Jean-Baptiste Lully and (following Lully’s death) his disciple Pascal Collasse set to music a libretto by Jean Galbert de Campistron that deals with the reappropriation of an episode from the Trojan cycle, a heroic historical subject not previously treated on the stages of the Académie royale de musique or Italian opera houses; the result was Achille et Polyxène, a tragédie en musique in a prologue and five acts, premiered on 23 November 1687 (without the king in attendance). This all-encompassing spectacle marked a decisive moment in the history of the genre, at the very least as a bold synthesis of contemporary poetical and operatic practices. The theme of the opera is love thwarted by hatred between two nations, the love between Achilles, the Greek hero and king, and the Trojan princess Polyxena. The work drew from literary sources not previously used at the Académie royale: Homer’s Iliad (Books 9, 15–19, 22, 24), the Ephemeris belli Troiani (Journal of the Trojan War) attributed to Dictys Cretensis (Books 3 and 4), and Virgil’s Aeneid (Book 4); these works, which intend to interpret the question of the tragedy of mankind’s destiny, prompted the authors of the opera to emphasize the natural propensity of human beings towards wars that lead to their destruction. Thus, this tragédie en musique (not revived since 1712), is more than a large-scale entertainment for the court of the city; in the manner of ancient Greeks and Grand Siècle tragic playwrights, it is based on the power of Myth, with the understanding that the secular myth of Troy was considered as an equivalent of the myth of the Fall. This article puts together the absolutist, war-mongering strategies of Louis XIV and the strategies of an opera conceived within the circle of the Vendômes, an intellectual, artistic, free-thinking community enjoying the Grand Dauphin’s protection. The opera is thus a harmonious combination, not just of theatre, music and dance, but also homo- and hetero-eroticism, the heroic morality of the ideal prince, and the praise of peace between peoples. In this sense, Achille et Polyxène can be considered an exemplar of the ideological and creative freedom which a librettist and two composers could enjoy during the Ancien Régime, censorship notwithstanding, even while they were supposed above all to glorify the conquests and power of an absolute monarch. The method followed is transdisciplinary and aims especially at highlighting, behind and beyond the rhetoric of praise, the extremely dense network of intertextual, musical, choreographic and theatrical allusions which this opera comprises and which, taken as a whole, make it possible to characterize the styles of Campistron and Collasse.
The subject chosen for a French opera during the Ancien Régime resulted from an enlightened, meticulous assessment that determined its political scope and its musical and theatrical effects. The preoccupation with a ‘good subject’, which was ‘hard to select’, is notably in evidence in a letter of 13 January 1695 from the scholar Louis Ladvocat to the abbé Jean-Baptiste Dubos, author of Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture (1719), in which he was to offer an overall theory of tragic pleasure. ‘Subjects from the Metamorphoses’, Ladvocat also wrote, ‘do not make good operas’.1
During the reign of Louis XIV, the ‘Petite Académie’ (created by Colbert on the model of the artistic policies of Augustus, which held even the least docile artists in subjugation) oversaw the efficacy of all opera librettos after the king had made his choice.2 Librettos were considered privileged vectors for the assertion of royal absolutism, as can be seen from the 13 tragédies set to music by Jean-Baptiste Lully between 1673 and 1686.3 In the view of the ‘Petite Académie’, poetry, owing to its fictional power, was the most efficient form of memorialization, since it ‘resisted time’.4
The score of Achille et Polyxène, left unfinished by Lully, the ‘Surintendant de la Musique du Roi’ (Overture and Act 1), was completed in a few months by Pascal Collasse (Prologue and Acts 2–5), the ‘Maître de la Chapelle du roi’ and ‘compositeur de la Musique de la Chambre’.5 The score was set to a libretto by Jean Galbert de Campistron, a member of the Académie française from 1701. Having been Lully’s secretary since 1677 and composer of the ‘middle parts’ of his orchestrations, Collasse was familiar in every respect with the Florentine composer’s writing. Dedicating the opera to Louis XIV, he stressed that he had endured ‘unbelievable fatigue over the twelve full years when he worked with the world’s most skilful man in bringing forth the productions of his Genius’.6
Inspired by Homer’s Iliad, the opera was unveiled before the Parisian public on 23 November 1687 by Jean-Nicolas de Francine, the new director of the Académie royale de musique, in association with Lully’s heirs (as per a royal brevet of 27 June 1687).7 At that time, scholarly milieus were rediscovering Homer, as evidenced by the work of Anne Dacier8 and the abbé Terrasson,9 but the operatic stage preceded even these publications. In this opera, the Iliad was combined with a post-Homeric myth treated by Dictys, narrating the passion of Achilles for the Trojan princess Polyxena. The fratricidal war between the two peoples, symbolized by the treacherous Paris—who wishes for the fighting to resume in order not to give up Helen, while avenging his brother Hector—quickly brings to an end their love and marriage prospects. The final catastrophe, inspired by the death of Dido (Aeneid, Book 4), shows Polyxena, terrified by the spectre of her ‘husband’, immolating herself near the temple of Apollo with the arrow that killed the Greek hero. Contemporary Italian opera, by contrast, was concerned with the love affair of Achilles and Deidamia, the subject of several works, all with a lieto fine (happy ending).10
References to epic poetry, other than to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, were already in evidence in the last two tragédies en musique by Philippe Quinault and Jean-Baptiste Lully: Roland (1685, after Ariosto) and Armide (1686, after Tasso).11 Though inspired by Homer, these Renaissance Christian epics differed in one crucial respect: in the words of Michel Woronoff, ‘the originality [of the Iliad] is to describe a war in which the defeated are as worthy of esteem as their victors and more worthy of pity’.12
As Amy Wygant has argued, the closeness between ancient classical sources and the plots of the librettos is not a good starting point for understanding the peculiar aesthetics of the tragédie en musique; one should, rather, take advantage of the ‘distance’ (the metaphorical use of the ‘ghost of Alcestis’) that exists between the Greek subject matter and the modern world to identify the values defended by Ancien Régime poets and musicians.13 It should also be borne in mind that the tragédie en musique, from Lully to Rameau, was codified by the standards of French neoclassical tragedy,14 sustained by a ‘verisimilitude of the supernatural’ (to borrow Catherine Kintzler’s phrase),15 which was particularly original and efficient from an aesthetic standpoint.
