et répertoire. La Scène en ligne (1680-1793), published exclusively online by the MIT Press, scrutinizes the data assiduously recorded by the eighteenth-century actors to come up with new and surprising conclusions about the business of the stage in the Age of Enlightenment, as well as observations about the potentials and perils of the digital humanities for contemporary scholarship.

Databases, Revenues and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793

Databases, Revenues and Repertory: The French Stage Online, 1680-1793 (MIT, 2020).

Scholars of the French eighteenth century know that the plays of the seventeenth-century greats, Molière, Racine, and Pierre Corneille, were frequently performed, but the troupe’s full repertory in this 113-year period consisted of more than 1000 plays written by over 300 authors, spread across more than 33,000 nightly performances. Essays in this new volume explore how politics, economics, and social conflict shaped the troupe’s repertory and affected its finances, and reveal some surprising conclusions. First, contributors Pierre Frantz and Lauren Clay underscore the fact that Voltaire, who wrote over two dozen plays that have largely been forgotten, was the financial mainstay of the troupe in the eighteenth century. By the second half of the century, revenue from the staging of his plays had overtaken that generated by the works of the seventeenth-century triumvirate, the authors that literary and theatre historians today tend to associate with the French theatre before 1800. The implication is that Voltaire was a box office draw because of his passion for political causes, thereby suggesting that the theatre was far more politicized in this period than we may have imagined.

The Crowning of Voltaire after the sixth performance of Irène in 1778, by Charles-Etienne Gaucher, after Jean-Michel Moreau

The Crowning of Voltaire after the sixth performance of Irène in 1778, by Charles-Etienne Gaucher (1741-1804), after Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814). (Art Institute of Chicago, public domain)

Second, as economic historian François Velde points out, this extraordinarily complete business archive, detailing the expenditures and revenues of a major cultural enterprise over more than a century, offers important financial and economic insights into Enlightenment France. After 1750 the box office revenues of the troupe grew every year, suggesting both increasing prosperity and growing interest in cultural activity among many classes in the decades leading up to the French Revolution of 1789. The actors adapted accordingly, adjusting ticket prices and altering their repertory to appeal to changing public taste. The nightly record of plays staged and box office receipts provides surprising insight into the changing political culture of eighteenth-century France.

This volume and the initial phase of the CFRP were focused on the nightly box office receipt data for 113 seasons. An essay by project co-director Jeffrey Ravel in the recent Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment volume Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital humanities and the transformation of eighteenth-century studies (eds. Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe), charts the history of the project and addresses questions of audience in the digital humanities. In subsequent phases of the CFRP, already underway, the team will be recording data on the troupe’s daily expenditures and its casting decisions for each night’s plays. The expenditure data, when analyzed alongside the box office receipts, will tell us much more about the troupe’s aesthetic and financial decisions during this key period of French political and cultural history. The record of casting choices promises important insights into the history of celebrity and its financial impact on political and cultural institutions in both the past and the present. The team will also be digitizing the registers from 1799 through 1914, thereby providing an unparalleled run of over two centuries of box office receipt data for one of the major theatrical and cultural institutions in the world in this period.

If only those lonely, tired actors counting their livres tournois each evening had known the uses to which their labours would be put by interested scholars three hundred years later!

Jeffrey S. Ravel

Discovering Voltaire and Rousseau in song

The Voltaire Foundation is co-sponsoring an event in Oxford next month, ‘Voltaire, Rousseau and the Enlightenment’ – nothing surprising about the title, but for the fact that this event will take place as part of the 2020 Oxford Lieder Festival (broadcast this year online).

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the Voltaire Foundation

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the Voltaire Foundation.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is of course famous for his interest in music, though not for song in particular; and Voltaire is famous for his complete indifference to music. So how did these two celebrated antagonists end up side by side in a song festival…?

