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Staging of the Paragone debate within a French Baroque opera.

By on Mar 18, 2023 in History of ideas, Music, Painting, Paragone, Poetry | 2 comments

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At the end of the XVIth century, a group of Florentine writers and musicians gathered under the auspices of Count Bardi to recover the ancient splendour of classical Greek drama. They specifically sought to integrate verse into a new musical style based on recitative, combining speech and song into musical cadences. Bardi and his friends may not have been fully aware of it, but they were inventing opera. Exactly one century later, another son of Florence would ironically be called upon to lay the foundations of quintessentially French opera. It was the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, born in 1632 as Giovanni Battista Lulli, who, in collaboration with the playwright Philippe Quinault, created the template for all subsequent tragédies lyriques, as this form of musical theatre was named, until the arrival of Jean Philippe Rameau in 1733. The new musical genre born with the opera Cadmus et Hermione (1673) eschewed the Italian approach of dividing musical numbers into arias and recitatives, merging instead the two to increase the work’s dramatic power. Based on subjects drawn from Greek mythology, medieval chivalry, or Renaissance epics and incorporating elements of ballet, elaborate costumes and complex stage sets, French operas from this period would typically begin with a stately overture followed by a prologue and a succession of airs and dances, all of them seamlessly interwoven with recitatives modelled after French classical drama.

Downing Thomas[1] discussed how this form of musical theatre was hijacked by an ambitious political agenda under the absolutistic reign of Louis XIV, becoming a propagandistic tool that projected an idealised view of the monarchy, perhaps surpassing all other arts in achieving this goal. French opera prologues were particularly important in the staging of power. They would typically provide the theatrical representation with an opening scene where an allegorical figure entered the stage to prepare the audience for the musical drama. Usually, they fulfilled a panegyrical function and rested on mythological characters whose virtues the king was also believed to incarnate. In the early XVIIth century, opera prologues also staged the personification of the arts involved in the performance -Poetry, Music and either Painting or Architecture- usually exploiting a topic dear to XVIth-century scholarship: the debate around the superiority of one art over the others. In doing so, prologues constituted a preamble that drew attention to the operatic artifice, its performance, and participating arts’ contributions. Opera, then a burgeoning musical genre, offered a pretext to lay down new aesthetic premises and legitimise the individual arts, all contributing to a unity of performance that appeared greater than the sum of its parts. As metatheatre, authors used prologues to address specific issues of opera as a genre, justify the opera as entertainment before the audience, and emphasise the connection with the patron and, thus, with power.[2].

A good example illustrating this approach is the opera Phaéton (Lully, 1683). The libretto by Quinault refers to the myth of Phaethon, son of the god Helios, who loses control while driving the Sun-Chariot around the Earth and thus pushes Jupiter to come into play to rescue the planetary harmony.[3] We should be cautious in making assumptions about how contemporary audiences might have received this elaborate spectacle. Still, it is intriguing to think that some of the attendees of its première at Versailles in 1683 didn’t miss the parallels drawn between Jupiter and the Sun King. Could Phaethon have been a veiled reference to William of Orange, Louis’ lifelong enemy? The French king, whose authority had been threatened by the Fronde during his childhood, had grown increasingly distrustful of the French nobility’s appetite for power and was determined to promptly silence anyone who would seek to overshadow him. Presumptuousness had no place in a kingdom where the centralised arts sought to glorify Louis XIV and establish his superiority for all posterity. The character of Phaethon exemplifies envy, jealousy, foolish pride and unbridled ambition. The score further stresses the contrast between the two protagonists: Phaethon’s appearance is associated with harmonic dissonances, but they dissolve as soon as Jupiter comes on stage. The opera thus becomes a moral lesson and serves the image of the king: Jupiter intervenes to restore order and harmony and bring the world to a new “golden age”.[4] The work reaffirms the king’s absolute power and presents him as the warrant of universal concord and peace. Again, the parallel with Louis XIV was clear: the Sun King had recently emerged victorious from his military campaigns as the most powerful monarch in Europe.

The opera “Les arts florissants.”[5], composed by Marc-Antoine Charpentier in 1683 for his patroness, the Duchess of Guise, is another case in point which exemplifies how opera in the Ancien Régime became an instrument to glorify the French monarch. As discussed by Martin Miersch[6], this opera shows each of the arts bringing forward their own merits to pay homage to the Sun King, thus staging a controversy of the Paragone type within the play. The central question here was the following: which artistic medium was ideally suited to praise Louis’ acts of government for generations to come? In this opera, the first art coming to the stage is Music, which after pacifying a chorus of warriors returning from Louis XIV’s military campaign in Spain, invites the other arts to flourish again.[7] However, as a performing art, music does not seem well positioned to endure the test of time, unlike the visual arts. The following art speaking up is Poetry, which acknowledges her limitations by conceding that the exploits of the Sun King are so great that it would be better to be silent than to use weak rhetorics. Fearing not being up to the task of doing justice to the king’s deeds, she joins forces with her sister art Music.[8] Painting appears next, and, like Poetry, she cautiously considers the scope of the enterprise lying ahead. But even though she points to the durability of her medium as an advantage, she admits that her courage in committing herself to such an endeavour may be on the verge of temerity.[9] Architecture follows Painting’s intervention and invites her to work together to leave a permanent record of the Sun King’s glorious government. Here Architecture emphasises the durability of her buildings, which serve the comfort of the monarch and ensure his subsequent fame[10]. The personification of Architecture refers to the wonders of engineering that marked the construction of Versailles and compares these achievements to Louis’ unprecedented victories. As neither Painting nor Architecture alone can cope with the panegyric task of adequately praising the Sun King, they collaborate to perpetuate his memory.[11]

