Critical Language and Musical Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

  • PDF:

Critical Language and Musical Thought in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries1

Though the worth of interdisciplinary approaches to the study and teaching of music history is generally assumed, in practice our efforts to relate music to the other arts often prove artificial and confusing. Knowing that connections do exist, we often feel frustrated when our critical language seems inadequate for describing them, or when large bodies of works fall outside our neat categories. I believe that part of our frustration lies in our attempt to draw parallels based narrowly on style, often in the process borrowing questionable terms from the other arts, and misusing some of our own historical terminology. I would suggest that a more useful link among the arts than these post rem parallels is to be found in the critical, aesthetic, and terminological systems of a given period. For example, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, musical thought grew quite naturally and organically out of philosophies of literature and painting. In studying the language of these critical systems, we can begin to gain an insight into the place of music in its cultural context, and thus begin to teach music history as true intellectual history rather than a hit-or-miss series of parallel artistic events dependent on something mysteriously "in the air."

We need more pedagogy and research that will present documentable evidence for connections between musical thought and the intellectual currents of a historical period, thus providing a backdrop against which meaningful comparisons of the arts can take place. My own research has unearthed such evidence in the following sources: contemporary dictionaries and encyclopedias; contemporary philosophical writings, especially those concerned with aesthetics and the arts; and contemporary theory and criticism of the arts, especially literature, painting, and music. I would like to illustrate my method by presenting a glimpse into the sociological and philosophical worlds of the French terms galant and sentiment (with its German derivative Empfindsamkeit), and from these into the critical language supporting an understanding of music, new in the eighteenth century, as a sensuous phenomenon.

We use galant to describe a certain style of eighteenth-century music, but already by the 1670s the term had come to embrace an entire aesthetic and style of life at the court of Louis XIV, and, later, the whole of Europe. The term had originally meant "valiant" or "competent," but in the early seventeenth century had begun to take on more polite connotations, probably under the influence of Italian court life as described in Castiglione's Il cortegiano. Through the seventeenth century, the galant homme was associated with elegance and a free, spontaneous courtesy. He learned these qualities from his association with women, and one of his most prized abilities was that of pleasing the feminine sex.2 Gradually, the term began to lose its innocence; by 1692, the alter ego of the galant homme, the homme galant, was defined as "a man who has certain passions which he ought not have."3 In its broadest sense, galanterie is never far from amour, more in the sense of flirtation or love affair (for which it often serves as euphemism) than of conjugal love. It reflects a new celebration of youth as well as a more liberated position of women in society, and is particularly associated with occasions of ritualized interaction between the sexes, such as balls, picnics, promenades, the ballet, and discussions of love in the salon.

Seventeenth-century writers had inherited from their Renaissance predecessors a strict vocabulary for the ritual of amour. This rhétorique tendre appeared most clearly in genres like the pastoral and the old ballet de cour, which were dominated by such stylized expressions of love as languishing sighs, bitter complaints of the fickleness of the beloved, and set pieces on the torments of the unrequited lover. Around 1650-1670, during the optimistic early years of Louis XIV's youth, a new attitude towards love can be discerned in both literature and society. Jean-Michel Pelous describes this attitude as l'ironie galante, a use of the old tendre vocabulary for the purposes of gentle mockery and light-hearted humor. Unlike the old tendresse, the new galanterie had no strict code other than the laughing spirit of refined raillery; in contrast to the chaste, serious love of the Précieuses, the new amour galant and enjoué implied carefree consummation and insouciant inconstancy.4

The new sensibility found its most powerful expression in the shorter genres: in poetry, the madrigal, sonnet, chanson, epigram, ballade, and impromptu, and in prose, the maxime, portrait, and lettre galante. Its most representative artists were the poets Vincent Voiture, known to contemporaries as "the unique original in galant matters,"5 and Isaac de Benserade, "the father of beautiful galanterie."6 Under the influence of Voiture, particularly, the old formes fixes began to be replaced by freer verse;7 this freedom from the old rules would later be considered a defining feature of galanterie. The ideals of galanterie were also developed in the galant novel, so called not only for its emphasis on love as subject matter, but also for its ornaments of fêtes, lettres galantes, vers galants, jeux, and emblèmes; stylistically it directs the novel along the path of metaphor, understatement, suggestion, and raillery.8

The social aspects of galanterie coincided with the related notions of dilettantism, pleasure, and divertissement. The first grew out of the aristocratic ideal of wide and often superficial knowledge as opposed to intensive specialization. Galant conversation, avoiding such "serious" subjects as science or religion, revolved around court gossip, mundane events, and "petits riens."9 In the galant era of the 1670s, we see the object of pleasing take precedence over that of instructing, and throughout the ancien régime the divertissement remains central to art and literature. The taste of Louis XIV, especially, gave to the divertissement its official character, its mingling of the cult of love with the cult of the monarchy.10 Almost all of the comédies-ballets of Molière and Lully, and especially the early operas of Quinault and Lully, celebrate the king's capacity for love and the return of peace which restores the omnipotence of amour. The great court fêtes, or galanteries à grand spectacle, represent a continuation of the courtly love traditions of medieval chivalry;11 opera, the quintessential fête galante, focuses the aspirations of an aristocracy that takes for its highest good the reign of love and pleasure.

Quinault, probably more than any other contemporary playwright, transferred the galant ideal to the theater. His contemporaries called him galant, one declaring that no author had ever before conjugated the verb aimer so many times.12 The height of the galant era, in the carefree days of the reign of Louis XIV before his marriage to Mme. de Maintenon, corresponded to the beginnings of the collaboration between Quinault and Lully, and their most galant works were composed in this period of the early 1670s. Alceste (1674), for example, is based on Euripides, but many of the sober conventions of Greek tragedy are overturned in order to make the libretto conform to the modern rules of galanterie: the serious married couple is changed to a younger, more flirtatious unmarried pair, and the play, instead of ending tragically, ends happily in celebration of the galanterie of the hero.