While these dramatic and aesthetic strategies appear strikingly consistent, it is necessary from a political perspective to shed light on a certain degree of ideological ambivalence and disentangle a complex web of ‘ideological voices’.16 Indeed, given the bellicose, intolerant policies of the ‘Roi de guerre’, there were, in France, more or less covert signs of resistance and dissent in certain spheres of influence, even within the king’s entourage.17 A ‘court of Meudon’18 gathered around the Grand Dauphin, while another such circle was dominated by the figure of Louis Joseph de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme. When Louis XIV stopped attending operas after Armide (under the pressure of the dévots and the clergy and the influence of Mme de Maintenon, leading to Quinault’s retirement and Lully’s disgrace),19 the influences of the Grand Dauphin and the ‘Grand Vendôme’ (and his brother Philippe, the ‘Grand Prieur’) were strengthened. It was at the château of Anet, residence of the Vendôme princes, that Campistron’s and Lully’s pastorale héroïque Acis et Galatée was staged on 6 September 1686 in honour of the Grand Dauphin. Campistron,20 a member of ‘Racine’s school’,21 was secretary to Vendôme. The references to Achilles and Patroclus (‘friend of Achilles’ in the libretto), a locus classicus of homoerotic love,22 and the virile chorus of the ‘Greek Soldiers and Chiefs’ might thus be seen as signs that the opera’s genesis took place within the freethinking community to which librettist and composer both belonged; as Georgia Cowart has shown, the Vendômes’ circle was open to other sensibilities, especially poetic and ideological.23 During the same period (as early as 1681 and also outside Versailles and its climate of austerity), there appeared a musical circle of ‘resistance to the monarchy’,24 which promoted the Italian style, with the blessing of Philippe d’Orléans.
At this critical juncture in the history of absolute monarchy and of Louis XIV’s attitude towards opera, which also corresponds to a period of ‘literary crisis’,25 it is interesting to examine this first French operatic contribution to the ‘refiguring of Troy’, based on the myth of Achilles and Polyxena, just at the moment when the fall of Troy appears as imminent and ineluctable. How did tragédie en musique relate to an ideology opposed to that of absolutism? Did ‘overtly political themes’, ‘generally thought ill-suited to opera’, as Graham Sadler has noted,26 find a major exception in Achille et Polyxène?
Homer at the Académie royale de musique: from a warlike epic to a plea for peace
In a previous article27 I surveyed the long mythical and literary tradition surrounding Achilles and Polyxena, from the nostos (homecoming) compiled by Stesichorus to the fragment of Sophocles’s Polyxena28 and right through to the six 17th-century spoken tragedies. The 1687 work is not an ‘operatic reproduction’ of any of these plays; however, the one by Isaac de Benserade (1613–91) shows a number of similarities to it. Campistron’s libretto belongs in a singular way to this complex poetic web and is characteristic of the ties between humanistic theatre and the tragédie en musique.29 The performance, it should be said, was met with a lukewarm reception at the Académie royale de musique and was even the object of a cabal, resulting from the highly sensitive rivalry between Collasse and Lully’s sons.30 According to the Nouvelles extraordinaires de divers endroits for 4 December 1687, the Grand Dauphin, for his part, was ‘so satisfied’ with the opera that he rewarded Francine with ‘500 Louis’.31 At a time when tragédies en musique were seldom revived, the opera was performed again on 11 October 1712, with a new prologue. The work was also staged in Hamburg in 1697, though at the time French operas were little known in Germany.32
Significantly, Campistron approached his task by taking up Quinault and Lully’s attempts in Alceste to reappropriate the Greek tradition. In addition to the characters themselves, thematic, geographical and theatrical parallels can all be found between Alceste and Achille et Polyxène. The 1687 opera was doubtless seen by Campistron and Lully as a kind of ‘mythological continuation’ of the 1674 opera.
In her discussion of the illusory nature of spectacles and the various propaganda systems for which it was a vehicle, Georgia Cowart has referred to the spectacle as ‘an intertextual or dialogic system’ resorting to a vast array of means, especially allusion.33 Ambivalent ‘allusions’ in Quinault’s librettos show that the poet, a member of the ‘Petite Académie’, was no unconditional supporter of absolute monarchy.34 As Buford Norman has noted, ‘Quinault also points out that the arts are neglected at the expense of war and evokes the dangers of such a choice’ and between 1673 and 1683 ‘seven out of eight libretti show a hero [opposed] to the established power’.35 Quinault emphasizes conflicts between ‘guerre/victoire/gloire’ and ‘amours/plaisirs/harmonie/paix’, a tension climaxing in Roland. Yet Roland gives up love and returns to the pursuit of military glory. L’Amour is thus described as an important power, yet inferior to la Gloire, and one even linked to a physical and moral weakening, a ‘love sickness’ opposed to heroism, as Rebecca Harris-Warrick has pointed out.36 In the prologue to Armide, Wisdom and Glory are rivals but are soon—as a stage direction indicates—to reach ‘perfect understanding’, their concord being exalted in terms of choreographic union. In Armide, Quinault staged the greatness of the triumph of reason over passions and of ‘a plea to peace in the kingdom’ as his themes, while referring to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes as a twofold allegory of the triumph of Louis le Grand over the Turks and ‘the Protestant heresy’.37 In more ways than one, the libretto of a tragédie en musique, especially of the ‘epic’ variety, can thus be seen as paradoxical.38 Its recurrent ‘pleas for peace’ were evidently the expression of ‘the official position of the Petite Académie’, whose members exhibited a ‘moderation not to be found in most other encomiasts’.39 Campistron, however, went much further.
