Behind the scenes of eighteenth-century music and theatre


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.

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



The world’s a revolving stage

Voltaire wrote on most subjects under the sun but his particular area of expertise in his own eyes – and one about which he probably felt more entitled to offer an informed opinion than almost any of his contemporaries – was undoubtedly literature, and more specifically theatre. For although the modern reader will be familiar with the great man’s œuvre chiefly through his contes, his dramatic output far exceeded that of his tales. Consequently Voltaire saw himself first and foremost as a dramatist and a poet.

Title page of the first edition of the Appel.

Title page of the first edition of the Appel.

In this context, his Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (1761) makes fascinating reading. This text, just like another Appel launched by another great Frenchman almost two centuries later, is a call to national resistance. But in Voltaire’s case the invaders are not of the military but of the literary kind and they come not from outre-Rhin, but from outre-Manche.

Essentially what Voltaire aims to do in his Appel is to reassert France’s status as the leading nation for theatrical excellence, and to try to nip in the bud what he sees as a wave of rather irritating Anglomania spreading through French literary circles. His main target is none other than Shakespeare himself, whom, ironically, he had helped to popularise in France. Voltaire the Anglophile, who is usually more inclined to play down the virtues of the French nation than to extol them, is piqued into action by the seemingly unstoppable English success on the world stage – unlike France, England is having a very good Seven Years War – and he is therefore determined to defend France’s supremacy on the theatrical stage.

Voltaire duly sets out to analyse passages in Hamlet and Othello and to denounce the author’s unforgivable lapses in good taste and his disregard for the rules of classical theatre. Shakespeare, he concludes, is not without his merit or even genius, but he is too quintessentially English ever to rival the great Racine and Corneille – whose appeal is truly universal – on the stages of Europe.

For the modern reader, a certain pathos emerges from the pages of the Appel in view of how unprophetic it turned out to be. Voltaire’s spirited defence of his own conception of what theatre should be could not turn the tide of the ongoing shift in public taste, and one has a sense that, even in 1761, he was probably fighting somewhat of a rearguard action.

One can only wonder what he would have made of the recent adaptation of his Candide for the stage, by an Englishman, in a production full of sound and fury, performed in Stratford-upon-Avon by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Oh the irony!

–Georges Pilard