In this portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that hangs at the Voltaire Foundation, we can discern on the left-hand side a sheet of manuscript music. This is not surprising: the philosophe not only wrote about music, he was the composer of a number of operas, the most successful of which, Le Devin du village, remains well-known today and has been often recorded. First performed before the French court at Fontainebleau in 1752, it enjoyed great success in London in 1762, in an English translation, The Cunning Man, by Charles Burney. The piece was performed again in London in January 1766, in the presence of Rousseau himself, just after he had arrived in the English capital as the guest of David Hume. The portrait of Rousseau was painted in England, quite possibly during his stay in this country (1766-67) or soon thereafter. So the sheet of music on the left might be a reference to the fact that at one point in his life Rousseau earned money by copying music; more likely, however, it is an allusion to Le Devin du village that was so popular among English audiences.

Far less well known are Rousseau’s songs. Unpublished in his lifetime, they were none the less an important part of his activities as a composer. Three years after his death there appeared a handsome volume, Les Consolations des misères de ma vie, ou recueil d’airs, romances et duos (Paris, 1781), bringing together the songs that Rousseau had left in manuscript – here is a copy at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The preface to the edition points out that Rousseau liked setting words from the best poets, and the authors of the verses set to music in this collection indeed include many prominent names, such as Metastasio and Petrarch. This song collection has been little studied, and we will hear some of Rousseau’s songs in this recital.

Harpsichord by Pascal Taskin, 1770

Harpsichord by Pascal Taskin, 1770. (Yale Collection of Musical Instruments)

The one author you will not find in Rousseau’s song collection is the most famous French poet of the 18th century, Voltaire. In general terms, evidence for Voltaire’s interest in music is scanty – even unreliable. The Yale Collection of Musical Instruments contains a fine 18th-century harpsichord with images inside the lid of Emilie Du Châtelet and the Château de Cirey – an instrument that Voltaire must have listened to! Alas, a recent director of the collection has exposed the paintings inside the harpsichord as ‘fakes’, showing that they were added to the instrument at a later date to make it more valuable.

Voltaire may not have liked music, but he did collaborate with one of the greatest composers of the century. In the 1730s he had composed an opera libretto Samson for Rameau, but following objections from the censors the work was never performed, and the music is now lost. (See the critical edition of Samson by Russell Goulbourne in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.18C, 2008.) Their second period of collaboration was more successful. Despite the fact that Louis XV mistrusted him, Voltaire enjoyed a brief period of favour at court in 1745-1746. This was a good time to be a courtier at Versailles: the Dauphin Louis was to marry the Infanta of Spain, an alliance of huge dynastic importance for the Bourbons, and a three-act comédie-ballet was commissioned as part of the celebrations.

Cochin, La Princesse de Navarre at Versailles

Cochin, La Princesse de Navarre at Versailles, in the presence of Louis XV, 1745. (Wikimedia commons)

Voltaire composed a libretto about a Spanish princess, La Princesse de Navarre, and Rameau composed the music. Then a few months later the maréchal de Saxe led French troops to victory against the British-led coalition at Fontenoy, and Voltaire and Rameau were back in business, this time with an opera, Le Temple de la gloire, celebrating the nature of kingship. (See the critical editions of these two works by Russell Goulbourne in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.28A, 2006.) Voltaire’s period of favour at Versailles was brief and ended unhappily, but the one positive outcome was his collaboration with Rameau on two major musical works for the court.

Given Voltaire’s extraordinary pre-eminence as a poet, it is perhaps surprising that there are not more musical settings of his verse. But, even in his brilliant light verse, Voltaire never indulges in the easy romantic gesture, and perhaps his concise and ironical voice does not easily lend itself to musical setting. There are exceptions, of course, such as the three salon pieces set to music by Jacques Chailley (1910-1999), in a collection Trois madrigaux galants (1982). And from Voltaire’s lifetime there is a fine song “Le dernier parti à prendre” by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, published in his Choix de chansons (1773). This magnificent publication, dedicated to Marie-Antoinette, is currently being edited in an ambitious digital format that will include all the music.

You can hear Laborde’s setting of Voltaire here.

Voltaire did write one poem that became an unexpected hit, a madrigal composed for Princess Ulrica when he was in Berlin in 1743. The poem, ‘A Mme la Princesse Ulrique de Prusse’, also known as ‘Songe’, is an example of Voltaire’s light verse at its most attractive and charming – so much so that it was reworked in German by Goethe, and in Russian by Pushkin:

Souvent un peu de vérité
Se mêle au plus grossier mensonge;
Cette nuit, dans l’erreur d’un songe,
Au rang des rois j’étois monté.
Je vous aimais, princesse, et j’osais vous le dire!
Les Dieux à mon réveil ne m’ont pas tout ôté:
Je n’ai perdu que mon empire.

(Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.28A, 2006, p.434-38)

The poem has become an anthology piece and was set in the 20th century by a member of “Les Six”, Germaine Tailleferre (Six Chansons françaises, 1929, op.41, no. 2). More interestingly, these verses were set to music at least twice in Voltaire’s lifetime, first by Antoine Légat de Furcy (c.1740-c.1790), and then again by Adrien Leemans (1741-1771), whose score (Le Songe, ariette nouvelle, Paris, Mme Bérault, 1769) you can find online.

It’s interesting that the setting by Légat de Furcy was first published in 1761 in a women’s magazine, the Journal des dames: eighteenth-century songs such as these were designed for performance by amateur musicians, often women, in a domestic setting – as we saw in a recent blog, music was an occupation for a lady of leisure in lockdown.

Eighteenth-century novels sometimes appeal to women readers precisely by including songs within the fiction – a famous example would be the engraved score in Richardson’s Clarissa, and there are many comparable examples in French novels of the period (discussed by Martin Wåhlberg in La Scène de musique dans le roman du XVIIIe siècle, 2015).

The Queen’s College, Upper Library (1692-1695)

The Queen’s College, Upper Library (1692-1695).

This all seems a far cry from the more ‘sophisticated’ songs usually performed at the Oxford Lieder Festival. Yet by a delightful quirk, it is in Russia that Voltaire’s “Dream” has acquired a permanent place in the song repertoire. Pushkin’s reworking of the Voltaire poem, “Snovidenie” (Dream), caught the attention of no fewer than four Russian composers, so we can compare the settings of the same poem by Cui, Arensky, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Rousseau was the musician, not Voltaire. Yet it is Voltaire who has left the greater mark in the great song tradition of the nineteenth century.

We will have a unique opportunity to enjoy some of this little-heard music in the recital programme on 13 October 2020, 15:00-16:00, when I will be in discussion with the musicologist Suzanne Aspenden. The programme will be introduced from the Voltaire Foundation, and the recital will then continue in the magnificent Upper Library of The Queen’s College. This event will be streamed live and remain available online for two weeks: please do come and listen to Voltaire and Rousseau in song!

Charlotte La Thrope (soprano) | Nathaniel Mander (harpsichord)
Oliver Johnston (tenor) | Natalie Burch (piano)

Tickets are available here.

This Oxford Lieder event is presented in association with TORCH, and with support from the Humanities Cultural Programme, the Voltaire Foundation, and The Queen’s College.

Nicholas Cronk

Fake views: an unusual false attribution

While looking for a pamphlet entitled Lettre de M. de B… à Monsieur de Voltaire I came across a Lettre de M. de Voltaire au peuple d’Angleterre, sur les écarts qu’il a fait paraître, au sujet des balladins français. I have located only four copies in library catalogues. The copy in the Taylorian Library used to belong to Theodore Besterman, who describes it in Some eighteenth-century Voltaire editions unknown to Bengesco (SVEC 111, 1973, no.352). Besterman swiftly dismisses the work in a note stating: ‘As a preface to this pamphlet is printed a letter from Voltaire to Garrick, oddly dated from Coppet, 29 November 1755, and no more authentic than the rest.’ But the work has some interest.

A first consideration with such publications is to assess whether the imprint is genuine: ‘A Londres: Chés J. Robinson, au Lion d’Or, dans Ludgate-Street. M.DCC.LV.’ The pamphlet was certainly printed in England, as is proved by the presence of a press-figure on p.2. The firm of J. Robinson was principally associated with religious publications, and some medical and scientific works, but also history and there was, in 1744, Stage policy detected; or some select pieces of theatrical secret history laid open: in a letter to a certain manager on his imaginary justification of his late conduct. By an impartial hand. So perhaps the imprint is genuine.

