Rousseau, Jean Jacques



This French philosopher, known far better for his writings than for his musical work, was born at Geneva, and was entirely self-taught in music, not beginning to study it till he was grown. The effect of this desultory work is evident in the mediocre harmonic structure of his most successful opera, Le Devin du Village, produced at the Grand Opera, Paris, when the composer was forty years of age. It was, 'however, melodious and spontaneous, and won such favor that it was repeatedly performed in France for sixty years. Rousseau's entrance into the musical arena took place in 1742, when he read before the Academy of Sciences in Paris his paper advocating a new system of musical notation by figures, which was published the next year as Dissertation sur la Musique Moderne, later translated into English and published in London, 1771 and 1779. His first opera, Les Muses Galantes, was composed in 1745, but performed only in private, and was criticized at this time by Rameau, who was present, as being exceedingly uneven, exhibiting in parts real musical mastery, and in others " the ignorance of a schoolboy." His next undertaking was to write the musical articles in Diderot's Encyclopedia, which he completed in three months, and which were also severely criticized by Rameau and other musicians. Nothing daunted, Rousseau corrected these articles, and enlarged and published them in 1768 as his Dictionnaire de Musique. The same year in which his opera, Le Devin du Village, was so successfully produced he became prominent in the controversy between the adherents of French and of Italian Opera, known as the Guerre des Bouffons. Rousseau sided with the Italian School, and attacked French music and musicians in the abstract, with such bitter satire in "Lettre sur la Musique Franchise," that it seems not improbable that personal animosity and a desire for revenge on his old-time critics prompted it to a great extent. The members of the Grand Opera retaliated by burning Rousseau in effigy, and he immediately retorted with a Lettre d'un Symphoniste de TAcademje Royale de Musique a ses Camarades de 1'Orchestre. The battle was waged so fiercely that there is little reason to wonder that Rousseau found it necessary to be reconciled to life, which he has often been quoted as saying the music of his favorite Gluck had accomplished. This admiration of Gluck was expressed in some of his later writings, and he retracted some of the extreme statements made about French music in the publication of 1753. His Essai sur 1'Origine des Langues contained chapters on harmony, on ancient Greek music, and on analogy between sound and color; his other writings on music would consume too much space to enumerate here. He was more than sixty years old when his melodrama, Pygmalion, a type of opera created by him, was successfully produced in Paris. He also wrote six new arias for Le Devin du Village; about one hundred romances and duets, collected under the title Les Consolations Miseres de Ma Vie, and fragments of an opera, Daphnis et Chloe, were all published after his death; but none of his works has survived the test of time. Considering, however, his lack of musical training and balance, the influence he exerted on French music during his lifetime was remarkable. He died at Ermenonville, near Paris.