Fontenelle's Famous Question and Performance Standards of the Day

October 1, 2003

For more than two hundred years, writers have quoted Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle's classic remark: Sonate, que me veux-tu? Why should these few words have captured the imagination of so many writers? His question was most likely a verbal bon mot that began to be quoted by others in print around the 1750s. In recent years, it has been translated as 'Sonata, what do you want from me?' But its usage in texts of the period indicates that it is simply an abridgement of the common idiom Que veut dire cela? (What does that mean?), so that it can read: 'Sonata, what do you mean to me?'

A scientist, man of letters, and centenarian (1657-1757), Fontenelle was described by Voltaire as the most universal mind produced during the Louis XIV era.1 He collaborated with his uncle Thomas Corneille on the Mercure galant and also wrote the librettos for Jean-Baptiste Lully's operas Psych/i> (1678) and Bellérophon (1679), which, however, were performed under his uncle's name.2 From Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, who lived in Paris for several years, comes a story of Fontenelle's wit. It seems that Antoine Dauvergne of the Paris Opéra had been requested in the 1740s to seek Fontenelle's approval for a new musical setting of the libretto he had written for Pascal Colasse's Enée et Lavinie back in 1690. When the poet asked who the composer would be, Dauvergne named various individuals. "I advise against it," replied Fontenelle, "for the opera was not successful fifty years ago and I have not heard that the music was to blame."3 We can only speculate whether Dauvergne's being a composer himself had anything to do with the poet's response.


What led to Fontenelle's question

To us, the sonata is simply part of the eighteenth-century musical landscape. Originating in Italy, it acquired toward the mid-eighteenth century, especially abroad, a reputation for what seemed to be unrestrained exhibitionism. Consider this critique that the Paris author Gabriel Bonnot de Mably addressed in published-letter form to a well-known aristocrat in 1741:

I cannot finish, Madame, without lamenting the decadence of our music . . . Our taste for the difficult is the strangest eccentricity, and I fail to understand why our people of quality, most of whom certainly do not gauge their pleasure by conquered difficulties, do not correct our musicians. The violin sonatas the Chevalier plays for us have neither character nor harmony. He does not awaken any feeling in me; even my ears are not pleased . . . It is a pleasure for the eyes only. I can scarcely follow his hand on the instrument's fingerboard. . . . His music has no style at all . . . everything proceeds by leaps and bounds; and everything is harsh and arduous. When we decide that music is meant for visual pleasure, I will not fail to acclaim the Chevalier and the composer of his pieces. This poor taste leads to neglecting the natural; the noble, grand and majestic have no place. It paints the graces with rouge or destroys them.4

The virtuosity Mably describes communicated no meaning to the informed listener, but impressed many others by its seeming difficulty. This type of sonata execution is probably what prompted Fontenelle's 'Question.'

In 1768, Jean-Jacques Rousseau applied the Question in his Dictionnaire. Now that sonatas and every type of instrumental music are so fashionable, he says, vocal music has become scarcely more than an accessory. Yet the touching sound of the human voice communicating the verbal image is what awakens in the heart the sentiment desired. Who does not feel how far instrumental music, where one only seeks to show off the instrument, is from this energy? Moreover:

Will all the extravagances of M. Mondonville's violin move me like two notes from Mlle le Maure's voice? Instrumental music can animate singing and add to its expression, but cannot take its place. To know what all this balderdash of sonatas with which we are overwhelmed means, it would be necessary to do as the unpolished painter who had to write under his figures: 'This is a tree; this is a man; this is a horse.' I shall never forget the witticism of the celebrated Fontenelle, who, finding himself worn out by this ceaseless instrumental music, cried aloud in a transport of impatience: Sonata, what do you mean to me?5

Rousseau's remarks reflect the long-standing view that vocal music was superior to instrumental. They also imply that instrumental soloists were relying on empty technical showmanship. Were they making any effort to imitate the expressive powers of the human voice, which early sources cite as the model for the instrumentalist?