The word ‘baladin’ (in its modern spelling) is defined in the Robert dictionary: ‘Vx. Danseur de ballets; bouffon de comédie, comédien ambulant.’ It is not much used in modern French but was certainly well known in the eighteenth century. According to F. Noël’s Philologie française (Paris, 1831), ‘Les balladins étaient des danseurs qui vinrent d’Italie en France dans le 16e siècle.’ What appears to be the sole example of its use in Voltaire’s works is found in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, article ‘Anciens et modernes’: ‘Molière, dans ses bonnes pièces, est aussi supérieur au pur, mais froid Térence, et au farceur Aristophane, qu’au baladin Dancourt’ (OCV, vol.38, p.346). He uses the word in a letter to Marie-Louise Denis in 1744 (D3015): ‘Je me sens un peu honteux à mon âge de quitter ma filosofie et ma solitude pour être baladin des rois’; and to Tronchin and Richelieu in 1764. The ‘Lettre à M. Garrick’ in this pamphlet mentions ‘le genre balladin’. There is no evidence of any correspondence between Voltaire and Garrick before the mid-1760s.

Garrick by Gainsborough.

The anonymous writer has fluent French, is familiar with Voltaire’s work and makes some effort to imitate his style, with varying degrees of success, but he is probably English. The spelling is sometimes strange (‘tandîque’, ‘Etâts’, ‘interrêt’, ‘rivâle’); older verb endings are used (‘vous voyés’); ‘ce’ is often fused with the word that follows it (‘ceque’). The use of the word ‘Quixotisme’ in the ‘Lettre à M. Garrick’ surprises. It is not used anywhere by Voltaire, and indeed the word seems to be unknown in France, not recorded by either Littré or Robert. The only other example I have found in French is in a letter written by Joseph Conrad to Jean Masbrenier on 14 January 1913. In this letter Conrad is clearly translating from his own English. The word is therefore an anglicism. The real French term ‘donquichottisme’ is recorded in 1789, while ‘Quixotism’ is recorded in English from 1664.

The writer shows some knowledge of Voltaire’s private life in the ‘Extrait d’une lettre envoyée de Genève à Londres’ which introduces the pamphlet, and uses it well to give a spurious authenticity to the work. The letter is dated ‘Ornex, 30 novembre 1755’ and its writer claims that Voltaire was with them, visiting ‘le P. Vionnet’ ‘son bon ami, et son frère en Apollon, comme il l’appelle’. I have found no evidence to back up either of these claims, though Voltaire was at Les Délices at the time and so could have visited. Georges Vionnet taught rhetoric at the Collège de la Trinité in Lyon, and wrote some plays. Only one letter from Voltaire to Georges Vionnet is known, and refers to their plays: ‘J’ai l’honneur, mon révérend père, de vous marquer une très faible reconnaissance d’un fort beau présent [Vionnet’s Xerxès]. Vos manufactures de Lyon valent mieux que les nôtres; mais j’offre ce que j’ai [Voltaire’s Sémiramis]. Il me paraît que vous êtes un plus grand ennemi de Crébillon que moi. Vous avez fait plus de tort à son Xerxès, que je n’en ai fait à sa Sémiramis. Vous et moi, nous combattons contre lui. Il y a longtemps que je suis sous les étendards de votre société. Vous n’avez guère de plus mince soldat; mais aussi il n’y en a point de plus fidèle. Vous augmentez encore en moi cet attachement, par les sentiments particuliers que vous m’inspirez pour vous, et avec lesquels j’ai l’honneur d’être, etc.’ (14 December [1749], D4074). But Georges Vionnet died in December 1754. His brother Barthélemy also taught at the college, was also a playwright, and was still alive in 1762, but there is no evidence that Voltaire had contact with him.

The supposed addressee of the letter is unnamed. The Histoire tragique arrivée à l’encontre des danseurs françois ascribed to him, and which allegedly prompted Voltaire’s Lettre, does not appear to have survived, if it ever existed.

The ‘Extrait d’une lettre’ recounts how Voltaire amusingly defended his love of the English. The writer claims that the next morning (!) Voltaire’s ‘valet de chambre’ brought the Lettre au peuple d’Angleterre, and he has made a copy, which he encloses.

The 1763 Covent Garden riot.

