Lully and the Sun King

Imagine the 14-year old son of a Florentine miller—a boy who had a wonderful singing voice, who had learned from a Franciscan friar how to play the guitar and violin—being noticed by the son of a French duke during a Madri Gras festival and chosen to go to Paris in 1645 to teach Italian to the king’s cousin, a princess known popularly as the Grande Mademoiselle! Then imagine that some of the court and church musicians were so taken with the youth that they taught him not only how to play the violin better, but also how to compose music and how to master the patterns of elegant court dances. And then imagine that he entered directly into the king’s service and by the age of 20 was made official Composer of Instrumental Music, already a master musician in the early Baroque era.

Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) had an extraordinary relationship with Louis XIV (1638-1715), who himself was considered to be a superb dancer, and who after portraying Apollo in the Ballet de la Nuit was forever after known as the Sun King. Lully himself danced at least five roles in that 1653 production, and it is thought that he also composed some of the music.

The political purpose of Le Ballet de la Nuit was precisely to emphasize the power of the French monarchy (at the end of bitter civil rebellions known as the Fronde, in opposition to taxations that paid for wars and in opposition to powers of the king). The theatrical dance was performed by members of the court, as well as by professional dancers and acrobats. The DK book Ballet offers a summary of this spectacular allegorical entertainment:

The ballet is in four acts, with 43 separate dances symbolizing the 12 hours of the night between sunset and sunrise.

Act I, 6-9 o’clock—the activities at the end of the day on the theme of sunset.

Act II, 9 o’clock to midnight—the entertainment of the evening.

Act III, Midnight to 3 o’clock—the fantasies, freedoms, and horrors of the night.

Act IV, 3 o’clock to sunrise—the activities of the dawn.

Act I included huntsmen and shepherds returning from work, alongside gypsies, knife-grinders, lamp-lighters and dancers dressed as lamps. Robbers prepared for their nighttime misdeeds and fraudulent beggars revealed their tricks. Act II featured the evening delights of a ball, a ballet within the ballet, and a comedy.

The third act centered on the tale of the moon and her love for the shepherd Endymion (a Greek myth), which caused her to leave the heavens and create an eclipse. With darkness came chaos. Witches, demons, magicians, and sorcerers appeared, and thieves tried to loot a burning house from which cats and monkeys fled.

The final act showed money counterfeiters packing up and blacksmiths beginning work. Aurora, the dawn, arrived with her attendants, the 12 Hours, and the sun god Apollo arose, chasing out the evils of the night. Honor, Grace, Love, Riches, Victory, Fame and Peace accompanied him.

The climax was the appearance of 15-year old Louis, costumed phenomenally in the role that forever after made it clear that he was the “Sun King.”

Sun King

La recréation du Ballet Royal de la Nuit: quelle merveilleuse aventure!” Translated: “The re-creation of the Ballet Royal of the Night: what a marvelous adventure!”

Indeed, that is perhaps an understatement in regard to the 2017 production performed at the Theatre of Caen by the Ensemble Correspondances under the musical direction of Sébastien Daucé, with staging by Francesca Lattuada that included not only the beautiful singers, costumes designed by Olivier Charpentier, dancer Sean Patrick Mombruno portraying the Sun King, and an incredible troupe of circus acrobats and jugglers. Too many details will not be reported here, because the entire production can be seen both online and via a DVD that comes in a boxed set with 3 CDs and an informative book which includes complete libretto in translation as well as a synopsis of each entree to help you understand what is being portrayed.

The production was not intended to be an historical representation; rather, an invitation to all of us to enter the realm of theatrical imagination. But since the focus in the present essay is supposed to be on the music, here in brief is some information drawn from conductor/arranger Sébastien Daucé’s account.

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To begin with, the three-hour 21st-century production was indeed based on the spectacular dramatic musical event presented on seven evenings in February 1653 in the Salle du Petit-Bourbon—which in tiered seating could accommodate  some 3,000 spectators so they would be looking down upon the extravagant performance. The poetry (even in translation quite beautiful) was by Isaac de Benserade, and the modern staging does stick to the general outlines of the original libretto, albeit with characters delightfully transformed and including 43 entrees (meaning scenes; not courses of cuisine).

The event was documented by a wordbook that included stage directions, and also by an unusual collection of colored drawings of the costumed characters. The vocal music came down to us in published form in a 1655 book by the composer Jean de Cambefort (c. 1605-61).  As for the instrumental sections, it is not known for sure who the composers were, though at the time it was the usual practice for musicians of the Violons du Roi to share composition of the pieces needed to fit the dances. (For some speculation on specific musicians, see the essay in the Harmonia Mundi book indicated in the notes below.) In regard to the orchestration, Sébastien Daucé had to arrange all the inner voices, since what had come down through the centuries were manuscripts with only the upper and lowermost voices. Concerning the challenges facing him, Daucé asked himself:

How should this music be presented to an audience today? After three years of work and research immersed in this oneiric [dream-like] universe, I was strongly tempted to attempt a literal reconstruction, but the lavish forces and splendour this would demand, and the great mystery that still surrounds the question of how the original spectacle was actually performed, made this an impossible prospect. Several ideas did seem viable, however, and the most persuasive was that of juxtaposing the French ballet with Italian opera. This exercise in pastiche made it possible to reintroduce great variety, while also allowing for dialogue, sometimes in French and sometimes in Italian, between characters found in both works. It also gives a comprehensive picture of the incredible musical life of Paris in the middle of the Grand Siècle.

Consequently, what modern audiences in the Theater of Caen saw and what viewers of the film see includes excerpts from Luigi Rossi’s Orfeo and Francesco Cavalli’s Ercole amante. Also added were some airs by Antoine Boesset—all in a way that gives the impression of seamlessly consistent style.

Reflecting on the musical, dramatic, and design collaborations involved in this recreation of Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit,the music director concluded:

The large team gathered for this adventure, composed of a troupe of virtuoso circus artists and jugglers and the magnificent musicians of the Ensemble Correspondances, made it possible right from the first performances at the Théare de Caen…to generate a modern and poetic enchantment that was a source of much joy both on and off stage.

Though the staging is certainly a departure from what the original Parisian audiences might have seen, yet viewers nowadays can enter into a different mindset for the duration of this unusual filmed production. From the very first scene, instead of 17th century shepherds and shepherdesses returning from their day’s chores, we see some workers so surprising they can only evoke delight. What we see presented is thoroughly of our own age, yet if you close your eyes, the music certainly believably takes us back more than three centuries—with the advantage that we don’t have to be concerned with the politics of those former times. As for the grand finale symbolizing the absolute power of the monarchy under Louis XIV—well! That scene is something amazing to see. As the saying goes, don’t try this at home!

Introducing the original finale, Aurora—the dawn—proclaimed the following tribute, here given in translation by Charles Johnston:

In all the time I have heralded the East,
Never in my career have I shone
So splendidly and proudly,
Never with so smiling an aspect,
Never have I preceded such brilliant light.
What eyes, seeing it, would not be dazzled?
The Sun that follows me is young LOUIS.
The company of stars flees away
As soon as this great star advances;
The dim glimmers of Night
That triumphed in his absence
Dare not withstand his presence;
All these fleeting lights vanish.
The Sun that follows me is young LOUIS.

Lully’s early career

After appearing with the up-and-coming Sun King in this landmark ballet, Lully’s own first step up to power was thanks mainly to his multiple talents in music and dancing, but also to his sense of theatrical comedy and his strong sense of ambition. When Lully disapproved of the way some of the musicians played, the king gave him charge of his own ensemble, known as the “petits violons.” The young musician/dancer also composed music for court ballet entertainments. And in 1661 when Louis began his absolute reign, he promoted Lully to superintendent of music for the king. The composer promptly became a naturalized French citizen and married the prominent French composer Michel Lambert’s daughter Madeleine (with whom Lully had six children over time).

theatrical collaborations

The composer’s reputation grew quickly, and starting in 1664 he and the famous writer Molière (stage name for Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-73) collaborated to create a series of very popular comedy-ballets—dramatic works comprised of vocal and instrumental music, dance, and spoken verse. Among these was Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which was choreographed by Pierre Beauchamps.

Pierre Beauchamps (1636-1705) was the choreographer with whom Lully most often collaborated in the court of Louis XIV.  He came from a family of musicians and dancers, and was trained in both dance and music. His ability to play the violin was particularly relevant since in that time, a dancing teacher usually provided music himself by playing just melodies on the violin. It has even been suggested that Beauchamps provided Lully with some melodies for their theatrical works—but which ones exactly is not known. On top of his reputation as a performing dancer and choreographer, Beauchamps is credited with codifying the five basic positions of classic ballet (which are still practiced every day by students in studios around the world). He also, importantly, created a system for notating dance choreography. (He didn’t publish it, however, and this led to some legal proceedings when Raoul-Auger Feuillet made his system known. Beauchamps lost the case.)