The first performance of Alceste on 11 January 1674 unleashed a furor of criticism by the conservative clerics and the classical critics. Charles Perrault, one of the great Moderns in the quarrel of Ancients and Moderns, sprang to his friend Quinault's defense by attacking Euripides' lack of galanterie in a pamphlet called "Critique d'Alceste, ou le triomphe d'Alcide." After attacking Euripides point by point for his failure to live up to the exacting standards of the galant ideal, Perrault calls in the final pages for a new kind of criticism from the galand homme de bon sens, in contrast to the false savant, or half-savant, who has misapplied the rules:

I also would advise you concerning poetry to conform to those who have made a special study of it, if it were certain that they spoke sincerely. But these masters of art are very rare, and with the exception of several who are very experienced, and in whom I would have full faith, I would pride myself more on a galant homme with good sense than on a false savant who had studied these matters much but badly. . . . When a galand homme, who has never read Aristotle or Horace, tells me he likes a play . . . I will believe that the play that this galand homme has seen is good, and this witness will be more strong in my opinion than all the reasons of the half-savants.13

Racine, speaking for the Classicists, answered Perrault's Critique in his preface to Iphigénie, a play in which the rules are observed without concessions to galanterie. The viewpoints of Perrault and Racine reflect what have been called "mondain" and "savant" styles of criticism.14 The galant homme as critic is shaped by society and transfers the social code of the court to the art of criticism. Unlike the Classicists, whose law is the rules, his law is the art of pleasing, and his law is learned in the salon rather than in dusty libraries. Perrault's galand homme de bon sens, a dilettante ignorant of the rules, uses experience and good taste to judge literature and is uniquely able to appreciate a galant genre such as the tragédie-lyrique.

In France, it was of course the Moderns, and especially women, who appreciated the new galant genre. Boileau's Satire X ("Contre les femmes") criticizes women for their enthusiasm for Lully's opera; it was answered by the ever-vigilant Charles Perrault in his Apologie pour les femmes, and by Pradon, a disciple of Quinault, in his Réponse à Satire X. The most scathing satire of the craze for galanterie was Saint-Evremond's Les opéra of 1676. The main character is a young girl so smitten by the current vogue of opera that she can only communicate by singing in the style of Lully. She has come to this pass through the fault of her mother, who allowed her to read galant pastorals and novels at an earlier age. The doctor, in a frank discussion of opera with the father, admits that Lully's Atys contains "entire scenes of very galant and very beautiful music,"15 but he realizes that his patient has gone overboard, and he finally prescribes a six-month sojourn at the opera, where through satiation she should come to her senses.


Let us now ask in what sense music can be considered galant. Already in the early part of the seventeenth century, galanterie had been associated with appreciation for music, as an entertainment women enjoyed.16 Through the remainder of the century, the primary function of music in French society was as enhancement of social activities, especially the dance, and literary genres that were considered galant. The tragédie-lyrique, of course, was the most important of these, but it had important forerunners in the ballet de cour and the comédie-ballet. Lully had collaborated with the galant poet Benserade since 1653 in the creation of ballets de cour, and the comédies-ballets that he produced with Molière in the decade preceding the first tragédie-lyrique provide perfect models of the satirical tone that critics call "galant irony." In spite of the efforts of Racine, La Fontaine, and others to write libretti for the tragédie-lyrique, Lully chose "le fort galant Quinault" and favored him to the end.

The Mercure galant, unlike the more serious and scholarly Journal des savants, kept its readers abreast of these fashionable musical events. In 1673, the music of Lully and the minuet were praised as worthy examples of modernism.17 The minuet, which demonstrates the epitome of ritualized flirtation between the sexes,18 remains perhaps the most powerful symbol of the galanterie of the ancien régime. This dance captured the enthusiasm of the late seventeenth-century beau-monde just as its granddaughter, the waltz, seized the imagination of nineteenth-century Vienna. By bringing the minuet into the repertoire of art music, Lully began a tradition that would fade only with the early works of Beethoven.

Perrault, the spokesman for Quinault and the Moderns, had defined the literary galant by its qualities of playfulness, subtlety, delicacy, freedom, agreeableness, and lightness of effect.19 A case could be made for finding a similar musical style galant in a portion of Lully's music. If we look at Alceste, for example, we find little evidence of these qualities in the weighty overture, the recitative developed from an Italian model and from the tonal inflections of the French theater, the Italianate scene in the underworld, or the funeral scene. It is rather in the light, charming, and graceful airs, especially the airs galants, airs gais, and airs de danse, based on dance rhythms (mainly the minuet), that these characteristics seem to prevail. These airs—simple, elegant, and in major keys—are found predominantly in the Prologue, an allegory set in the gardens of Versailles and entitled "Le retour des plaisirs," and in the first act, a "fête galante" in celebration of the marriage of Alceste. Their subject matter typically treats the inconstancy of love and derision of melancholy love. After Alceste, Quinault expurgated much of the galant mockery from the tragédie-lyrique, probably because of the criticism of the Classicists and of the general decline of galanterie in the last quarter of the century, but many of the musical elements remain, especially in the divertissement.

In Alceste, we find not only characteristics associated with a literary style galant, but also many of the same qualities listed by German theorists of the following century to characterize a musical style galant, namely its "witty, pleasant, flowing" nature, its freedom from the rules of traditional counterpoint, its tasteful embellishment, its close association with operatic music, its "middle style of affective expression," and above all its modernism.20 The German music theorists, of course, were not returning to a Lullian model, nor to a specifically French style. Rather, the German connection is a literary one, for the term galant had entered the German vocabulary in the late seventeenth century to define a new style of poetry, charming and amorous, developed under French influence. The music theorists then appropriated the term to describe a similar style of "modern" music, though by this time such a style was considered as much Italian as French.21

It was in seventeenth-century France, however, that galanterie and modernism, like a pair of young lovers in a Molière play, first began to win out over the old parents, formulaic traditionalism and the rules. Indeed, the spirit of galanterie, incompatible with classical tragedy, pervades the comic works of Molière and the early comedies of Corneille. In a rhetorical sense, galant occupied a middle ground between the high rhetorical style of classical tragedy and the crudeness of the low popular style found, for example, in the burlesque. The hybrid tragédie-lyrique, a true galanterie à grand spectacle, takes its subject from tragedy. In its tempering of this subject matter with a pervasive amorousness, a muting of the more violent affections, and a penchant for the happy ending, the tragédie-lyrique represents that middle style.