That the subject is pseudo virtuosity without expression is made more explicit when the noted philosophe and music theorist/critic Jean le Rond d'Alembert uses the Question in reflections written around 1752. Although music is meant to produce some sentiment in the soul, he says, it is hard for instrumental music to accomplish this apart from dance or vocal accompaniment. A sonata or concerto having nothing to define the emotion being expressed is poor enough music if it is not able to excite some feeling in the heart. It thus is not surprising if our famed violins and grand performances ordinarily produce so little pleasure at the Concert Spirituel. The music they play is without character, and the character of their playing is often only too 'bizarre:'

It is not to attend some tours de force that we go to hear music; it is a discourse we want to hear. Our celebrated violinists are only tight-rope dancers, who can be compared to a man reciting the words of a dictionary rapidly . . . by heart. The style of the sonatas has spoiled us, and the most philosophical of our writers is certainly right to say: Sonata, what do you mean to me? An instrumental piece in itself is unable to have an overly definitive character. However harmonious or well-composed the piece may otherwise be, its great defect is that it cannot enable the listener to say: 'This is what the musician wanted to paint.'6

But another of d'Alembert's writings indicates that certain instrumental music did succeed in touching the listener. Among many examples he could cite from Jean-Philippe Rameau's music is the 'Ballet des Fleurs' from Les Indes galantes, in which the dance airs are like a picturesque dialogue forming the most expressive mute scene. In this regard, he adds, the Italians have fewer riches than we, despite their countless sonatas, which speak to neither the mind nor soul and merit only that we, together with M. de Fontenelle, ask: Sonata, what do you mean to me?7 It may not be coincidental that d'Alembert found Rameau's ballet music more capable of painting a tableau than most instrumental music. Its technical simplicity made it accessible to musicians of limited technique, thereby creating a much more favorable impression than some of his other music.

Composers of instrumental music will make just a vain noise, continues d'Alembert, unless they have in mind (like the celebrated Tartini) an action or expression to paint. Only a very few sonatas reflect this focus, which is so necessary for pleasing people of taste. The one entitled Didone abbandonata [by Giuseppe Tartini] is a very beautiful monologue in which we see sadness, hope, and despair depicted successively. A very vivid and pathétique scene, he adds, could easily be made of this sonata.8Didone abbandonata is an opera libretto by Metastasio, set to music by countless composers. Thus Tartini patterned his sonata on the contents of this familiar libretto.

D'Alembert's commentary leads us again to ask whether their dislike of sonatas had more to do with performance than composition. In another passage, he discusses musicians' neglect of expression:

Professional musicians are themselves for the most part (at least among us) poor connoisseurs of music. They are too preoccupied with the mechanics of the art and do not pay enough attention to the rest, which, however, is the most essential. They even value it the least. Moreover, some doubt that there is anything else in their art than this technique in which they are versed.9

A purely mechanical reproduction of the notes was and remains a trap always ready and waiting. In 1791, Pierre-Louis Ginguené contrasts true artists, who convey the proper expression of each passage, with simple technicians. When the latter see only notes, he says, just notes will be heard; because of a cold and lifeless execution, a piece that should touch the heart profoundly will only graze the ear uselessly.10 Today our level of technique is much higher, but a performance of 'just the notes' is more likely to be heard with eighteenth-century music than with later music.

Fontenelle's question appears also in the posthumous 1769 German translation of another influential work: Francesco Algarotti's Saggio sopra l'opera in musica (1755), the earliest major effort to reform Italian opera. In a footnote, the anonymous translator adds Fontenelle's 'excellent' question, without specifying that it is his own insertion. He believes that the Frenchman would not have said this of Tartini, who before composing reads a passage from Petrarch to help him paint a certain idea.11 In 1773, Algarotti's French translator repeats this footnote, mistaking it for a 'Note de l'Auteur'12 (which is how we have come to believe that Algarotti applied Fontenelle's question).

