Jacques Pierre Brissot and Charles Burney: unpublished letters reveal a dance to society’s music

Charles Burney, by Joshua Reynolds

Charles Burney, by Joshua Reynolds. (National Portrait Gallery)

Charles Burney (1726-1814), eminent music historian and man of letters, son of a musician and dancer, was a central figure in the literary, artistic and musical world of late eighteenth-century London, regularly to be found at Joshua Reynolds’ dining club among the leading figures of the day.

Brissot de Warville, by François Bonneville

Brissot de Warville, by François Bonneville, c.1790. (Musée Carnavalet, Paris)

In February 1783 the French philosopher and politician Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754-1793), known as Brissot de Warville, moved to London with his wife, Félicité Dupont, a year after their marriage. Shortly after his arrival Brissot met Burney at the home of the lawyer and pamphleteer Simon Nicolas Henri Linguet (1736-1794). About a month later, on 16 March 1783, Brissot wrote to Burney, in French, from his lodgings in Brompton Row, initiating a correspondence that would continue for several months. In his letter, intended to renew their recent acquaintance, Brissot expressed his high esteem for Burney’s General history of music (1776-1789), of which the first two of four volumes had been published, and indicated his eagerness to meet Burney again. Enclosed with the letter was a prospectus for a forthcoming periodical, in which Brissot hoped to reproduce a portrait of Burney’s daughter Frances (1752-1840), whose bestselling first novel Evelina (1778) had recently been followed by the much longer and also highly successful Cecilia (1782).

Brissot to Charles Burney, 16 March 1783

Brissot to Charles Burney, 16 March 1783. (Beinecke Library, Yale University)

This intriguing letter, held by the Beinecke Library at Yale University, has never been published, although it is briefly summarized in the notes to the first volume of Burney’s letters, the only one published to date. (The Letters of Dr Charles Burney, vol. 1, 1751-1784, ed. Alvaro Ribeiro, S.J., Oxford, 1991, p.357. Five further volumes of this edition are now in progress, under my general editorship; Burney’s letters to Brissot will be published as an appendix to volume six.) This volume does include an undated draft of Burney’s reply, which he wrote, in laboured French dictated to Frances, on the verso of the second page of Brissot’s letter. Burney here tells Brissot that although his daughter is flattered by the request, she cannot grant it. Thomas Cadell, the publisher of Cecilia, had also wished to reproduce her portrait as the frontispiece to the fourth edition, ‘mais y ayant une répugnance invincible, elle lui a donné un refus absolu’ (p.358). Unknown to Ribeiro, the fair copy of this letter, in Charles Burney’s hand and dated 25 March 1783, is also extant, in the Fonds Brissot of the Archives nationales de France. This copy contains a concluding paragraph, absent from the draft published by Ribeiro, in which Burney cagily tells Brissot that while he would like to invite him for a visit to the Burneys’ home on St Martin’s Street, ‘je suis si rarement au logis, qu’il m’est à cet heure impossible de trouver un moment pour entretenir mes amis les plus intimes’.

Fanny Burney, by Edward Francisco Burney

Fanny Burney, by Edward Francisco Burney. (National Portrait Gallery)

Brissot’s reply to Burney’s letter, probably sent in late March, is missing. But Burney’s response to that letter, written on 2 April 1783, is also in the Fonds Brissot, together with three further hitherto unknown letters by Burney. This cache of material was discovered by the historian of eighteenth-century Anglo-French relations Simon MacDonald, to whom I much indebted. I am also grateful to the Burney scholar Lorna Clark, for providing me with photographs and draft transcriptions of the letters.

In his April letter to Brissot, Burney addresses his new correspondent in English, in preference to what he terms ‘the miserable French I am able to write’. He thanks Brissot for the interest he has taken in Frances Burney’s novels, and ‘the frank manner in which you have spoken of their merits & defects’; in the absence of Brissot’s letter, regrettably, the nature of these criticisms remains unknown. Burney next alludes to remarks that Brissot has made about Voltaire, who, ‘with all his wit & reputation, has never been able to convince the English that Shakespeare was a Barbarian, any more than many eminent Writers among my Countrymen, have been able to persuade the French that their taste in many things is false and frivolous’. He looks forward, he claims, to discussing ‘Literary projects’ mentioned by Brissot, but cannot spare time for a meeting at present, since he is immersed in volume three of the History of music.