The occasion for the pamphlet was a riot at the Drury Lane Theatre in November 1755. Riots were not unusual in theatreland. There had been one in 1737 when footmen were denied their usual free seats in the gallery. There was one in 1763 over increased ticket prices.

The 1755 riot was different, being political, and developed over several days. David Garrick had engaged the Frenchman Jean-Georges Noverre to produce a spectacular ballet.

Jean-Georges Noverre.

Noverre was an innovative and admired balletmaster who created some 150 ballets, of which none have come down to us, but his influence on ballet has been great. In 1754 his Fêtes chinoises had enchanted Paris, and Garrick asked for an even richer version for his London audience. Unfortunately for the production, tensions with France were growing – it was the eve of the Seven Years’ War – and a section of the audience was hostile. The Journal étranger of December 1755 (part 2) gives a detailed account of hostilities in the theatre. On the first performance (8 November), even in the King’s presence, there were whistles, jeers and shouts of ‘No French dancers!’ On 12 November the performance was interrupted by fighting between the nobility and the ‘parterre’. On the 14th the nobility were absent and the ‘peuple furieux’ drowned out the music. On the 15th, again in the absence of nobility, there was a full riot by the ‘Blagards’, which was put down by the militia. Garrick’s assistant promised there would be no further performances. On the 17th the nobility demanded the Fêtes chinoises. Some people repeated the cry for no French dancers. Garrick was summoned. He was unable to satisfy the rival parties but after much argument it was agreed to put on the ballet on the 18th. On that day the opposing sides were present in numbers, the nobility well armed. Total war in which the nobility were unable to overcome the rebels. The theatre was badly damaged; Garrick’s house in Southampton Street was attacked, with all the windows broken, and there was a risk it would be set on fire.

Garrick’s house in Southampton Street, London.

The Journal étranger (p.235) concludes: ‘Il serait trop long d’entrer dans le détail des platitudes qui se sont débitées à Londres à cette occasion, comme chansons, pièces de vers, libelles, etc. On a poussé l’extravagance jusqu’à imprimer que les danseurs français étaient des officiers, et le Maître des ballets, le Prince Edouard.’ Reports also appeared in the Caledonian Mercury (27 November) and the Leeds intelligencer (2 December). A more colourful account is given in the footnote on p.41 of The Pin-basket to the children of Thespis by Anthony Pasquin [John Williams] (London, 1797).

A detailed examination of the whole affair is given in Hsin-yun Ou’s ‘The Chinese festival and the eighteenth-century London audience’ in The Wenshan Review of literature and culture, vol.2.1 (December 2008).

The scene is set and our anonymous writer, in the ‘Lettre à M. Garrick, pour servir d’Introduction’, starts off with a voltairean rhetorical question: ‘Est-il possible qu’un peuple qui passe dans toute l’Europe pour penser, se livre à des égarements aussi ridicules, que ceux où l’on m’écrit qu’il s’est jeté?’ and introduces the main text: ‘Je joins ici une lettre, dont l’objet roule uniquement à faire voir à cette sage nation, combien elle déroge à son honneur et à sa gloire, toutes les fois qu’elle s’abandonne à une passion marquée au coin de la haine et de la jalousie, pour des sujets aussi frivoles que celui du genre balladin.’

But is is perhaps in this introductory letter that there is a clue to the purpose of the deceit. Towards the end the writer clarifies what he means by ‘peuple’. It is not the common people: ‘La populace n’a ni yeux pour voir, ni oreilles pour entendre. […] C’est une machine informe et pesante, qui n’avance qu’autant qu’on lui donne de force. […] La populace eut vu jouer votre Ballet chinois avec des yeux aussi tranquilles que stupides, si quelque Mégère d’un souffle empesté, n’eût allumé le flambeau dont elle arma cette multitude insensée. C’est donc à ces personnes distinguées de la populace […] que j’adresse cette lettre; à ces personnes qui ont du bon-sens et de la raison, mais que le défaut d’expérience et le manque de réflection, empêchent d’en faire usage à propos; à ces personnes qui n’ayant ni les sentiments où est élevée la noblesse, ni l’ignorance où croupit la populace, tiennent justement le milieu entre le haut et le dernier rang d’une République. Ce sont ceux-là, que le mot de liberté, transporte, affole, enthousiaste; et qui donnant trop de feu à leurs passions, les consument au lieu de les nourrir, pour le soutien et pour l’éclat du corps républicain.’ An appeal to the middle classes for a political rebirth.