Algarotti's own text is important for its affinity with French writings, as when he quotes from d'Alembert's preliminary discourse to the great Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné:

All music not painting anything is only noise. Were it not for custom, which alters the nature of everything, it would offer little more pleasure than a series of harmonious and sonorous words lacking order and connection.13

And noise it often was, as we shall see below. The 'painting' imagery here and above recurs repeatedly in music aesthetics of the period.14


What was heard in the Paris public concerts and operas?

Whether a sonata can engage and move the listener depends to a large extent on the performer. Thus we need to know the level at which they played. Had they progressed beyond simply reproducing the notes to a point where expression and a beautiful tone become possible? D'Alembert's text seems to suggest not—or else they chose to emphasize technique at the expense of expression. In most cases, training for professional musicians who played or sang comprised only applied-music lessons with a teacher; few except keyboard players who had studied thoroughbass had any knowledge of harmony. Many could barely read and write the language, although soloists often had a higher level of general education.15

Making an educated guess, we can surmise that the best music in France was generally heard in concerts not open to the public—that is, at the Versailles Court and the private salons in Paris. This is where one would have been most apt to hear music 'speaking to the heart.' On the other hand, the public concerts and operas in Paris usually involved large numbers of participants, where ensemble was always a problem because of inadequate training in rhythm. Just holding the group together was a herculean task. Small ensemble movements within an opera may have been more successful. And in public concerts, solo performers were tempted to play to the gallery. In the following critiques, it is the public offerings being discussed. The small, intimate musicales were a world apart. Thus the picture is not quite so bleak as might be supposed from our writers.

Pseudo virtuosity. In 1757, Louis Bollioud de Mermet cites performance abuses that fit d'Alembert's use above of 'bizarre.' Noting, for example, that tempos have increased dramatically, he exclaims: Should we be surprised if satisfying precision is so rare! [Without metronomes to discipline players, note lengths would have been uneven and rhythm unsteady; both are exacerbated by a fast tempo.] When a violinist plays sonatas in the new style, continues Bollioud, he uses the two higher strings almost exclusively, and especially the highest. He seems to disdain the sonorous tones he could obtain from the lower strings in favor of drawing some shrill, often out-of-tune sounds from a string reduced to two inches of length by his fingering. Nevertheless, his efforts are admired as marvels of the art. On seeing him, one would say that he has made a wager to clamber up beyond the limits of the fingerboard. The applause encourages him, and all his successes have the end result of making a shortened string produce some whistling sounds instead of tones. He puts so much physical effort into all his playing that he appears to be a criminal condemned to this exercise as his punishment. Lamenting that good intonation, accuracy and a beautiful tone are passé, Bollioud says that the new style has made the violin impracticable to most players and irksome to the connoisseurs.16

With respect to the Concert Spirituel series in Paris, the Mercure de France (1779) declares that tours de force of virtuosity do not serve the goal of art and calls on instrumentalists to renounce a genre having no merit than conquered difficulty. The public [meaning the educated elite] should demand no less of musicians than they have of painters, sculptors, and architects.17 At a time when universal literacy was still far in the future, the public at large was only too ready to acclaim gaudy displays. Exaggerated body contortions, too, served to impress the audience with the difficulty of the undertaking, as Denis Diderot observes in his novel Rameau's Nephew.

In an 1801 overview of musical development during the eighteenth century, Johann Karl Friedrich Triest comments that the instrumental virtuosos had usually failed to convey any sense of genuine song. To offset this lack, they stressed technique and increased tempos, thus laying the groundwork for the disappearance of simple, meaningful execution and powerful, noble song.18 The term 'virtuoso,' applied much more loosely than today, generally referred to anyone who performed in a solo capacity.

