Performance | Courtly Performances | Early Baroque | Classical
In the first part of the seventeenth century, two traditions of absolute power were struggling to maintain their hold. In England, after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the Stuart dynasty fought for survival for 40 years. Then the dream crumbled in the face of civil war and the execution of the king, Charles I, in 1649.
Eleven years later Charles II was restored to the throne and proceeded with absolute rule in England and Scotland; James II followed the same route until he was driven out in 1688. In France the chronology was reversed: 50 years of turmoil following the assassination of Henri IV in 1610 were ended in 1661 when Louis XIV seized absolute power.
Both the Stuarts and Louis XIV took a cue from sixteenth-century Italian rulers in making musical theatre a tool of power. The English masque and the French ballet de cour brought together the finest writers, composers, performers and artists the countries had to offer. But whatever the genres’ artistic merits, their raison d’etre was the glorification of the ruling class, in particular the king. The masque’s loosely constructed plots were designed to allow frequent oblique reference to contemporary politics: Britannia triumphans (‘Britain Triumphant’, 1638), for example, included remarks supporting recent policy decisions and ridiculing the Puritans. Similarly, Louis’ insatiable need for pageantry was met by plot structures that allowed mythological stories to be fitted loosely around the central theme of the king’s majesty. An engraving survives that shows him performing in the Ballet du Roy des Festes de Bacchus (‘The King’s Ballet on the Feast of Bacchus’, 1651) as the god Apollo, a role that inspired Louis’ epithet of ‘Sun King’.
Both genres also included audience participation. In England the bulk of the work was performed by courtiers, offering them the chance to dress up and be noticed. In the Masque of Blackness (1605), the queen and some of her ladies masqueraded as the daughters of Niger. Audience participation could itself be an instrument of power: in the ballet de cour it was reserved for the final grand ballet, and Louis used this opportunity not only to show off his own excellent dancing skills, but also to impose what must have been a nearly paralysing authority over many of his closest courtiers who were lucky enough to be invited to participate.
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