The Voice | The French Voice | Early Baroque | Classical
With the arrival of the new musical drama in the Baroque era, the voice became one of the most powerful instruments in the musical repertory during this period and nowhere was this better demonstrated than in France.
Under Louis XIV, who took full power in 1661 and reigned until 1715, France experienced a renaissance of artistic and literary activity. The great palace of Versailles was begun in 1662, its gardens laid out by Le Nôtre. The tragedies of Corneille and Racine dominated the dramatic scene, as did the comedies of Molière, and Charles Lebrun was active as a painter, director of the Gobelins tapestry factory, and a theorist.
In music, the most important composer of the age was Lully, who was employed by Louis from the age of 20, initially to compose music for the court ballets. Unscrupulous in his dealings, the composer was able to secure a monopoly to write and produce operas, which he did virtually every year from 1672 until his death in 1687.
Most of Lully’s operas were tragedies, but they did not set the plays of Corneille or Racine, whose verse did not lend itself to musical setting. Instead, he used the librettist Philippe Quinault. Drawing on the same source of Greek or Roman legends, he provided Lully with plenty of opportunities for spectacle, in the form of divertissements. These might depict scenes of battle, celebration or magic, and invariably included dancing.
The whole point of the operas was to praise the king, whom the hero of the story was generally understood to represent. More specifically, the king would be praised in the prologue, though not by name. However, in Charpentier’s masterpiece Médée, which was dedicated to the king, the opening words are ‘Louis est triomphant, tout cède à sa puissance’ (‘Louis is triumphant, everything yields to his power’). Although modern audiences find such sycophancy absurd and undramatic, it reflected the political tenets of the time and was exactly what the absolutist court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, expected and required.
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