Politically savvy and a shrewd businessman, Lully with Molière had joint direction of the Académie de Musique when it was formed, and the composer came to have such a monopoly of artistic power (through both bestowed privileges and purchased patents) that he could dictate what musicians and dancers could or couldn’t present in French theaters—even for marionette shows. Combined with his income from the court, royalties from the sale of librettos to his operas, and additional income from various fees, Lully became quite wealthy. At the end of his life, he owned five houses in Paris and the area.

His composing went on unabated, resulting in not only music for court social dances, but also for at least 14 dramatic ballets and 16 tragédies-lyriques which are considered among the earliest French operas. Among his best-known works were Atys, Alceste, Le triomphe de l’amour, Le temple de la paix, Psyché, and what many considered his masterpiece, Armide.

The more serious operas that Lully composed were in collaboration with the poet Philippe Quinault (1635-88), and these tended to have stories based on mythology and hero legends. Focusing on the importance of dances in all of Lully’s output, the historian Jerome de la Gorce observed in general:

In the ballets de cour,  the comédie-ballets, and the operas, conventional dances frequently appear: bourrées, menuets, gavottes, sarabandes, canaries, courantes, galliardes, loures, rigaudons, and passepieds. Chaconnes  and passacailles also play an important role, contributing a majestic brilliance to the spectacle and giving the composer an opportunity to create pieces with a complex instrumental texture. The dances in Amadis and Armide, particularly noteworthy in this regard, are among the most successful orchestral pieces left by the artist.

later events

Unfortunately in 1685 it seems that Lully seduced a page and consequently fell out of favor with the king, who (then under the influence of his morganatic wife Mme. Maintenon) disapproved of homosexuality. The composer wasn’t dismissed, but something worse happened as he was conducting in church a sacred Te Deum which he had composed in honor of the king’s recovery from an illness. As Lully was accustomed to do, he was using a large cane to beat time on the floor. He missed the floor but hit his foot, which became infected with gangrene that spread and caused his death, in 1687.

This may be one of those myths that arise about composers, but it may be amusing for those who haven’t heard it. Because Lully refused to have his toe amputated and in a few weeks knew he was close to death, a priest was called in for last rites—a priest who it seems did not approve of Lully’s operas. So in an appearance of contrition, the composer allegedly threw the entire manuscript of his last opera into the open fire. After the priest left, a friend who had been present asked in horror why Lully had done such a thing. “Don’t worry,” the composer replied: “I have a copy!”  In fact, none of Lully’s original manuscript scores are now extant; only copies—and there are many of them.

Lully’s death was quite a loss, for the orchestra under him sometimes numbered as many as 75 instrumentalists and was considered the best in all of Europe. Though he at times had a violent temper with both musicians and dancers, yet it was known that Lully also looked out for their welfare. And artistically, as the historian Jerome de la Gorce noted:

All these performers received excellent training from Lully. As a violinist, dancer and actor himself he was able to control the accuracy of the instrumental playing, demonstrate the steps of the ballets, show how a performer could make an entrance and move on stage, and display the attitudes they should adopt. From the first, thanks to these abilities and the convergence of so many talents, his work received excellent performances which contributed to their success.

modern revivals

Because of Lully’s enormous output, there are many choices of materials to make acquaintance with this composer’s music. Spurred by interest in “early music,” quite a few ensembles try to present historically stylistic performances. Others, especially opera groups, have with varying success combined older musical practices with modernized settings and costumes. Similarly with the ballets, some historic troupes base choreography on hints from the past—including visual art, literary descriptions, and dance manuals. Other companies have used Lully’s music to partner their own original choreographic styles.

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This essay continues as a guide to a few productions of theatrical works with music by Lully. Available materials are listed in endnotes.

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

One special DVD performance that has everything is of the comedy by Lully and the dramatist Molière, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, as performed by Le Poeme Harmonique under musical direction of Vincent Dumestre, with staging by Benjamin Lazar and choreography by Cecile Roussat, plus wonderful costumes, dancers, and singers. The film’s producer, Martin Fraudreau stated that this performance (part of a Baroque festival in Utrecht) was the first that was complete since the work’s initial performances in 1670. The texts were in Old French, and the musical parts had to be worked on considerably, since the composer generally provided just the framework of unornamented upper melody and a figured bass. As for the dances, there was no choreographic plan handed down at all; nevertheless, the choreographer and the performing dancers managed to portray believable Baroque styles of both steps and hand patterns and add delightful touches of comedy to their movements.

The story is a satire by the young on the ways of their elders, with surprising thrusts of humor aimed  precisely at members of the court audiences and at the perceived importance of the singers and dancers themselves! Basically, a wealthy middle-aged tradesman has decided he would like to be seen as a “gentleman,” and so he employs a train of people with special talents: musicians, dance master, fencing master, philosopher, and tailor. It is explained that music and dance are the most important things to study—that  nothing else is so necessary to the State! This was an obvious dig at Louis XIV and the emphasis for his court to participate in court dances, then learn how to bow and comport themselves at formal gatherings. The saying of “making a false step” in public life was attributed to people not learning to dance properly. And so on, with many witticisms. When a musical scene was given as an example of good breeding, the person in charge suggests “Imagine that they are shepherds” and it is understood that shepherds always sing. This too a satiric comment about the liking that nobles had for sanitized  “pastoral” drama. As the gentleman’s studies progress, both the dance master and the fencing master make strict physical corrections that probably were exactly like what was heard in real-life training: constant reminders to turn out the toes and so forth.

The rest of the drama is taken up with two comic stories—concerning M. Jourdain’s debtor, the marriage of the “gentilhomme’s” daughter, and the disguise by the would-be son-in-law as the son of the Sultan of Turkey. (Lully himself had danced a major role in the Turkish scene.) The musical comedy ends with a lengthy Ballet of the Nations, with dances in Italian, Spanish, and French styles.

Despite their success together with comedy ballets, Molière and Lully had a falling out, and the composer turned his talents to more serious theatrical works, his tragic operas in collaboration with Quinault.


There are few DVDs of operas by Lully and Quinault. An excellent and representative one is the Les Arts Florissants performance of Atys presented in traditional style using period instruments, under musical direction of William Christie, choreography by Francine Lancelot and Béatrice Massin, and staging by Jean-Marie Villégier. It can also be seen online. Atys was based on a work by Ovid. This operatic version was first performed in 1676, but for the 1682 revivals, Lully wrote new music for extra dances—which were performed by both courtiers and professional dancers. Look for nymphs, a goddess, an underworld Fury, and of course elaborate praise for the glorious hero (with whom Louis XIV could very obviously identify).

“How do you give old music new relevance” was a question dealt with by conductor William Christie as he was interviewed by John Heilpern in 2013. (See endnotes.)  In the first place, the musician explained, for Baroque revivals he had to flesh out the scores in which the instrumental “continuo” sections would have only figured bass (a numerical shorthand method of indicating harmonies to be improvised), and the vocal ornamentations would not have been indicated by composers in those days. But if the older music touches us, observed Christie, “then it is contemporary and has something to say to people today.”

The film by Les Arts Florissants may be the closest thing audiences nowadays could experience to get a sense of 17th century French opera.  Nymphs are dressed in mid-calf dresses, so their footwork can be seen very well as they move in the style of Baroque dance. Courtiers are dressed not in mythological costumes, but in reserved court clothing and long-flowing wigs.

The “continuo” which accompanies all the vocal recitatives consists of harpsichord with just a few other instruments, mainly strings, rather than the whole orchestra. (The period instruments used included lutes, theorbo, guitar, wooden flutes, recorders, oboes, and bassoons.) The full orchestral overtures have the distinctive stately dotted rhythms that came to epitomize the “French Overture,” with slow-quick-slow sections. Also it came to be a tradition, as in Atys, of having imitative entries in the quick sections.

True to its label, Atys is a truly tragic story, involving two men who love the same woman, and two women who love the same man. One of the females happens to be a goddess, and one of the men happens to be a king. They are not the ones who win the hearts of their desired partners, and after nearly three hours of trying, the goddess takes horrendous revenge.

The vocal style for both soloists and choruses in these early French operas was vastly different from the Italian practices of those times. William Christie points out that the emphasis is always on the words—that there are no grand arias or melodies that one remembers because of the musical content. Instead, the recitatives by soloists are less sung than declaimed.