However, harmony does not last long as the flourishing arts under the reign of Louis XIV are endangered by the irruption of Discord, who envies the Sun King’s fame and enlists the Furies in her service to put an end to his rule. After a brief struggle in which Discord and the Furies prevail, Peace appeals to Jupiter to intervene on her behalf. As a result, Discord is chased back into Hades by a hail of thunderbolts, and Peace emerges victorious out of the dispute. In the final scene, the arts and the chorus of warriors celebrate Peace as the guarantor of happiness and prosperity, for the arts can flourish only in times of peace.

In contrast to the classical Paragone discussion, Charpentier’s short opera does not show the arts entering a dispute to settle the priority of any of them over the others.[12] On the contrary, it advances opera as the all-encompassing art in which all the others come together. Therefore, only through collaboration can architecture, music, poetry, and painting can aspire to give a fair measure of the king’s feats. A fifth art becomes then the secret winner of the competition.



[1] Downing Thomas, Aesthetics of opera in the Ancien Régime, 1647-1785 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 53-99.

[2] Andrea Garavaglia, Der Paragone der Opernkünste in italienischen Prologen des 17. Jahrhunderts. Sorgen um die Oper als „Gesamtkunstwerk“?(Bologna, Il Mulino, 2009), 252-292.

[3] As Helios completes his daily journey, entire continents plunge into slumber and daylight. Like any youngster with adulthood aspirations, Phaethon asks his father to let him drive the Sun-Chariot for one day. Helios initially thinks his son is not up to the daunting task and tries unsuccessfully to persuade him to give up such a dangerous idea. Unfortunately, bound to a promise he had made, he has no choice but to grant his wish. Unfortunately, on the day of the test drive, Phaethon loses control of the reins and causes an earth cataclysm, upsetting the delicate balance of light and darkness. As a result, vast areas of the planet are scorched by the sun and turned into deserts. The magnitude of the disaster prompts Jupiter to intervene and restore the cosmic order by striking Phaethon with a lightning bolt.

[4] In fact, the prologue of this opera is aptly titled “Le retour de l’âge d’or

[5] Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Les Arts Florissants, Directed by William Christie, 1987, Harmonia Mundi, 1901083

[6] Martin Miersch, Marc-Antoine Charpentiers Kurzoper „Les arts florissants“. Zum Wettstreit der Künste in einer Barockoper (Göttingen: V & R Unipress, 2010), 169-190.

[7] Que mes divins concerts, que ma douce harmonie / heureux guerriers comblent vos cœurs / de mille innocentes douceurs. / Fleurissez doctes arts, la discorde est bannie, / et la guerre, votre ennemie / dont LOUIS a chassé les funestes horreurs, / bien loin de ces climats exerce ses fureurs.

[8] Dans la noble ardeur qui m’enflamme / il faut que je me mêle a ses divins accords, / des concerts les plus beaux si la musique est l’âme /  la Poésie en est le corps./ Chantons ce grand héros ; les vers s’il est possible /  répondez dignement à ses exploits fameux. / Mais, si je veux chanter ce monarque invincible, /  je ne saurais trouver de stile assez pompeux: / taisons nous mes vers et ma lyre, / les exploits de Louis que tout le monde admire / otent aux mots la force et l’ornement, / il vaut mieux manquer de les dire / que de les dire faiblement.

[9] Mon pinceau, mes couleurs ne perdent point courage /  pour transmettre ses fais à la postérité. / Et si d’y réussir je n’ai pas l’avantage / le glorieux projet d’un si pénible ouvrage / pourra servir d’excuse à ma témérité.

[10] However, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias points to the perishability of Sculpture and Architecture: “I met a traveller from an antique land / Who said: — Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand, / Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, / And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, / The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed / And on the pedestal these words appear / ‚My name is Ozymandias, king of kings / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!‘ / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.

[11] Joignons nous savante peinture / faisons que ses explois vivent malgré les temps. / Dans un désert stérile ou l’ingrate nature / rend autant qu’elle peut aux efforts impuissans, / je lui dresse un palais dont la noble structure / étale ce qu’elle a de plus riches presens, / la forceant d’invincibles barrières, / je conduis en montant des rivières / qui dans de beaux jardins pour le charme des yeux / poussent mille jets d’eau jusqu’aux voûtes des cieux.

[12] For example, in the prologue to the opera Gare della poesia e della Musica (1698), the personification of Poetry reproaches Music for having been created in a vulgar room and by a craftsman (not an intellectual) or in the forge of the fire god Vulcan, in reference to one of the myths of her origins.  In Andrea Garavaglia, Der Paragone der Opernkünste in italienischen Prologen des 17. Jahrhunderts. Sorgen um die Oper als „Gesamtkunstwerk“? (Bologna, Il Mulino, 2009), 252-292.


  1. Jose Guzman

    March 20, 2023

    Post a Reply

    Great article¡ One can almost feel the fierce manipulation of society by the power structures in through the art scenification!.

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