When Les Bouffons Tipped Off the Enlightenment

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

An old proverb, dating perhaps to the demise of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, tells us that the loss of a single horseshoe nail can trigger the fall of a Kingdom.

Chaos theorists tell us that a butterfly, flapping its wings in one way rather than another, can influence the movement of a hurricane across an ocean.

It may be, likewise, that an argument over the performance of a single troupe of comic actors helped create that great shift in ideas and sentiments that historians know as the French Enlightenment.

Even if it was no part of the chain of cause and effect, though, this performance was certainly a signal of changes underway and of deeper ones to come.

Pergolesi’s Creation

The “quarrel of the buffoons” began with the performance of a comic opera composed by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, The Servant Turned Mistress, in Paris in August 1752. By a more generous translation of the French term “bouffons,” this might alternatively be called the “quarrel of the comic actors,” and by any name it had enormous importance in the cultural history of Europe.

The performance clearly aroused fierce enmity in many members of the audience, some of whom began dashing off pamphlets letting the world know of their displeasure. These Frenchmen wondered, wasn’t opera inherently about grand subjects, usually involving the familiar figures of classical mythology? Wasn’t opera the medium of Lully and Rameau? Jean Baptiste Lully had composed, for example, Cadmus et Hermione – and the first named protagonist, Cadmus, was the mythical hero who had sowed the teeth of a dragon. Out of those teeth had come the warriors who would constitute the aristocracy of the city of Thebes.

Lully’s own operatic harvesting produced one Jean-Philippe Rameau, his successor as the dominant figure of Frenchopera. As it happens, the two composers had their differences. Indeed, a pamphlet war had broken out between their camps of admirers in the 1730s. But by the 1750s that split was old news, both Lullyists and Rameauneurs were pillars of the musical establishment, and comic opera offended each group.

A distinguished scholar, Rémy G. Saisselin, has said that by the time the Italian troupe of  “bouffons” arrived in Paris; French opera was a “genre of pure spectacle [in] the category of the marvelous.” It was a challenging art, combining all the other arts, posing questions about “the relation of language to song, words to music, dance to plot, spectacle to psychological action” Saisselin added. It was plenty spectacular enough, and difficult enough, to make for a ripe target.

Thus, when Pergolesi’s opera – with humor, musical simplicity, utter lack of stage machinery (no gods flying or descending from the rafters!), and perhaps most important with non-mythological, indeed socially humble, characters – raised the hackles of the establishment, it found ready and vociferous defenders, among them Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm.

A Voice From Heaven

Melchior devised his contribution to the subject as a work of fiction itself. The protagonist of his story is a humble fellow named Waldstoerchel. At the story’s climax, Waldstoerchel hears a heavenly voice telling him to tell the haughty French: I raised you from superstition and enlightened you with the sciences and arts as the first among the peoples of Europe. I gave you Lully to teach you music, and then gave you Rameau so you could forget Lully. Finally, I gave you Manelli (the chief singer of the Italian troupe of bouffons), as a representative of the Italians, to reveal to you the genius of Pergolesi and I sent both of those as a rebuke to your pride! He will give them one more chance to adopt an aesthetic that will express the whole range of human emotion – but to avail themselves of this opportunity they will have to learn to imitate the Italians.

At least twenty-five more pamphlets were published in reaction to the Baron’s. In November 1753, Rousseau waded in with a “Letter on French Music.”

Rameau himself replied to both von Grimm and Rousseau, in his “A Corrective for the Buffoons.” Yet Rameau’s tone was defense. He wanted it known that he, too, appreciated Italian music: “We have already adopted the instrumental music of the Italians, and we scarcely play anything else when it comes to a concerto or a sonata; thus it is not stubbornness on our part” that preserves a distinct French operatic tradition.

Gradually the quarrel died away. The advocates of the “bouffons” had won their point, and comedy had become a fixed part of the landscape. Indeed, some of the central works of the operatic canon, as it is understood in the early 21st century, are blatantly and elaborately comic, including Mozart’s  “Marriage of Figaro” (1786) and the late 19th century works of Gilbert and Sullivan.

A Gloomy Uncle

Beyond that fairly narrow point, though, the quarrel had broader philosophical significance. Indeed, when in the 1760s the Encyclopedist Diderot – a central Enlightenment figure by anyone’s reckoning – wanted to express some of the central themes of his philosophy he did so in a dialogue with the evocative title, “Rameau’s Nephew.” In the introductory section, before the nephew has said a word, the narrator reflects on the character’s famous uncle, who “left us a certain number of operas where there is some harmony, scraps of song, some disconnected ideas, noise, flights, triumphal marches, lances, glories, murmurs, victories that leave one breathless, and dance tunes which will last forever. He buried the Florentine but will now be buried by Italian virtuosi, a fact which he saw coming and which made him gloomy….”

One could even argue, without too much of a stretch, that all this was part of a wider social and political shift away from Absolute Monarchy and ecclesiastical hierarchies. A quarrel over a comic opera was a cosmic weathervane, pointing the way to the Enlightenment, classical taste, and the politics of constitutionalism

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