Querelle des Bouffons

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The Querelle des Bouffons ("Quarrel of the Comic Actors"), also known as the Guerre des Bouffons ("War of the Comic Actors") and the Guerre des Coins ("War of the Corners"), was the name given to a battle of rival musical philosophies which took place in Paris, France between 1752 and 1754. The controversy concerned the relative merits of French and Italian opera.

It was sparked by the reaction of literary Paris to a performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's short intermezzo La serva padrona at the Académie royale de musique in Paris on 1 August 1752. La serva padrona was performed by an itinerant Italian troupe of comic actors, known as buffoni (bouffons in French, hence the name of the quarrel). The work had already been given in Paris in 1746, but had attracted little notice. This time it provoked a full-scale war of words between the defenders of the French operatic tradition and the champions of Italian music. In the controversy that followed, critics such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (in the queen's corner) and Friedrich Melchior Grimm, together with other writers associated with the Encyclopédie, praised Italian opera buffa and attacked the styles French lyric tragedy, a style originated by Jean-Baptiste Lully and promoted among then-living composers such as French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (in the king's corner).

Culture shock[edit]

The quarrel broke out on August 1, 1752, when Eustacchio Bambini’s Italian touring company arrived at the Royal Academy of Music (the future Paris Opera) to give performances of intermezzi and opera buffa. They opened with a performance of Pergolesi's La serva padrona (The Servant Turned Mistress). The same work had already been given in Paris in 1746, without attracting any attention at all. The scandal was created by the fact that it was performed at the Royal Academy, which did not have the flexibility of the Comédie–Française where one could alternate tragedies with comedies or the farces of Molière without problem. Comedy at the Royal Academy of Music had always been rather limited.

In the eighteenth century, Italian opera evolved greatly, considerably faster than tragédie lyrique or tragédie en musique (typically French), until it split into two genres: opera seria (with serious themes from librettos by Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio) and opera buffa, or comic opera (from buffo = deriving from “to laugh", "grotesque", farce”), with comic interludes marked with lightness, innocence, simplicity, irrationality, and the triviality of daily life to theatre.

If “comic ballet” could be represented by Platée (Plataea), Rameau’s tragédie en musique (1745), it was already giving way to comic elements (assonances in “oi” imitating the song of frogs, etc.) rather than the genre’s elements of parody. The piece was marginal until the outbreak of the quarrel. On the other hand, what one later called opéra bouffon was not satisfied with parodying the serious genre but producing a type of original comedy, more popular, closer to farce and the commedia dell'arte (masked comedy).

The unexpected successes of these “farces” were going to divide the Parisian intelligentsia into two factions. Between supporters of tragédie lyrique, royal representative of the French style; and sympathizers of opéra buffon, colorful defenders of Italian music, there was born a veritable pamphleteer quarrel which would animate the French capital’s musical circles until 1754.

The role of Jean-Jacques Rousseau[edit]

In 1753 Rousseau published a pamphlet (Letter on French Music), boosting La serva; and at the end of the year, he publishes it in an engraved edition to disseminate an uncorrupted text. Both versions would weigh heavily in the reception of the work.

“But without insisting on the tragic duets, a kind of music that we do not know in Paris, I can give you a comic duet that is known to everyone there, and I mention it boldly as a model of singing, unity of melody, dialogue, and taste, which I believe will lack nothing, when it will be well executed to audiences who know how to listen: this is the first act of la Serva padrona, Lo conosco a quegl’ochhietti, etc. I confess that French musicians are in a state of feeling beauty, and I would willingly say of Pergolesi, as Cicero said of Homer, that he has already made a lot of artistic progress, so that one enjoys reading it.”
—Extract of Letter on French Music, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In that same text, he justified Italian music’s qualities and harshly condemned the French:

“I believe to have been made to see that there is neither measure nor melody in French music, because the language is not sensitive; that French singing is only continual barking, unbearable to all unprejudiced ears; that the harmony is brutal, without expression and feeling uniquely like schoolboys' padding; that French airs are not airs; that French recitals are not recitals. Hence I conclude that the French have no music and can have none; or that if ever they have, so much the worse for them.”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes, Volume 10, p. 318

In the Parisian world, one would hold such statements against him both at home and abroad.

French identity and aesthetic rivalry[edit]

Among pamphleteers on the opposite side, Fr. Castel, for example, would respond in these terms:

"A nation like the French, whose unity has been so perfect for at least 1,200 years, even under the unity of a great empire does not willingly suffer superiority too marked, too pronounced, of any nation who has everything, neither for this range nor for this number, neither this ancient time nor this homeland.”

Forty years before the Battle of Valmy, can one therefore already see the assertion of a national identity facing the threat of cultural imperialism? In fact the concept of a nation proposed here only represented the Parisian microcosm, that is to say the court’s good graces, thus the good will of the monarch. On the other hand, Italian opera showed an aesthetic form in itself which was no longer only Italian but European, or at least international, since numerous composers of the genre were not Italians. The Germans like Melchior Grimm and Baron d’Holbach were among the most fervent adherents of Italian opera. Fr. Castel’s statements held fast because, to the eighteenth century royal court, only France could claim to be the dominant nation in Europe. And the most bellicose or defensive statements emanated from the supporters of the French genre.

However, the stakes for cultural domination played out through comparison of the two aesthetics. In the forty or-so pamphlets that dotted the period, the contrast recurred between a totally Italian musical language with Italian opera that favored singing, and the more consonantal, articulated French language and a French genre more preoccupied with words. Furthermore, for the “French” side, the laughter provoked by comic opera was considered noxious because one lost self-control and was irrational even though the Italian side called for passion and emotion.

Renewal of forms[edit]

The same year, Rousseau composed his little opera, Le devin du village (The Village Soothsayer), created in Fontainebleau, on October 18, 1752. The term “interlude” explicitly refers to the kind being performed at the same time by the Bouffons on the Paris Opera stage, but could that mean Rousseau had thus realized his dream of Italianizing French opera ? His music was very far from that of Pergolesi. The work had not shocked the court authorities since Madame de Pompadour herself played Colin in a performance at the Château de Bellevue. It therefore did not appear subversive, and its pro-Italian nature was not quite obvious, for the good reason that at the time he composed the work, he had not yet attended Italian operas at the Royal Academy of Music.

Seventeen years after the first version created in 1737, which was not a lasting success although this opera renewed the ritual of tragédie en musique invented by Lully, Jean-Phillipe Rameau offered, in 1754, while the Quarrel of the Comic Actors still raged, a thoroughly revised version of Castor and Pollux. This time the work, shown as a model of the French style, as opposed to the Italian style, triumphed, and for a long time.

When all is said and done, it appeared that this controversy, which, after beginning with courtesy, was going to worsen somewhat then burn out after two years, having constituted a great moment exposing French music to new aesthetic values. The French form, without sacrificing itself, would open itself to new influences and renew the genre. At the Comédie-Italienne and Théâtre de la foire in particular, they established a new way of opera which reused the object of the quarrel: natural simplicity facing the harmonic richness of tragédie en musique.

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