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Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


1672: Charpentier's collaboration with Molière,
A rereading of the evidence

By September 1672, the break between Molière and Lully was complete. I won't go into details here about that event, because it has been told many times. I will instead focus on  the circumstances surrounding Charpentier's invitation by Molière, to which I have alluded in articles without being able to go into details.

When Lully was awarded the opera privilege in March 1672, Molière "ran" to court for the first time, seeking to "preserve a few ornaments for his theater." His protests convinced the king to grant him "permission to use six singers and twelve instrumentalists." Despite this victory, the playwright saw the writing on the wall: he would have to find a new composer. He therefore began looking for someone to write music for the revival of the Mariage forcé that was planned for the following July. In deciding to stage this play, was not Molière consciously defying Lully? Today we tend to assert that Molière asked Dassoucy to prepare musical interludes for Le Mariage forcé, but then changed his mind and engaged Charpentier. A careful reading of the sources shows that this sequence of events is inexact.

The following chronology emerges when Dassoucy's statements are placed into the framework of other contemporary sources. Charpentier of course wrote these interludes, as well as an overture for La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas, between March 29, 1672, when Lully received his privilege, and late June of that year, when rehearsals began. Yet Molière's agreement with Dassoucy clearly did not take place until approximately August 10, and it involved the Malade imaginaire, which was planned for Mardi Gras of 1673. And it was not until September 1672 that Molière yielded to pressure, went back on his word to Dassoucy and gave the job to Charpentier.

In an undated letter to Molière, Dassoucy evokes Molière's treachery. "Ayant esté averty," he says with undisguised bitterness, "je fus charmé et surpris tout ensemble d'une nouvelle que j'appris hier. On m'asseura [...]". On: what can be worse than hearing such news from a third party? Furious and humiliated, the burlesque poet penned an open letter to the playwright:

Je fus charmé et surpris tout ensemble d'une nouvelle que j'appris hier: on m'asseura que vous estiez sur le point de donner vostre piece de machines à l'incomparable Mr...  [Charpentier] pour en faire la musique, quoyque le rapport qu'il y a de ses chants à vos beaux vers ne soit pas tout à fait juste, et que cét homme, qui sans doute est un original, ne soit pas pourtant si original qu'il ne s'en puisse trouver aux Incurables quelque copie. Comme pour les grands desseins il faut de grands personnages, et qu'il ne tient qu'à une paire d'echasses que celuy-cy ne soit le plus grand homme de nostre siecle, vous avez tort de heziter sur un si beau choix. Toutefois, si vous daignez vous souvenir de la promesse que vous me fistes lorsque je vous allay voir durant vostre derniere maladie, aujourd'huy que, perdant M. de Lully, vous ne sçauriez tomber que de bien haut, possible que vous ne tomberiez pas au moins du ciel en terre, vous auriez quelque pitié de vos chers enfans, qui sont à la veille de se rompre le col, et ne les sacrifiriez pas à l'ignorance de ceux qui ne me connoissent; et comme, dans cette affaire, il y va sans doute du vostre plus que du mien, vous penseriez un peu avant que de cracher contre le Ciel, et me faire cette injure, puisque vous ayant offert et vous offrant encore par cette lettre, de faire vostre musique purement pour mon plaisir, et d'ailleurs, ne pouvant douter ny de l'affection que j'ay toujours eue pour vostre personne, ny de l'estime que j'ay pour vostre merite, non plus que de ma capacité, vous ne sçauriez me manquer de parolle, sans faire eclatter a la veuë de tout le monde une aversion d'autant plus injuste que ceux qui lisent mes ouvrages et m'entendent parler de vous sçavent trés- bien que vous n'avez point de plus grand estimateur, ny de meilleur amy que moy, qui suis et seray encore aprés cela toute ma vie,

Vostre, etc  .1

Dassoucy drops enough clues in this letter (highlighted by bold type or underlining) to permit us to date, with considerable certainty, the agreement between him and Molière.

The two old friends struck the bargain while Dassoucy was at Molière's bedside "durant la dernière maladie" of the playwright. Now, Molière was indisposed for a week in August 1672, indeed, he was so ill that the theater had to close between August 8 and August 14. This is the only illness mentioned in Hubert's and La Grange's registers between March and September 1672. In other words, the bedside conversation took place during the first half of August. This sheds a very different light on Dassoucy's comments about his rival, Charpentier. The burlesque poet offers very precise criticisms of the skills of the "incomparable Mr ..." whom Molière has just engaged. He does not, of course, name his rival. Charpentier is not althogether successful at setting French words to music, asserts Dassoucy. He does not know how to make the accents of the lyrics coincide with the accents of the music. Dassoucy further specifies that Charpentier revealed these inadequacies while putting Molière's own "beaux vers" to music. This clearly is an allusion to Charpentier's music for Le Mariage forcé — for how else would Dassoucy have been able to judge how well or how poorly Charpentier coped with the playwright's lyrics? (This of course means that Molière himself wrote the lyrics for Charpentier's songs for Le Mariage!)