Din and erratic rhythm. Perhaps such factors were why early writers insisted that instrumental music paint something. Otherwise, it is just 'noise,' as in d'Alembert's 1759 description of the Opéra orchestra:

The rage of our French musicians is to pile up parts upon parts. They make the effect consist of noise; their accompaniments cover and suffocate the voice . . . So great is the lack of ensemble in our harmony that we think we are hearing twenty different books read at the same time. Is it surprising if the Italians say we do not know how to write music?19

The defective execution thus made it impossible to judge the quality of the composer's work. Not only was it incredibly loud, but it lacked rhythmic cohesiveness. Think for a moment about the implications of 'hearing twenty different books read at the same time.' Could this charge be made about any of our professional orchestras? Our university-level or community orchestras? No, but perhaps it could be made of some junior high or high school orchestras. The reason it is not a problem for our professional and better amateur players is because we have been trained with metronome practice. If we did not have this machine and the other advantages of our technological society, we might find ourselves at the same level as the Opéra orchestra. This is why it needed a time beater with a sturdy 'cudgel' to strike the first beat of each measure audibly, a procedure countless domestic and foreign critics found profoundly disturbing.20 Generally speaking, orchestras everywhere needed intermittent recourse to some form of audible time-beating until well into the nineteenth century. Foot stamping, one useful expedient, was not disdained by names we revere today.

The orchestra's loud volume, to which d'Alembert objected, probably resulted not only from the players' ineptitude, but also from the primitive state of the mechanism in early instruments. Blown instruments often did not speak with the responsiveness to which we are accustomed (our copies substitute a modern mechanism), but had to be forced. Complaints about loud orchestral playing are found in every country and throughout much of the nineteenth century as well.

Forced, coarse tone quality. Another gauge of the period's extraordinary volume appears in Rousseau's article 'Forcing:'

To force the voice is to exceed its upper/lower range or its volume capacity . . . it is to scream instead of sing. Every voice that is forced is out of tune; this happens also with instruments when the bow or wind is forced. This is why the French rarely sing in tune.21

In his satiric Letter of a Symphonist to his Comrades in the Orchestra (1753), Rousseau has the narrator ask what has become of their glorious days when the orchestra was famous for its playing of pieces from operas by Lully and Marin Marais, and was regarded as the premier of Europe:

But now, because we do not play much in tune or stay together very well, they treat us without ceremony as catgut scrapers.22

The orchestra very likely did play better under the severe taskmastership of Lully (who conducted his own operas from 1673 to 1686 and met his early demise from infection after striking his foot with the time-beating rod) than it did a good half-century later when Rameau's operas, led by a 'Time Beater,' were the staple. Even though players' technique was said to have improved considerably during this period, Rameau's operas make infinitely greater technical demands (and perhaps unrealistic demands) than do Lully's. Yet Rousseau doubts that there are four orchestra members who can differentiate between piano and dolce:

It would be pointless for them to know it, for who would be able to execute it?23

He defines dolce as not only the opposite of 'loud,' but also of 'harsh.'24 Thus he and d'Alembert portray the orchestra's playing as coarse and loud, out of tune and lacking ensemble. Moreover, they are making these criticisms with ears that have never heard, much less become accustomed to, the good intonation and rhythmic precision we take for granted. While Rousseau is known for his acerbic tone, his remarks are corroborated both by d'Alembert, one of the period's most sober and respected voices, and others. The great attraction of the Paris Opéra was visual—magnificent costumes, sumptuous decorations, and visions of gods whisking through the heavens (with the possibility of accident always at hand). Thanks in part to the critics, the Opéra orchestra did develop to the point that a leading early nineteenth-century critic could call it the premier of Europe. Music execution in general was improving rapidly during this period; according to a note d'Alembert appended in the 1770s to his 1752 essay, the present state of their music shows the progress that has been made from a course he recommended more than twenty years ago.