Thus galant may be understood as a stylistic term, but the very style it describes is part of a much more general and pervasive attitude towards life characteristic of a certain element of society in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The term, then, tells us not only about music's style, but also about its audience and its purpose. If we focus on the term in a nearsighted chronological way, we miss the important connections linking the eighteenth to the seventeenth century and Germany to France.


Another term that has been all too narrowly bound up with style is Empfindsamkeit, which has been used in conjunction with a northern German school of music in the mid-eighteenth century, and especially with a certain aspect of the music of C.P.E. Bach. Bach's keyboard sonatas were praised for keeping in motion "the imagination and the sentiments (Empfindungen)," and the clavichord was called an empfindsames instrument in 1805, but Empfindsamkeit was also used to describe the Italian style, the music of J.C. Bach, the mixture of German and Italian traits, and even the performance of bassoon players.22 It seems in no way associated with a school of composers or with a particular north-German style of composition or performance, but rather—like galant—with an attitude and an aesthetic system.23

Empfindsamkeit, like galant, may be traced back to seventeenth-century France, where sentiment had designated an impression on the senses or sensory perception, and to England, where Thomas Hobbes and John Locke used "sentiment" to indicate the psychological experience of information gathered from the senses. French writers influenced by the English empiricists began to understand the content of the mind as a result of the physical senses rather than of innate ideas, as Descartes had believed earlier in the century. This new belief had a profound effect on how music and art were perceived. Whereas Descartes and his followers had believed that musical and visual beauty could not be studied rationally and thus belonged to a lower order of knowledge than innate ideas, the new critics understood sight and sound, along with the feelings these senses elicit, as the most important shapers of the unformed clay which they considered the mind. This new view of the arts legitimated non-verbal beauty, and thus in music, instrumental music, which could now be apprehended meaningfully without reliance upon the intellectual understanding of expressive text setting.

The origins of modern aesthetic theory may be found in the equation of sentiment with good taste (bon goût), which arose out of the disputes over taste in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in France. According to some, taste was the result of universal reason, which would remain forever codified by the rules of the ancients; according to others, it was a more relative phenomenon that depended on the individual's interpretation of the information derived from his own sensory impressions. Probably the first writer to associate taste and sentiment was the Chevalier de Méré, who defines bon goût as "judging well all that presents itself, by some undefined sentiment that acts more quickly and sometimes more directly than reflection"; elsewhere he calls taste a sentiment intérieur that is little understood but powerfully felt.24 A few years later Pierre Nicole opposes this taste to a knowledge of the rules: "this idea and strong impression, which is called sentiment or goût, is completely different from all the rules in the world."25 Taste is for the critic Dominique Bouhours "a natural sentiment that depends on the heart,"26 for Voltaire "the sentiment of beauties and faults in the arts,"27 for Montesquieu "that which attaches us to something by sentiment."28

In Jean-Pierre Crousaz's Traité du beau (1715) and the Abbé Dubos's Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture (1719), sentiment refers to the perception of beauty through the senses. Crousaz uses the word in the plural and equates it literally with the various sorts of sensory perception that, bypassing the intellect and communicating directly with the heart, are capable of giving rise to certain emotions. He opposes verbal, intellectual beauty (beauté des idées) to non-verbal, sensuous beauty (beauté des sentiments), and finds equal value in the two. The Abbé Dubos goes even further in raising sentiment to the sine qua non of the aesthetic experience. For Dubos, sentiment serves not as a reference to the five senses, nor to sensory perception in general, but rather to a "sixth sense" located in the heart, an internal faculty that perceives beauty through the external senses. Dubos describes this sixth sense as acting immediately, unlike the intellect, which can only confirm in a subordinate manner the judgment of the sentiment.

As the term passion had defined Descartes's system of the emotions on which seventeenth-century aesthetic theories were based, sentiment gradually came to define a new aesthetic of the emotions in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Whereas the Cartesian passions were powerful, clearly differentiated entities dependent largely on internal physiology, sentiments came to indicate a delicate play of vague feelings set in motion by external sensory stimuli. Often these feelings tended towards the amorous, thus dovetailing nicely with the galant spirit of the 1670s; in 1680 Richelet equates sentiment with affection, and in 1690 Furetière states that the phrase "he has tender sentiments for the Demoiselle" means that "he loves her."29 When not used to signify love, sentiment is associated with the gentler emotions such as esteem and is often found in such phrases as sentimens tendres and sentimens délicats.

As sentiment continued to take on more emotional meaning in the early eighteenth century, its sister-term sensibilité was becoming the focus of expanded meaning and a new vogue in French manners. Originally, while sentiment had signified sensory perception, sensibilité had signified the capability of animals—in contrast to plants—to have this ability. As sentiment came to have more emotional nuance, sensibilité gradually acquired the meaning of "disposed towards the sentiments of tenderness and love."30 By the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloise, "the simple word itself was sufficient to denote that remarkable complex of amorous susceptibilities, indiscriminate charitable impulses and emotionalism generally, which by 1789 was regarded almost universally as the sum of human virtues."31 Finally, in the late part of the eighteenth century, the meanings of the two words are conflated; in 1798 the Dictionnaire de l'Académie states, "Sentiment means also, especially for several years now, sensibilité."

The English term "sentiment," like the French originally devoid of emotional connotation, began to take on elements of feeling with the "Moral Sense School" of the Earl of Shaftesbury, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and Adam Smith, whose theories of the "Man of Feeling" imbued man with a natural propensity towards feelings of sympathy and compassion.32 By the time the adjective "sentimental" had entered general currency, especially after the appearance of Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey in 1768, emotional content had gained ascendancy, and with the translations of Sterne, Samuel Richardson, and their generation, the French and English vogues of sensibility and sentimentality swept into the European middle-class home. After the translation of A Sentimental Journey as Empfindsame Reise (1769), empfindsam, a new word in German, quickly took on the meaning of "susceptible to light, soft sentiments, to being lightly touched."33 A worship of Sterne and the invasion of English sentimentality into every area of German life characterized the late years of the eighteenth century; J.G. Jacobi mocks the typical reader of sentimental novels: "On her work table a Yorick [Sterne's hero], on the clavier sentimental songs, sentimental letters in the sewing kit, sentimental silhouettes on the wall, and her own sentimental eyes in the mirror."34

Johann Mattheson, who was later to translate Richardson's Pamela in 1742, drew on the empiricism of the British philosophers in his Das forschende Orchestre (1721). The first half, which he devoted to the effect of music on the senses, brought sentiment to German musical criticism. Citing Locke, he states, "Sentiment [die Empfindung] is the source of all ideas; by means of the Sinnen-Empfindung the soul teaches us to know things and arranges its ideas accordingly."35 In his later Kern melodischer Wissenschaft (1737), Mattheson emphasizes the importance of melody, which can and must touch the empfindliche Sinne.36 Mattheson's treatment of Empfindung provided a philosophical foundation for an already substantial body of critical works praising music for its appeal to the ear, and served as the earliest defense of sense over reason in the eighteenth-century German phase of that long debate.

In 1750, Alexander Baumgarten brought together the ideas of several earlier writers on sentiment in his Aesthetica, whose title means "perception by the senses." Baumgarten maintained that philosophic knowledge differs from aesthetic knowledge and that the arts cannot be judged by the cognitive powers of reason: "the goal of aesthetics," instead, "is the perfection of sensory cognition as such. And this is beauty."37

All the qualities associated with sentiment and Empfindung since the time of Crousaz and Dubos culminate in the aesthetic use of the term Empfindsamkeit in the late eighteenth century. J.G. Sulzer's Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste (1771-1774) includes one of the earliest examples of such use under the lengthy entry Empfindung. Here, one must have a high level of Empfindsamkeit (sensitivity) for the beautiful and the ugly, the good and bad, because the insensitive person is no better than an animal. Moderation is advised, "for just as the lack of sufficient Empfindsamkeit is a great imperfection . . . so is its excess most shameful, for then it becomes effeminate, weak, and unmanly."38 Finally, the author states emphatically that "a general, well-ordered Empfindsamkeit of the heart is thus the most universal goal of the fine arts."39

The most important treatment of Empfindsamkeit in the last two decades of the century, Karl Ludwig Junker's Über den Werth der Tonkunst (1786), represents a South German's application of Sulzer's general theories to the specific art of music. To Junker, Empfindsamkeit sums up all that is noble in humankind, and the greatest value of music lies in its ability to awaken and refine this quality. "For beauty in art," Junker summarizes, "conforms perfectly to the innate, delicate Empfindsamkeit within us; this Empfindsamkeit is aroused by the impressions of art and then becomes active; it summons up all our innate abilities; mind and heart are constantly stimulated by all kinds of perfection, increasingly developing and refining our powers of perception."40

In the late eighteenth century, then, Empfindsamkeit enters the German aesthetic vocabulary as a quality of the person of good taste. Empfindsamkeit, like the French sentiment, enables one to enjoy sensory stimuli of all kinds, but especially music and art, which correspond to sight and hearing, the "finer" senses. It may thus be defined as the exquisite sensitivity to such stimuli. Because the term "aesthetics," though coined in 1750, did not become current until the nineteenth century, the responsiveness to art—a topic of burning interest and wide discussion in the late eighteenth century—could only be described in terms of taste, sentiment, and Empfindsamkeit.

The German distinction between Leidenschaften (passions) and Empfindungen (sentiments) paralleled the French distinction between passions and sentiments. In both countries, the passions were inextricably tied to a rationalistic theory of music in their representation of objective emotional states dictated by a text. Their very objectivity and explicitness, however, made possible a pointedness of expression, an intensity and even sometimes violence of emotional statement. In contrast, sentiments, the heart's subjective responses to sensuous stimuli, were considered not only delicate and tender, but also—because wordless—necessarily vague. The rise of the aesthetic of Empfindsamkeit accompanied a turn towards the ideal of delicacy and subtlety in all the arts, and for the first time we encounter, in Germany as in France, an aesthetic of musical expression capable of encompassing instrumental as well as vocal music. This aesthetic had a powerful and universal appeal, probably because the sentimental revolution had begun in the novel, the first artistic genre directed chiefly to the new middle class. Instead of seeking to limit the application of the term, then, perhaps we would do well to find an appeal to the sentiments—or to find, that is, Empfindsamkeit in its wider sense—as a component of almost all eighteenth-century music. At the same time we should realize that Empfindsamkeit, like galanterie as well as sentiment and taste, refers more properly to the listener than to the music, to a quality that makes the cultivated person sensitive to all forms of music and the fine arts, and that it should thus also contribute as much to a history of musical aesthetics as to a history of musical style.


We have looked at a single term, galant, and a group of terms related to the French sentiment and the German Empfindsamkeit. Taken together, these terms signify an important trend in manners, aesthetics, and style in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In all these areas, they represent a search for meaning more on the surface of life and art than in the interior—an attempt, in fact, to replace old-fashioned notions of "meaning" with new ideals of sensuous beauty and pleasure. As we have seen, the development of the notion of the sensuous in art led to the new field of aesthetics in the eighteenth century. It also led to a view of the arts qua art, to be appreciated through the senses as well as through the mind. The violent quarrels over taste in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the wars of Ancients and Moderns, arguments over French and Italian music and over line and color in painting, all find their origins in the struggles of "modern" thinkers to overthrow the intellectual establishment which refused to find meaning on the surface of discourse. In the remainder of this paper, I would like to use a wider-angle lens to discover some of the patterns of language to which the terms galant and sentiment lead. In so doing, I hope to demonstrate the usefulness of critical language in helping us to understand the art of a period.