What are we to make of the expression ‘corps républicain’? It was not common in French at this time, but became so later in the century. But this is an Englishman writing. Is he appealing to the tradition of the Commonwealth men?

The Lettre de M. de Voltaire au peuple d’Angleterre itself contains a long satirical tirade in which the writer taunts the English with having abandoned their military glory in favour of defeating French dancers: ‘je demanderais aux Anglais, quels étaient leurs grands balladins du temps des Edouards, des Henris, des Elizabeth, des Cromwell? Quelle tache encore une fois pour ces grands princes, de n’avoir pas établi dans leurs états, des écoles de danse, d’escrime et de frisure!’ He thinks it fine to dispute the ‘gloire’ of Shakespeare and Molière, but not farce and ballet. He continues with a diatribe against the weakening of the nation who will not know the glory of arms and will despise battle and combat, and will have no ‘destinée’ but to go to the courts of princes to be diverted by leaps, dances, songs and farces. ‘Les Anglais ne sont point nés danseurs, ni friseurs, ni balladins. Ils ont l’esprit plus élevé; les grands objets font leur occupation: la liberté, la guerre, les sciences, les arts, les métiers, les manufactures et le commerce, voilà pourquoi est né un Anglais; et c’est une gloire pour eux de n’avoir jamais eu, et de n’avoir encore à présent ni friseur, ni danseur, ni balladin.’ The writer praises England, but condemns its concentration on trade and avidity for gold. He praises Louis XIV for forbidding his nobles to engage in commerce.

He writes too against the ‘Antigallicans’ who are hostile to the French, and who think: ‘il est bien cruel de voir notre argent que nous avons tant de peine à faire venir dans notre île, en sorte par la voye de tant d’étrangers, qui comme la fourmis, viennent ici faire leur provision, et vont ensuite la consumer ailleurs’. He argues forcefully that foreigners who earn money here also spend it here, supporting the economy. Here are interesting similarities with current arguments in Britain.

The letter ends in a mode of voltairean irony: ‘Mais silence …. je ne m’apperçois pas que pour un sujet aussi frivole que celui du Genre balladin, je me jette dans des réflexions profondes et à perte de vue. Que le peuple anglais s’obstine à écarter les danseurs français; qu’il nous apprenne qu’avec des batons il sait casser des lanternes; et qu’avec des cailloux il sait enfoncer des vitres; ne réformons personne, laissons le monde tel qu’il est, etc. etc.’

At a time when Europe and other parts of the world were moving towards war, the anonymous writer has used Voltaire’s prestige to support what is in effect a call to arms and moral regeneration, while avoiding simple jingoism.[1] Much emphasis is put on praise for England, but France is not disparaged. It is a clever piece of work and perhaps one of the ‘libelles’ referred to by the writer of the account in the Journal étranger. We unfortunately cannot know how widely the Lettre was read nor how much influence it had.

I have not found any clues to the identity of the writer. He was knowledgeable about Voltaire’s writings and some details of his private life. His French was good. He had strong views about the changes needed to make Britain powerful again. He admired France and Voltaire. At first blush one might think of Sir Everard Fawkener, who was a close friend and admirer of Voltaire and fluent in French. He had also been active in military matters, being from 1745 secretary to the duke of Cumberland, and diplomacy, having been made ambassador to the Sublime Porte in 1735. But this seems unlikely. The ageing Fawkener would by this time probably have been too troubled by his growing financial problems to be tempted to lead a campaign for national regeneration.[2] The Voltaire Foundation would be interested to receive suggestions of the writer’s identity.

– Martin Smith

[1] Voltaire’s celebrity was such that his name was falsely attached to many publications of different kinds, and for various purposes. For an account of this phenomenon see Nicholas Cronk, ‘The selfless author: Voltaire’s apocrypha’, Romanic Review 103.3-4 (2013), p.553-77.