If Rousseau were to hear the same music played by today's professionals, would his views about the inferiority of instrumental music change? Poor execution is the most likely explanation, too, for his harsh indictment of French music in his Lettre sur la musique françoise. D'Alembert, on the other hand, had a better realization of how the quality of execution could influence one's perception of a composer's work. Perhaps 'the Italians' in his above-quoted passage is a euphemism for Rousseau.

Instruments doubling the vocal soloist. A passage near the end of d'Alembert's 1752 essay has puzzled us by its seeming contradiction to what he has said earlier.25 When instruments accompany singing, he would prefer:

a unison uniting with the voice than a balderdash of parts overwhelming and diverting me from the principal object. It seems to me that the Italians have grasped the nature of this point better than we: their accompaniment often is in unison with the voice; when it differs, it adds its expression to that of the song and embellishes it. On this point, I still request our orchestra to soften appropriately. It knows only the fortes, sometimes the pianos and never the demi-jeu [a middle point].26

If these musicians were like us, it is strange that d'Alembert would prefer the instruments to double the vocal line. But their singers lacked the vocal technique of today's artists and often needed the rhythm and pitch support of violins doubling their part. Major German and Italian writers of the period discuss this practice in greater detail.27 And unless played with precision and finesse, independent parts do not enhance the vocal line; they can even make the singer's task more difficult.

With some knowledge of how instrumental music was performed in the mid-eighteenth century (these deficiencies existed to a greater or lesser degree elsewhere as well), we are better equipped to understand why Fontenelle could cry: Sonate, que me veux tu? Our delicate performances of this repertoire reflect modern aesthetic views more than historical practice. Perhaps we started from the wrong premise when applying the early writers' admonitions to bon goût. Believing that their musicians had our skills and values, we supposed that the writers meant an extremely high degree of refinement. But they most likely would have been pleased with a performance level scarcely thought passable today.

For us, their music offers few technical difficulties. But it is more of a challenge to convey the expression and warmth the above writers desire. Perhaps we need to put away our metronomes, a decidedly non-historical device whose relentless ticks can be sensed throughout so many of our performances. After its invention, writers feared the 'icy rigidity' that would result from practicing with it. While there seems to have been sporadic use of the metronome for rhythmic training during the nineteenth century, evidence is lacking before some point in the twentieth century for our type of universal and heavy usage.28


How later writers applied Fontelle's question

In 1773, an anonymous writer in Le Spectateur françois uses the Question to launch a panegyric for Johann Schobert's works:

I do not think it immaterial to observe that our taste in music is becoming more refined. There is not a middling harpsichordist who in playing pieces by modern composers does not obtain an image from the musical art that the old composers were able to convey only very weakly. Sonata, what do you mean to me? cried Fontenelle. Schobert's minuets, trios, and andantes would respond: 'I want to seize one of your senses and intoxicate it with pleasure; I want to train your sensibility and make your soul experience some delightful emotions.'29

By the late eighteenth century, sonata execution appears to have moderated. Thus some writers like the composer André- Ernest-Modeste Grétry disagreed with what the Question seemed to imply:

Whatever Fontenelle said about it, we know what a fine sonata means to us, and especially a symphony by Haydn or Gossec.30

Writers often found Fontenelle's question useful for underscoring whatever fault they were addressing, as when the Belgian musicologist and journalist François-Joseph Fétis criticizes in 1828 an unprofessional attitude among opera singers, for they regard everything that is not an aria or duet as of little importance. The orchestra director's skill and love for the art often fail against the singers' indifference. Their coldness in resisting his efforts begins by being incongruous with what is happening in the orchestra and finishes by instilling negligence there. But what can be expected when all are not animated by the same spirit? The performers' indifference, attention or enthusiasm has the same effect on the public. Music is intolerable when it does not move the listener, concludes Fétis; he is tempted to ask the same question as Fontenelle did about the sonata: What do you mean to me?31