Campistron was indeed the heir to this literary current, which predisposed him towards anti-establishment political allusion, for example in his Phraate, which was banned after three performances at the Comédie Française in 1686.40 His Arminius (1684), another fairly successful tragedy, referred to the interpretation of 16th-century German humanists, who presented ‘the Arminius story as an allegory of German unity and freedom from the tyranny of Catholic Italy, Spain, and France’.41 Campistron’s sensibility predisposed him towards the themes of liberty and resistance to tyranny, and in the bellicose framework of the ‘Trojan matter’ the poet found openings into love and peace.
From the very prologue, a dedicated propaganda tool for the absolute monarch, explicit political allusions, not only textual but also musical and theatrical, appear in Achille et Polyxène. First, three Muses lament their sudden disfavour, the great art patron and commissioner that was Louis XIV having abandoned the Opéra. Reversing the triumphant arrival of Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy), accompanied by a ‘troop of heroes’ in Atys (Prélude pour Melpomène in C major in the style of a French overture), Campistron depicts the tragic muse without retinue and lamenting. Collasse, besides, supplied only a Prélude (G major, ternary rhythm, 16 bars) instead of the standard Ouverture, French opera’s most famous ‘trademark’ (an Ouverture in C major, by Lully, does introduce Act 1, yet the symmetry of the repeat was broken for the first time). Moreover Campistron, while retaining the traditional hyperbolic language, renders Louis’s thirst for conquering responsible for the desolation of the theatre, a notorious metaphor for the world (and in the recent context of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, possibly also a metaphor for the ‘promptly demolished’ Protestant places of worship). Jupiter depicts the ruling monarch through the figure of Achilles, who is called a ‘perfect hero’, while the ‘goodness’ and ‘wisdom’ supposedly dominant in Louis XIV are lauded ironically (‘Sa valeur, sa bonté, sa sagesse profonde’); these two virtues are crucial to the political stakes of the libretto, namely, what is an ‘ideal monarch’?
The first allusion to Persée can be detected when the recorders announce Mercury’s arrival.42 A single ‘Palace’, a standard set at the Académie royale de musique traditionally associated with Louis’s magnificence, figures among the sets for Achille et Polyxène—and it is that of the old, barbarian king. Using the word-frequency statistical method (counting occurrences, independently from repetitions of various types), we can also highlight not only dominant linguistic patterns, but also the nature of the thematic duality introduced by Campistron: there is indeed an opposition between what has been called ‘the rhetoric of peace, happy passions, life, and freedom’43 and ‘the rhetoric of war, sad passions, death, and oppression’.44 The word ‘héros’ (20 occurrences) is applied first to the warlike, then to the peaceful side of Achilles. The word ‘paix’ recurs 13 times, the phrases ‘lieux paisibles/heureux, séjours tranquilles’ eight times (including ‘cour tranquille’, four times). A complete reversal of values is thus achieved: war is no longer organically linked to ‘monarchical order’, it drives all peoples to war against one another as well as against themselves, thus representing absolute ‘Evil’.45 The dramatic suspense thus hangs on the following issue: between War, which has lasted nine years (represented by Paris, Juno and the ‘captive’ Briseis), and Peace (figured by the lovers, Venus, Cupid, Priam, the Shepherds and the Trojans, eventually joined by the Greeks), which is going to win?46
Campistron’s modern Achilles retains the bellicose nature of the character in Act 1 and part of Act 2 of the libretto. The librettist also reproduced his softer sides, namely his homo- and heterosexual eroticism and his gift for singing and the cithara. In the libretto, Achilles feels ‘a friendship that was ever so tender’ towards his ‘generous friend’ Patroclus (1.1) and a reciprocated love for his ‘captive’ princess Briseis; he then clearly expresses his amorous attraction to Princess Polyxena (‘Je veux la posséder / Il est temps de soulager ma peine’, 3.1), his carnal desire being clearly portrayed in a récitatif accompagné (5.1). One can detect an echo of ‘the object of my friendship’ (i.e. Patroclus, 1.2) and ‘the object I adore’ (Briseis, 1.2). Campistron condenses seven books of the Iliad into one act and two scenes. Achilles has barely killed Hector when his marriage to Polyxena is scheduled ‘before the day is over’. This observance of the classical unity of time—no more a ‘rule’ in French opera than the other unities, as Catherine Kintzler reminds us—renders the metamorphosis of Achilles into a hero of peace all the more spectacular and edifying.
As a result of the revelatory power of the ‘distance’ between Homer’s Iliad and the French opera, the figure of Achilles is totally reversed when compared to tradition,47 as is the political power and its need for glorification. In this respect, Achilles recalls Quinault’s Alcide in Alceste: not only are the two heroes not ridiculous in ‘modern’ eyes, they embody values that were highly prized at the time when the operas were performed.
The sacrifice of Patroclus and the wrath of Achilles (Act 1, scenes 1–6)
Campistron’s libretto features the emblematic image of the Iliad, the wrath of Achilles. The hero refuses to participate in the fight after being outraged by Agamemnon, who stole Briseis (Chryseis in Homer) from him—the ‘rash Chief’ having subjected him to ‘[sa] violente loy’ (1.1), a possible allusion to Louis XIV’s programme of ‘une foy, une loy, un Roy’. Deploring the losses suffered by the Greeks owing to his friend’s absence from the battlefield, where Hector has been distinguishing himself, Patroclus (basse-taille, bass clef) begs Achilles to let him borrow his armour ‘designed by Vulcan’ and restore the honour of the Greeks himself. Patroclus then delivers his own fateful augury, uttered in the bellicose tone familiar from the absolutist rhetoric, in which ‘victoire’ rhymes with ‘mémoire’ (1.3).