But our main interest here is in the dances, and these add considerably to the work as a whole. Indeed, immediately after the overture, nymphs and Flora offer a gentle dance in Baroque style—and it can be noted throughout the opera, that generally speaking, when the singers are singing, there may be some movement among the chorus and others, but no full-out dance; when the dancers are performing, it is almost always to instrumental music alone. In the first act there is a section indicated as a gavotte, for flute and strings. The next big dance section is the “Entree of Nations” beginning with a stately processional, followed by the Zephyrs, or winds. A little further on there is a dream sequence accompanied by a small group of instrumentalists onstage. Various dancers enter, including “Pleasant Dreams.” An interesting grouping is of three men who dance in syncronization here as well as later on in the opera. Notable in their musical accompaniment is the use of castanets. By Act IV various characters are introduced, including the river gods and the divinities of the springs, who offer a dance ostensibly to a menuet—but not in their movements, which include lively lifts for the couples, followed by a circle dance. Then comes a gavotte, which features spritely little jumps.

Musically perhaps the most surprising section is in Act V, where the lovers and the would-be lovers sing an extended quartet. Action is reinstated as the goddess calls in a Fury to chase the hero Atys, and from there on, things are all downhill—eliciting the suggestion of “Let us drive the gods from Earth and destroy their altars!” To which the vengeful goddess’s eventual response is: “Let everyone on earth feel the horror!”

This is not an opera where the traditional ending with a joyous chaconne or passacaille would be appropriate. Instead after all the anguish, various singers in subdued costumes move gently across the stage for a time, and the work is over. In the original production, Quinault’s libretto called for an earthquake, flashes of lightning, and bursts of thunder.

Reporting on behalf of the lucky audiences who got to see Atys live in 2011, Allan Kozinn wrote in The New York Times:

When William Christie and Les Arts Florissants presented Lully’s “Atys” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the first time, in 1989, it was as if a curtain had been pulled aside to reveal an alternative operatic universe. The work was so different in sound, spirit and look from the 19th-century Italian operas that dominate the mainstream opera world that it seemed almost a different art form….The opera, four hours long, is a stunning piece of theater, largely because Mr. Christie’s expertise in 17th-century French style, with its distinctive pacing and coloration, brings it so fully and vividly to life.


In a different vein, a surprising but delightful mix of early music direction and modern choreography with touches of inspiration from Baroque dance, is the Arts Florissants performance of Armide, with the added attraction of some sections being filmed at Versailles Palace itself. The Prologue, ostensibly to praise the hero of the story, Renaud, was quite blatantly aimed at Louis XIV, and the directors took advantage of that to showcase many portraits and statues of the monarch—as well as his actual bedchamber. The dance sections are quite lengthy, and the orchestral performances under the direction of William Christie (who both plays the harpsichord and conducts) are excellent. It should be noted that Lully scored the vocal recitatives in this opera with accompaniment by the orchestra, a departure from previous practice of using “continuos” of harpsichord and strings. The imaginative modern choreography with subtle references to Baroque style, is by Jean-Claude Gallotta. There are many charming and amusing aspects to this production. The staging was by Robert Carsen, who says that he had no interest in doing an evocation of historical styles. And William Christie thought that in any case, it would be quite impossible to recreate an historically accurate production.

Armide was the last tragic opera created by Lully and Philippe Quinault, and it continues to be considered their masterpiece. The verse libretto by Quinault was based on an epic poem by Torquato Tasso. Suffice it to say that the plot has to do ostensibly with knights of the First Crusade, but there are personifications of abstract qualities such as Glory and Wisdom who urge characters along. There is a sorceress who loves the hero…a dream sequence with recorders and soft strings…emotional tugs between love and hate…magic spells and demons…and a tragic ending that departs from Quinault’s original plot (which had entailed the destruction of the castle and Armide flying away in a chariot). In this production, Armide stabs herself. Before that, however, there are many interesting things to hear and see. The lead singer Stephanie d’Oustrac is onstage most of the time, singing most of the time, and emotionally gripping all the time. Paul Agnew lends his beautiful voice to the part of the hero Renaud, and a touch of humor for both the prologue and the end of this tragédie-lyrique.


Another DVD still available is a 2004 performance of Persee performed by the Canadian Opera Atelier, with the Tafelmusick Baroque Orchestra. To read down the list of its characters, one is prepared for astronomical stars, for these are (as favored by Lully and Quinault) mythological beings: Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopia, Mercury, Venus, Cyclops, Vulcan, Medusa, and others. The poetic text for the vocal solos and choruses is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the story glorifying a literary hero known for bravery and justice was personally chosen by Louis XIV. The first performance was given in 1682 at Versailles.

Unlike the comedies with Molière, Lully’s tragic operas do not have spoken dialogue; everything is sung. There are in Persée and in other works brief ballets interspersed, some of them decorative, most of them touching directly upon the plot at some point, and, in this production, performed to the vocal music with sometimes a brief instrumental section following. A passacaille or chaconne  was a favored finale, and in this case Lully composed an extended passacaille for instruments. The opera ends with Venus descending in a cloud and inviting Perseus and Andromeda to accompany her back to the heavens, where they would in fact “always be surrounded by stars.”

dancing to vocal music?

A question must be raised about dancing to vocal music: was that done very often in the 17th century in Lully’s tragic operas? According to historian Rebecca Harris-Warrick in her essay on the subject:

Dance in Lully operas was tightly integrated into the surrounding vocal context. It is thus interesting to note that dancing and singing only rarely occurred simultaneously; rather, the usual practice was for the two to operate in close alternation. In group scenes Lully’s practice was to compose instrumental dances back-to-back with vocal pieces—solo airs, duets, or choruses—that are closely related in key, meter, and melodic shape. Thus the audience’s attention goes back and forth from listening to a sung text to watching a closely related dance…..Surprising as it seems to us in an age when operatic stagings are often extremely busy, the aesthetic of the 17th century was to focus the audience’s attention on one activity at a time.

notes and explorations:

suggested order of viewing and listening: The King Who Invented Ballet, presented by David Bintley, choreographer and director of Birmingham Royal Ballet. This is a most unusual BBC film. An hour long, it is a documentary about the practices of ballet under Louis XIV, followed by Bintley’s original half-hour ballet The King Dances, his fresh choreography to newly commissioned music by Stephen Montague. An excellent introduction to the history of ballet! Beautifully done, with many scenes in France, and wonderful demonstrations of Baroque dance style, and delightful clips of dancer in mask, elaborately costumed as Louis XIV. Also provides historical perspective with information about political events.  No DVD available yet. Among the topics that Bintley touches upon are the expenditures, the rebellions, the role of Cardinal Mazarin; the use of masks for ballet performances; custom of men portraying female roles in the theater; the changes that came with public rather than royal stages; and the first women performing theatrically in 1654. Bintley’s original ballet based on Le Ballet de la Nuit, with new music, fascinating to view after seeing all the preparations. For up-to-date information about David Bintley plus pictures and descriptions of his major works!  Le Roi Danse.  Same movie as  2003 DVD on Remstar label. 2001 film by Gérard Corbiau, 1 hour 54 minutes. Presents a vivid suggestion of what the life and artistic  relationships of King Louis XIV, Lully, and Molière might have been like. Features the music. Beware: it begins at the end with Lully wounding his foot, with flashbacks into the highlights of the composer’s career at the French court. The extra film The Making of Le Roi Danse offers a look at the scenery being built, the rehearsals being carried on with choreographer Beatrice Massin, the musicians of the Musica Antiqua Koln using period instruments and working with conductor Reinhard Goebel, and more. Perhaps most fascinating are the clips showing how the dancer “doubles” of the king were made up to look exactly alike—and how difficult it was to dance Baroque steps in high boots with heels. The film proper includes quite a few of the important historical events, but also helps us in a timeframe with a totally alien set of attitudes. Emphasis on the king’s use of the arts to strengthen his political control of nobles at court and the reasons for later isolating them at Versailles. Important: English subtitles for the main film. (Not when you watch online.)

2004 Deutsche Grammophon CD of the soundtrack to the movie, performed by Musica Antiqua Koln under direction of conductor Reinhard Goebel. Individual tracks can be purchased online at:   Le Ballet de la Nuit.  Just the music. Ensemble Correspondances early music ensemble under Sébastien Daucé as part of a festival in Utrecht. Superb performance, and viewers can see the reproduction period instruments being played. The musicians perform standing up.

Le Concert Royal de la Nuit, a beautiful 2-CD set with illustrated book including translations of Isaac de Benserade’s texts. Ensemble Correspondances under Sébastien Daucé. Book lists performers in the original event, offers some color reproductions of the original costume designs, historical information in French, German, and English, synopsis. Fondacion Orange. Harmonia mundi, released 2015.  Excellent 23-minute film about the making of the above setting. In French, but with English subtitles. Daucé explains his research, showing some older music, plus illustrated volumes with the costume designs, as he worked to reconstruct a viable presentation of this important theatrical musical event. Tells the stories involved in relation to character portrayals in the book.  Musicologist Thomas Leconte explains what has come down to us in manuscript. Most highly recommended.

