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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 11 (2005) No. 1

Touched by the Graces: the Libretti of Philippe Quinault in the Context of French Classicism, by Buford Norman. Birmingham, Ala.: Summa Publications, 2001. [xv, 402 pp. ISBN 1-883479-35-5. $38.95.]

Reviewed by John Hajdu Heyer*

1. Introduction

2. Norman and Prevailing Attitudes toward the TragŽdie en musique

3. Introduction and Prologues

4. Eleven TragŽdies en musique

5. Norman’s Conclusion

6. Critique of the Volume


1. Introduction

1.1 Nearly a half-century ago, in his widely read Opera as Drama, Joseph Kerman devoted a chapter to what he called the “Dark Ages” of opera.1 In the chapter, much of which offers a disparaging assessment of the qualities of French opera, he described the tragédie en musique as a “stilted entertainment combining baroque excesses with the driest neoclassicism” (p. 51), an observation that remained unchanged in the revised edition of 1988 (p. 40). The impact of such an unenthusiastic view of this genre on subsequent generations of music scholars by such a prominent figure is difficult to assess. It certainly appears that Kerman’s now-dated study and resonating attitudes toward classic French opera by others may have imparted to several generations of music scholars and students of opera a discouraging preconception of that field of study. The tragédie en musique, and Lully’s operas in particular, works that for a half century shone as brightly as any music theater in history, remain among the least studied major genres in our classrooms.

2. Norman and Prevailing Attitudes toward the Tragédie en musique

2.1 The successes of the recent productions in France and elsewhere of Atys (1987), Alceste (1992), Armide (1993), Phaëton (1994), and Persée (2000) must surely have put this view to rest for those who do not view the seventeenth century as a “Dark Age,” but for those who are yet undecided in their judgment of the tragédie en musique, help is at hand. Buford Norman’s new study Touched by the Graces: The Libretti of Philippe Quinault in the Context of French Classicism complements several recent books in English on French opera, including those most recently published: John Powell’s Music and Theatre in France 1600–16802 and Caroline Wood and Graham Sadler’s French Baroque Opera: A Reader. These studies collectively offer today’s scholars of music a treasure of information and insights heretofore available only to those readers of French willing to pull together information from many sources, most of which were written before World War II. Norman’s tome may be the most helpful of all for those still mystified by this refined genre of musical theater.

2.2 Buford Norman, in an earlier study on Lully and Quinault, observed that much of what is written about opera falls short of taking the literary aspects of opera seriously.3 This failing most certainly has contributed to the perpetuation of a negative assessment of French opera. Acting on this premise, Norman gives us a volume that unfolds in fourteen chapters, offering insight and copious information relating to Quinault that significantly expand what has been available to readers seeking to understand just why the playwright and Lully were so remarkably successful in their time and in subsequent decades. Too often the assumption prevails that court politics and intrigue in the court of Louis XIV raised mediocre art to extraordinary and unwarranted success. Certainly the era was rife with politics and intrigue, and Lully often found himself at the center of both, but Professor Norman’s penetrating and elegant discussion puts forth cogent arguments and explanations for the successes, and relative failures, of the Quinault-Lully collaborations. We read, for example, of the extraordinary success of Bellérophon, which Norman attributes, at least in part, to Quinault’s intervention (at Lully’s request) in the libretto written primarily by Thomas Corneille. We also learn of the mixed reception of Isis, certainly today one of the most interesting of the tragédies en musique, which attracted criticism both from the court and from jealous rivals when its authors may have pressed too far the envelope of effects available to them.

3. Introduction and Prologues

3.1 The volume, organized symmetrically, offers an Introduction and Conclusion embracing twelve studies, one dedicated collectively to the prologues of each opera, and one each dedicated to the eleven librettos that Quinault prepared for the composer. The study does not delve specifically into the two large-scale ballets, Le Triomphe de l’Amour (1681) and Le Temple de la paix (1685), that the collaboration produced, but those works also receive commentary at the appropriate time in the chronology.

3.2 The Introduction offers a little bit of history, presenting a concise outline of Quinault’s librettos in the context of French classicism. This essay is worthy of being required reading for students in music history, for it succinctly brings together an overview of the issues and the contexts of French music theater and dance, the tragédie en musique, the rationale behind drama in seventeenth-century France, and the elements that Quinault and Lully brought to bear on their creations.

3.3 The chapter on the prologues offers compelling reading, addressing their diversity, an aspect instructive to those of us, this writer included, who might tend to pass over the prologues as vacuous homages to the king. The author outlines in detail their qualities over the fifteen-year collaboration, as Louis XIV is transformed from his role as the youthful Sun in the Prologue to Cadmus et Hermione to that of the “Auguste Héro” in the Prologue to Armide.