Aristotle called such unexpected reversals of fortune peripeteia, here with the announcement of the death of Patroclus by Arcas, confidant of Achilles (Antilochus in Homer), interrupting a sensuous divertissement (1.4–5) located on the isle of Tenedos (the Turkish Bozcaada). At this point Campistron introduces a theme dear to him, that of maternal love, since Achilles recalls it was his mother, Thetis, who urged Venus to visit him every day to ‘[end his] regrets’ and ‘[suspend] his sighs’, the followers of the goddess being ‘of great help against the darkest sadness’ (1.3). Music (combined with dance) is thus seen as a quasi-medical remedy to the hero’s pain. In Homer, Achilles actually sings, ‘taming his worries’ and accompanying himself on the cithara. In a 40-bar instrumental chaconne in D major in Lullian style, the mother of Aeneas and the protector of the Trojans in the Iliad ‘appears in the airs together with Cupid’—as in the final scene of Persée, in a Bérain-designed set—with the help of machinery and ‘on a chariot surrounded by clouds and drawn by two swans’.48 Then, in a long instrumental and vocal passacaglia (in three symmetrical parts: A major/A minor/A major) of 383 bars (including repeats), the Graces and Pleasures dance on stage. While the chaconne and passacaglia (a reference to the one in Armide, 5.2) correspond to the voluptuous traditional character of those dances and match the temperament of Achilles, the subsequent dialogue in récitatif simple in A major (1.6)49 seems dry, brief and cruel for the hero (see ex.1).
The death of his fighting companion having thus increased his ‘just anger’, the ‘fury’ of Achilles (haute-contre, tenor clef) prompts him to go back to fighting the Trojans. In this récitatif simple, then accompagné, Lully resorts to the rhetorical power of tonal language50 to convey the hero’s rage and thirst for revenge, the expression of pathos being concentrated within seven bars, in particular in the line ‘Ciel! quelle affreuse nouvelle’, in which Achilles is overcome with grief. The emotion is underlined by a modulation from A major (the main key of the Venusian divertissement) to F! minor and a rising chromaticism in the voice. Dismissing the followers of Venus, still present on stage, Achilles soon regains control of himself and defies Hector. The warlike fury that animates him is expressed in a melodic line based on disjointed intervals, a classic tonal plan—F!, the relative minor; E, the dominant key; D, the subdominant), this last key being the one associated with victory and the triumphant return featured in Act 2 (scene 2). In a burst of anger, on the line ‘Que son fier vainqueur périsse!’, the voice reaches the highest note of its tessitura (B, a rise underlined by the continuo), after which his love and the memory of his duty towards Patroclus soften his melodic line on the line ‘Je dois à l’amitié ce juste sacrifice’ with a perfect cadence in A major.
As in Benserade, Achilles then launches into an invocation in A major to Patroclus’s shade, ‘Mânes de ce guerrier’ (see ex.2), with a short five-bar prelude incorporating a descending chromatic motif for the basses which is repeated when the voice enters (marked doux). After two solemn bars, an angry burst is heard once again, marked by a similar rise of the voice towards the upper register. All the orchestral parts hammer out the syllables uttered by Achilles, especially on the line ‘Je vous promets une prompte vengeance’. His anger reaches a paroxysm on the line ‘Je cours chercher Hector, je cours hâter sa mort’ (chromaticism for the voice, with rapid and abrupt modulations). In this final scene of the act, the composer was able to emphasize the question of Achilles’s fate: the death of Patroclus is to lead him either to victory or death. Achilles gives his own fateful augury in the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy: in his last line, ‘Ou moy-même aujourd’huy je cesserai de vivre’, one notes an unusual minor-7th descent for the voice.
A ‘just sacrifice’, forcing the royal family to buy back the body of its prince (Act 2, scenes 3–5)
The second emblematic scene derived from the Iliad (Book 24) is the purchasing of the body of Hector. Campistron disposed the episode in three scenes (70 lines), which Collasse set to music in no fewer than 246 bars.51 For Achilles, avenging Patroclus is a ‘just sacrifice’ (1.5). The beginning of the third scene corresponds to the arrival in the Greek camp of three members of the Trojan royal family: Priam, his youngest daughter Polyxena and Hector’s widow Andromache, all accompanied by a ‘Trojan retinue’. They prepare themselves to beg Achilles to return to them the body of their hero, son, husband, brother, and possibly father as well. Dictys, indeed, mentions Hector’s two young children (Astyanax is one of them) whom Andromache gets to kneel before Achilles (Book 3, ch.22). In Homer, Hector prays to Zeus for his son Astyanax, the ‘Trojan Dauphin’, to become a ruler (6.402–3). According to Nicolas Tessin le Jeune,52 the 1687 première featured ‘six living children’ (cupids, including the son of Venus) on stage next to the Cytherean goddess in the Act 1 divertissement; it is thus possible to imagine the presence of a child at this point. Comforted by a line for Andromache, the hypothesis would eloquently double the kind of ‘family pathos’ that was in the process of becoming one of Campistron’s trademarks.
The departure of the joyful, bellicose Greeks and the solemn entrance of Priam and his court are depicted in a Prelude recalling the French overture, but as though reflected in a distorting mirror (dotted notes, imitative entrances for the five orchestral parts, ternary, indication Gay, G major). Then, in C major, the composer gives Priam (basse-taille, bass clef) a sad, soft exhortation, ‘Restes infortunés’ addressed to his daughters, who, like him, need to use their tears to mollify an infamously inflexible hero. His recitative, accompanied by the five-part orchestra (in constant cut time, marked doux), is introduced by a 24-bar prelude, with its majestic, grave character and dotted rhythms (especially for the dessus de violon) recalling the traditional French overture. Priam’s subsequent intervention (followed by his court, 4.5) is introduced by an instrumental air (alla breve, C major, 32 bars), also typical of the rhythmic, dynamic canons of the French-style overture.