Le Ballet royal de la Nuit. Stupendous! Three-hour performance by Ensemble Correspondances under Sébastién Daucé. Harmonia Mundi boxed set, 3 CDs plus DVD and hardcover book with story, libretto, information about the original event and political importance in a clear account by Thomas Leconte (translated by Charles Johnston) pp. 42-51 in English. Also, general introduction to the ballet de cour.   Also color illustrations of original costume designs. A treasure! Director for onstage action and choreography, Francesca Lattuada. Costume design, Olivier Charpentier. Modern, performance by dancers, acrobats, jugglers, as the fine orchestra provides an historical sounding accompaniment also for the singers. At the Theatre de Caen, 2017.  The production follows the the basic sections—terrors of the night, moon woman, sun king at end etc. Includes a mini-drama of Orpheus.  Solo singers, chorus, and orchestra are all wonderful. The excerpt from the final scene as quoted above is from p. 153. The set is most highly recommended. English subtitles.  From the Waddesdon Manor collection in England, volume of Le Ballet de la nuit with costume and set designs.

sources of information:

Michael Burden and Jennifer Thorpe, editors, Ballet de la Nuit (Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2009).  Special book with amazing reproductions of original costume and set designs, from the Rothschild collection. Includes essays, cast list from performances, modern notation of musical numbers, libretto in French. This was unavailable for a few years, so most highly recommended now! A treasure for any library on dance history.

The summary of the story for Le Ballet de la Nuit  is from Ballet: The Definitive Illustrated Story, (New York: DK Publishing, 2018) p. 20. Main consultant was former ballet dancer Viviana Durante. A more detailed synopsis plus the actual texts can be found in the Harmonia Mundi book, DVD, and CD and in the Pendragon Press book.

Information about marionette theater permissions is from James R. Anthony’s essay on Lully in the New Grove French Baroque Masters (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986) p. 11.

Philippe Quinault , dramatist. Collaborations with Lully: Armide, Atys, Psyché, Roland, and Le Triomphe de l’Amour.  bio.

The quotation about Lully’s abilities with his musicians and dancers is from Jerome de la Gorce in the New Grove entry for Lully. The same author also wrote the entry on Lully for the IED and the quotation specifying the types of court dances is from that source.

For more details about Pierre Beauchamps, see the entry in IED by Régine Astier.

The most recent biography of the monarch in English is by the British historian Philip Mansel, King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV  (University of Chicago Press: 2020).  For a briefer 36 page biography, see

The quotation about the order of instrumental dance and vocal music is from Rebecca Harris-Warrick, “Notes on the Dances in Lully’s Operas” from the liner notes to the Boston Early Music Festival CD of Thésée on Radiobremen label, pp. 33-35. For an in-depth scholarly study, see her book Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

The above book really is a “go-to” source for anyone wanting to explore Lully’s operas in-depth in regard to the dance components—and for any groups considering performing some of these works. See especially chapter 2, “Constructing the Divertissement” and for a brief summary, pp. 66-69. Also pp. 75-76. In discussing the relationship between text and action (p. 75) she suggests:

In most of Lully’s dance-songs…the dancers and instrumentalists first present the idea, then the singers put into words what the audience has just seen and heard. In such structures the audience receives the visual sign before it gets the textual one. This progression is not so different from what happens elsewhere in Lully’s operas, where a prelude or ritournelle may serve not only as entrance music for a main character, but also a means of introducing a mood that is given voice when the character begins to sing. In his divertissements it is dance that usually initiates the expressive unit.

performances of works by Lully: Les Divertissements de Versailles. CD on Erato Disques. William Christie conducts Les Arts Florissants in an elegant and varied sampling of instrumental and vocal music from the time of Louis XIV in France. Beautifully done! Individual tracks can also be purchased online from amazon. 

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme: DVD on Alpha label. Film of the most unusual 2005 performance for early music festival in Utrecht, by Le Poeme Harmoniqe with musical direction by Vincent Dumestre, stage direction by Benjamin Lazar, and choreography by Cecile Roussat. Singers, dancers, instrumentalists, fine acting, and an additional film covering the meticulous rehearsals in preparation for this theatrical event. English subtitles. Highly recommended. This is only a brief Turkish march from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme,excerpted from the Fradreau production.

Atys: Very special 2-DVD set of the 2011 restaging by Les Arts Florissants, directed by Jean-Marie Villégier, musical direction, William Christie, under the patronage of American Ronald D. Stanton. Beautifully costumed, with lovely dances probably as close as we will ever see to the Baroque original styles. Choreography by Francine Lancelot and Béatrice Massin. Excellent soloists and chorus. Fascinating to see the conductor’s motions that inspire the sharp rhythms from the orchestral musicians. Extra films give interesting background on the production and history of dance under Louis XIV. Director Villagier suggests this performance is “one era’s vision of another,” and that “stage direction lasts as long as roses.” But this version is altogether, a “must see.” Subtitles. Full film of Les Arts Florissants 1987 production. No subtitles. The 2011 performance is preferred for first viewing. Allan Kozin’s review in The New York Times of Sept. 19, 2011 headlined “It’s Not Easy to Be a Goddess’s Boy Toy.”

Armide: DVD on FRA Musica label. Les Arts Florissants under William Christie.  Choreography Jean-Claude Gallotta. Directed by Robert Carsen.  Modern dress and then some, with men in red nightgowns. Music is in historic style;  acting is not, but done with good humor and pointed modern perspective. DVD includes a documentary with historical information and comments about this production. The musical performances are first-rate and the dancing, in contemporary style, superbly performed. Same delightful production as above DVD. Viewers’ comments indicate they loved it. 2 hours 46 minutes.

Psyché: Enthusiastic review of Boston Early Music Festival performances of Psyché. By Anne Midgette in The New York Times, June 16, 2007. Covers dancing included.  2008 CD of Psyché by the Boston Early Music Festival Ensemble. On CPO label.

Persée: DVD on EuroArts label, 2004. Opera Atelier Ballet, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir under Jeanne Lamon. Hervé Niquet production. 2 hours. Filmed in Toronto. Tracks with dance beginnings: Act I, #6—Mercury in a cloud; women nymphs in long gowns. Act II #19-22 Vulcan and Cyclops and others. Act IV #37 gigue with instrumental music only. Women in long gowns; men enter and there is a couple dance in triple meter to the sung text “Why don’t you love, unfeeling hearts?” Act V #43 brief dance with women in white gowns. #50 is traditional final Pasacaille, instruments only. Same as above. No English subtitles. Clear picture and good musical performance. Choreography by Jeannette Zingg.

further information: A general definition of the term entrée: Lully and others would often identify a musical section by this word, or “air,” indicating music for a dance that did not fall into the category of familiar court dances such as gavotte, minuet, and so on.

Wendy Hilton, Dance of Court and Theater: The French Noble Style 1690-1725 (Princeton Book Publishers, 1981). Though mainly a source for those who wish to understand or use Baroque dance notation, yet the author also provides a nice introduction to the historical context of French court dancing—both by aristocrats and professionals. Also profiles collaborators and describes several extensive wedding balls.,-founder.html  Biography of William Christie. He was born in Buffalo, New York in 1944 but even in his young years was drawn to French music. He went to France in 1970 and basically has never come back to America except for performances and teaching. Extended interview with conductor  William Christie  and John Heilpern at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013, Recalling  how he came to play the harpsichord, Christie told of hearing Handel’s Messiah and went home to put thumbtacks in the hammers of the family Steinway piano. “That was a bad moment,” he acknowledged. article about the civil rebellions in France

about dance notation:  An accessible article about written notation for dance movement, by Ann Hutchinson Guest (a leading scholar on the subject). She describes early written systems dating from 1700, then discusses modern alternatives and comments on some of the challenges in attempting to symbolize three-dimensional physical movement on paper.

The same expert author’s entry on Notation appears in the IED v. 4, pp. 683-694. She stated that: “the earliest known manuscript of dance notation, found in the municipal archives of Cervera, Spain, dates from the second half of the fifteenth century.” [p. 683.] Going on to Baroque methods, she explained that the Feuillet system published in 1700 became rather well-known. [And that is the one that Pierre Beauchamps had the law suit about.] Guest also discusses the Arbeau publication of 1588 and goes on to report other systems, including in the 20th century those of Rudolf Laban in 1928 and Rudolf Benesh in 1956. The author also wrote a book titled Choreographics: A Comparison of Dance Notation Systems from the 15th century to the present (Dance Books Ltd., 2010).