4. Eleven Tragédies en musique

4.1 The primary substance of the book, however, unfolds in the eleven chapters that take up in turn the eleven tragédies en musique that the collaboration produced from Cadmus to Armide. Norman offers the most comprehensive and detailed discussion of these works yet to appear in any language. Each chapter offers literary history, plot elements, performance history, style issues and the characteristics that make each respective opera unique in the Quinault-Lully oeuvre. In addition, the studies offer scrutiny and analysis of problems such as those that surfaced in historical criticism, for example the question of dramatic development in Atys, or that of Quinault’s highly criticized fourth acts. These chapters present a wealth of information, each addressing the salient characteristics of the individual tragédies en musique. Moreover, in his narrative, Norman’s prose manages to avoid the dryness and convolution so often found in opera synopses and descriptions; this book is highly readable.

5. Norman’s Conclusion

5.1 Norman’s conclusion is a persuasive essay calling for recognition of the Quinault-Lully operas along with the great French classics, such as Racine’s plays. Some years ago, musicologists, led by James R. Anthony, persuaded the scholarly readership that French music of the era could properly be described as “Baroque,” a term French scholars had steadfastly resisted with arguments that the music reflected the qualities of the great era of French classicism. Perhaps we now have yet a clearer view of the relationship of the tragédie en musique to its time, for Norman demonstrates that these works, through their librettos, carry the essence of classicism despite the Baroque conventions employed in them.

6. Critique of the Volume

6.1 Musicians may be disappointed to find little specific analysis of the relationship of the music to the text and no musical examples in the volume—Norman attends unwaveringly to the topic of Quinault’s librettos and avoids detailed analysis of word-music relationships. One observation, intended more as a warning to readers rather than a criticism of the volume, relates to the copious inclusion of illustrative quotations in the original French. Non-readers of French may be daunted by the many passages that are not translated into English. While the decision to quote Quinault’s lyrics in the original is justifiable and understandable, there are quotations drawn from scholars and other writers to underscore points in the study that would better be translated. For example, a quotation from Manual Couvreur simply underscores the beginning and importance of the relationship between the collaborators and the depth of Quinault’s influence on Lully (p. 8); another quotes Le Cerf to support an issue relating to the dramatic development in Atys (p. 170). There is no significant value to such quotations remaining in French, and it would have been helpful for such passages to be translated in footnotes or in the body of the text with the original in the footnotes. A glossary might be helpful, although Norman is careful to explain most of the untranslated French terms that appear throughout the book.

6.2 The book is nicely produced. Print is large and easy to read. Footnotes and musical examples are legible. The Bibliography deserves special attention, for it includes many of those relevant but obscure (to musicologists) sources not found in musicological periodicals. The Index is well prepared, although for some reason the K’s receive short shrift, overlooking references to Kerman, Kivy, Kinztler, et al.

6.3 In 1956 Joseph Kerman believed, as he stated in both editions of Opera as Drama, that “we can never experience again the fantastic spectacle of the baroque operatic stage.” Now that nearly half of the tragédies en musique of Lully and Quinault have actually been brought to life on stage in splendid historically well-informed productions, we are in a better position to judge for ourselves the beauty and emotion that are attained in these works. To do so, however, we must understand and appreciate the fusion of Quinault’s poetic words with Lully’s music and “le merviellieux.” Buford Norman’s work gives us a valuable resource for dealing with Quinault’s contribution. His study offers much more than a description of the eleven librettos that Quinault prepared for Lully. Indeed, the depth, scope, and usefulness of Touched by the Graces warrant its translation into French, if not other languages as well. The Introduction and Conclusion, along with commentary in each of the chapters dedicated to the specific librettos, offer analysis and insight into the relationship of Quinault to Lully, and of innovation to tradition, shedding considerable new light for the English reader on the French side of Kerman’s “Dark Ages” of opera. Fiat Lux.


* John Hajdu Heyer (heyerj@mail.uww.edu) serves on the international team of scholars engaged in the preparation of Jean-Baptiste Lully: Œuvres Complètes for Olm. He is presently completing Volume 2 of the motet series, to include Lully’s Jubilate Deo and Te Deum.

1 Joseph Kerman, Opera as Drama (New York: Knopf, 1956; revised ed., Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

2[See the review by Catherine Cessac of this work in the current issue of JSCM —ed.]

3 Buford Norman, “The Tragédie-Lyrique of Lully and Quinault: Representation and Recognition of Emotion,” in Literature and the Other Arts, Continuum 5 (New York: AMS Press, 1993), 111–42.

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