In his evocative music and instrumentation, Collasse has sought dialectical effects that express at once the three characters’ distress as well as their moves and gestures on stage (one of the principles of Lully’s writing), hence the trio of delicate, feminine motifs in the upper parts (probably for two flutes, but unspecified in the score) superimposed over the voice of Priam and alternating with the tutti. These motifs form a melodic and rhythmic movement that is conjunct, regular and sweet, based on parallel 3rds which render the mutual tears and graceful, affectionate gestures of Polyxena (dessus, soprano clef) and Andromache (dessus, mezzo-soprano clef). The fearful and hopeful Trojans come together in a 16-bar meditative trio in C minor, ‘Puissions-nous attendrir le cœur’ (see ex.3). After the successive entrances of the two upper voices, the trio remains homorhythmic, expressing the sacred unity of the family, as shown in the final unison and octave on the last word, a particularly symbolic one in the absolutist rhetoric, ‘vainqueur’.
The long confrontation with the ‘guerrier indomptable’ (Priam apropos Achilles, 2.5) highlights the ‘family pathos’ while prolonging the musical effects initiated in the previous scene. The prelude to this confrontation is an eight-bar sequence in duple time and trio writing, based on a rising melodic motif, with imitative entrances, harmonically dominated by parallel 3rds. The musical depiction of the Trojans on stage becomes even more manifest since the printed source at this point specifies two flute parts. The interventions of the two ‘flute princesses’ punctuate their father’s speech. Reinforcing the ardent plea, Collasse thus cleverly underlines the turning-point of the plot. Indeed, it is at the very moment when Polyxena pleads for the remains of her brother that Achilles falls in love with the princess. Here Collasse makes full use of the symbolic power of recorders,53 one of the most efficient characteristics of Lully’s instrumentation techniques, directly related to the mythological imagery as disseminated by French classical painting. This ‘Hellenic sound’54 had been put in place by Pierre Perrin, Antoine Boësset and Robert Cambert. The technique was taken up by Lully, notably in the tragicomedy and ballet of Psyché.55 Collasse’s music completely dissociates—contrary to Armide (prologue)—the sweet sound of ‘Wisdom’ (embodied by the old king and his daughters) from ‘Glory’ and its frightening warlike noise (the bellicose Achilles and his Greeks in the second scene of Act 2), reinforcing their opposition. Moreover, the composer systematically uses all the resources of the orchestra for the pleas of the Trojans (in C minor—the key of the Act 4 ‘chaconne troyenne’—with the indication doux) with a view to gaining Achilles’s compassion. Priam and Andromache sing a recitative accompanied by the five-part orchestra, while Polyxena recalls Achilles’s divine origins in a highly melodic 16-bar récitatif simple before launching the final supplication of the trio, an equally melodic récitatif accompagné. Conversely, Achilles sings in major tones (mainly in C) and in a fairly dry récitatif simple. However, when he resolves to make peace, after being struck by love (‘Suivez l’ardeur qui vous anime’), Achilles sings in the most lyrical form of récitatif accompagné (C major), that is ‘en mesure réglée’ (to borrow Sébastien de Brossard’s terminology),56 and with the same doux indication as for the three supplicants. Collasse thus uses the suggestive power of the orchestra to express the most extreme feelings and the edifying conversion of Achilles. Then in a monologue in A minor (3.2), Achilles appears musically ‘pacified’: we can observe exactly the same principle of writing that characterized the Trojan trio, here sustaining a quiet and sweet little air (in 3/2 time) preceded by a ritournelle. This emotional climax of the Iliad served as the frontispiece of the libretto published by Christophe Ballard in 1703 in his Recueil général des opéras (illus.1). The engraving corresponds to the setting specified in the libretto at the beginning of Act 2: ‘Le Théâtre représente le camp des Grecs devant Troye; Cette superbe ville paroît dans l’éloignement’.57
The divertissements, or the fight between war and peace
In the opera’s first two acts, there are two contrasting types of embassy to Achilles: that of Diomedes (1.3), Agamemnon’s envoy (Ulysses in Homer, Book 9), the two ‘Chiefs of the Greek army’ exhorting the King of Thessalia to return to the fight; and that of Priam and his daughters, motivated by grief and the desire for peace (2.3–5). Two long divertissements figure this dramatic tension between war and peace in a spectacular way. First, a ‘divertissement guerrier’ (2.2), marking the return of Achilles after his victory over Hector, is a demonstration of force on behalf of the Greek army glorifying ‘the invincible Achilles’. And there is also the ‘divertissement pacifique’ (4.5), in which the Trojans openly rejoice for the future spouses and celebrate the power of love, which makes peace possible. The predominance of these last two values is clear: out of a total of five divertissements, four sing the pleasures of love and/or peace; they are contrasted not only with the Act 2 ‘divertissement guerrier’ but also to the infernal episode (a type of ‘horrific supernatural’, to borrow Kintzler’s phrase) exalting the furies of war and vengeance associated with hatred and jealousy (3.6–7). Briseis invokes Juno/Hera (protector of the Acheans in the Iliad), who descends in her chariot, invoking Hatred, Fury, Discord and Envy, while the libretto specifies: ‘Dans le temps que les Divinitez sortent des Enfers, tout le Théâtre est obscurcy’.58 The ‘hundred various prodigies’ announced by Juno are displayed in the form of an 18-bar Air des Furies (G minor, in binary form, with repeat) corresponding to the dances of the allegories and the ‘Followers of Discord’. War is thus associated with ‘infernal night’, whereas the pastoral divertissement that follows (3.9) is linked to the ‘Sun’ and the rebirth of nature, which here symbolizes the restoration of peace.