Charles Burney to Brissot, 23 July 1763

Charles Burney to Brissot, 23 July 1763. (Fonds Brissot, Archives nationales de France)

The third letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot is a note dated Saturday 12 July, sent from St Martin’s Street to Brissot at Brompton Row. Here Burney invites Brissot and his wife for a visit ‘next Friday afternoon’. Another note by Burney in the Fonds, dated 23 July, reveals that the visit had not materialized; instead Burney proposes another afternoon visit to take place on the following day. Brissot, however, somehow mistook the date for this second invitation. In a letter to Burney of 29 July, held by the Beinecke Library, he apologizes for the misunderstanding, and hopes to make amends by enclosing a copy of the Mercure d’Allemagne containing his review of Cecilia, of which a German translation had been published in Leipzig earlier that year. (See Catherine M. Parisian, Frances Burney’s Cecilia: a publishing history, Burlington, 2012, p.336.)

A fifth and final letter from Burney in the Fonds Brissot, written on 1 August 1783, reveals that the Brissots had made a visit to St Martin’s Street but without finding the family at home. Burney was ‘extremely mortified & concerned’ at having missed them, but hoped that they would still be able to meet, either at his home or at the Brissots’ lodgings. In the event, the Brissots did eventually come to St Martin’s Street, as an extensive note appended by Frances Burney to Brisot’s letter of 29 July reveals. Writing long after the event, Frances reports that there was an ‘Evening Rendez-Vous’. Brissot was ‘rather agreeable, from fullness of literary information’, while his wife was ‘very young, & very civil, & a sort of flaming beauty, by the dazzling crimson of her natural complexion, & lustre of her Eyes’. Brissot, however, then made the fatal mistake of leaving London to join the ‘dreadful Duke d’Orleans’, and ‘Ten years after this peaceful meeting … he was Guiliotined [sic], with 20 other Members of The Convention!’

No further correspondence between Brissot and Burney is known to be extant, but in her Memoirs of Doctor Burney (1832) the eighty-year old Frances, now the widowed Mme d’Arblay, provides a four-page account of the letters and meetings of 1783. Over the years she had turned against Brissot, and her portrait of him is distinctly hostile. He had, she claims, ‘a certain low-bred fullness and forwardness of look, even in the midst of professions of humility and respect, that were by no means attractive to Dr. Burney’. Her father thus avoided ‘this latent demagogue’, whose ‘jacobinical harangues and proceedings, five years later, were blazoned to the world by the republican gazettes’. Brissot’s ‘pretty wife’, she added, seemed unobjectionable, but Burney ‘always regretted that he had been deluded into shewing even the smallest token of hospitality to her intriguing husband’ (Memoirs, II, 336, 337). Thanks to the newly discovered letters in the Fonds Brissot, we can now, for the first time, compare Frances Burney’s harsh retrospective account of 1832 with the delicate social manoeuvring revealed by surviving correspondence between Brissot and Dr Burney in 1783.

Peter Sabor

 

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

Lockdown leisures: how the eighteenth-century Parisian lady would have kept herself busy

Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame

François-Hubert Drouais, Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, 1763-1764. (The National Gallery, London)

Removed from the ceremony and allegory of much court portraiture, Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame by François-Hubert Drouais depicts a more intimate and naturalistic moment in the Marquise’s day. The painting was begun in April 1763 and completed in May 1764, a month after Madame de Pompadour’s death. As the sitter’s head, shoulders, and right forearm are rendered on a smaller rectangular canvas which has been inserted into the larger work, this section was likely sketched from life, with the body and background added later in the artist’s studio – not an uncommon practice for important clients. Around the room are scattered objects related to a variety of pursuits enjoyed by the cultured (and fashionable) royal favourite: the tambour embroidery she works at, a bookcase filled with books, and, resting against the elaborate table with Sèvres porcelain plaques, a folio of drawings or engravings and a mandolin.

Although these last two items are no doubt a nod to the Marquise’s strong interests in the arts and her patronage of artists and musicians, the mandolin was in any case immensely popular in Paris in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Neapolitan instrument became a fashionable pastime, especially amongst ladies. Indeed, one of the earliest published tutorials was marketed especially to women: Giovanni Battista Gervasio’s Méthode très facile Pour apprendre à jouer de la Mandoline à quatre Cordes Instrument fait pour les Dames [‘Very Easy Method to Learn How to Play the Four String Mandolin Instrument Made for Ladies’] (Paris, 1767). The mandolin of the mid-eighteenth century differed from earlier versions, which more closely resembled a lute, was tuned in fourths, and had its strings plucked with the player’s fingers. By contrast, the newer instrument was plucked with a plectrum (made of a hen, ostrich, or even raven feather), and was tuned in fifths like a violin. This meant that the repertoire could also be played on the violin – a more popular instrument for the professional musician – and publications could therefore interest a wider market. Publications like Gabriele Leone’s Méthode Raisonnée Pour passer du Violon à la Mandoline (1768) also taught the violinist how to transfer their technique to the mandolin.