Perhaps the clearest dichotomy between intellectual "meaning" and sensuous beauty was drawn in the field of art during the last three decades of the seventeenth century in France, in the quarrels over line and color. Advocates of line (also referred to as design or figure) echoed Descartes's statement, "Reason tells us that the figure is in the objects; only a vague sentiment tells us that it is colored."41 To Lebrun and the Academicians, the physical surface of the canvas must be transcended so that the idea of the painter could be conveyed to the mind of the viewer in as pure a form as possible; the viewer must be aware of the object represented rather than the means of representation. According to Lebrun, an emphasis on color actually debases the object, bringing it down to the level of sheer physicality and materiality. Line or design (dessin) has the intrinsic ability to represent an idea beyond itself, thus to appeal directly to the mind rather than to the physical body:

It must be considered that color in painting cannot produce any hue or tint that does not derive from the actual material that supports the color, for one would not know how to make green with a red pigment, nor blue with a yellow. For this reason it must be said that color depends entirely on matter, and, as a result, is less noble than design, which comes directly from the spirit.42

This position was challenged to a certain extent in the Academy, but the great champion of color was an amateur who visited the debates only as an observer, Roger de Piles. De Piles maintained the importance of design, but insisted on granting a place of equal importance to color. Earlier colorists had debated the relative virtues of line and color in the abstract, but part of de Piles's success lay in his finding personalities whose works epitomized the two sides: for line he chose Poussin, "le philosophe," and for color, Rubens, "l'enchanteur."43

In choosing Rubens for his model, de Piles chose an artist whose decorative use of color draws the viewer more to the surface of the painting than beyond the surface into the story being told. This technique was carried further in the eighteenth century by such artists as Boucher and Watteau, whose intricate fragmentation and interruption of colors and patterns seem to be deliberate attempts to pull the eye back and forth between the objects represented and the surface of the canvas. Contemporary critics referred to this painterly process as papillotage, and related it specifically to literary techniques of interruption used in the burlesque of the seventeenth-century writer Scarron and the tales of Caillot.44 It might also be applied to the voguish irony of the galant literary style, which—by mocking the tears and sighs of an earlier tendresse—promotes a playful awareness of the surface of discourse.

In music, the quarrels over French and Italian opera represent a major confrontation in the battle to liberate the sensuous aspect of art. In the mid-to-late seventeenth century, with the works of Bononcini, Corelli, and their contemporaries, Italian music had become less dependent on text. Instrumental music was more heavily emphasized, and the cantata, a genre ideal for the display of vocal virtuosity, became increasingly popular in France as well as in Italy. French music, on the other hand, under the domination of the Académie de musique, remained more textually oriented, more intellectual, and thus more akin to the Italian music of an earlier period.

As we have seen, the French classicists criticized the French opera of Quinault and Lully for its galanterie and failure to meet the ideals of serious tragedy. But in comparison to Italian opera, the tragédie-lyrique was seen nostalgically by early eighteenth-century classicists as the embodiment of those very ideals. Lecerf de la Viéville, the great defender of French music, saw the tragédie-lyrique as the perfect form of appeal to the mind through the intellectual comprehension of the libretto, with the musical setting serving only as the "handmaid" to the text.45 Lecerf's adversary, François Raguenet,46 defended Italian music on the basis of its sound. He makes much of the superior sound of the Italian vowels over the French, and praises the Italian use of the castrato voice for its amazing sound. Concentrating on the aria as the "essence" of Italian music, Raguenet praises its virtuosity as well as its dissonance, chromaticism, and irregularity. Italian composers, who unlike the French are above the rules, surprise and astound the listener by their abrupt transitions and modulations.

The language of Raguenet, advocate of the ear, bears many similarities to that of de Piles, advocate of the eye. Both use the term "chromatique," de Piles for color in painting, Raguenet for color in music. Their language is also similar in its physicality. De Piles states that just as no man can exist without soul being joined to body, so can no painting exist without line being joined to color.47 He also speaks of a kind of taste that is "nourri" (rich, dense) and "möleux" (agreeable to touch, taste, hear)—terms often used to refer to sweets or heavy wines, and directly reflecting the physical sensuousness of Rubens's painting; the pun with "taste" (goût) is probably intended. Raguenet uses the same terms "nourri et moelleux" to describe Italian basses. His language becomes more lavish when he describes the listener as "carried away, enchanted . . . in an ecstasy of pleasure."48

Since sensuous beauty was a quality more associated with women than with men, the intellectual component of music tended to be seen as masculine, the physical component as feminine. Boileau, the classical critic whose stem equation of beauty with truth admitted nothing of the sensuous, criticized opera as a soft, feminine, and frivolous luxury.49 Both painters and musicians were warned against the "seductive" charms of color and sound as a young man would be warned against the charms of loose women.50 In music and literature, these charms were associated with Italy. As early as 1513 Lemaire de Belges had entitled his work in imitation of the Italian style "The Temple of Venus," that in imitation of the French style "The Temple of Minerva"; Joachim du Bellay speaks of Italian as "the language of a courtesan, false sighs and feigned tears . . . a distorted expression."51

In the eighteenth century, Lecerf characterizes French music as an innocent virgin, Italian music as a brash hussy. Such language would intensify throughout the century. Brijon, in 1763, calls Italian music a coquette who only knows three or four words which she repeats "mincingly."52 In 1779, Guinguiné compares Boccherini's Opus 5 to a woman who, instead of maintaining a consistent affection, "demands and uses sweetness and reproach one after another."53 The language of Michel Boyé in his L'expression musicale mise en rang des chimères (an all-out defense of musical sensation) becomes positively orgasmic:

How old are you, Messieurs, to look upon physical pleasures with disdain? Have you always thought like that? If you had consulted pretty women and even ugly ones, surely you would have deleted these words [that the art of sonority should be considered only from the point of view of physics]. For myself, when certain musical effects spread to all parts of my being in this voluptuous shudder that we commonly call goose bumps, I prefer this precious thrill to all the tempests of cool observers. Similarly when Colas embraces his mistress, he takes more pleasure than in all the comparisons that can be made about love. . . .54

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women led a movement away from the expert and towards the amateur. They were not trained in the humanistic disciplines of the schools and academies but rather in the less intellectual atmosphere of the salon. Because women and other amateurs were not versed in humanistic knowledge of mythology and history, they were less able to appreciate the intellectual element in art and more apt to appreciate the sensuous qualities of color and sound, or at least to demand art whose intellectual content was reduced in complexity and imbued with more superficial galanterie. As a strict, humanistic university training gave way to a less rigidly educated class of scholars in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,55 a common body of knowledge began to break down in a process that would continue until our own day. The rise of sensuousness in the arts seems to parallel this disintegration of humanistic knowledge. It also seems to parallel a disintegration of political authority, for when there is a political message to be conveyed, whether within the institutions of church or state, a high discursive component is demanded. Louis XIV, like the Catholic church, expected a discursive art that would propagandize the historical and allegorical symbols of his authority; Lebrun and Lully, representing the Académie de peinture et de sculpture and the Académie de musique, existed to serve the monarch. Slightly later artists, such as Watteau and Couperin,did not work under such rigid political constraints, and their art reflects a much higher degree of sheer appeal to the senses.