The ‘divertissement guerrier’ (32 lines without the choral repeats, 256 bars without the repeats) shows how Campistron invents a scene by means of ‘literary expansion’—Homer had made no mention of a triumphant return. Indeed the praise Achilles receives functions as a narrative, pictorial,59 sonic, choreographic and theatrical symbol of warlike power and glory as they relate to the quasi ‘petrified’60 ‘fabrication’61 of the image of Louis XIV, of which Alceste, Thésée,62Bellérophon63 and Persée are significant testimonies. In the 1687 divertissement, this unavoidable topos of the absolute monarchy is significantly amplified and transformed: a Marche pour les trompettes in D major (in 2/2 time), in rondeau form; and a four-part male chorus (alto, tenor, baritone and bass clefs)—an unusual option (with only a few examples in Lully, in a magical or infernal context, which could be another allusion)64—to which Collasse adds full orchestral forces, including trumpets and timpani. In the prologue, the Thessalian king was already presented (twice) as ‘l’invincible Achille’ and ‘the greatest of heroes’ (1.4), ‘who always [triumphs]’ over ‘Hatred and Envy’ (1.5). This second scene of Act 2 is a concentration of absolutist rhetoric. The ‘divertissement guerrier’ comprises 30 musical sections, built on an internal extension of the rondeau principle. The form is first used in the overall structure: two large-scale choruses serving as refrains, the first ‘Guerrier terrible’ (see ex.4), initially espoused by a Greek chief, and the second ‘Chantez/Chantons la valeur et la gloire’, initially espoused by two Greek captains; this latter grand chœur returns at irregular intervals during many of the interludes, which can be called ‘rondeaux pour les trompettes’. Three gigues (including one for the voices) serve as pivots between the two rondeaux.
Collasse draws effects from both the instrumentation and the polyphonic structure. In the first rondeau, the air/chorus alternation is underlined by the alternation solo continuo/Chœur des trompettes (tutti). A less usual device, in the second, more modulating rondeau, is the multiple, irregular repetitions of the verses and refrains by the grand chœur and the duo of Greek Captains (alto clef, haute-contre; tenor clef, taille), parallel to the instrumental alternation (violins or trumpets and timpani) in the interludes. This highly elaborate ‘marche grecque triomphale en rondeau’ not only resonates like an infinite, ironical echo of the absolutist rhetoric, it also shows much sonic and staging potential which testifies to a theatrical sense at least equal to Lully’s.
The ‘divertissement pacifique’, sung and danced by the Trojans (4.5) before Arcas, Achilles’s ambassador for his marriage proposal, celebrates the power of desire and love, capable of transforming the most bellicose king into a ‘champion of peace’. It features one of the themes dear to Quinault, the link between peace and the flowering of the arts.
The imposing instrumental and vocal chaconne (24 lines, not counting the choral repetitions, 552 original bars without indications of repeat, 15 musical sections) belongs to the erotic and exotic tradition of this dance,65 and responds in a magisterial fashion to Lully’s ‘Chaconne pour la descente de Vénus’ and ‘Passacaille des Grâces et des Plaisirs’ in scenes 4–5 of Act 1 of the same opera. With its cyclical power, it introduces a suspension of time in the interest of a hope for peace between two enemy peoples. Beside being characteristic traits of Lully’s works,66 the chaconne and passacaglia (found together also in Acis et Galatée) form a group of four ground basses, along with the récitatif accompagné of Briseis ‘Qu’est devenu l’amour dont vous brûliez pour moy?’ (3.5, Collasse). This chaconne by Collasse is much more complex than those by Lully, with their simple moves to the dominant and the subdominant, their diatonic effect, and their limited ambitus. Polyxena—whose ‘charms … disarm [her] enemies’—is the object of an extended homage on the part of the Trojans, as witnessed by the air of a Trojan (haute-contre, alto clef), ‘Vos beaux yeux, adorable princesse’ (see ex.5).
There is no room here to bring to light the entire architecture of this ‘Trojan chaconne’. It will suffice to list Collasse’s principal techniques, which, while challenging the Lullian model, expressively translate in audible terms the joy, tenderness and sweetness expressed towards Polyxena while dark omens hover over the characters. Collasse utilizes every available vocal form: air, duo, trio, petit chœur and grand chœur. Their melodic profiles are characterized by a fairly wide ambitus, a tense upper register for the high voices, with clashes of 7ths caused by appoggiaturas. Oscillating between two modes of the key of C, Collasse launches into highly complex variations around two motifs for the bass, including the traditional tetrachord (descending, in C major for the first instrumental section of the chaconne): while still perceptible despite modulations (all from neighbouring keys), the ostinato is based on different harmonic cycles and exhibits rhythmic and harmonic variations (including chromatic movements). Like the ‘Greek March’, the ‘Trojan chaconne’ contains numerous interpolations67 (one of them marked Lentement et doux), except that here they are particularly long. A single ‘roulade’ (to borrow the term of Lecerf de la Viéville) in the section ‘Que l’amour est puissant sur les cœurs / Il enchaîne sans peine les plus redoutables vainqueurs’ (air and petit chœur for the Trojans) is a rare instance of imitation in a chaconne movement. Last, Collasse further stresses the tragic irony and underlines the fragile character of glory with an effect of textual symmetry:
2.2 Chefs et Soldats Grecs: ‘Que vos exploits / Fassent trembler tous les Roys’ (‘Let your glorious feats make all kings tremble’), D major
4.5 Troyens et Troyennes: ‘Un Héros dont le nom fait trembler tous [les]68 Roys’ (‘A hero whose name makes all kings tremble’), C minor
The joy and hope expressed by the Trojans are thus tainted with a sombre colour, beginning with the death, that very day, of their hero Hector; the key of C minor may also foreshadow the impending death of the hero of the other side. Life and peace alike appear utterly fragile, even as the inherent hypnotic whirl of the chaconne (ground bass, closed and repetitive forms, haunting ternary rhythm) holds back time and maintains the suspense. To the chorus and group of virile Greek warriors celebrating the glory of Achilles with their songs and dances (march, rhythmic dominance, melodic and rhythmic simplicity, military tutti, four-part male chorus), the chorus and group of Trojans of both sexes respond with their graceful songs and dances celebrating the power of love in bringing forth peace (melodically refined chaconne, complex harmony, doux indication, emphasis on the violins, four-part mixed chorus). The textual motif, previously expressed in all its male, brutal force, here takes on a feminine, melancholy, anxious and even sinister aspect. By the standards of the dramatic chaconne, as studied by Rebecca Harris-Warrick69 in the case of Roland (3.6), Campistron and Collasse here rival Quinault’s and Lully’s semantic brilliance and musical theatricality, introducing an ‘ironical distance’ underlying an ideological reversal. Collasse, described as ‘more adventurous’ by Caroline Wood,70 can even be said to surpass his master greatly in terms of the chorus and dance development on a ground bass.
