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Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Two Songs from Lully's Thésée


Bacchus's Air : "Pour les plus fortunés"

Bacchus's air

Ceres's Air : "Trop heureux..."

Ceres's air

In coordination with my article in the January 2001 American Recorder ("French Articulation: The Lessons of Thésée") I have marked two sung airs from Thésée with the symbols I used in the article and in my book The Harmonic Orator (scheduled for publication in the spring of 2001). You will have to imagine the declamation of the two singers, as I describe it verbally. I especially wish to thank Pierre-Henry Loÿs, producer, and Thierry P. Benizeau, director of Idéale Audience for permitting AR to use excerpts from their film and their private recording of a London performance. (Idéale Audience produced a documentary film of preparations for Thésée entitled Le Chemin parcouru. It follows the singers from the auditions, to the training courses organized by the Baroque Academy of the Festival of Ambronay in the fall of 1998, and on to opening night.)

I am summarizing below the word-driven approach I used as the rhetoric coach for this "academy." The young participants had been selected by the Arts Florissants to work intensively with specialized coaches for some three weeks, and then to present the opera in different European cities.

These airs appear on pp. 54-55 and 57-58 of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Thésée (Paris: Ballard, 1688).

Ceres's air

Trop heureux qui moissonne///
Dans les champs des Amours! ///
Trop heureux qui moissonne///
Dans les champs des Amours! ///
Amants, que rien ne vous étonne,///
L'espérance est un grand secours: ///
Quand on vient à cueillir les fruits que l'Amour donne,///
On est riche à jamais et content pour toujours
Quand on vient à cueillir les fruits que l'Amour donne,///  
On est riche à jamais et content pour toujours.///
Trop heureux qui moissonne///
Dans les champs des Amours!///

Too happy/ who reaps///
In the fields/ of the Cupids///
Too happy/ who reaps///
In the fields/ of the Cupids///
Lovers,/ let nothing/ astonish you///
Hopefulness/ is a great help///
When one comes/ to pick// the fruits/ that Love/ gives///
One is rich/ forever// and happy/ for always///
When one comes/ to pick// the fruits/ that Love/ gives///
One is rich/ forever// and happy/ for always///
Too happy/ who reaps///
In the fields/ of the Cupids///

This air was sung by Raquel Andueza, a young Spaniard who was a student at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London.

The first thing Raquel and I did was look at the barlines, to see whether important words flowed across them, as they generally do. The answer was affirmative: a pair of white and a black squares straddle each bar. Raquel was therefore advised to do whatever she could to make these two syllables seem long and luscious — but not louder and more strident.

To help her do this, we looked for the dotted notes that indicate the syllables that should be launched by a "doubled," "hummed," that is, lengthened consonant. Doubling consonants in this way is associated with emotional speech. Just as expected, most of the dotted notes in Raquel's air coincide with rather emotional words: heureux ("happy"), Amours ("Cupids"), secours ("help"), cueillir ("reap") jamais ("forever"), toujours ("always"). We noted, however, that Lully apparently dotted a few of these notes to help with difficult articulations, for example, the n's in rien ne or the difficult-to-project on est. (The third row of "lyrics" in the air shows these doubled consonants.) Focusing on these key words, and strongly doubling certain consonants, helped Raquel make the key words of the song clear to the audience. Incidentally, one should not assume that Lully made a mistake in m. 5 and forgot to dot his quarter note on trop heureux: by not dotting the note here, Lully is telling the singer to be less emphatic the second time (and the final time as well, m. 30).

About half this air is sung to dotted notes and/or quick notes, and the other half is sung predominantly to equal quarter notes. For this reason, I advised Raquel to make the predominately "equal" passages sound less emotional than the passages with dotted quarter notes. The content of the lyrics meshes with this general principle, for in this air the words set to equal quarter notes are quite dispassionate.

Next we looked for accidental sharps, naturals and flats, to identify the "hard" and "soft" passages.

Sharps (or naturals that raise the flatted B) convey pride or anxiety, while flats express tender thoughts. To twentieth-century minds, it may seem strange that moissonne, "reap," is sharped, in a context of "happiness." To my mind, those sharps indicate the fear felt by women approaching childbirth, as they must "reap" the potentially deadly fruits of Love. Throughout the rest of the air, sharps or naturals recur in similar allusions to childbirth. As they should, flats convey a different message from sharps. The first ones calm "astonishment" and suggest gentle "hope" (étonne, espérance). Flats also creep into the repeat of the lines Quand on vient à cueillir and On est riche à jamais. In other words, to remove the anxiety that she had allowed to show through via her "sharp" tone of voice the first time she said these words, Ceres calms these fears by using a "softer" tone of voice.

Finally, we focused on expressive details. For example, the leaps on trop heureux qui... ("too happy who...") are the leaps of Joy. Raquel therefore assumed a joyful tone of voice. This joy nonetheless had to be moderate, even somewhat grandiose, because this air is in the mode of g minor, which produces an overall tone of voice deemed to be "serious and magnificent." (This is to be expected of a goddess's talk of childbirth.) Then there is the rather static melody  to which she sings Amants, que rien ne vous étonne, L'espérence est un grand secours ("Lovers, let nothing astonish you, Hope is a great help"). This type of melody is commonly employed to evoke Continuity, that is, stretching something into the future — in this case "Hope." In other words, here Raquel should try to drag the listener's mind to the end of each line, thereby dragging him, literally, into the future, just as Lully did with his melody.