Performance standards in 1821 so low as to make people dislike music led the Belgian composer and vocal educator Jean-Baptiste Roucourt to decry the "concerts about which the shrewd Fontenelle would say: Sonata, what do you mean to me?" There we hear masses of instruments, all played loudly, constantly crushing the vocal part; poorly executed instrumental solos; and airs from French operas screamed instead of sung, producing the effect of an intolerable caterwauling. This, says Roucourt, is why many are indifferent toward an art of such enchantment, an indifference related only to execution and not the music itself.32


* * * *

The above examples are representative of many writers posing Fontenelle's question. In each case, the speaker uses it in the sense: "Sonata (or music), what do you mean to me under these circumstances?" This catch phrase lent itself perfectly to whatever element a writer was discussing. Instead of disliking sonatas per se, Fontenelle was probably reacting to a faulty impression made by inappropriate execution. The above writers have stressed the importance of expression, which is essential in every musical form, not just slow movements. In our search for historical fidelity, none of us would give up our reliable, responsive instruments or the other advantages our technology offers for music performance of a high level; few would want to hear most eighteenth-century musicians more than once. But it is a different matter with those master composers and performers who did move the human spirit. How did they do it within the limitations of the time?

1Fontenelle's works were published in some eleven volumes in 1766.

2C. Kintzler, 'Fontenelle' in Dictionnaire de la musique en France aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, ed. Marcelle Benoit (Paris: Fayard, 1992).

3[Marpurg], Legende einiger Musikheiligen (Cölln am Rhein, 1786/R 1977), p.316f.

4Mably, Lettres à Madame la marquise de P. sur l'opéra (Paris, 1741/R 1978), p.162ff: ". . . Le goût que nous avons pour le difficile, est une bizarrerie des plus singulieres, & je ne conçois pas comment le gros des gens du monde qui ne jugent point de leur plaisir par les difficultés surmontées, ne corrigent pas nos Musiciens. . . . Ce mauvais goût fait négliger la nature; le noble, le grand, le majestueux ne peuvent s'associer avec lui, & il farde les graces ou les détruit."

5Rousseau, Dictionnaire de musique (Paris, 1768), 'Sonate:' ". . . Toutes les folies du Violon de M. Mondonville m'attendriront-elles comme deux Sons de la voix de Mademoiselle le Maure. La Symphonie anime le Chant, & ajoûte à son expression, mais elle n'y supplée pas. Pour savoir ce que veulent dire tous ces fatras de Sonates dont on est accablé, il faudroit faire comme ce Peintre grossier qui étoit obligé d'écrire au dessous de ses figures; c'est un arbre, c'est un homme, c'est un cheval. Je n'oublierai jamais la saillie du célèbre Fontenelle, qui se trouvant excédé de ces éternelles Symphonies, s'écria tout haut dans un transport d'impatience; Sonate, que me veux-tu?"

6"Fragment sur la musique en général et sur la notre en particulier," Oeuvres et correspondances inédites de d'Alembert, ed. Charles Henry (Paris, 1887/R 1967), pp.182-4: ". . . Ce n'est point pour assister à des tours de force qu'on va entendre de la musique; c'est un discours qu'on veut écouter. Nos célèbres violons ne sont que des danseurs de corde. Je les compare à un homme qui diroit par coeur rapidement et sans suite les mots d'un dictionnaire. Le goût des sonates nous a gâtés, et le plus philosophe de nos écrivains a bien raison de dire: Sonate, que me veux-tu? Une symphonie faite pour être isolée ne sauroit donc avoir un caractère trop déterminé, et c'est un grand défaut pour elle, quelque harmonieuse et quelque bien composée qu'elle puisse être d'ailleurs, que de ne pas mettre le spectateur en état de dire: c'est telle chose que le musicien a voulu peindre." Also p.164f., note.

7D'Alembert, "De la liberté de la musique" in Mélanges de littérature, d'histoire et de philosophie, nouvelle édn. (Amsterdam, 1759), IV, §.XXXVII, p.455f.