Finally, the quarrels over line and color and over French and Italian music may be seen as battles in the larger war between Ancients and Moderns in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Color was frowned upon by the Ancients because all that was left of ancient art, its sculpture and architecture, seemed to exist independently of color. Similarly, music with a low discursive content could not be reconciled with the marvelous integration of poetry, music, dance, and drama believed to exist in ancient times. The Moderns, in accepting new genres—Italian opera, instrumental music, and genre painting—opened the way for a new view of art, one that admitted the sensuous as well as the representational.

The Moderns' search for beauty at the expense of "meaning" may be discerned in our writers' discussions of the true and the false. Boileau's dictum "Only the true is beautiful" held true for Classicists in all disciplines. Lecerf equated "truth" with French music, the Ancients, and simplicity, "falsity" with Italian music, the Moderns, affectation, and brilliance. The Moderns, on the other hand, naturally failed to find any intrinsic truth in art, for they saw art, like galant conversation, more as interplay between discourse and audience than as transmitter of meaning. Indeed, de Piles maintains that the truth is insipid unless inspired by enthusiasm, that the goal of painting is not to convince the mind, but to play with the eyes: "the beautiful," he says, "consists not at all of the real; each judges it according to his taste. . . . The beautiful is none other than what pleases."56


I have tried to show here how the language of art, music, and literary theory can give us useful information in our effort to find common roots for the intellectual and artistic flowerings of an era. I believe that the arts of an era find their meeting place in words—not our words but those of their own time. Whether we find that these words reflect already existent artistic trends of a given period, create perceived needs for new directions in art, or—more likely—both, we will be able to return to musical and artistic style with a fresh intellectual perspective, and discuss style in a manner that does justice to the intellectual currents on which it rides. This perspective will result from the scrutiny of many small peepholes such as those offered here, but in time these peepholes can merge to provide ever-expanding vistas onto the art, culture, and thought of a period.

1This article was presented as part of a panel at the Annual Meeting of The College Music Society, Miami 1986. It represents a summary of my work in this field, and is taken in part from my articles, "Lully Enjoué: Galanterie in Seventeenth-Century France," Actes de Baton Rouge (Paris: Biblio 17, 1986); "Sense and Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Musical Thought," Acta Musicologica 56 (1984):251-66; and "Inventing the Arts: Changing Critical Language in Seventeenth-Century France," a part of a work in progress, French Musical Thought of the Ancien Régime.

2Else Thurau, Galant: Ein Beitrag zur französischen Wort- und Kulturgeschichte (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1975), 36-37; Micheline Cuénin, Roman et société sous Louis XIV: Mme. de Villedieu (Paris: Champion, 1979), 330-31.

3Thurau, 68 (quoted from Réflexions sur l'usage présent de la langue française, 170).

4Jean-Michel Pelous, Amour précieux, amour galant (1654-1675) (Paris: Klincksieck, 1980), 133, 155.

5Pelous, 144.

6Antoine Adam, Histoire de la littérature française au XVIIe siècle, 5 vols. (Paris: Domat, 1948-1962), 3:170; the quotation is from Guéret (1663).

7Cuénin, 361.

8Cuénin, 346-93 (Chapter 7, "De la galanterie").

9Jean-Pierre Dens, L'honnête homme et la critique du goût: Esthétique et société au XVIIe siècle (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum, 1981), 73.

10Pelous, 231.

11Paul Bénichou, Morales du grand siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1948; reprint ed., 1967), 266-67, 316.

12Adam, 4:245.

13Charles Perrault, Critique de l'opéra ou examen de la tragédie intitulée: Alceste ou le Triomphe d'Alcide, in Jean Le Laboureur, Recueil de divers ouvrages en prose et en vers (Paris: Coignard, 1675), 309: ". . . aussi conseillerois-je en ce qui regarde la Poësie, de s'en rapporter à ceux qui en ont fait une estude particulière, s'il estoit bien seur qu'ils parlassent sincerement; Mais ces Maistres de l'Art sont tresrares, & à la reserve de quelques-uns qui sont fort habiles, & en qui j'aurois toute creance, je m'en fierois bien plus à un galand homme de bon sens, qu'à un Sçavant prétendu qui auroit beaucoup, mais mal estudié cette matiere. . . . Quand un galand homme, qui n'aura jamais leu Aristote ny Horace, me dira qu'une Piece luy a plû . . . je croirai que la Piece que ce galand homme a veue, est bonne, & ce temoignage sera plus fort à mon egard, que toutes les raisons des demy-Sçavants."

14On Méré, see Dens, L'honnête homme; on Saint-Evremond, Quentin M. Hope, Saint-Evremond: The Honnête Homme as Critic (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1964).

15Saint-Evremond, Les opéra, ed. Robert Finch and Eugène Joliat (Geneva: Droz, 1979), 69.

16Roger Lathuillère, La Préciosité: Etude historique et linguistique (Geneva: Droz, 1966), 565-66.

