Early Modern Times – better ballet than never

Early Modern Times - better ballet than never

Dear readers,

CBC Radio listeners were reminded last week that it has been 50 years since the ‘Three Days of Peace and Music’ at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, ‘one of the most pivotal events of the last century’. It has also been 350 years since what one might well call the ‘Three Centuries of Parisian Music’, i.e., the founding of the Académie royale de Musique, aka the Paris Opera. While Woodstock in 1969 represented a peak in the sixties counter-culture movement, the founding of the Paris Opera in 1669 was the aesthetic glorification of French absolutism. Instead of the demonic guitar riffs of Jimi Hendrix, spectators to the Paris Opera were treated to the intense, pounding music of Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Louis XIV, the Sun King of France and outstanding monarch of Baroque Europe, fully assumed the reins of power in 1661 after the death of Cardinal Mazarin. His father, the unimaginatively but ominously named Louis XIII, had been reliant on his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu was nicknamed l’Éminence rouge, in reference to his power over the French Crown and red robes; less well-known was the sobriquet he earned as a former Winter Olympic gold medal-winning sledder, l’Éminence luge. After the deaths of Richelieu and Louis XIII in the early 1640s, the boy-king Louis XIV was guided by Richelieu’s successor, Cardinal Mazarin–whose fondness for Italian sweets may have led fellow Catholic clergy to taunt him as ‘Cardinal Marzipan’. After Mazarin’s passing, Louis XIV resolved to be his own chief minister. His long reign until 1715 was the apogee of Baroque absolutism. Like Richelieu, Louis was savvy about the role of the arts and especially music in reinforcing the glory of the French throne: a powerful king in this era needed to Baroque-and-roll.

The promotion of French music went, appropriately enough, ‘hand-in-hand’ with French dance. Louis had been a dancer in his youth (evinced by showing off his legs in many of his portraits, even as an old man), and indeed one of his first ‘steps’ in 1661 was to create the Académie royale de Danse. The monarch must be a spectacle to awe the people of France and Europe, and ballet in particular became an integral element in French Baroque opera and theatre. Louis XIV was also, it seems, a royal farmer, with the finest cattle in Europe: he soon after created the  Académie royale des Vaches, because he was so proud of his ‘calves’.

The Académie royale de Musique, which became the Paris Opera, was then founded in 1669 at the prompting of Louis’ minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, possible ancestor of the American satirist and late-night chat-show host, and reputedly descended from a family of ours blancs in the Canadian Arctic: they were ‘cold bears’ who like their ‘cold beer’. The Académie royale de Musique brought together orchestral music, singing, and dance to promote French opera. As a side-show, it originally featured sanctimonious life-coaching master classes hosted by the kingdom’s richest woman, Madame de Winfrey–thus promoting French Oprah as well.

From 1672 to 1687, it was directed by the Italian-born composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, whose 1686 opera Armide is depicted above. Lully is famous for enjoying the patronage of Louis XIV, for his collaborations with Molière, and for the manner of his death. He stabbed his foot with the heavy stick he used to mark the beat during orchestral performances. He developed gangrene, but refused to have his toe amputated, leading to his demise. Thus, at the end of his life, he felt ‘shafted’ and had one foot in the grave: clearly he was de-feeted. But this might be regarded as sweet revenge for his atrocious behaviour as opera director. On one occasion, he reputedly punched his pregnant leading lady to force a miscarriage so that the show would go on. If this story is true, then Lully’s stick also plunged his ‘sole’ into hell.

In the following centuries, the Paris Opera changed its venue 11 times. It survived the fall of the Ancien Régime and French absolutism at the end of the eighteenth century and continued to thrive. Given the emphasis on ballet, even French Republicans recognised the suitability of the twists and turns of this vibrant form of dance for ‘revolutionary’ times.

’til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Operat-catcher Studies Program

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