[2] See Norma Perry, Sir Everard Fawkener, friend and correspondent of Voltaire, SVEC 133 (1975), ‘The last ten years’.

Rediscovering Voltaire and Rameau’s Temple de la gloire

Gloire_performers

Le Temple de la gloire was commissioned by the duc de Richelieu to celebrate Louis XV’s return to Versailles after a famous (and rare) victory at Fontenoy, in the War of the Austrian Succession. Voltaire provided the libretto, and the piece, described variously as an opéra-ballet or ballet héroïque, was set to music by Jean-Philippe Rameau. There were two performances at court in late November and early December 1745, followed by further performances in Paris, and a short-lived revival of a revised version in 1746: since then, the piece has all but vanished.

Gloire_title

Russell Goulbourne’s critical edition of Le Temple de la gloire in the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (vol. 28A, 2006) gets to grips for the first time with the complicated history of Voltaire’s libretto. But it is hard to fully appreciate any libretto without the music which brings it to life. Voltaire’s libretto was frequently printed in his lifetime, but Rameau’s music remained unpublished until 1909, when Saint-Saëns brought out the 1746 version of the score; the music of the 1745 version, long thought lost, has only recently turned up in the university library at Berkeley.

A French musicologist, Julien Dubruque, has just produced the first critical edition of the score (Opera omnia Rameau, vol. IV.12), its appearance in 2014 timed to coincide with the celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. Much of this music has never been heard since the eighteenth century, and on 14 October 2014 a concert performance of Le Temple de la gloire was given in the beautiful eighteenth-century Opéra Royal at Versailles, with Guy Van Waas conducting his orchestra, Les Agrémens, and the Chœur de chambre de Namur. To those of us who had only heard the old LP recording made by Jean-Claude Malgoire (CBS, 1982), this concert was an amazing revelation.

Gloire_illus

Of course Le Temple de la gloire was only ever an occasional piece, but perhaps on that account we have underestimated it. The work was patently an attempt to relive the glory days of the celebrations at the court of Louis XIV. But if Louis XV was clearly uncomfortable in the shoes of the Sun King, Rameau and Voltaire, on the evidence of this concert, could certainly fill the shoes of Lully and Quinault. The re-emergence of Rameau’s glorious music – and a recording of the concert is to be released – should encourage us to return to Voltaire’s libretto and reassess his achievement as a writer for the Court.

The concert can be heard on the website of France Musique until 13 November 2014.

For more on eighteenth-century libretti, see Le Livret d’opéra en France au XVIIIe siècle, by Béatrice Didier.

– Nicholas Cronk

Emilie Du Châtelet defends her life

Last night several of us went the short distance from the Voltaire Foundation to the intimate Simpkins Lee Theatre at Lady Margaret Hall to see Emilie: la marquise Du Châtelet defends her life tonight by Lauren Gunderson. Knowing nothing of the play, but a little about Emilie Du Châtelet, I was braced for an evening of nudity (read about the butler’s embarrassment here), gambling and adultery. I can assure you that it wasn’t. The Emilie Du Châtelet presented in this play is very much appropriate for a general audience wanting to find out about a woman scientist of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately the play presented quite a one-sided oversimplification of her life, with no hint, for example, of the bullying to which she subjected Mme de Graffigny. It seems wrong somehow, in a play about a possible feminist icon, to reduce another one to a mere annoying houseguest.

La marquise Du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière

La marquise Du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière

We had no such misgivings about the production. All the actors were fun to watch for their enthusiasm and quirkiness. The older Emilie Du Châtelet put in a great performance, despite the punishing task of being on stage for the entire play, including the interval. We particularly enjoyed the highly expressive face of her father, husband and new young lover (all played by the same actor). But Voltaire naturally stole the show for us!

Emilie defends her life again tonight and until 15 February 2014.

Anyone curious to round out their knowledge of Emilie Du Châtelet should read Emilie du Châtelet: rewriting Enlightenment philosophy and science, edited by Judith P. Zinsser and Julie Candler Hayes, or Cirey dans la vie intellectuelle du XVIIIe siècle: la réception de Newton en France, edited by François De Gandt (in French).

– ACB