17Le Mercure galant (Paris, 1673), 320-21. The pilot issue of the Mercure in the preceding year had included a prefatory "Au lecteur" in which the editor defended the galant orientation of the new journal: "Those with galanteries and anything of curiosity that merits publication may send them to me. . . . I also am obliged to warn you that this journal has no resemblance to the Journal des savants. It speaks only of scientific books being published, and we only speak of amorous stories, and of the merit of those persons who have it, even if their pen never produces anything. It is not always necessary to write to have esprit, and we have often seen proof to the contrary. I should add that if we speak here of any books, it will only be books of galanteries, of which the Journal will never speak. . . . [Ceux qui auront quelques galanteries, & quelque chose de curieux, qui meritera d'estre sçeu, pourront me l'apporter. . . . Je crois estre encor obligé de vous avertir que ce livre n'a rien qui ressemble au Journal des savants: Il ne parle que des Livres de Sciences qu'on imprime, & l'on ne parle ici que d'Histoires amoreuses, & que du mérite des Personnes qui en ont beaucoup, quand mesme leur plume ne produiroit aucun Ouvrage. Il n'est pas toûjours necessaire d'écrire pour avoir de l'esprit, & l'on a souvent veu des preuves du contraire. Je dois ajoûter à tout cela, que si l'on parle ici de quelques Livres, ce n'est que de Livres de galanteries, dont le Journal ne dit jamais rien. . . .]"

18Curt Sachs, World History of the Dance, trans. Bessie Schönberg (New York: Bonanza, 1937), 405-7.

19Charles Perrault, Parallèle des anciens et des modernes en ce qui concerne les arts et les sciences, 4 vols. (Paris: Coignard, 1692-1697; facsimile reprint, Geneva: Slatkine, 1979), 3:286.

20David A. Sheldon, "The Galant Style Revisited and Re-evaluated," Acta Musicologica 47 (1975), 250-70.

21Indeed, though all the musical uses of the term galant that I have found in this period are applied to French music, especially the tragédie-lyrique, it should be emphasized that Lully and Quinault did not "invent" a galant style, in either music or libretto. Earlier manifestations of such a musical style in connection with textual ironie galante may be found in the works of earlier Italian composers, most notably Francesco Cavalli, whose Ercole amante—performed in Paris in 1662—influenced the course of French opera.

22Roye E. Wates, "Karl Ludwig Junker (1748-1797): Sentimental Music Critic" (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1965), 80-81.

23According to Daniel Heartz, "Empfindsamkeit," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 20 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1980), 6:159, C.P.E. Bach's musical style "was often indistinguishable from the international idiom of finely nuanced, periodic melody, supported by light-textured accompaniment: it was a reaction to the 'strict' or 'learned' style and elsewhere was apt to go under the name 'galant'."

24Oeuvres complètes, ed. Charles-H. Boudhors, 3 vols. (Paris: Roches, 1930), 1:55: ". . . juger bien de tout ce qui se presente, par je ne sçay quel sentiment qui va plus viste, et quelque fois plus droit que les réflexions," 2:28.

25Preface to Recueil de poésies chrétiennes et diverses (1671), formerly attributed to La Fontaine. The passage cited is from La Fontaine, Oeuvres diverses, ed. Pierre Clarac (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), 782: "Cette idée et cette impression vive, qui s'appelle sentiment ou goût, est tout autrement subtile que toutes les règles du monde."

26La manière de bien penser dans les ouvrages d'esprit (Paris: Brunet, 1715; facsimile reprint, Brighton: University of Sussex Library for the Committee for Research in French Studies, 1971), 516: "Le goust . . . est un sentiment naturel qui tient à l'âme. . . ."

27Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 35 vols. (Paris: Briasson, 1751-1765), 7:761: ". . . le sentiment des beautés & de défauts dans les arts."

28Charles, Baron de Montesquieu, Essai sur le goût (1758), in Oeuvres complètes, 8 vols. (Paris: Lefevre, 1826), 8:58: ". . . ce qui nous attache a une chose par le sentiment."

29Le dictionnaire universel d'Antoine Furetière (The Hague: Leers, 1690; reprint ed., Paris: Le Robert, 1978).

30Arthur M. Wilson, Jr., "Sensibility in France in the Eighteenth Century: A Study in Word History," French Quarterly 13 (1931):44.

31Wilson, 44.

32Erik Erämetsä, A Study of the Word 'Sentimental' and of Other Linguistic Characteristics of Eighteenth-Century Sentimentalism in England (Helsinki, 1951), 39.

33Georg Jäger, Empfindsamkeit und Roman: Wortgeschichte, Theorie und Kritik im 18. und frühen 19. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1969), 19.

34Jäger, p. 34: ". . . auf dem Arbeit-Tisch einen Yorick, auf dem Clavier empfindsame Lieder, empfindsame Briefchen im Nähe-Beutel, an der Wand empfindsame Schattenrisse, und ihr eignes empfindsames Aug' im Spiegel."

35Quoted in Hugo Goldschmidt, Die Musikästhetik des 18. Jahrhunderts und ihre Beziehungen zu seinem Kunstschaffen (Zürich and Leipzig: Rascher, 1915; reprint ed., Hildescheim: Olms, 1968), 60: "Die Empfindung ist die Quelle aller Ideen, vermittelst der "Sinnen-Empfindung" lehrt das Gemüt die Sachen kennen und richtet seine Ideen danach ein."

36Goldschmidt, p. 62.

37Alexander Baumgarten, Aesthetica (Frankfurt/Oder, 1750), sec. 14, quoted in Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Fritz C.A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton University Press, 1951), 350: "Aesthetices finis est perfectio cognitionis sensitivae, qua talia. Haec autem est pulcritudo."

38J.B. Sulzer, Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste, 5 vols. (Leipzig: Weidmann, 1771-74; reprint ed., Hildesheim: Olms, 1967), 2:56: "Denn wie der Mangel der genugsamen Empfindsamkeit eine grosse Unvollkommenheit ist . . . so ist auch ihr Übermass sehr schädlich, weil er alsdenn weichlich, schwach und unmännlich wird."

39Sulzer, 2:55: "Eine allgemeine, wol geordnete Empfindsamkeit des Herzens ist also der allgemeineste Zweck der schönen Künste."

40Karl Ludwig Junker, Über den Werth der Tonkunst (Bayreuth and Leipzig: Lübeck, 1786), 76: "Denn Schönheit der Kunst entspricht vollkommen, der in uns liegenden feinern Empfindsamkeit; diese Empfindsamkeit wird durch die Eindrücke der Kunst gereizt, sie wird wirksam; sie fordert alle in uns liegende Kräfte auf; Geist und Herz werden unaufhörlich von allen Arten der Vollkommenheit gereizt, und entwickeln und verfeinern dadurch immer mehr, alle in uns liegende Kräfte."