8Ibid. Tartini's sonata is Op. 1, No. 10 (g10). While the appellation Didone abbandonata is today thought to be of nineteenth-century derivation, d'Alembert's text shows that it was contemporaneous with the composer.

9D'Alembert/1887, p.162: "Les musiciens de profession sont eux-mêmes pour la plupart (au moins parmi nous) mauvois connaisseurs en musique; ils s'occupent trop de la méchanique de l'art et ne font pas assez d'attention au reste, qui est pourtant l'essentiel; c'est même ce dont ils font le moins de cas, et plusieurs en sont encore à se douter qu'il y ait autre chose dans leur art que cette méchanique qu'ils y connoissent."

10Ginguené, 'Exécution' in Encyclopédie méthodique. Musique, ed. N. Framery and P.-L. Ginguené (Paris, 1791).

11Algarotti, Versuche über die Architectur, Mahlerey und musicalische Opera (Kassel, 1769), p.250.

12Algarotti, Essai sur l'opéra (Pisa, 1773), p.42f.

13Algarotti, Saggio sopra l'opera in musica (Venezia, 1755), p.17 (from d'Alembert's 'Discours préliminaire', Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers): "Toute musique, qui ne peint rien, n'est que du bruit, & sans l'habitude, qui denature tout, elle ne feroit gueres plus de plaisir, qu'une suite de mots harmonieux & sonores, denuez d'ordre & de liaison." Algarotti's second ed. (Livorno, 1763), p.36.

14See Alfred Richard Oliver, The Encyclopedists as Critics of Music (New York: Columbia University Press, 1947), p.61ff. For further discussion of aesthetics, see Maria Rika Maniates, "'SONATE, QUE ME VEUX-TU?' The Enigma of French Musical Aesthetics in the 18th Century," Current Musicology 9 (1969):117-40.

15See my Skill Level in Music Performance: The Eighteenth Century (SL18), as yet unpublished. A second volume of the same name covers the nineteenth century (SL19).

16L. Bollioud de Mermet, De la corruption du goust dans la musique françoise (Lyon, 1756/R 1978), pp.28-30, 32-3.

17Mercure de France 116 (Paris, Jan. 1779):47f.: ". . . qu'un joueur de violon rassemble 80 triples croches sous un seul coup d'archet; que sa main fasse des sauts périlleux, comme un danseur de corde; si ces tours de force ne tendent point au but de l'Art; si, loin de plaire, ils fatiguent, & réveillent des sentimens pénibles, ne sommes-nous pas en droit de les proscrire? Et les joueurs d'instrumens ne doivent-ils pas enfin renoncer à un genre qui n'a d'autre mérit que la difficulté vaincue?"

18J.K.F. Triest, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 3 (1801):324. In 1757, M. Ancelet mentions a violinist who performs Locatelli's challenging caprices, but is unable to convey any pleasure when playing a simple menuet. This is the fate, he adds, of all those who, having only dexterity, choose bizarre, difficult bursts conveying only noise. [Ancelet], Observations sur la musique, les musiciens, et les instrumens (Amsterdam, 1757/R 1984), p.21.

19D'Alembert/1759, §.XXXIII, p.448: "La fureur de nos Musiciens François est d'entasser parties sur parties; c'est dans le bruit qu'ils font consister l'effet; la voix est couverte & étouffée par leurs accompagnemens. . . . On croit entendre vingt livres différens lus à la fois; tant notre harmonie a peu d'ensemble. Faut-il s'étonner si les Italiens disent que nous ne savons pas écrire la Musique?"

20Documented in Jerold/SL18, chap.3.

21Reprinted from Rousseau's Dictionnaire by the Encyclopédie méthodique. Musique, op.cit.: "FORCER la voix, c'est excéder en haut ou en bas son Diapason, ou son volume . . . c'est crier au lieu de chanter. Toute voix qu'on force perd sa justesse: cela arrive même aux instrumens où l'on force l'archet ou le vent; & voilà pourquoi les François chantent rarement juste." Because the editors added no comment or correction, they regarded Rousseau's assessment as accurate.