In her memoir Nijinsky (New York: Pocket Book edition 1977 p. 246), Romola Nijinsky recounts how her husband Vaslav devised a system of dance notation during the time they were being held as prisoners of war in Budapest. The authorities had him explain it, suspecting it was code for military secrets!

New Grove entry on “Ballet” includes this comment by Noël Goodwin:

Forms of notation have enabled older works to be re-produced, and new systems of notation (“choreology”) can provide a more lasting record of new works, although it is frequently felt that productions staged from notation alone lack the personality their creators would have given them.

Rameau’s Indians

“Rameau was the most important dance composer before Stravinsky,” asserted the conductor William Christie, who has been such a major instigator in the revival of this late Baroque artist’s music. Christie pointed out that “corrupt scores” of many compositions by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), have come down to us, and the conductor observed heatedly that he couldn’t stand the music if it was overlaid with 19th century styles of performance. So his procedure was as much as possible to go back to early or original materials. He also noted that the 20th century scholarship in America (particularly in California) has contributed a great deal to addressing the problems that confront musicians who wish to present “early music” performances that are representative of what audiences might have heard some 300 years ago. There is basic information in the original scores, but also there are clues in the reviews and contemporary writings of three centuries ago, and in treatises that were written by musicians in the Baroque era. Concerning the ballet episodes, there are some indications of style that can be learned from visual art of those times.

Once confronting an angry audience member who yelled out that the conductor should “remember the Rameau tradition,” William Christie pointed out that there was then no Rameau tradition; it had been dead for literally centuries. Indeed, after the premiere of Les Indes Galantes in 1735 and subsequent productions in the 18th century, it was not until 1952 that this opera-ballet had a revival of the complete work, at the Paris Opera. A few decades later, French singers and instrumentalists began giving credit to Mr. Christie (an American with naturalized French citizenship) precisely for his important role in moving to France and reviving a rich treasure of Baroque theatrical works.

Touching upon the vastly differing productions with which he had been involved as music director, Christie observed that he has been careful about entering into collaborations. Although there may be discussions and even altercations about style and content, yet it is always the overall stage director’s artistic views that are implemented—so once on board, the music director has to “defend” what is done.

* * *

In passing it can be noted here that musicologists differ in how they group composers by “era.” Most music history books include Rameau under “late Baroque,” but some like to further classify him as a “rococo” composer of “style galant” music to emphasize the charming impressions often made by his works.

Rameau may be known to more people through his reputation rather than through their experiencing live performances of his music. This seems even more so when the dance elements are considered. What biographer Cuthbert Girdlestone wrote in the mid-twentieth century continues to hold true, that “the immense superiority of all that pertains to choreography in Rameau still needs emphasizing.” He also quoted German H.W. von Waltershausen, writing in 1922:

Rameau was the greatest ballet composer of all times. The genius of his creation rests on one hand on his perfect artistic permeation by folk-dance types, on the other hand on the constant preservation of living contact with the practical requirements of the ballet stage, which prevented an estrangement between the expression of the body from the spirit of absolute music.

Another early-twentieth-century writer, this one French, suggested:

Rameau’s dance music distinguishes itself among all others by his exact and varied adaptation to the circumstances of the drama, to the character of the personae and the particular miming that arises therefrom.

As a final observation, here is what the 18th-century ballet master Jean-George Noverre had to say: “It is to M. Rameau’s varied and harmonious writing, to the traits and witty conversations that prevailed in his tunes, that dancing owes all its progress.”

All its progress? High praise indeed! Where did such understanding and deep empathy for the dance come from? Was Rameau a former dancer? Was he from a theatrical family? Like Lully, did he get early support from the king? Was he involved in the administration of the Opera Ballet?

None of the above. The son of a church organist in Dijon, Jean-Philippe Rameau followed in the footsteps and fingers of his father, working as an organist in a number of cathedrals in several French cities. He also composed both sacred and secular vocal music and saw several collections of his pieces for harpsichord published. Additionally, through the years, this composer taught other musicians and wrote incidental music for street fairs and plays.

Importantly, Rameau became intellectually immersed in detailed theoretical aspects of composition and published a treatise on harmony in 1722. That year he also moved to Paris (where he would remain for the rest of his life) and entered into the theatrical phase of his career. His first patron there was the tax collector/farm owner Le Riche de la Poupliniere, a great supporter of the arts, and whose private orchestra Rameau conducted for nearly a decade. Another important relationship for Rameau was through his marriage, at age 42, to Marie-Louise Marigot, then a 19-year old singer and harpsichordist. Together they had four children, and professionally, Marie-Louise also performed in some of Rameau’s operas.

It was not until he was almost 50 that Rameau started composing operas that included his much-admired ballet music. He certainly made up for lost time, starting with Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733, followed by Les Indes Galantes in 1735. There was an unfinished opera in collaboration with Voltaire, Samson, begun in 1733 (but apparently abandoned because of concerns about mixing sacred and secular). The two artists worked together in later years, creating La princesse de Navarre and Le temple de la Gloire.

Though as is often the case when a new generation appears, some people continued to prefer the works of Lully and objected to the departures in style made by Rameau. Others who had a preference for Italian styles denounced Rameau’s operas as old-fashioned. Yet Rameau’s music found its own success, and in 1745 he was named as official composer of chamber music for Louis XV (who reigned from 1715 to 1754).

Becoming a prolific composer for lyric theater works, by the end of his life Rameau had written 25, quite a few of them in collaboration with the librettist Louis de Cahusac (1706-59). Among his operas were Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733; Castor et Pollux in 1737 (considered by many his masterpiece); Les fetes d’Hébé in 1739; Dardanus also in 1739; and a very different, comedic work, Platée in 1745. Later works included Zoroastre (1749) and Les Paladins (1760).  Les Boréades (considered one of Rameau’s finest) was completed by 1763 but went unperformed during the composer’s lifetime.

Ballet episodes were an important ingredient in all of these theatrical works. Dance was not just an incidental decoration; it was an integral part of depicting the characters, establishing an emotional aura, placing the setting, and furthering the plot. And of course, it was both beautiful and interesting to watch. For certain performances, audiences had the good fortune to see some of the greatest dancers of the times. For instance, in the Persian garden section of Les Indes Galantes, Marie Sallé not only performed but also created an extended Rose ballet. That role was subsequently performed by Marie Carmago. And for male parts, Louis Dupré (“Le Grand Dupré”) was applauded not only as a dancer but also as ballet master for Les Indes Galantes.

performance practice

In regard to the orchestrations for his opera-ballets, not only did Rameau explore new combinations of instruments to achieve fresh timbre effects; he also introduced new instruments themselves: pairs of orchestral (valveless) horns which could suggest hunting scenes as well as enter into the general orchestral texture, and the newly-invented clarinet for his opera Zoroastre in 1749. Additionally, Rameau took advantage of the outdoor pastoral scenes to use musettes (little bagpipes) as well as pipe and tabor—the most common musical accompaniment for traditional Provencal folk dances.

Orchestral instrumentalists who want to perform Rameau’s works in ways that might offer some sensibility of what the music sounded like nearly 300 years ago are challenged from the start. William Christie points out that many of the old scores do not even indicate what instruments are supposed to be playing when, or at exactly what tempos, or with what expression and dynamic levels. In addition, tuning was more mellow than nowadays, and the earlier instruments were sometimes quite different both in sound and in techniques.

On top of that is the fact that keyboard performers in Baroque days were expected to be very facile improvisers and generate both inner parts and appropriate patterning. As an aid, the harpsichordist in opera performances would have a “figured bass” to follow. This would have a bass line notated in regard to pitch and rhythm. But to figure out the harmony of the accompaniment, there would be Arabic numerals indicating the interval inversion of each intended chord (whether in “root” or “first” or “second inversion”). Any changes in the make-up of the chord could be indicated by accidentals (sharps, flats, and natural symbols). Rameau explained the figured bass procedures in one of the closing chapters of his monumental Treatise on Harmony.

In addition to the demand that keyboard players be creative, Baroque singers also had to make decisions about ornamentations (trills and so forth). In Lully’s operas, he and his librettists had felt very strongly that generally there should be a separate musical note for each syllable of text. This was in contrast to the florid style of singers in Italian operas. The music of Rameau lands somewhere between, for listeners often hear trills just before the ends of phrases. And there are also passages of “melisma,” where one syllable of text is carried over many melodic musical notes. Some notable examples occur in Les Boréades: when the North Wind’s storms are suggested; when the hero is urged to “fly,” and then when he sings of how love is like a “meandering” river. All a kind of “word painting.”

* * *

This essay continues as a guide to some filmed modern revivals of Rameau’s stage works.  Available materials are listed in the endnotes.

