Crazy People in Music, Op. 1, No. 1 “Rousseau and his Buffoons Take on the Monarchy”

Friday, May 13, 2011 at 7:51 PM

                No matter what explicit purpose is designated to its creation, music is the expression of human life. Want to understand a particular demographic today? Or perhaps get a clearer picture of what a society was like at another point in time? The music produced and enjoyed by those people can give you a detailed account of their lives: their priorities and activities, their challenges and interactions, their traditions and developments. Human society is pretty fantastic that way—we like to tell stories and show off who we are. But sometimes who we are can be pretty nuts: humans sure do the darndest things. So here’s to a celebration of all the quirky things people have done in relation to music.

                 One of my favourite instances of peculiar behaviour in music occurred in 18th century France:  “The War of the Buffoons”. However, in order to tell this little tale, I need to backtrack a bit and look very quickly at the development of opera in France. Oh, yes. I am talking about opera.

It is important to remember that opera, unlike the majority of other genres in classical music, was invented. This means that prior to the work of certain Italian figures, such as those in the Florentine Camerata during the late 16th century, the concept of a drama set to music was foreign to pretty much everyone. Contrast this with other genres like the symphony, which developed through "advancements" in ensemble works during the course of many years. So when opera ventured out of the lovely Italian city states, audiences in Europe had varying responses to the latest novelty in music.

The initial response from France was fairly negative. Critics refused to believe that opera would be compatible with the French culture and language, nor did it help that they would not accept the suspension of belief required to combine music and drama—most people don't burst into song as they die from a stab wound, a suicide, or TB...or during most activities for that matter. See: Mimi in Puccini’s La boh√®me, although that’s getting quite far ahead in this historical discussion.

It also didn’t help that a lot of French folk hated the Italians at the time, which included Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin, a huge proponent of opera. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that opera was partially rejected out of spite for the Cardinal. 

To make a very long story short, France eventually did accept opera into their musical repertoire. But being the way they were, it could only be done in a French way, rejecting the Italian example. It amuses me how some people try so hard—too hard?—to be unique. All sorts of things were redone: the melodic style and range, the rhythm of the recitative (sung dialogue), and French overtures and dance were incorporated. A lot of it was focused on glorifying the French monarchy, often featuring roles for the King to perform himself. Want to know where the Sun King nickname came from? Jean-Baptiste Lully had Louis XIV perform the role of Apollo in a ballet, and the “sun god” reference stuck.

Louis XIV as Apollo

It was also Lully who championed the opera in France, redesigning it to be suitable to the national culture. Fun fact: Jean-Baptiste Lully, champion of French opera, was born in Italy! What an irony. Unfortunately for Lully, the French performance practices eventually lead to his death. The French practice for keeping time in music didn’t involve conducting with a baton or hands, but rather had conductors banging a staff on the floor. Lully managed to bang a staff on his toe pretty darn hard and refused to get it amputated when it got infected, leading to the poor composer's demise.

It’s worth noting that practices such as banging a staff on the floor to keep time were largely why outsiders often scoffed at French music. Music critic Charles Burney commented quite politely: “as a spectacle, this opera is often superior to any other...but as music, it is below our country psalmody, being without time, tune, or expression.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself comments on how one could not perceive a beat in the music without the crude banging from the conductor.

And so French opera continued with its unique form for a very long time…until 1752, when the Buffoons arrived.

In 1752 an Italian troupe of comic actors arrived in France, performing an Italian comedy by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, La serva padrona. This was a risky move, due to the French near-religious fervour for their national style. So it should not have been a surprise that this performance instigated what came to be known as the War of the Buffoons. French nationalists voiced their vehement opposition to the unsuitable Italian style in a series of pamphlets and newspaper articles. Fortunately for the “buffoons”, they developed several allies, lead by none other than Rousseau and other “enlightened” folks, who responded to the nationalists in turn. This pamphlet war would rock the nation’s art, political, and intellectual community for two whole years.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
philosopher, writer...composer?

Fun facts about the two sides:

Italian Supporters
  •           Led by Rousseau, who even wrote his own opera for the ‘cause’—Le devin du village

  •           Comprised mainly of Encyclop√©distesthe Enlightenment and Renaissance seem to have a few things in common, one of which is "clubs" of people with too much time on their hands!
  •           Supported by the Queen, mostly to spite the King and his mistress, Mme. de Pompadour
  •           Weren’t fans of the monarchy—one could interpret this as a direct, but harmless challenge to the monarchy in the 18th century (let's not forget that the French revolution was just under 40 years away).
  •           Preferred the light Italian comedic operas (the Buffoons did not perform opera seria—non-comedic operas)

  •           French music critics overwhelmingly insisted that all music had to be compared music “known” to be good. For a long time this meant comparing everything to Lully. Eventually, after many years of harsh critique, they made room for Rameau and picked up the nickname “Ramistes” which largely replaced the earlier nickname “Lullistes”, as both composers had been accepted as icons of the national style.
  •           Generally made up of a group of elitists who wished to pander to the King’s interests...but I'll admit that that's my judgement on the group (not to say that I don't like traditional French Baroque opera).
  •           Supported by the King and his lovely mistress Mme. de Pompadour (for you lovely Doctor Who fans out there, that is indeed the same character that Tennant met in the fireplace!)

Mme. de Pompadour and the Doctor in The Girl in the Fireplace

  •           Loved serious mythological tales, especially since they could be used to glorify the monarchy and suck up to the King—interludes of dance and music generally provided the “comedic” break.

So for two years lots of articles in papers and pamphlets were passed around. People were quite angry with each other and got into very heated arguments with lots of political and social undercurrents. It seems a bit silly looking at it from our modern perspective. First with all the measures the French took to be unique, and then how it became a prominent national issue. The craziest part about it? It hardly changed anything! One could say that the nationalists won, but it seems that everyone just gave up on the argument and moved onto something else. Most people in France continued to enjoy the traditional French operas—at least until the French revolution mixed things up for the genre—and other people continued to enjoy their opera comedies in smaller theatres that would soon gain more popularity, allowing the comedies to develop into grander and more prominent productions.

Moral of the story? A generalization for sure, but it seems that, given the chance, the French will argue passionately about anything!