Rousseau in 1753,
by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Of his many careers, Rousseau’s role as a composer and musicologist is today less frequently remembered. Rousseau studied and taught music, and had a particular interest in music history, which at the time was unusual. During his travels in Italy he produced copies of numerous scores and arranged Vivaldi’s Seasons for flute. He wrote chansons as well as other vocal works, and various pieces for small instrumental ensembles, most of which are lost. Likewise, the music for his tragédie lyrique, La découverte du nouveau monde no longer exists. The musical examples for his Dictionnaire de musique of 1768 had a significant impact on eighteenth-century musical and philosophical debates. His theoretical writings on music include numerous treatises, often in the form of letters to influential figures such as the Abbé Raynal and the philosopher Jean Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, for whom he wrote the entries on music for the Encyclopédie. His ideas on music and musical drama are also reflected in his literary and philosophical works. Saint-Preux, the protagonist of his Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse favours the Italian over the French tradition in music theatre, insisting that opera should speak directly through music, without using complicated stage effects.

Rousseau’s thinking on the aesthetics of opera is closely related to a crucial turning point in the history of music theatre, often referred to as the Querelle des Bouffons, the so-called “quarrel of comic actors”. This debate started in 1752, but its origins lead us back to 1733, the year of the first performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s hugely successful opera La serva padrona. Pergolesi’s work was a so-called intermezzo, usually performed in between the parts of another stage work. In conception it was not dissimilar to another musical genre popular at the time, the commedia musicale. With La serva padrona Pergolesi found a particularly convincing way of presenting his characters in a natural and realistic style. The composer died shortly after the performance of his opera, in 1736, at the age of only twenty-six. His premature death sparked off a cult around his persona and his musical genius. His last work, the Stabat Mater became the musical work most frequently printed during the eighteenth century. In 1746 La serva padrona was presented in Paris; and in 1752 two new editions of the work appeared in print. The same year, two decades after the first performance of Pergolesi’s work, the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris staged La serva padrona in a production by a group of comic actors, referred to as buffoni, or buffoons. This was the beginning of the Querelle des Bouffons, which was sparked off by what was most characteristic of Pergolesi’s work: compared to the conventions of opera seria, a more natural and realistic presentation of the opera’s main characters. This idea became one of the main features of the new genre of opera buffa. What opponents in this debate were quarrelling about were the differences between the French and Italian operatic styles, as well as attempts to create a new genre on the basis of bringing different styles of music together: Italian opera seria, the French operatic tradition of tragédie musicale (as represented by Lully and Rameau), and the new genre of opera buffa.

During this debate the encyplopédistes around Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert took the side of the reformers, arguing that the Italian style was closer to the senses. A few years earlier, in his entries for the Encyclopédie, Rousseau had already criticised the French musical tradition, in particular Rameau. At the height of the Querelle des Buffons he then decided to write his own short opera Le devin du village, an early attempt to merge the new ideas coming from Italy with his own philosophical concepts into a new type of French opera. Unlike the French tradition of the vaudeville, Rousseau’s opera has no spoken scenes, all the recitatives are sung and the arias are orchestrated. Meanwhile, the opera’s finale takes from the vaudeville tradition the idea of mixing solo scenes with a shared refrain. What was to become rather a common technique was perceived in the 1750s to be radically different from existing conventions. Most importantly, his protagonists did not present classical allegories: they were not mythical creatures, but ordinary people. The plot is not set in an ideal landscape, but in a common French village.