Le Mariage forcé closed on August 7, shortly before Molière's illness. Which of course proves that is to this play that Dassoucy is alluding when he criticizes Charpentier's settings of Molière poetry! The playwright's sudden about-face therefore did not occur during the spring of 1672 but shortly after August 15 of that year. Indeed, Dassoucy mentions in his letter that he had been asked to the music for the forthcoming "pièce de machines," which is clearly a reference to the elaborate spectacles that Molière was planning, starting with planned Le Malade imaginaire. (Neither the Mariage forcé nor La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas were, strictly speaking, "pièces de machines." Thus the allusion to machines adds further proof that the bargain between Dassoucy and Molière involved Le Malade imaginaire.) The poet also reveals that the break between him and Molière occured at the moment when Molière had "lost" Lully: "aujourd'huy que, perdant M. de Lully [...]". Indeed, Molière did not really "lose" Lully in March 1672. He lost him on September 20, 1672, the day Lully was granted ownership of every play he had worked on for the troop. To be exact, he lost not only Lully and his music but also the lyrics he himself had written and the plays themselves! (This did not, of course, mean that Molière was going to obey the royal order. Between September 1672 and February 1673, the troop would perform a number of comedies on which Lully had worked and which he technically now owned: Les Fâcheux, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, L'Amour médecin. Yet there is no evidence that the troop eliminated every last bit of Lully's music from these plays.2 So much for our naive belief that seventeenth- century Frenchmen heeded royal decrees.) In short, Molière nullified his verbal agreement with Dassoucy shortly after September 20, 1672.

It is therefore clear that, although Molière turned to Charpentier shortly after Lully obtained his privilege, the invitation to Dassoucy did not occur until after Le Mariage forcé had closed in August 1672. Why then, in April 11672, did Molière seek out Charpentier rather than Dassoucy? The playwright doubtlessly realized that a break with Lully was imminent and that, if Lully decided, at the last minute, to stop working on the music for Le Malade imaginaire, the troup might find itself stranded.

Did friendship alone cause Molière to turn to the relatively inexperienced cousin of a family "friend"? (Remember: Charpentier's cousin, Gilles Charpentier, considered himself a "friend" of Molière's sister, whose husband came from Meaux.) Surely not. He was well aware that bad music would, as Dassoucy later remarked, cause him to "fall from on high" and "break his neck" — and his actors' necks as well. Yet he chose Charpentier in April 1672 and asked him to write a few new interludes to replace Lully's music. And when he did so, it clearly was not primarilyh because of Lully, who, I repeat, was not declared owner of Molière's music until the following September. In other words, Molière had decided to defy his former colleague by chosing as his accomplice a young man who came from the same milieu as Lully's recent victims: Perrin, Cambert, Guichard and Sablières.

Four months later, in August 1672, Dassoucy either happened to call upon the ailing Molière or was summoned to his bedside. During this visit, the former colleagues made an agreement that was extremely advantageous to the troop. Molière "begged" him to compose for his troop, and Dassoucy accepted the proposal. The poet provides the following account of his agreement with the playwright and the treachery that followed:

[Molière] sçait que c'est moy qui ay donné l'âme aux vers de l'Andromède de M. de Corneille, que j'étois en réputation de faire de beaux airs auparavant que tous ces illustres Amphions de nostre temps y eussent jamais pensé, que je suis sur le point de faire entendre au Roy et au public un genre de musique toute particulière, et qu'enfin, à mon très-grand regret, je me puis vanter d'estre aujourd'huy le doyen [à 66 ans] de tous les musiciens de France. C'est pourquoy, outre ces notions, comme j'avois déjà animé [c'est-à-dire, mis en musique] plusieurs fois de ses paroles, il ne se fit pas grande violence pour me prier de faire la musique de ses pièces de machines, puisque je ne fais la musique auprés des roys que pour ma gloire, et pour mes amys sans interest. Cependant, ayant esté averty qu'au prejudice de la parolle qu'il m'avoit donnée, il employoit un garçon qui, pour avoir les ventricules du cerveau fort endommagés, n'est pas pourtant un fol à lyer, mais un fol à plaindre, et qui, ayant eu dans Rome besoin de mon pain et de ma pitié, n'est guere plus sensible à mes graces que tant de viperes que j'ay nourries dans mon sein [...]

Dassoucy reiterates even more vehemently the assertion that he would work gratis for Molière as he had worked gratis for the king: "vous ayant offert et vous offrant encore [...] de faire vostre musique purement pour mon plaisir [...]". These phrases gleaned from his open letter to Molière contain several extremely interesting assertions that cast light on the profession of composer for the theater. Dassoucy emphasizes his friendship for Molière and stresses that he generally worked for his friends "sans interest." In short, he was offering his music to the troop, free of charge. No contract would be signed before a notary. No lump sum would be determined in advance. He would receive no share of the profits. At most, he could expect a "gratification," a "reconnaissance" that reflected his friend's satisfaction.