Hippolyte et Aricie

This was the first of Rameau’s opera-tragedies with ballets, produced 1733 in Paris when he was fifty. As seen today on a DVD performed by soloists with the orchestra and chorus of Le Concert d’Astrée, it is a very emotionally moving work in addition to offering beautiful dances, costumes, and scenic effects. The film  makes a splendid introduction to Rameau, the production done in historic style.

Based on literary precedents going back to Euripides, Seneca, and a Racine play of 1677, the opera has a libretto by Abbé Simon-Joseph Pellegrin and tells a complicated story of a jealous queen who loves her stepson Hippolyte—who loves the beautiful Aricie—who at the beginning is supposed to be dedicating her life to serving Diana, goddess of the woods. Meanwhile Jupiter convinces Diana that one day each year Cupid  should have free range there. Another secondary plot involves Thésée, King of Athens and the father of Hippolyte, going to Hades in an attempt to rescue his friend, but who upon his return becomes immired in the queen’s deception (which leads to Hippolyte being swallowed by a sea monster). There is a lot happening! Add a few immortals like Diana, Jupiter, Mercury, Neptune and Pluto and there is plenty of opportunity for varied and emotional singing. However, in the end, what works out is that the queen confesses her lie and kills herself. Hippolyte is saved by Diana and marries his beloved Aricie (who with him will reign in the woods to serve Diana). But it is Thésée who is the tragic figure, and to give recompense for his part, he is never to see his son again.

In between all these events and also at the end are some absolutely lovely dances. Some are traditional in form: gavotte, minuet, sailor hornpipe, rigaudons en tambourin, chaconne, marches, and musette with bagpipe sounds. Additionally there is a more free dance of the Furies long before Gluck’s or Isadora Duncan’s. The exquisite peach, green and light beige costumes of the male and female dancers end in shoes with heels, and the performers provide what (at least to untrained eyes) look convincingly like historically Baroque styles. The dance episodes alternate and blend smoothly with the vocal solos, ensembles, and chorus, and the whole production even on DVD offers something special for both eyes and ears.

Rameau’s biographer Cuthbert Girdlestone commented that “in retrospect the date of Hippolyte et Aricie is one of the most important in the history of dramatic music.” Focusing on the solo given Thésée as he pleads with Neptune, the writer called it “not only unsurpassed in all Rameau but [also] one of the grandest solos in 18th century music.” Even upon first hearing, the expressiveness of this particular segment is riveting. In spirited contrast, then there is an unusual part for Cupid, played by a soprano, who is given an extended Nightingale aria at the opera’s end—one imagines originally simply to show off Rameau’s singer at the time! (But unfortunately, parts of Rameau’s original score were cut precisely because some of the singers could not handle such things as ensembles with enhamonics.)

Throughout the opera, one of the aural attractions is the way Rameau created instrumental countermelodies to be heard along with the vocal lines. This is not a simple homophonic accompaniment. Instead, listeners hear interesting melodic lines given by flute, violin, bassoon, oboe, or strings tutti. Taken all together, the settings, the costumes, the makeup, the orchestra, the soloists, the dancers combine to deliver an engaging performance that is worth seeing. We are fortunate to have this revival available, while in the 20th century such performances were rare.  Even so, Girdlestone writing in the 1950s could express his highest admiration for Hippolyte et Aricie, calling it “the boldest and most vigorous of Rameau’s operas,” then going on to say:

If I were asked to point out a portion of Rameau’s work which gave the fullest picture of his musical powers I should not hesitate to name this act [Act III]. We have in it a masterpiece of each of the three sides in which he excels: arioso,chorus and dance. The greatest depth of feeling, not only in Rameau but in all French classical opera, is found in its soliloquies.

After its premiere in 1733 Hippolyte et Aricie had 40 performances. For its revival in 1742 there were another 40. There were more performances in Paris in 1757 and after Rameau’s death in 1767. Then none at all in the 19th century. By 1903 the world started the recall it, first in Geneva, then again in Paris in 1908. And by 1965, Birmingham University performed and recorded most of the opera.

Les Indes Galantes

Only the second of Rameau’s theatrical works in Paris, Les Indes Galantes (with a libretto by Louis Fuzelier) has in our own time found sizable audiences through the revival performances by Les Arts Florissants under William Christie. In the first 40 years after its premiere in France, Les Indes Galantes was performed 320 times! It had undergone additions and changes, but the basic outline for what we can see now on DVD is as follows:

The prologue features lots of clouds and mythological characters such as Hebé (cupbearer to the gods and goddesses); Bellona (goddess of war); and Cupid (god of love). The main thrust is that since the men of Europe are called off to war, Cupid and the very practice of love will have to look to exotic places. The first is a Turkish island, where the pasha Osman has under his control the lovely Emilie, who does not welcome his advances because she still loves her Valère, feared perhaps lost at sea. Several miracles occur: Valère is found alive and captured by the Turks. Discovered to be a rival for Emilie, he is about to be killed by Osman when the pasha realizes that he himself had once been a slave and owes his freedom to this same Valère. Hence “The Generous Turk” frees the couple. This act includes dances for sailors, Turkish men, and Turkish women.

The second scene is set in Peru, where among the machine effects that continue to please audiences are earthquakes. (In the first scene, it was the moving sea that won applause.) Again, the theme is love, and again, all is resolved, however this time with a volcanic disaster. But along the way is a central festival tribute to the sun, in which the mighty priest sings of how the Europeans destroyed the Peruvians’ temple of the sun—so that the only one remaining was in their hearts. The dancers and their props tie in with the priest’s headdress of feathers, and the lighting with predominate colors of red and gold provides stunning visual effects along with the restrained and very beautiful choreography. Rameau’s attention to orchestration (for which he was especially known) evokes the changing moods and the earthquake quite effectively.

The third act is set in a Persian garden, with several disguises and misunderstandings of identities, but true love is all sorted out rather efficiently. No disasters here; just a long divertissement with dancing flowerpots and both men and women in costumes resembling flower petals. This is the scene for which the famous Marie Sallé was known, with different choreography, of course!

The fourth act became the most popular, mainly because of the extended dance of the grand Calument of peace at the end. While watching the film by Les Arts Florissants, viewers perhaps need to put aside any sense of historical realism and enter into the story imaginatively. Purportedly set among American Indians in the northeast woods, this scene includes characters dressed as Southwestern Hopi figures and buffalos, with props of teepees representing the Western plains tribes, and the American Indians (in the opera called “savages”) are given some catchy modern moves on top of stepping in place that might have been based on traditional dances. (In passing, it can be noted that Rameau witnessed two Louisiana Indians performing their dances at a fair in France. Inspired by that, the composer wrote a harpsichord piece titled Les Sauvages, and he subsequently reinvented this for Les Indes Galantes.)  The story has an Indian maiden wooed by two Europeans: a Spaniard explorer and a Frenchman. She rejects them both in favor of an Indian man, and everybody joins in the happiness at the end with a peace pipe parade. The whole production is decidedly full of anachronisms, aimed at pleasing audiences of today, hopefully in ways that would not offend but instead invite good humor.


Modern performers seem to love creating their character roles in some of Rameau’s operas. Certainly Platée has lent itself to comedic portrayals, for example in productions in France by Les Musiciens and Chorus du Louvre-Grenoble and at New York City Opera in conjunction with the choreographer Mark Morris and his group of dancers.

The biographer Cuthbert Girdlestone seemed quite disturbed by the fact that Platée was presented as part of the royal wedding celebrations for a princess who was not at all beautiful—since the plot pivots around an ugly nymph who wants to marry the god Jupiter. The god with his colleagues initiate a rather cruel hoax, enraging and then amusing the goddess Juno along the way and leaving the nymph unmarried and unhappy. The lead role is set for a male, and in modern productions Platée is portrayed as a frog figure—most notably by Paul Agnew in the filmed French performance.

This lyric comedy (with a libretto by Adrien-Joseph Le Valois d’Orville after a play by Jacques Autreau) features a great many episodes of dance. For the filmed performance on DVD these were choreographed in contemporary light-hearted styles by Laura Scozzi, who yet manages to respect the pacing and the variety in the musical sections that bear titles of rigaudon, passepied, musette, tambourin, or most often just plain “danse.” Beginning with a chorus lineup of frogs in bathing suits playing leapfrog, there are many unexpected and imaginative touches. The costumes are delightful, and this whole presentation is an inviting sample of what can still be done with Rameau’s sparkling and at times witty music, with its humorous little injections of donkey braying, birdsong in piccolos, and thunderous sounds for the entry of Jupiter with his fireworks.