41René Descartes, Traité sur les passions de l'âme (Amsterdam: Elzevier, 1650), 70, quoted in Norman Bryson, Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 60.

42Quoted in L. Hourticq, De Poussin à Watteau (Paris: Hachette, 1921), 49: "Il faut considérer que la couleur qui entre dans ces tableaux ne peut produire aucune teinte ni coloris que ce ne soit par la matière même qui porte la teinte, car l'on ne saurait faire du vert avec une couleur rouge, ni du bleu avec du jaune. C'est pourquoi l'on peut dire que la couleur dépend tout à fait de la matière et, par conséquent, qu'elle est moins noble que le dessin, qui ne relève que de l'esprit."

43For an account of the debates of the Académie, see Bernard Teyssèdre, Roger de Piles et les débats sur le coloris au siècle de Louis XIV (Paris: Bibliothèque des Arts, 1957), and Henry Jouin, ed., Conférences de l'Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (Paris: Quantin, 1883).

44Marian Hobson, The Object of Art: The Theory of Illusion in Eighteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 52. Such shifting levels of discourse, often including plays within plays and novels within novels, are foreshadowed in Cervantes' Don Quixote and reach a peak in the eighteenth century with Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, analyzed by Hobson, 127-36.

45Jean-Laurent Lecerf de la Viéville, Comparaison de la musique italienne et de la musique française, 3 vols. (Brussels: Foppens, 1704-1706; facsimile reprint, Geneva: Minkoff, 1972).

46François Raguenet, Parallèle des Italiens et des Français en ce qui regarde la musique et les opéra (Paris: Moreau, 1705; facsimile reprint, Geneva: Minkoff, 1976).

47Roger de Piles, Cours de peinture par principe (Paris: Estienne, 1708), 319.

48Raguenet, Parallèle, 58: "emporté, enchanté . . . extasié de plaisir." Lecerf (1:154) complains of this passage that "Mr. l'Abbé sometimes lacks order and clarity" ("M. l'Abbé manque quelquefois d'ordre & de clarté").

49Satire X, in Satires, ed. Albert Cahen (Paris: Droz, 1932), 143-88. In general, the classicists tended towards anti-feminism, while the advocates of modern genres were more inclined to favor women. Boileau's Satire X was answered by several poets of the modern persuasion, including Pradon (a disciple of Quinault), Rénier, and Charles Perrault.

50Color, like florid melody, was spoken of as possessing "charms" and "snares" for the eyes. The most common adjectives for color and Italian melody, "charming" and "enchanting," imply a passive helplessness on the part of the beholder, much like Homer had painted Odysseus before the song of the Sirens.

51Jean Lemaire de Belges, La concorde des deux langages (Paris, 1549; critical edition, Paris: Droz, 1947); Joachim Du Bellay, Divers jeux rustiques (Paris: Morel, 1568; critical edition, Geneva and Lille: Droz, 1947), 84: "Je ne suis point si subtil artizan/Que de pouvoir d'un parler courtizan/D'un faulx soupir et d'une larme feincte/Monstrer dehors une amitié contraincte/Dissimulant mon visage par art . . ."

52C.R. Brijon, Réflexions sur la musique et la vraie manière de l'exécuter sur le violon (Paris: chez l'auteur, 1763; facsimile reprint, Geneva: Minkoff, 1972), 5.

53Quoted in Goldschmidt, 240: ". . . qui demande et qui employe tour à tour la douceur et le reproche."

54Michel Boyé, L'expression musicale, mise au rang des chimères (Paris, 1779; facsimile reprint, Geneva: Minkoff, 1973), 26: "Quel âge avez-vous donc, Messieurs, pour porter un oeil dédaigneux sur les plaisirs physiques? Avez-vous toujours pensé comme cela? Si vous aviez consulté les jolies femmes & même les laides, à coupe sûr vous eussiez rayé ces dernières paroles. Pour moi, lorsque certains effets de Musique répandent dans toutes les parties de mon être ce frémissement voluptueux qu'on nomme vulgairement, chair de poule; je préfère cette jouissance précieuse à toutes les tempêtes des froids Observateurs; de même que lorsque Colas embrasse sa maitresse, il y prend bien plus de plaisir qu'à toutes les comparaisons qu'on pourroit faire sur l'amour; mais peut-être n'aimez-vous pas qu'on plaisante: parlons plus sérieusement."

55Antoine Adam, Grandeur and Illusion: French Literature and Society, 1600-1715, trans. Herbert Tint (New York: Basic Books, 1972), 143.

56De Piles, 135: "Le Beau, dit-on, n'est rien de réel, chacun en juge selon son goût, en un mot, que le Beau n'est autre chose que ce qui plaît."

Read 2381 times

Last modified on Tuesday, 23/10/2018

Georgia Cowart

Georgia Cowart, Ph.D., is a professor of music at Case Western Reserve University. She has published three books and a number of articles on music, art, and cultural politics in early modern France. Her most recent book, The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle (University of Chicago Press, 2008), focuses on the shifting intersections of the arts, ideology, and aesthetics at the court of Louis XIV and in Paris c. 1650-1720.

As 2007-09 Sylvan C. and Pamela Coleman Memorial fund Fellow in Art History at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, she pursued a research project on Watteau and the musical theater. She also served as guest curator of the Met exhibition “Watteau, Music & Theater” (Fall 2009).

Professor Cowart has also received a number of teaching and research awards, as well as fellowship support from the NEH (2001-02, 2011), the American Council of Learned Societies (1997-98), and the Stanford Humanities Center (2011-12). She has presented her work and chaired panels at conferences, symposia, and international seminars in France, England, Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, Norway, and the U. S. From 2002-07 she served as chair of the department of music at CWRU and co-director of the Joint Music Program between CWRU and the Cleveland Institute of Music. From 2006-09 she served as president of the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music, and currently serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of the American Musicological Society (2009-15).

Go to top