Illustrations from the frontispiece of Gabriele Leone’s Méthode

Illustrations from the frontispiece of Gabriele Leone’s Méthode, showing the correct playing position for ladies on the left. Engraved by Mme Vendôme.

Despite the instrument’s southern Italian roots, the repertoire of the mandolin was most fully developed and widely printed in France. Paris was the epicentre of music publishing in the eighteenth century, and composers working there developed a distinct musical style for the mandolin, lighter and more melodic than anything heard previously (a wonderful playlist is available to listen to here). In the period 1761 to 1783, around eighty-five volumes of music for mandolin were published in Paris (a complete list can be found in Appendix III of The Early Mandolin by James Tyler and Paul Sparks, which also offers a comprehensive history of the instrument). With many free options for sheet music and original facsimiles of the eighteenth-century méthodes available online, as well as nineteenth-century versions of the instrument often easy to purchase, if you have been looking for a new pastime to stay occupied it may be the mandolin’s time for a revival. If not, you may simply enjoy listening to some beguiling music by eighteenth-century composers like Gabriele Leone, Giovanni Fouchetti or Pietro Denis.

– Natasha Shoory

Natasha is a first-year PhD student in History at Durham University, fully funded by the Durham Doctoral Studentship.

Behind the scenes of eighteenth-century music and theatre

Operahuset

Gustaf Nyblaeus (1783–1849), Interior from Gustav III’s opera house, scene from Méhul’s Une folie, which was performed at the Opera from 1811 onwards. Photo credits: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Licence: CC BY SA.

In recent years cross-disciplinary encounters and research agendas have stimulated an upsurge of interest in the history of early modern and eighteenth-century music and theatre, resulting in new insights into musical methods, artistic milieus and hubs, and the professional practices of actors and musicians.

It was clearly an opportune time to weave these strands into a single publication.

The story of our book began on the shores of the Mediterranean, where two ANR research programmes (CITERE and THEREPSICHORE) and one Academy of Finland research project (‘Comic opera and society in France and Northern Europe, c.1760–1790’) pooled their resources to stage a series of research meetings that enabled a thought-provoking exchange of ideas between historians, literature specialists, linguists and musicologists, paving the way for a truly interdisciplinary volume. An added bonus was the pleasure of working with such a cosmopolitan team of authors from Europe, the US and Australia.

The result, Moving scenes: the circulation of music and theatre in Europe, 1700-1815, certainly reflects something of the repeated crossing of borders – political, linguistic and stylistic, and borders of convention and genre, society and culture – that characterized musical and dramatic production in the eighteenth century. By adopting a case study approach it is our hope that this volume will provide insights into life behind the scenes, such as:

  • The various personal or political motives and struggles related to particular productions, as in the case of Grétry or the productions of French plays in Germany during the coalition wars.
  • Conditions of the recruitment of actors and musicians, illustrated by Favart’s efforts to hire French comedians for the Viennese stage.
  • The sociology of the artistic profession and the material conditions of artistic careers, as exemplified by the Huguenot actor and writer Joseph Uriot, who crossed social, political and linguistic borders between French-speaking territories and the German-speaking world.
Beaumarchais

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), Portrait of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1755), oil on canvas, 82.3 x 64.5 cm. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC PD Mark.

The book may be in English but the geographic framework is largely European, the eighteenth century being a Europe of French theatre and Italian music. The Leitmotif, however, is circulation: circulation of people, ideals, musical themes, and literary innovations and appropriations. These are stories about high art and the canon of good taste, about patronage and collecting, about translation and imitation, and about earning a living as an artist. They take us from Stockholm to Madrid and from Moscow to New York, and show the extent to which travelling and mobility was, and always has been, part of the artistic and musical sphere. Indeed, it is also part of the academic sphere.

The disciplines of intellectual history and cultural history can tend to be mutually suspicious – or indeed ignorant – of each other. With our book, Moving scenes, we want to demonstrate that by focusing on the actual circulation of people, texts and works across Europe, it is possible to overcome many theoretical obstacles and initiate fruitful debates that cross any disciplinary barriers.

– Charlotta Wolff and Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire