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Of women, sex and folly: Opera under the Old Regime

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 August 2008


Conservative writers in seventeenth-century France tended to agree that the morals of women were degenerating, though they disagreed as to whether the cause was the excessive strictness or the leniency of husbands. We would perhaps characterise the change more as a newly found sense of freedom and self-confidence that allowed women, however tentatively, to contest the double standard of the age. The new morality was seen in fashions that bared progressively more of the neck, shoulders, breasts, ankles and legs, revealing new erotic frontiers; in a relaxation of the taboo against female swearing and coarse language; in an epidemic of female gambling; and in scandalous reports of women's over-indulgences in the sensual pleasures of food, drink, nicotine and sex.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1994

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1 Gibson, Wendy, Women in Seventeenth-Century France (New York, 1989), 172201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Problematic as the terms ‘feminist’ and ‘anti-feminist’ are, I have chosen to retain them here since they are universally employed in current discussions of the querelle des femmes, both in histories of women and in literary criticism.

3 Maclean, Ian, Woman Triumphant: Feminism in French Literature 1610–1652 (Oxford, 1977)Google Scholar; see especially the chapter ‘Feminism and Baroque’, 238–51.Google Scholar The quotation is from the anonymous Tableau der piperies des femmes mondaines.

4 This list is compiled from various epithet dictionaries, c. 1570–1625, quoted by Maclean, , 241–2.Google Scholar

5 Critical edition by Finch, Robert and Joliat, Eugène (Geneva, 1979).Google Scholar

6 Ibid., 44–5.

7 Ibid., 55.

8 Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas, Satire X (Contre les femmes)Google Scholar, in Oeuvres complètes (Paris, 1966), 66–7.Google Scholar

9 Apologie des femmes (Paris, 1694), 39.Google Scholar

10 Gorce, Jérome de La, ‘Vie et moeurs des chanteuses de l'Opéra â Paris sous le règne de Louis XIV’, Littératures classiques, 12 (1990), 328Google Scholar; Norberg, Kathryn, ‘Prostitutes’, in Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes, The History of Women, 3 (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), 469Google Scholar; and Lagrave, Henri, Le Théâtre et le public â Paris de 1715 â 1750 (Paris, 1972), 499512.Google Scholar

11 Norberg, , 469.Google Scholar When female singers were married, they were required by law to have the written consent of their husbands before signing a theatrical contract ( Rosselli, John, Singers of Italian Opera: The History of a Profession [Cambridge, 1992], 67Google Scholar).

12 Gorce, La, 328.Google Scholar

13 Ibid., 327–8.

14 Gorce, Ed. Jerome de La (Paris [1993]).Google Scholar Although the treatise is anonymous, La Gorce names the abbé Vassetz as a possible author because of the similarity in style of this work and his Traité coutre le luxe des coiffures (1694).

15 Ibid., 77.

16 Ibid., 78.

17 Ibid., 78–9.

18 Ibid., 80.

19 Ibid., 12, and Boileau-Despréaux, , Oeuvres complètes, 931.Google Scholar

20 Casanova, , Mémoires, I (Paris, 1958), 688.Google Scholar

21 Ibid., 689.

22 Gorce, La, ‘Vie et moeurs des chanteuses de l'Opéra’, 326–36.Google Scholar One must suspect, of course, that moralists as well as libertines would have a motivation to exaggerate their claims. La Gorce points to some clear evidence that salaries were higher than rumour would have it, and that at least occasionally performers were chosen on the basis of merit (see also Gorce, La, L'Opéra à Paris au temps de Louis XIV [Paris, 1992], 93–4Google Scholar). Rosselli, , Singers of Italian Opera, 142Google Scholar, maintains that salaries of opera singers were higher in Paris and London than in any other centre of opera in Europe.

23 Lagrave, , 500–33.Google Scholar

24 Gibson, , 24–5.Google Scholar

25 La Princesse d'Elide, quoted by Gibson, 171.Google Scholar

26 Letter of 8 January 1674.

27 Neal Zaslaw has shown, in ‘The First Opera in Paris: A Study in the Politics of Art’ (in Heyer, J. H., ed., Jean-Baptiste Lully and the Music of the French Baroque [Cambridge, 1989], 723Google Scholar), that no complete Italian operas were produced in Paris during this period. Arias, scenas, cantatas and sonatas, however, were performed at private concerts beginning in the last decade of the seventeenth century and at some public ones in the early eighteenth century. Italian opera was also known to travellers making the Italian tour, and through their letters and journals to friends at home. By the 1730s, the Italian style was well known to the French, despite the absence of Italian opera on the French stage.

28 Facsimile, edn (Geneva, 1972), 46.Google Scholar

30 Les Bijoux indiscrets, ed. Assésat, J. (Paris, 1908), 5761.Google Scholar

31 Le Spectacle de la nature (Paris, 17231750), VII (1746)Google Scholar, ‘Professions instructives’, 96142.Google Scholar On the origins of the term ‘baroque’ and its place in these quarrels, see Cowan, Georgia, The Origins of Modern Musical Criticism: French and Italian Music, 1600–1750 (Ann Arbor, 1981), 96106Google Scholar, and Polisca, Claude, ‘“Baroque” as a Musico-Critical Term’, French Musical Thought 1600–1800, ed. Cowan, Georgia (Ann Arbor and London, 1989), 721.Google Scholar

32 Saint-Mard, Remond de, Réflexions sur l'opéra (1741; rpt. Geneva, 1972), 14.Google Scholar

33 Ibid., 103–4.

34 The term ‘aesthetics’ was coined in 1750 to mean ‘appreciation by the senses’; such a concept had not existed before this period. See Cowan, Georgia, ‘Inventing the Arts: Changing Critical Language in the Ancien Régime’, French Musical thought 1600–1800, 211–38.Google Scholar

35 Note the similarity of this table to Cusick's, Suzanne G. list in ‘Gendering Modern Music: Thoughts on the Monteverdi–Artusi Controversy’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 46 (1993), 8CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Neal Zaslaw's comparison of the French debates with the Monteverdi–Artusi conflict ( The Musical Quarterly, 60 [1974], 492Google Scholar). Barbara Russano Hanning traces this gendered rhetoric back to Zarlino, Boethius via and others in ‘Monteverdi's Three Genera: A Study in Terminology’, Musical Humanism and Its Legag: Essays in Honor of Claude V. Palisca, ed. Baker, Nancy Kovaleff and Hanning, Barbara Russano (Stuyvesant, New York, 1992), 145–70.Google Scholar Linda Phyllis Austern has recently published two studies documenting some of the same patterns in England: Alluring the Auditorie to Effeminacie’: Music and the Idea of the Feminine in Early Modern England’, Music and Letters, 74 (1993), 112Google Scholar, and ‘Music and the English Renaissance Controversy Over Women’, Cecilia Reclaimed. Feminist Approaches to Music, ed. Cook, Susan and Tsou, Judy (Urbana, 1993), 52669.Google Scholar

36 Antoine Houdar de la Motte, librettist of Le Carnaval et la Folie (see below), credits Erasmus with furnishing ‘the scene and almost all the characters of my play’. For an excellent analysis of Folly as a wisewoman and the tradition from which she emerges, see Kaiser, Walter, Praisers of Folly: Eramus, Rabelais, Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), 1100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 Libretto in Recueil général des opéras représentés par l'Académie Royale de Musique depuis son établissement, II (Geneva, 1971), 172–85.Google Scholar My source for the music is a 1745 Ballard print.

38 Ibid., 174.

40 In Cbefs-d'auvre classiques de l'opéra français, V (New York, 1971).Google Scholar

41 Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, trans. Iswolsky, Helene (Bloomington, 1984), 255.Google Scholar

42 Kramer, Lawrence, ‘Carnaval, Cross-Dressing, and the Woman in the Mirror’, in Musicology and Difference, ed. Solie, Ruth A. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993), 306.Google Scholar

43 The instrumental cousin to our operatrice is of course the folia, which originated as a Portugese carnival dance and is known to have been performed by men in drag. In Spain the genre took on lascivious qualities as a dance of seduction. The folia bass and harmonic pattern soon became a favourite for variation, and variations on the folia represent an important genre in the Baroque. The folla was never much associated with France, where it was called les folies d'Espagne, but one early eighteenth-century example, François Couperin's Les Folies françaises, is well known. Couperin presents as variations on a bass a series of women (Follies) costumed for a masked ball, for example, Virginity, Ardour, Fidelity, Coquettishness, Benevolent Cuckoos (slang for prostitutes), Jealousy, Frenzy. I interpret even the most demure of these qualities as simply different disguises for Folly, and thus variations on the theme of comic madness.

44 In a manuscript copy Vm 267 at the Bibliothèque nationale; libretto in Recueil, 89104.Google Scholar I am indebted to James Anthony for the following information.

45 My source is a 1749 Ballard print. A facsimile of the libretto printed by Ballard for the first performance in 1745 may be found in the booklet accompanying Platée, Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski (Erato-Disques 2292–45028–2, 1990).

46 Ibid., 110.

48 Ibid., 112.

49 Ibid., 114.

50 Ibid., 112. Folly did not figure in the original play by Jacques Autreau. Rameau bought the rights to the play so that he and his librettist, Le Valois d'Orville, could have free reign in reshaping the plot and in introducing this entirely new character. It seems clear in this connection that Folly represents the modem composer, even Rameau himself. Could this be why Folly announces herself by strumming tonic, subdominant and dominant chords on her stolen lyre?

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