22Rousseau, Lettre d'un symphoniste de l'Académie Royale de musique à ses camarades de l'orchestre in Oeuvres de J. J. Rousseau (Paris, 1819), vol.13, p.309: "Maintenant . . . parce que nous ne jouons pas trop juste et que nous n'allons guère bien ensemble, on nous traite sans façon de racleurs de boyau." See also 'Orchestre' in Rousseau's Dictionnaire.

23Rousseau, Lettre sur la musique françoise, second ed. (Paris, 1753), p.14: "Il n'y a peut-être pas quarte [sic] Symphonistes François qui sçachent la différence de piano & dolce, & c'est fort inutilement qu'ils la sçauroient; car qui d'entre eux seroit en état de la rendre?"

24Rousseau/1768, 'D.'

25See Robert M. Isherwood, "The Conciliatory Partisan of Musical Liberty: Jean Le Rond d'Alembert," French Musical Thought, 1600-1800, ed. Georgia Cowart (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), p.103.

26D'Alembert/1887, p.187f.: ". . . J'aimerois mieux un unisson qui fit corps avec la voix qu'un fatras de parties qui m'accablent et qui me détournent de l'objet principal. Il me semble que les Italiens ont sur ce point bien mieux saisy la nature que nous: leur accompagnement fait souvent unisson avec la voix; quand il en est différent, il joint son expression à celle du chant et l'embellit. J'ay encore sur ce point une prière à faire à notre orchestre: c'est de savoir adoucir à propos; il ne connoît que les forts, quelquefois les doux et jamais l'à-demi-jeu."

27See Jerold/SL18, chap.8b.

28See Jerold/SL19, chap.5.

29Quoted in the Journal de musique (Paris, 1773/6):70f.: "Sonate, que me veux-tu? s'écrioit Fontenelle. Les menuets, les trio, les andante de Schobert lui répondroient: je veux m'emparer d'un de tes sens & l'enivrer de plaisir; je veux exercer ta sensibilité & faire éprouver à ton ame des mouvemens délicieux."

30A.-E.-M. Grétry, Mémoires, ou essais sur la musique (Paris, 1789/R 1971), I, p.78: ". . . et quoi qu'en ait dit Fontenelle, nous savons ce que nous veut une bonne sonate, et sur-tout une symphonie de Haydn ou de Gossec." Cited by William S. Newman, The Sonata in the Baroque Era, 3rd edn. (New York: Norton, 1972), p.353, note. Also disagreeing with Fontenelle is one M. Boyé, L'expression musicale mise au rang des chimères (Amsterdam, 1779/R 1973), p.40f.

31F.-J. Fétis, Revue Musicale 3 (1828):241f.: ". . . Pour moi, je l'avoue, quand elle ne m'émeut pas, je la trouve insupportable, et je suis tenté de lui dire comme Fontenelle à la sonate: Que me veux-tu?"

32J. B. Roucourt, Essai sur la théorie du chant (Bruxelles, 1821), p.97f.: "Ce sont ces concerts où le spirituel Fontenelle, s'écriait: sonate, que me veux-tu? ces masses d'instrumens . . . qui tous joués d'une égale force écrasent sans cesse la partie chantante; ces solos d'instrumens . . . qui lorsqu'ils sont mal choisis, et mal exécutés, produisent des effets soporifiques; et surtout ces airs extraits de certains opéras français . . . criés au lieu d'être chantés, qui finissent par opérer l'effet d'un miaulement insupportable: voilà la cause de l'indifférence qu'éprouvent quelques individus pour un art aussi enchanteur, indifférence qui tient à l'exécution seule et non à la musique en elle-même." Caterwauling means cat yowlingprobably a reference to pronounced sliding between notes, common among singers of the time.

3567 Last modified on October 5, 2018