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Discovering Voltaire and Rousseau in song

Thursday, 17 September, 2020

The Voltaire Foundation is co-sponsoring an event in Oxford next month, ‘Voltaire, Rousseau and the Enlightenment’ – nothing surprising about the title, but for the fact that this event will take place as part of the 2020 Oxford Lieder Festival (broadcast this year online).

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau at the Voltaire Foundation.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is of course famous for his interest in music, though not for song in particular; and Voltaire is famous for his complete indifference to music. So how did these two celebrated antagonists end up side by side in a song festival…?

In this portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau that hangs at the Voltaire Foundation, we can discern on the left-hand side a sheet of manuscript music. This is not surprising: the philosophe not only wrote about music, he was the composer of a number of operas, the most successful of which, Le Devin du village, remains well-known today and has been often recorded. First performed before the French court at Fontainebleau in 1752, it enjoyed great success in London in 1762, in an English translation, The Cunning Man, by Charles Burney. The piece was performed again in London in January 1766, in the presence of Rousseau himself, just after he had arrived in the English capital as the guest of David Hume. The portrait of Rousseau was painted in England, quite possibly during his stay in this country (1766-67) or soon thereafter. So the sheet of music on the left might be a reference to the fact that at one point in his life Rousseau earned money by copying music; more likely, however, it is an allusion to Le Devin du village that was so popular among English audiences.

Far less well known are Rousseau’s songs. Unpublished in his lifetime, they were none the less an important part of his activities as a composer. Three years after his death there appeared a handsome volume, Les Consolations des misères de ma vie, ou recueil d’airs, romances et duos (Paris, 1781), bringing together the songs that Rousseau had left in manuscript – here is a copy at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The preface to the edition points out that Rousseau liked setting words from the best poets, and the authors of the verses set to music in this collection indeed include many prominent names, such as Metastasio and Petrarch. This song collection has been little studied, and we will hear some of Rousseau’s songs in this recital.

Harpsichord by Pascal Taskin, 1770

Harpsichord by Pascal Taskin, 1770. (Yale Collection of Musical Instruments)

The one author you will not find in Rousseau’s song collection is the most famous French poet of the 18th century, Voltaire. In general terms, evidence for Voltaire’s interest in music is scanty – even unreliable. The Yale Collection of Musical Instruments contains a fine 18th-century harpsichord with images inside the lid of Emilie Du Châtelet and the Château de Cirey – an instrument that Voltaire must have listened to! Alas, a recent director of the collection has exposed the paintings inside the harpsichord as ‘fakes’, showing that they were added to the instrument at a later date to make it more valuable.

Voltaire may not have liked music, but he did collaborate with one of the greatest composers of the century. In the 1730s he had composed an opera libretto Samson for Rameau, but following objections from the censors the work was never performed, and the music is now lost. (See the critical edition of Samson by Russell Goulbourne in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.18C, 2008.) Their second period of collaboration was more successful. Despite the fact that Louis XV mistrusted him, Voltaire enjoyed a brief period of favour at court in 1745-1746. This was a good time to be a courtier at Versailles: the Dauphin Louis was to marry the Infanta of Spain, an alliance of huge dynastic importance for the Bourbons, and a three-act comédie-ballet was commissioned as part of the celebrations.

Cochin, ‘La Princesse de Navarre’ at Versailles

Cochin, ‘La Princesse de Navarre’ at Versailles, in the presence of Louis XV, 1745. (Wikimedia commons)

Voltaire composed a libretto about a Spanish princess, La Princesse de Navarre, and Rameau composed the music. Then a few months later the maréchal de Saxe led French troops to victory against the British-led coalition at Fontenoy, and Voltaire and Rameau were back in business, this time with an opera, Le Temple de la gloire, celebrating the nature of kingship. (See the critical editions of these two works by Russell Goulbourne in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.28A, 2006.) Voltaire’s period of favour at Versailles was brief and ended unhappily, but the one positive outcome was his collaboration with Rameau on two major musical works for the court.