The lovers’ sacrifice at the temple of Apollo, and the death of peace
The tragic destiny of the two lovers is played out on the same stage: inside and in front of the temple of Apollo, an especially symbolic setting in terms of sacrificial ritual, as can be seen both in Greek history and in Greek tragedy.71 In the Iliad, Apollo is the tutelary god of the Trojans and of Hector—whom he ultimately abandons. In the ballet de cour and French opera he is the god most often identified with Louis XIV—aged 16, in 1654, the king appeared in the part in the opening scene of Les Noces de Pélée et de Thétis. A warlike god, a sun god and the god of the arts, he became the tutelary god of the Académie royale de musique. Here, the sanctuary of Apollo witnesses the separation of the lovers. Apollo is the one ‘guiding’ Paris (offstage in Campistron as in Benserade, which underlines his furtive, shady side) towards Achilles’ heel.
In the first scene of Act 5, Priam leads his daughter there with a view to sealing on the ‘altars’ the sacred vows of her marriage to Achilles. A chorus and troupe of Greeks follow Achilles and Arcas, while a chorus and troupe of Trojans (including ‘Trojan girls’) follow Priam and Polyxena; all rejoice in a divertissement (A minor, 296 bars without the repeats) over the impending union (5.3). At Priam’s urging, the two peoples ‘join their voices’ to ‘sing the virtues and happiness of Achilles’. One final time, a ‘trio of flutes’ is heard in a rondeau, a sad and melancholy echo of the one in Act 2, after which Achilles and Polyxena sing the only duet of the opera (A minor, 18 bars), ‘Ne perdons plus de précieux moments’. Just before the offstage murder of Achilles, a furious Briseis appears: ‘Mon amour outragé demande une victime, Courons, courons l’immoler ou périr’ (scene 4). The fifth scene includes the following stage direction: ‘Briséis, Choeur de Grecs qui sortent en désordre du Temple d’Apollon, Arcas’.72 Greeks among the ‘Followers of Achilles’ (in the middle ground), terrified by the death of their hero, form the grand chœur in A major, ‘Fuyons, fuyons une mort certaine / Nous n’avons plus de défenseur’, which Collasse sets in 2/2 time and with a quick, descending motif with imitative entrances. The atomization of chorus members on stage (resulting from the panic of the Greeks), whereas the two peoples were previously united, may be an inverted reference to the three well-structured choral groups of Persée (4.1, ‘Courons, courons tous admirer / Le vainqueur de Méduse’), in which the Ethiopians eagerly pay homage to Perseus; we can also take note of the common textual repetition and rhyme, in addition to the word already used by Briseis.
The failure of peace is thus postponed to the very end of the tragedy, with the death of Achilles (off- stage, like the deaths of Patroclus and Hector) and the suicide of the princess; this single violent scene in the opera was a novelty at the Académie royale de musique. Her ultimate soliloquy ‘Va punir les Troyens’ brings the opera to an abrupt close (5.7). Here Campistron follows the modern tragic psychology embodied by his master, Racine, who restored the ‘fashion’ of soliloquies. Polyxena’s feelings towards Achilles come through powerfully. At no time is she treated as an accomplice in Paris’s crime, by contrast with ancient sources (Dyctis, for one) or neoclassical ones (like Benserade). She is therefore a pure heroine, prompted by amorous despair, who chooses to sacrifice herself with full consent in order to remain faithful to the manes (soul) of Achilles, thus becoming an expiatory victim for his murder. This exemplar of a ‘heroic suicide’ may evoke the cult of the ‘courageous woman’ lauded by Jesuits during the Counter-Reformation.73 The idea of ‘feminine glory’ which Polyxena stands for (‘Ah! n’est-il pas moins glorieux / De le venger que de le suivre?’, 5.7) may be compared to the attempts by Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, a major figure of ‘culture mondaine’, to subvert the absolutist ideology in its very stereotypes throughout her own ‘Contes de fées’, as Anne E. Duggan has shown.74 In this monologue of Polyxena, no mention is made of a ‘stage’ apparition of Achilles’s shade: the infernal image is conveyed through the sole voice of the princess. At a paroxysm of fright (anapaests scanned with long musical values), Polyxena imagines she sees ‘her husband on the infernal bank’, an ‘angry Shade’ whose cries she can hear (a dialogue and ‘noise’ rendered in the orchestra with a repetitive rhythm, swift rising figurations for the upper violins and various notated variations of intensity—fort, doux). In this final soliloquy for Polyxena in récitatif accompagné, Collasse, once again, uses orchestral textures (as he does in the dialogue with Briseis); he is evidently the first modern composer to do without writing for strings in five parts (with a ‘modern’ arrangement in four parts). In similar passages (for instance, the final monologue of Armide, 5.5), Lully always maintained the five orchestral parts, with the violas divided into three inner parts.75 In the last ten bars of the opera, it can be seen that the disposition of the parts, with that low Ey for the Tailles (which in five parts would no doubt be played by the Quintes), was indeed conceived for four. It is not writing in five that would be missing a part. Very rarely did the Dessus play on the fourth string. The low arrangement of the orchestra on ‘Je meurs’ makes complete sense.