One of the main characters in the second act is Folly, who proceeds to sing a truly comic satire on music itself. “Let us all admire my art,” she commands—and then conducts not only the orchestra but also a long succession of dances alternating between sad ones in slow motion, gentle ones, then suddenly ones in jovial fast tempos. She is helped out in this amusement by a nameless but handsome frog. Finally, Folly sings: “I will finish with a stroke of genius—a masterpiece of harmony.” (One of Rameau’s specialties again!)

Castor and Pollux

In great contrast to the humor found in Les Indes Galantes and Platée is the serious subject of literally brotherly love and willingness to sacrifice oneself as depicted in what is considered by some to be Rameau’s masterpiece: his third opera, Castor and Pollux, with its libretto by Pierre-Joseph Bernard.

The best chance of seeing this is probably on the DVD performance by the Netherlands Opera, staged by Pierre Audi, with musical direction by Christophe Rousset and choreography by Amir Hosseinpour. The staging features abstract geometrical lines and shapes, with changes of mood created mainly by lighting, and the chorus remains in the pit behind the orchestra.  The costumes for the cast are almost identical, including long braided hair for both men and women.

Consequently what is purposefully made to stand out in this production is emotion. The choreographer explained that thinking about the constellation Gemini—the twin brothers—he decided to have his dancers represent the inner feelings of the main characters. And so there will be two male dancers with a  woman in between, recalling the dramatic story of how the brothers both loved the same woman. And the villainess (in this case a woman who loves the same brother as does the heroine) is recalled afterwards by a dancer robed in a similar black costume. (The dancers perform in between the vocal works; they are not shadowing the singers.) Two male dancers physically portray the deep relationship of affection between Castor and Pollux. A group of women dancers suggest feelings of turmoil with quick and vibrating hand patterns. And so on, with music also changing according to the emotional points of the plot, including a martial-sounding section with trumpets when there has been a battle. All along, the instrumental introductions set the emotional tone for the vocalists who follow.

This is a strong tragedy, though neither of the two mythological brothers is consigned to Hades forever, instead having immortality in the stars conferred by Jupiter. As for the heroine…well, she did get to sing a beautiful aria.

Les Boréades

Rameau’s last opera, Les Boréades, with a rich score and a beautifully rhymed libretto assumed to be by Louis de Cahusac, was completed by 1763. Though there were two rehearsals, unfortunately the opera was not performed before the composer died the next year. The cancellation was possibly due to a fire in the Paris theater. Or as some historians have wondered, possibly because of the political implications of suggesting that freedom (especially for women making their own choices about their own lives) was not a welcome theme in an age when arranged marriages and control were the norm for the nobles. In fact, at one point the hero accosts those who are “so prideful of your birth.”

Today, a modern staging of Les Boréades can be seen on DVD and online as performed in 2003 with the Arts Florissants under the musical direction of William Christie. Staging was by Robert Carsen, who made the choice to bring in the choreographer Edouard Lock and his troupe of La La La Human Steps.

Immediately in the first few moments, the addition of orchestral horns and clarinet announces that this theatrical presentation is going to be something different! Barbara Bonney portrays the queen who must choose a husband from the line of the god of the North Wind, and the light tenor Paul Agnew portrays Apollo’s son, who is madly in love with the queen but considered unsuitable by the establishment powers because he lacks those North Wind genes. Not to worry! As it turns out, Apollo had fathered our hero with a nymph who had the hoped-for heritage, so after much angst as the seasons go by, especially during winter with those terrible windstorms, there is a sunny ending, and along the way the chorus adds rich emotional commentary.

There are many sections intended for dancers to expand upon various emotional moods—labeled as menuets, gavottes, contredances, or simply airs. The orchestral timbres that Rameau achieved are varied and masterful in the instrumentation. He made use of such techniques as extended pizzicato (plucking) in the strings, and fast glissandos (like a “whoosh” going quickly from one note to another pitch), rapid scale patterns to evoke storms, virtuosic melodies for the bassoon, varied instrumental counterpoint, and even effective silences when he employed a restrained continuo of just harpsichord and a couple of strings to accompany the two lovers’ duet.

In regard to the dance episodes, both reviewers and many audience members found the costuming of the dancers (in black bras and underpants) as well as their jabbing movements to be a bit too far removed from the gracious and calm style of the music. Reviewing a live performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Anthony Tommasini commented in The New York Times of June 11, 2003:

Mr. Lock’s choreography for an agile roster of solo dancers may divide opinion. He has responded to the tensions that lie below the surface of Rameau’s courtly, rustic and pastoral dances by devising tightly wound, hyperkinetic movements for the dancers, who spin and turn, all jittery and mechanistic, with fidgety arms and kicking legs.

Previously, The New York Times critic Alan Riding wrote this on April 15, 2003 after seeing the production at the Palais Garnier in France:

The ballet provided by La La La Human Steps in Montreal is of a style that the company’s founder and choreographer Edouard Lock has called “hyperactive.” But what resembles a mixture of high-speed semaphore and sign language, albeit often danced en pointe, jars with the music’s more bucolic mood….Some heckles seemed directed at the choreography.

Trying to justify his choices, the director Robert Carsen saw a dichotomy between the “establishment” protectors of the North Wind’s expected traditions and the sun god Apollo’s followers—who appear in white underwear and pajamas and are protagonists for freedom (in this case advocating that the queen abdicate and marry the love of her heart). In the documentary film, Carsen suggests that the dancers were not intended to be exactly with the music. However, even though the dancers may seem related to the music (in terms of timing, finishing phrases and rhythms with frantic nervous movements) yet they seem totally out of sync with the emotional aura and general pace of the score, and one begins to wonder what a more “historic” production might be like—on the order of what was done for Hippolyte et Aricie.

At one point a singer mentions “such sweet harmonies,” which might serve as a clue to Rameau’s theatrical vision.  However, whatever an audience’s opinion of this particular choreography, most would agree with William Christie that the music is “quite glorious.”

notes and explorations:

biography and theory of harmony:

The quotations about Rameau’s reputation as a composer of ballet music are from Cuthbert Girdlestone, Jean-Philippe Rameau: His Life and Work, Dover revised 1969 edition, pp. 563 and 564. The French writer was Paul-Marie Masson, 1930. The complete information on the biography is that the 1969 edition was a newly revised and corrected republication of the work originally published in 1957 by Cassell and Company. There has since been another Dover edition, with an introduction by Phillip Gossett, released in 2013, and it is also available via kindle. This work is still considered the definitive biography of Rameau.

The Girdlestone biography includes extensive musical analysis with notated examples. Entire chapters are devoted to several individual operas, including one on Les Indes   Galantes, in which the scholar talks you through the opera with pertinent information about various additions and changes that were made in performances after the premiere. One chapter compares the styles of Gluck and Rameau. And though Girdlestone lamented the mocking an ugly would-be bride in Platée as a performance during celebrations for a real wedding, yet he went on to point out very specific details of compositional devices that Rameau used to create this intended comedy.

The other book, which is probably of interest only to musicians and musicology students who are intensely investigating our heritage of theory, is Jean-Philippe Rameau, Treatise on Harmony, translated and with an introduction and notes by Philip Gossett (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications 1971 only complete translation from the French work published in 1722). His chapters on accompaniment and figured bass are on pp. 377-444.

For an account of Rameau’s life and work that is briefer than Girdlestone’s volume, see the chapters by Graham Sadler and Albert Cohen in The New Grove: French Baroque Masters (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986) pp. 207-308. Included is a list of works with premiere information. It is an attractive source because of the essays on the other important Baroque composers, including Lully. Alternatively, you can consult Sadler’s lengthy entry for Rameau directly in the New Grove.

about modern performances:

William Christie’s observations are drawn from an interview with John Heilpern at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013. This can be seen and heard in its entirety (1 hour and 20 minutes) at

set of many operas:

To see a representative selection of Rameau’s operas, there is a 2011 boxed set available from Opus Arte. As purchasers comment, a good bargain because some of the operas are not available individually. Set includes Les Boréades, Castor et Pollux, Les Indes Galantes, Les Paladins, Zoroastre, and the motet Il Conventendo. This last DVD also includes an excellent introduction to Rameau’s life and art—a film made by Reiner E. Moritz, titled “The Real Rameau.” The performance of the 1710 sacred piece is very beautiful, with orchestra, mixed choir, and vocal soloists. The musicologist Sylvie Bouissou presents many interesting facts and displays first editions and an original musical manuscript, and William Christie offers observations on the music itself.

Hippolyte et Aricie:  Quotes from Cuthbert Girdlestone are from pp. 572, 166, 171, 196.

The 2-disc DVD set is on the Erato label, copyright Opéra national de Paris 2012. The Concert d’Astrée is conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm. Stage director was Ivan Alexandre. Lead singers were Topi Lehtipuu, Anne-Catherine Gillet, Stéphane Degout, Sarah Connolly, Jaël Azzaretti, Andrea Hill…and a further stellar cast. Subtitles very important! And a fine orchestra plus excellent dancers! Highly recommended.

