Four major french cantatas

Music and Myth.

Myth, in its seeming simplicity, unites the multiple forces of the soul in a single enduring bond. Every myth is human drama in condensed form. —Gaston Bachelard.

Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Monsieur Jourdain, inquires of his music and dancing masters: “Why always shepherds? One sees nothing but shepherds everywhere!” Are some of our contemporaries startled by the omnipresence in European art from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment of themes and characters drawn from Greco-Roman mythology? Not unlike their illustrious predecessor, they may well wonder: “Why always gods?”

But like Monsieur Jourdain’s dancing master, we would reply that “it is scarcely natural that prince and bourgeois should sing their passions.” What, after all, could have been more appropriate than to breathe life into the gods, goddesses and heroes whose adventures stand as one of the greatest triumphs of the human imagination?

Be it in the guise of philosophical allegory, of fabulous tale, be it as justification of custom or explanation of natural phenomena, the divinities of Greco-Roman mythology charm us with the wisdom of their insights into human affairs, reveal to us the moral component of destiny, and display an unerring grasp of fatality as they float above the mêlée where the forces of good meet those of evil, reason meets folly.

The grammar — to employ Bachelard’s term — which they elucidate for us is at once precise and open-ended, for it is a grammar which confers upon the poets, artists and musicians who wield it an enormous liberty. With more intensity than in the lives of saints, whose miracles are set forth in The Golden Legend, the summits of Olympus reveal to us a wealth of imaginable situations, an all-embracing catalogue of loves and adventures, each one embellished in the telling and re-telling by the ancient poets, from Homer to Euripides, from Pausanias to Ovid. No rigid unity subsumes this corpus of marvellous tales; unlike the mythologies of other civilizations, the terror and obtuseness of the irrational remain uninvoked.

The gods they place before us are human, all too human, replete with their small-mindedness and vulgarity, their rivalries, their courage and generosity, keeping company with mere mortals such as we. Projected onto the inhabitants of the divine sphere, such extolling of the human dimension could not but flatter the nascent humanism of the Renaissance. For, since the 16th century, the countless representations and uses of this complex of situations, symbols and allegories had coalesced into an organized language, understood by any even moderately literate individual.

The climactic point in this, the rebirth of the gods of antiquity, can be located at the end of the 17th century, in France. Louis XIV, he of impeccable “Christian” credentials, was, perhaps more even than the emperors of Rome, surrounded by these divinities without believing in them, in the religious sense. But by expeditiously converting them into instruments of his power, by personifying Apollo, Mars or Hercules, he transformed his court into a simulacrum of Olympus, with its soft delights and its fleeting regrets.

At Versailles, all could enter into the universe of fable; its gardens were laid out as a symbolic or poetic structure, in which myth, trimmed and sculpted, is set out in predetermined order. Music became an enthusiastic participant in the act of resurrection. Lully, in his operas, depicts Alcestes triumphing over the netherworld, Phæton thrown from the chariot of the sun, or Atys changed into a pine, while the voices of Monsieur Jourdain’s shepherds come to us from Arcadia, or from the Elysian fields.

The French chamber cantata can best be understood as an opera in miniature, in which a small number of instruments accompany a voice which plays, by turns, both narrator and protagonist. Beginning in the early eighteenth century, the cantata makes its own the adventures and allegories of myth, relegating them more frequently than not to the genre of amorous intrigue, in properly expurgated versions. Following the death of the Sun King the gods, shorn of their divinity and their power, begin to assume human attributes, to emulate the bourgeois. Minor poets such as Chapelier, Roy, Danchet or Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, conclude their cantata texts with a “lovers’ maxim,” an encapsulation of gallant morality or good council for the amorous life.

Though the use of mythology for praise of the heroic virtues had become rarer, everyone, by the grace of music, could recognize, in the events and relations which have existed since time immemorial, the events and relations of his or her own life; the daily, thus transubstantiated, acquired a transient taste of the universal.

Pan et Syrinx, by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, and Léandre et Héro, by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, set to music amorous episodes tinged with grief. Syrinx is a nymph who, seeking refuge from the persistent advances of Pan, appeals for help from Diana, who transforms her into a reed; Leander dies a watery death as he attempts to reach Hero by swimming the Hellespont. The mythical musicians of antiquity are brought back to life in Orphée and Arion. Orpheus descends into Hades to recover his Euridice; accompanying his pleas with the sounds of his lyre, he touches the heart of the gods of the underworld, and obtains permission to return with his beloved to the world of life. Clérambault’s cantata is a musical setting of this happy episode. It ends just before Orpheus looses Euridice once more, having turned to look upon her, in violation of Pluto’s binding condition for her safe conduct.

Free of all amorous considerations, André Campra’s Arion extolls, too, the powers of music. The narrative voice relates how Arion, whose mutinous crew fully intends to kill him and abscond with his ship and goods, is saved when the chords of his lyre enchant a passing dolphin, which “like a living vessel” delivers him to “safe anchor.” The happy end of Arion’s ordeal should come as scant surprise. “The power of Campra’s music,” wrote his contemporary, La Condamine, “can be felt by the animals themselves.” Even in our day, mythology is far from dead. In fact, it can be found everywhere, from works of high creative intensity to advertising jingles, and in everyday sayings often barely understood.

The nineteenth century blundered its clichés about with a preciousness bereft of meaning; our era, with a helping hand from psychology, has reinvested with new significance the myths which fascinate us still. Those among us who remain indifferent to, perhaps even annoyed by fables, should allow the painters and musicians of centuries past to make Ovid’s boast their own: “Be not concerned by these pieces of nonsense; I shall so embellish them that you will find them irresistible.”

© François Filiatrault Translation: Fred A. Reed