After Achille et Polyxène and until 1732, 26 tragédies en musique out of the 62 staged at the Académie royale de musique during the same period were based on epic cycles, 21 of them on the Trojan cycle taken in a broad sense. This choice of critical moments of the Trojan War is significant in this period when absolute monarchy was declining, a period otherwise referred to as ‘the end of the performative phase’ of the reign of Louis XIV (as Jean-Marie Apostolidès phrases it). By 1687 the king was confronted with the human, economic and religious disasters of his bellicose European policies, which could have led him to reflect on the fragility of power and life and on human destiny. These universal questions were, in any event, in the minds of authors of operas such as Campistron, Lully and Collasse, who in this work gave a new emotional power to the genre of the tragédie en musique. They did so by combining sensuous and aesthetic pleasure and a moral lesson, in which the divertissements take an active part, since their rituals of celebration carry the strongest message of the libretto: essentially a protest, it is part of an ‘anti-war’ trend already evidenced in the theatre under Louis XIII.76 This counter-ideology was all the more remarkable since, as Jean Rohou has pointed out, ‘absolutism is an anti-humanist religion’.77 As Georgia Cowart has noted, the ‘literature of protest’ grew in intensity in that period.78 In Achille et Polyxène, as its character of a moral warning shows, the ideological reversal reveals a sophisticated protest model, more so by necessity than that in the operas staged in the Venetian Republic in the 17th century, which ‘show with an obvious didactic intention the abuses and crimes of tyranny’.79 Already in 1672, Quinault, in a sonnet published in his collection À la gloire de Louis le Grand, warned Louis XIV by using the figure of Achilles.80 Perrault, for his part, reminded Louis XIV in his ‘Harangue pour la paix’ (1678)81 that war was not inevitable and that peace, in order to be durable, demanded ‘heroic virtues’ that ‘VÔTRE MAJESTÉ’ could exhibit in addition to all others. Nine years later, and after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the authors of Achille et Polyxène achieved a solemn and edifying invocation to peace in the context of the revival of Préciosité in the Vendôme circle. The ‘Sun King’ remained all the more deaf to the 1687 supplication as he failed to attend a performance of the opera. But the image of absolute power on which the official historiography rested was fissured thanks to the use of tragic irony based on a constant manipulation of the topoi and canons of the Lullian tragédie en musique.
In the opening dialogue of his Parallèles des Anciens et des Modernes,82 published from 1688 onwards, Perrault went on to denounce wars and their ravages, which caused nations to decline culturally and economically. In Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699), Fénelon extolled the art of making peoples happy by avoiding wars and creating the conditions of prosperity.83 The ideal of the enlightened monarch, full of self-control, magnanimous and loved by his subjects, was contrasted with the figure of the tyrant. Like Fénelon himself, Quinault,84 Lully and Campistron experienced the rigours of Louis XIV’s disfavour and censorship.
Hopes that the ‘War King’ might at last become a ‘Peace King’ like the ‘sage’ and ‘generous’85 Achilles thus had to be transferred to the monarch’s only surviving legitimate child, the Grand Dauphin, protector of free-thinking and humanist milieus. Campistron’s Christian reinterpretation of the Augustan virtues sung by Virgil86 comforted the Grand Dauphin’s benevolent image. Louis XIV’s son, who, unlike his father, regularly attended opera performances, was thus invited to witness the decline and the renaissance of the figure of the hero. Was the Académie royale de musique thus an early site of the struggle ‘against the absolutism of despotic kings’ and for the promotion of the ‘positive civilizing hero’? Does this tragédie en musique, a precursor of the political stakes of opera seria, render the ‘myth of the clement prince’ compatible with the ‘myth of freedom’?87 In 1715, the abbé Terrasson stated, in any case, that ‘the opera [is] generally more useful to princes than the tragedy’,88 and viewed this type of spectacle as a vehicle for moral instruction.
Achilles and Polyxena, broken by their fatal destinies and vain sacrifices, could thus be seen as ‘tragic pacifist heroes’. While emphasizing the Epicurean happiness associated with the values of freedom, this opera is characterized by its pessimism, or at least a profound disillusion concerning the human soul.89 However, in the Homeric tradition, which Campistron faithfully observed, the Iliad leaves room for hope, embodied by Aeneas, about whom Poseidon predicts that the hero and his children’s children will rule the Trojans (Iliad, 7.478; 20.306–8). Power having been transferred to the junior branch of the Aeneads, Ascanius would thus be the ‘second Trojan Dauphin’, who, unlike Astyanax, will be saved. Aeneas, precisely, was chosen by Fontenelle and Collasse as the hero of their Énée et Lavinie, premiered at the Académie royale de musique on 16 December 1690.
Despite censorship, a spirit of critical reason and ideological freedom are at work in this opera, reflecting the creative independence of its three authors. Free at last from the yoke of Louis XIV, who had lost interest in opera to the point of tolerating in it a degree of subversion, they were also free of the yoke of its model, regular tragedy, a genre that was even being rejuvenated under the influence of operatic poetry; and Collasse himself was also free of the yoke of Lully, who had held on to his monopoly on tragédie en musique until his dying breath. Campistron, reinterpreting the Iliad in a modern, highly efficient way, and Collasse manifested their aesthetic freedom by appropriating works, scenes and styles that served above all the purposes of opera, without being inconvenienced or shackled by literary and operatic tradition or Neoclassical and Baroque conventions. In this respect they were innovators.
We should not be surprised that the tragédie en musique Thétis et Pélée (1689)90 by Bernard de Fontenelle91 and Collasse was one of the greatest triumphs in the repertory of the Académie royale de musique, with numerous revivals, even beyond 1750,92 an opera that actually predicted the birth of the hero Achilles (3.7–8). With their portrayal of three Thessalian kings, Alceste, Achille et Polyxène and Thétis et Pélée form a trilogy—a tetralogy with Énée et Lavinie thrown in—particularly rich for the future development of opera.
Translated by Vincent Giroud