Quinault, the librettist, also wove Continuity into this passage: he used longer lines here (8-syllable lines rather than the initial 6-syllable ones). Then, instead of returning to short, gavotte-like lines, he moved on to even longer lines — the 12-syllable Alexandrines of classical French theater — which tend to express the Sublime wherever they appear in airs. Does Ceres say something sublime to those long lines? Yes indeed: she talks about "forever," and "always," and the "wealth" and the "contentment" that come from this miraculous harvest. The increasing line-length is visible in the above typescript of these lyrics.

What about the notes inégales that are scattered about in the mid-section of this air? Believe it or not, Raquel and I didn't discuss them! We treated them as hasty passages shaped by the speech rhythms that shape the rest of the air. Note that one of these passages is so hasty that Ceres gets a bit ahead of herself in m. 17, Amour. (She uses the same weak-note accentuation when she repeats the line in m. 25).

These are the rhetorical and declamatory clues that Lully wove into this little air. These are the clues that shaped Raquel's interpretation.  

Bacchus's Air

Pour les plus fortunés, pour les plus malheureux,///
Dans l'empi/re amoureux, le dieu/ du vin/ est necessaire:///
S'il prend part/ aux plaisirs// c'est pour les redoubler;
Il char/me les chagrins// des cœurs/ qu'on désespère:///
Bachus/ a de quoi/ consoler///
De tous les maux/ qu'Amour/ peut faire.///

For the most fortunate,// for the most unhappy///
In the empire/ so amorous,// the god /of love/ is necessary:///
If he takes part /in pleasures,// it's to double them;///
He charms /away chagrins// from hearts /that one despairs of:///
Bacchus/ has the stuff /to console///
For all the evils/ that Cupid /can do.///

Bacchus was played by a young French countertenor, Jean-Christophe Henry, a student at the Conservatoire National Supérieure de Musique at Lyons. Since his specialization is historical performance, we had fun discussing how Lully's and Quinault's intentions can be read in the notation of this particular air.

I used the same approach for Jean-Christophe. When we scrutinized the words at the barlines, we noted something very interesting. Throughout the first half of the air, many bars do not support a key word, as they normally do. Instead, the song flows ahead in unusually long poetic feet — many of them with 6 syllables. To heighten the feeling of lengthiness, these unusual long feet are located in very formal 12-syllable Alexandrines. In other words, by line-length and by syllable grouping, we know immediately that Bacchus has begun his air by stating something about the Sublime, most probably a message that applies to all mankind. That proves to be the case: the tipsy god uses hyperbole (two plus, "most"), talks of an "empire" and of a "god." Bacchus is so pompous (or so tipsy?) here, that he lets his final words drag. As a result, he ends this section by placing his weak, "mute" e on a strong beat (m. 10). This leaves his mouth gaping for a whole measure — a rhetorical device of which Lully was quite fond.

In the second section of the air, Bacchus gradually moves to slightly shorter poetic lines (this shift is visible in the typescript of the lyrics). The content of these lines is quite mundane, as the content of middle-sized lines tends to be. In short, Bacchus now sounds more conversational. Since he clearly is tipsy, the little god once again gets carried away in the final measures, ending his song with his mouth agape.

How is Bacchus supposed to declaim these lines? The notation does not suggest that he should "double" many consonants. That is as it should be, for doubling is reserved for passion, and Bacchus's only evocations of passion appear in mm. 23-24, where he talks of "evils," maux. (The dotted note in m. 16 suggests that the long syllable of the "feminine" word charme be made quite long and wavelike.) Neither Jean-Christophe nor I focused on the notes inégales in his lyrics: we let the words take care of that.

Bacchus may not be talking in dotted notes, and he may be talking about the Sublime, but he definitely is not speaking with the "equanimity" (balanced, equal, controlled articulation) suggested by a succession of equal notes, as Ceres often does. Instead, he oscillates between eighth notes and half notes, creating a speech rhythm that imitates the unequal gait of a drunkard. At the start of the second section, he pulls himself together briefly and speaks in equal quarter notes (S'il prend part aux plaisirs, "If he takes part in pleasures"). But this equanimity, this self-control does not last long: Bacchus soon returns to his erratic speech patterns as he talks of "despair" (désespére), "consolation" (consoler) and "evils" (maux).

What did mode and accidentals tell Jean-Christophe about the different tones of voice he should use? Like the air of Ceres, this air is in g minor. Not only is this "serious and magnificent " mode often used by deities and the generally serious orations they deliver, but also, in this particular case, this tone of voice heightens the pompousness of our little god's message. The many flats in the opening section suggest that Bacchus should speak gently, softly, caressingly (perhaps in the soft dragging tones of a drunkard?). With m. 13, his tone of voice becomes more assertive as he talks of "doubling pleasures" (redoubler) and "dispairing" (désespère). In m. 20 he once again "softens" his voice as he "consoles" (consoler); but then his voice to sharpen in anguish as he tells of the "evils" (maux) that Cupid can cause.

Throughout the air, the melody follows the caressing curves of Love. Bacchus's overall tone of voice should therefore be loving, tender.

The above principles served as underpinnings for Jean-Christophe Henry's interpretation of this air.

*     *    *

Let me add, in conclusion, that these readings of the word-music relationships in these airs served as the point of departure for each performer's final interpretation of the piece. The participants in the Academy were free to put these considerations into practice, or ignore them, or nuance them according to his or her understanding of the role and the nature of his or her individual voice.