For a more detailed plot synopsis see The Grove Book of Operas.

For more information about 20th century performances, also a good synopsis:

There are a number of CD recordings of this opera available now—but of course first choice is to see the DVD.

Les Indes Galantes: DVD of on 2005 Opus Arte. Les Arts Florissants, musical direction by William Christie; stage director, Andrei Serban; choreographer, Blanca Li. Subtitles. In the splendid category!  A clip showing part of the dance of the grand Calument, Les Arts Florissants performance of the finale from Les Indes Galantes.

notes inégales: It should be mentioned that one reason the ending of Les Indes Galantes may sound actually somewhat “jazzy” is due to the Baroque performance custom of sometimes playing evenly notated eighths slightly unevenly, in paired long-short patterns. See entry in The Harvard Dictionary of Music. This is commonly also done today in jazz and popular music, to the extent that if even sounds are desired, the instrumental parts (often in Latin American pieces) will have an indication of “straight.” For jazz, the effect is usually somewhere around a quarter note-eighth within a triplet.  In Rameau’s original keyboard piece Les Sauvages, the eighth-note patterns are notated as groups of four evenly spaced sounds, as in the orchestral score that can be accessed below. Listen to the clip above. To these ears the eighths seem slightly uneven, the impression exaggerated by the dancers’ movements. In the recording below, it seems that the sounds agree more with the notated score. What is your impression?

For a more detailed, complicated, and historical discussion of notes inégales, go to Visually moving score to a suite from Les Indes Galantes with recording by Franx Bruggen Orchestra. Notice that from from 36 min. 34 sec. the eighth notes are both notated and played equally.

Platée: DVD of issued in 2011 on Arthaus Musik label. Subtitles. Paul Agnew sings the lead role with absolutely beautiful and varied expressivity, and his dramatic acting is delightful, including the slightest movements of his face and webbed fingers! Other soloists and the chorus are superb. Musical performance by the orchestra and Chorus of Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble is conducted by Marc Minkowski, who himself adds to the good humor in small dramatic ways. The stage director was Laurent Pelly, who in this case deserves additional special mention for the costume designs. All in all a DVD worth acquiring to enjoy more than once, especially to notice so many details in the dance episodes choreographed with humorous flair by Laura Scozzi. An all-too-brief clip of Paul Agnew singing Platee! This is a review of New York City Opera’s Platée, written in 2000 by Philip Anson and commenting enthusiastically about the camp production featuring Mark Morris and his dancers.

Peter G. Davis wrote this review of the same production for New York magazine:

Castor et Pollux: 2008 2-DVD set on Opus Arte performed by Les Talens Lyriques, Chorus of Netherlands Opera under the musical direction of Christophe Rousset. Stage director, Pierre Audi; set and costumes by Patrick Kinmonth; choreography by Amir Hosseinpour. Includes documentary film about the making of this production.

In the DVD version of Castor and Pollux, Telaira at the very end sits on the floor stage left and watches as the two brothers depart for the heavens. According to The Grove Book of Operas, 2nd edition pp. 109-110, she is “granted a place in the firmament.” Also, while the performance described here uses the final chaconne for slow walking and people gazing at the sky, only briefly having two dancers represent the brothers with much intertwining of hands and arms, Grove suggests “Of the dances, the finest is the chaconne.” Telaira’s moving aria is “Tristes apprets.”

Les Boréades and relationships between music and dance:  Les Boréades, Paris National Opera, Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie. Stage director, Robert Carsen. Edouard Lock, choreography. 2003 film with French subtitles. This is among the operas included in the Opus Arte boxed set, and that DVD does have English subtitles plus an extra film in which the directors explain aspects of the production. A highlight is the singing of Paul Agnew. But a warning: a lot of viewers find the ultra-modern choreography quite unrelated to the music or the story, even exasperating. A concert performance from the Utrecht Early Music Festival. Lovely voices and orchestra but no dancers.

Le Temple de la Gloire:

Recommended CD: Rameau, Le Temple de la Gloire recording released in 2018 of 2017  performance in Berkeley, CA by Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale under Nicholas McGegan. For the live performances, the New York Baroque Dance Company under the direction of Catherine Turocy was featured in the dance sections, wearing period costumes and masks. Unfortunately to date there is no plan to release a DVD. However, the CD (indicated as the first recording ever of the original 1745 score) is worth listening to at least to hear the dance music. The  accompanying booklet has the complete poetic libretto by Voltaire with English translation alongside, and there is also  information about each instrument played by the orchestral musicians. Some are actual antiques and others are reproductions. There are two brief but very interesting videos here, about Le Temple de la Gloire. The 1745 performance manuscript for this (copied, not the composer’s original) was discovered to be in the collection of the library at U of CA Berkeley, and the conductor displays a few pages of it and discusses the preparation for the beautiful 2017 stage performance. Catherine Turocy explains how she has learned things about Baroque dance, showing a sample of 17th century dance notation. She mentions that there are 30  ballets in this opera. The designers of costumes and lighting and backdrop (with digital projections) give a wonderful introduction to this production.

Rameau’s score opens with an overture to which a majestic aura is lent by timpani and a pair of horns, followed by a change of mood as the character Envy calls upon demons to destroy the temple of Glory. The demons dance to a menacing air. A little later in the prologue, trumpets, horns, and strings provide background for the introduction of heroes, and an extended dance for the Muses is accompanied by gentle flute music.

Act I has a pastoral flavor, with shepherds and shepherdesses. There are, for them to dance to, gracious musettes and gavottes with a folk-style feel suggested by heavy repeated bass chords. Then there are some slower airs and a fast gigue followed by thunder. The plot continues until only the magnanimous king Trajan is welcomed into the temple of Glory. The second and third acts include more gavottes, processionals, another gigue, passepieds, and a traditional passacaille at the end.  Website of the New York Baroque Dance Company, directed by Catherine Turocy. Includes news that they won  award for their production of Rameau’s Le Temple de la Gloire.  Updates on the company’s live performances and workshops in various locations across the country and abroad. They also mount online some excellent demonstration performances of various Baroque dances—for instance, at this moment, the passacaille from Lully’s Armide, accompanied by harpsichord, cello, and wooden flute. The masks worn by the dancers really do change our impression of what we are seeing: characters rather than the real individual people.

Dancetime Publications produced a 2011 DVD titled Baroque Dance Unmasked: Workshop to Performance, featuring Catherine Turocy and the New York Baroque Dance Company, and musician James Richman, director of Concert Royal. Excerpts include the Áir des Sauvages.  Highly informative and highly recommended.

further information:

Rameau’s biographer Cuthbert Girdlestone stated that so much had been written about the Querelle des Bouffons that he was not going to explain it, then went on to write a lot of words about the philosophers and others who engaged in exchanges of public opinion [pp. 500-504]. However, for those puzzled about this “war” of words criticizing Rameau’s music, here is a briefer  account: The website for Les Arts Florissants, including information and clips from their annual festival held in the gardens of William Christie. Click on the small box for English translation of everything.

Purely an amusing detail, about the 1952 revival of Les Indes Galantes by the Paris Opera, from Ivor Guest, The Paris Opéra Ballet (Alton: Dance Books, 2006) p. 92:

…it was [Harald] Lander’s contribution that was the most effective—the entrée of Les Fleurs, an elegant evocation of eighteenth-century style made doubly memorable by the injection of rose-scented perfume into the auditorium at the moment that Micheline Bardin, as the Rose, made a dramatic entrance, rising from the depths, centre-stage, on a trap.

Style galant sometimes seems to apply more to specific pieces rather than entire musical compositions during certain years, although 1720-70 is usually cited as the timeframe for this style.  Analogies have been made to the painting style of Watteau and his subject matter. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music p. 332 has a helpful definition:

In 18th century writings about music, the free or homophonic style as opposed to the strict, learned, or contrapuntal. Traits…include light texture, periodic phrasing with frequent cadences, liberally ornamented melody, and free treatment of dissonance….

In general usage, the term galant denoted that which was pleasing (especially to the ladies), refined, elegant, witty, natural, enjoyable, sophisticated, polite, and in good taste.


As a preview to the next essay, on Suites, here is an online source to hear all of Rameau’s suites that have harpsichord, on Brilliant Classics, with Pieter Jan Belder on harpsichord plus other instrumentalists. Although many of the pieces in Rameau’s collections were based on dance forms, yet he additionally gave quite a few suggestive titles, such as “Les Sauvages” which he later expanded for Les Indes Galantes. (Third piece from the end on this website.)