Some five months after Lully received his privilege and had made his first attempt to reduce the size of Molière's orchestra and the number of his singers, Molière therefore accepted with alacrity the extremely advantageous conditions proposed by Dassoucy. For his pleasure alone, Dassoucy would compose for the troop. And, in return for a modest thank-you gift, the troup could sing and dance the "beaux airs" written by this elderly man, who was an experienced and well-known musician. And, despite his age, he was quite avant-garde. The "genre de musique toute particulière" that Dassoucy was planning to play before Louis XIV was doubtlessly quite italianate, for it would be performed by "deux Enfants de Musique, que leurs pères [lui] avoient confiez dans Rome si genereusement."3

When Molière broke this gentlemen's agreement in September 1672, he lacked the courage to go personally and inform Dassoucy that Charpentier had been engaged in his stead. The burlesque poet-musician learned it from a third party! Ruminating over the motivations behind this humiliation, Dassoucy finally empathized with Molière. The actor simply had been unable to stand up to pressure being exerted on Charpentier's behalf:

Je croy pourtant qu'il [Molière] m'avoit fait tout ce qu'il avoit pu pour me tenir sa parolle et me procurer un si glorieux employ; mais quoy! parmy les commediens, il y a toûjours des heroïnnes et des déesses qu'il faut encenser. Mais si, pour l'archet de ma lyre, je n'ay pas seulement de la poix-raisine, comme l'aurois-je de l'encens pour les fausses divinités, et comment, estant si fort broüillé avec le beau sexe, pourrois-je pacifier tant de vierges irritées, n'ayant plus rien desormais à leur donner?

This post script to his open letter provides important evidence about the pressure to which Molière ultimately yielded. The playwright was obliged to "burn incense" before a group of "irritated virgins," "heroines," "false goddesses." Dassoucy would never have applied these terms to actresses, to Charpentier's sisters, to his relatives from Meaux, or to Charpentier's Croyer-Sevin lady cousins. The "friendship" between the Charpentiers and the Pocquelin-Boudets may perhaps have convinced Molière to give the composer a chance in Le Mariage forcé; but friendship clearly was not the determining factor in his about-face. Dassoucy is very specific: several noblewomen exerted pressure on Molière, and he yielded before their vehement tirades. Burlesque poets and rhyming gazeteers routinely used the words "heroine" and "goddess" for princesses whose name they were not citing. The word "virgin" or "maid" was used in veiled references to Mlle de Guise: "la noble pucelle," she was called, in lieu of being named. Equally nameless in another poem, she is called a "Héroine"4 issued from a "heroic" family, a family of "demi-gods."5 Princesses of the House of Orléans were likewise called "heroines" and "goddesses."6 In other words, by using expressions that conveyed a very precise meaning to his contemporaries but that protected him from having to name names, Dassoucy was saying that several princesses, some or all of them unmarried, had made it clear to Molière that Charpentier must be engaged to compose the music for Le Malade imaginaire. Only a small number of princesses of a rank elevated enough to be called "false goddesses" or "heroines" were living in Paris or at court in 1672. There were several princesses of the House of Orléans, several princesses of the House of Lorraine, several princesses of the House of Condé, plus a few foreign princesses such as the Carignans. It is therefore quite probable that Dassoucy was referring to Madame, to Mme de Guise, to Mlle de Guise, to Mlle de Montpensier. Two of these "heroines," Mlle de Guise and Mlle de Montpensier, could make even the king back down when they turned the power of their tongues upon him.

Dassoucy further implies that these "irritated" women assailed Molière in September 1672. What were the Guise women doing in September 1672? Well, Mlle de Guise and Mme de Guise were preparing to part ways. Marie de Lorraine had just sold the family hôtel at Versailles and was having a private apartment prepared for her at Montmartre. Isabelle d'Orléans was busy arranging her move to the Luxembourg Palace and was planning henceforth to spend at least half of each year at court. In other words, these heroines were doubtlessly eager to "establish" their protégé somewhere outside the hôtel de Guise, thereby getting him more or less off their hands. Thus it came to pass that, in the fall of 1672, Marc-Antoine Charpentier began to write the music for Le Malade imaginaire.


1. Dassoucy, Rimes redoublées, reproduced in Avantures, pp. 18-19.

2. Janet Clark, "Music at the Guenegaud Theater 1673-1680," Seventeenth-Century French Studies, 12 (1990), p. 90, and passim for other examples of the actors' refusal to heed the various royal ordinances.

3. Dassoucy, Avantures, p. 388.

4. Mercure Galant, September 1678, p. 70.

5. Loret, Muze, II, p. (April 1657): "de cette Héroique Race, dont, en divers temps, les Ayeux, ont passé pour des demy-Dieux."

6. In lieu of naming her, Robinet called Philippe d'Orléans' wife a "Grande Héroine," a "Déesse," Lettres en vers, June 7, 1665. The purported beauties of the future Mme de Guise are described as "divines," Med. del Prin., 4661, "portrait."