In September 2005, John Powell asked if I had given any thought to why, at the start of Les Amours de Diane et d'Endimion (1681), Marc-Antoine Charpentier specified "Ouverture devant que de lever la toile" ― "overture before the curtain goes up."
I hadn't. But my initial thought was that Charpentier was pointing out something atypical. If so, this raises important questions. In the 1680s was an overture usually played during the lifting of the curtain?
I began thumbing through our library. There I found the germ of an answer. But the following observations, which I shared what John Powell, merit further study by historians of the theater. (I will highlight in bold type allusions to "opened curtains" and "overtures.")
I ― The first mention of an "ouverture" was in the Pléiade edition of Molière's Œuvres complètes (1951), p. 813, Malade Imaginaire, "Autre Prologue":
"Le théâtre [read "stage"] représente une forêt. L'ouverture du théâtre se fait par un bruit agreable d'instruments. Ensuite une Bergère vient se plaindre tendrement de ce qu'elle ne trouve aucun remède pour soulager les peines ... Ils écoutent ses plaintes et forment un spectacle très divertissant." [The "plaintes" in question are Charpentier's "Plainte de la Bergere," Votre plus haut savoir....]
This seems to be an important clue. Translated literally, the stage
directions say that "the opening of the stage is done to an agreeable
instrumental sound." In other words, instruments played as the curtain
was being raised. And the "ouverture" involved the curtain, not the
II ― In that Pléiade volume of Molière's plays, I gradually moved back to the time when Lully was his collaborator. I found no allusion to an "ouverture/ opening" in the original versions of Escarbagnas and Le Mariage forcé. Nor in the original version of Psyche (1671) is there an allusion to an "opening" of the curtain or to any "opening" music by Lully: we are simply informed that "Flore appears in the middle of the stage," in a decor that shows both the sea and a meadow, and that she promptly sings a récit.
III ― However, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme refers to an "ouverture" and to "a large assemblage of instruments." Once again, "ouverture" is used to denote the "opening" of the curtain, not the piece we call an "overture":
"L'ouverture se fait par un grand assemblage d'instruments, et dans
le milieu du théâtre [read, midstage] on voit un élève du Maître de
musique qui compose sur une table ...."
The Maître immediately "talks to his musicians." This suggests that the "large assemblage of instruments" was playing what we know as an "overture" while the "stage" was being "opened," that is, while the curtain was being raised and the stage set was being revealed. Once the curtain was up and music had stopped, the Maître spoke and the play proper began. In sum, once again "ouverture" denotes the lifting or opening of the curtain.
IV ― Les Amants Magnifiques (1670) contains similar instructions: the "stage" was "opened" to the "agreeable sound of a quantity of instruments":
"Le théâtre s'ouvre à l'agréable bruit de quantité d'instruments, et d'abord il offre aux yeux une vaste mer ..." The instruments clearly played while the curtain was going up and continued to play while the audience admired the seascape.
V ― For Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669), Éraste conducts voices and instruments, apparently while the curtain rises: "L'ouverture se fait par Éraste, qui conduit un grand concert de voix et d'instruments, pour une sérénade dont les paroles, chantées par trois voix, en manière de dialogue, sont faites sur le sujet de la comédie." [The song is immediately followed by a dance. In other words, the vocal concert flows into the dance.] In other words, the curtain must have been rising as Éraste and the musicians began singing, for it is difficult to imagine them performing with the curtain down. Here again "ouverture" denotes the opening of the curtain.
VI ― Le Sicilien (1667) makes no mention of an "ouverture"
of any sort. Hali talks to a group of musicians in Scene 1, but the
musicians do not sing until scene 3. In other words, the play presumably
did not begin with music: the curtain quietly rose as it would for a
play without musical interludes, and Hali declaimed his opening remarks.
By now a picture was emerging of what playwrights meant by the "ouverture," and how musical instruments could be used at the start of plays during the late 1660s and early 1670s. In Lully's collaborations with Molière, the playing of what we call the "overture" more or less coincided with the raising of the curtain/ "opening of the stage." And the word "ouverture" did not denote the music, but what was being done to the curtain.
At this point it was seeming increasingly likely that Charpentier was
innovating when he instructed that the "ouverture" to Les Amours de
Diane et d'Endymion should be played before the curtain rose.
Should we be crediting him with a major innovation as far as the spoken
theater is concerned? Or was he imitating performance practices at
To answer to that question, I turned to Buford Norman's edition of the libretti of Philippe Quinault, Livrets d'Opéra (Société de littératures classiques: Toulouse, 1999).
There I learned (vol. 1, p. 7) that in Lully and Quinault's first
opera, Cadmus (1673), "the theater opens" ― that is, the curtain rises ―
and the audience contemplates a magnificent sunrise that continues
"until the instruments finish playing the overture." It is especially
meaningful that the following quotation from the libretto refers to both
the "opening" of the stage and the playing of the "ouverture." The two
"openings" are not one and the same thing; they do not necessarily
"Le théâtre s'ouvre et représente une campagne ou l'on découvre des hameaux des deux côtés, et un marais dans le fond; le Ciel fait voir une aurore éclantante, qui est suivie du lever du Soleil, dont le globe brillant s'élève sur l'horizon, dans le temps que les instruments achèvent de jouer l'ouverture."
Stage instructions can scarcely be more explicit. In this case they
state unambiguously that the curtain began to rise, to "open" (more or
less when the musical "ouverture" began) and that, as the first measures
of the overture were being played, the audience admired the decor as a
whole. They then watched Dawn arrive, as the instruments continued to
play the overture; and their jaws dropped as the Sun rose above the
horizon to the sound of the final measures of the overture. At that
point (the stage directions tell us) various wood divinities "come from
the wings" and, in song, they "call the bucolic creatures that usually
accompany them." That is, the prologue proper has begun.
Let me emphasize here that, in a similar vein, Marc-Antoine Charpentier distinguished the instrumental "ouverture" to Endymion from the "lifting of the curtain"; but contrary to what took place in Cadmus, in this instance the curtain did not rise until the overture had ended.
I found no other allusions to "openings" and "ouvertures" in Buford Norman's two volumes, nor any mention of the curtain rising or music being played before or while this was happening. Yet the published scores of opera after opera begin with an instrumental ouverture. In other words, it seems that the performance practice specified at the start of Cadmus (Ballard edition, 1673) persisted until Lully's death in 1687, if not beyond, and that, for this reason, stage directions stating this would have been redundant.
To summarize and conclude:
We know that, during the late 1660s and the 1670s ― at both the Opera and in the spoken theater ― the raising of the curtain coincided with the start of the instrumental overture. As the overture continued, the audience admired the stage decor and, perhaps, actors or singers positioned in a mute tableau. In the spoken theater (even in plays with singing or instrumental music), if there was no overture, the curtain rose without music and the play began.
Thus, in July 1681, when Marc-Antoine Charpentier specified that his
"ouverture" to Les Amours de Diane et d'Endymion should be
played "before the curtain is lifted," he seems to have been breaking
with at least two decades of theatrical practice. In so doing,
Charpentier ― or, perhaps, the directors of the newly created Comédie
Française ― may well have been innovating. (Unless it was Lully who did
the innovating after 1673 and prior to 1681, but for some reason did not
mention this innovation in the stage directions of the published scores
and libretti of his operas.)
The extent to which Charpentier's apparent innovation of 1681 may have affected theatrical and operatic practice in general ― including subsequent events for which he himself composed ― remains a matter of conjecture, until historians of the theater and the opera delve deeper into the "ouverture," 1670-1693.