Given Voltaire’s extraordinary pre-eminence as a poet, it is perhaps surprising that there are not more musical settings of his verse. But, even in his brilliant light verse, Voltaire never indulges in the easy romantic gesture, and perhaps his concise and ironical voice does not easily lend itself to musical setting. There are exceptions, of course, such as the three salon pieces set to music by Jacques Chailley (1910-1999), in a collection Trois madrigaux galants (1982). And from Voltaire’s lifetime there is a fine song “Le dernier parti à prendre” by Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, published in his Choix de chansons (1773). This magnificent publication, dedicated to Marie-Antoinette, is currently being edited in an ambitious digital format that will include all the music.

You can hear Laborde’s setting of Voltaire here.

Voltaire did write one poem that became an unexpected hit, a madrigal composed for Princess Ulrica when he was in Berlin in 1743. The poem, ‘A Mme la Princesse Ulrique de Prusse’, also known as ‘Songe’, is an example of Voltaire’s light verse at its most attractive and charming – so much so that it was reworked in German by Goethe, and in Russian by Pushkin:

‘Souvent un peu de vérité
Se mêle au plus grossier mensonge;
Cette nuit, dans l’erreur d’un songe,
Au rang des rois j’étois monté.
Je vous aimais, princesse, et j’osais vous le dire!
Les Dieux à mon réveil ne m’ont pas tout ôté:
Je n’ai perdu que mon empire.’
(Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.28A, 2006, p.434-38)

The poem has become an anthology piece and was set in the 20th century by a member of ‘Les Six’, Germaine Tailleferre (Six Chansons françaises, 1929, op.41, no. 2). More interestingly, these verses were set to music at least twice in Voltaire’s lifetime, first by Antoine Légat de Furcy (c.1740-c.1790), and then again by Adrien Leemans (1741-1771), whose score (Le Songe, ariette nouvelle, Paris, Mme Bérault, 1769) you can find online.

It’s interesting that the setting by Légat de Furcy was first published in 1761 in a women’s magazine, the Journal des dames: eighteenth-century songs such as these were designed for performance by amateur musicians, often women, in a domestic setting – as we saw in a recent blog, music was an occupation for a lady of leisure in lockdown.

Eighteenth-century novels sometimes appeal to women readers precisely by including songs within the fiction – a famous example would be the engraved score in Richardson’s Clarissa, and there are many comparable examples in French novels of the period (discussed by Martin Wåhlberg in La Scène de musique dans le roman du XVIIIe siècle, 2015).

The Queen’s College, Upper Library (1692-1695)

The Queen’s College, Upper Library (1692-1695).

This all seems a far cry from the more ‘sophisticated’ songs usually performed at the Oxford Lieder Festival. Yet by a delightful quirk, it is in Russia that Voltaire’s ‘Dream’ has acquired a permanent place in the song repertoire. Pushkin’s reworking of the Voltaire poem, ‘Snovidenie’ (Dream), caught the attention of no fewer than four Russian composers, so we can compare the settings of the same poem by Cui, Arensky, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. Rousseau was the musician, not Voltaire. Yet it is Voltaire who has left the greater mark in the great song tradition of the nineteenth century.

We will have a unique opportunity to enjoy some of this little-heard music in the recital programme on 13 October 2020, 15:00-16:00, when I will be in discussion with the musicologist Suzanne Aspenden. The programme will be introduced from the Voltaire Foundation, and the recital will then continue in the magnificent Upper Library of The Queen’s College. This event will be streamed live and remain available online for two weeks: please do come and listen to Voltaire and Rousseau in song!

Charlotte La Thrope (soprano) | Nathaniel Mander (harpsichord)
Oliver Johnston (tenor) | Natalie Burch (piano)

Tickets are available here.

This Oxford Lieder event is presented in association with TORCH, and with support from the Humanities Cultural Programme, the Voltaire Foundation, and The Queen’s College.

Oxford Lieder Festival

Nicholas Cronk

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