At Fontainebleau Rousseau’s Le devin was received extremely well when it was first performed in October 1752, despite the traditionally influential role of court-composers such as Lully and Rameau. The King Louis XV and his maîtresse en titre, Madame de Pompadour liked the work, despite – or perhaps because of – its association with aesthetic debates at the time and the challenges to conventions of opera. Half a year later, in March 1753, Le devin was presented at the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris, where the Querelle had started. Soon the work went on a tour of many of Europe’s most prestigious musical venues. Thus Le devin was a successful opera and due to its connection with the Querelle it also played an important part in the history of operatic reform. However, Le devin was not Rousseau’s last word on music and opera. By the time of the opera’s first performance Friedrich Melchior von Grimm and the Paul-Henri Dietrich d’Holbach, two influential penseurs and music critics of German origins, had contributed to the Querelle with articles praising the virtues of Italian over French music. In 1753, in his Lettre sur la musique francaise, Rousseau explained that Italian music was closer to the voice and more natural, whereas in French opera language and music were largely disconnected. Many of our modern debates on the alleged links between music and national character stem from this quarrel. Increasingly, arguments about music and language became the tools of ideological battles, which were driven by national pride. During the second half of the 1750s Rousseau further developed some of his ideas on the subject in his Essai sur l’origine des langues. Meanwhile, the debates on the aesthetics of operatic representation also continued. Not all of these debates were focussed on Paris. An important step towards new forms of music theatre happened further east, in Berlin, where in 1755 Frederick II of Prussia wrote the libretto for Carl Heinrich Graun’s opera Montezuma. The work opposed enlightened Natives to the barbarity of Catholic Spaniards. Frederick’s libretto was a direct reference to the condemnation of the European conquistadors in the work of Montaigne, Rousseau and Muratori. As argued in Francesco Algarotti’s influential Essays on Opera (1755), Montezuma also represented a new approach to operatic dramaturgy, attempting to produce a more natural integration of music, poetry and dance, issues very much at the heart of Rousseau’s own concerns.

Debates over a more realistic and natural form of operatic representation had a major influence on the Bohemian composer Johann Willibald Gluck, who was familiar with Rousseau’s ideas as well as with the reforms taking place at Frederick’s court in Berlin. In the late 1750s Gluck started writing opéra comique, which was directly influenced by the debates surrounding the new Italian genre of opera buffa. Likewise, Gluck’s work in the serious genre can be seen as the result of the aesthetic debates of his day. His Orfeo ed Euridice of 1762, the first of Gluck’s reform operas, integrates all dance scenes into the dramatic action and confronts the audience with a new “classical” simplicity. Among the things Rousseau wanted to remove from the performance of opera were the machines for stage effects, which in his opinion only distracted the audience from the music. Opera should speak through music, which in itself became the theme of Gluck’s Orfeo. Gluck’s reform operas gave Rousseau’s ideas a new meaning, making the aesthetics of operatic representation closer to human character. It was on this basis that Le devin du village was often performed in combination with or alongside Gluck’s tragic operas.


At the time, a new quarrel on musical style was about to erupt: the fights between Gluck’s supporters, the Gluckists, and the Piccinists, the supporters of the Italian composer Niccoló Piccini, who had just made his own entry into the field of French opera. Most of these debates on musical style in late eighteenth-century France referred back to Rousseau’s musical ideas, but also to his philosophy more generally, the relationship between nature, mankind and aesthetic representation. One of these debates continued well into the nineteenth-century and today it still informs our experience of an evening at the theatre. Until the second half of the nineteenth century, most Italian theatres used to perform unrelated ballets and operas during the same evening, frequently presenting ballets in between the acts of an opera. The combination of the two pushed up the costs of running theatres, but allowed audiences to extend an evening at the opera over the entire night, which presented certain advantages, not least because most theatres were better heated than the homes of the nobility. Meanwhile, critics argued that ballets presented between the acts of the opera distracted the audience from the dramatic action. When during the second half of the nineteenth century most theatres stopped performing ballets in between the acts of the opera, their administrators still referred back to the debates that had been sparked off by Rousseau’s attempts to make opera more natural.

In 2012 UCOpera performed Rousseau’s Le devin du village as part of the Centre for Transnational History’s tercentenary events “Rousseau 300 : Nature, Self, and State”. A previous version of this essay appeared as part of the programme booklet for the performance.

Selected bibliography:

  • Timothy Blanning, “The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution”, in: The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture. Old Regime Europe 1660-1789. Oxford, 2002, 356-427
  • David Charlton, “Genre and form in French opera”, in: Anthony R. Del Donna and Pierpaolo Polzonetti, eds, The Cambridge Companion to eighteenth-century opera. Cambridge, 2009, 155-183
  • Tili Boon Cuillé, “Marvelous Machines: Revitalizing Enlightenment Opera”, The Opera Quarterly, 27/1 (Winter 2011), 66-93
  • Denise Launay, ed., La Querelle des bouffons. 3 voll. Geneva, 1973
  • Pierpaolo Polzonetti, Italian Opera in the Age of the American Revolution. Cambridge, 2011
  • Cynthia Verba, Music and the French Enlightenment. Oxford, 1993
  • Robert Wokler, “La Querelle des Bouffons and the Italian liberation of France”, Eighteenth-Century Life 11/1 (1987), 94-116

© Axel Körner

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