137. Le Devin du village (Rousseau)

  • Opéra-comique pastoral in 1 act
  • Text & music : Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • First performed : Fontainebleau, before the court, 18 October 1752. Publicly: Académie Royale de Musique (1re salle du Palais-Royal), 1 March 1753.

Berlioz loathed the opera; Bertrand Russell loathed the philosopher. Both with reason – which Rousseau, of course, abominated.

The man was a scoundrel.  He amused himself by pissing in old ladies’ kettles, and flashing passers-by.  He let an innocent servant girl be accused of a theft he committed; took advantage of his friend’s epileptic fit to abandon him; and put his newly born children into an orphanage.  But he felt guilty afterwards, so that’s alright.

And feelings were what mattered: sentiment and subjectivity, rather than clever people doing clever things cleverly.  Civilization, cosmopolitanism, reason– arts and sciences – Rousseau hated them all.  Metallurgy and agriculture?  “It is iron and wheat that have civilized men and ruined the human races.”  Totalitarian, war-mongering Sparta was better than intellectual, democratic Athens.  He extolled the virtues of the rural life, and preferred simple country folk (preferably illiterate) to sophisticated city dwellers.  “Never,” Voltaire retorted, “was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid.”

Rousseau detested French opera.  He lambasted the genre in his Lettre sur la musique françoise (1753).  French singing was “a kind of undulating plainchant that has nothing agreeable in and of itself, but pleases only when arbitrary ornaments are added, and only to those who are predisposed to find it beautiful…

“The languorous quality of our French language makes it inflexible to our voices and a funeral tone perpetually reigns in our Opera and gives to all of our solos in French a slow tempo in which the eat can be felt in neither the melody, nor the bass, nor the accompaniment.  Nothing is so inert, so lazy, or so languorous as these beautiful solos that everyone admires while yawning.  They attempt to touch the heart, but only afflict the ears.”

He concluded: “French song is only a continual squealing, intolerable to every unbiased ear; French harmony is brutish, without expression and suggests nothing other than the filler material of a rank beginner; the French ‘air’ is not an air at all; and the French recitative is not at all a recitative.  From all this I conclude that the French do not have music, and that if they ever do have it, it will be all the worse for them.”

For this, he was burnt in effigy.  We have endured the formulaic works of Lully and his imitators, and Rameau’s tragedies – and agree with Rousseau that Italian music is superior, with its beautiful, sweet melodies.

When Rousseau wrote his own opera, it was to Pergolesi’s Serva padrona he turned as a model.  It was the antithesis of tragédie lyrique: “Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns; nothing with gods, nothing with fate; nothing that’s Greek.”

Instead, an hour of bucolic inanity. The shepherdess Colette is unhappy.  Her boyfriend, another shepherd, Colin, has abandoned her for the lady of the manor.  The village soothsayer advises her to flirt with other men, and seem indifferent to Colin; he will return.  She does; he does.  The opera ends with general rejoicing; in the full version, a 35-minute divertissement of clodhopping ballet and choral singing.

1962 Swiss telefilm

Rousseau’s inspiration is uneven. Despite some charming tunes, the work is much too long for its meagre content. The better pieces are the lively overture; Colette’s aria, “J’ai perdu mon bonheur”, the opera’s hit number; the duet for the reunited lovers; and Colin’s ariette “Dans ma cabane obscure”.

Most of the score, though, is musically thin; many numbers have no clear musical idea, or are pushed well beyond their proper length; Colette’s “Avec l’objet de mes amours” is interminable.  And yet by comparison to earlier French opera, le Devin sounds more tuneful.

The piece was first performed at Fontainebleau, before Louis XV and his court.  It was, Rousseau remembered, very badly acted, but the music was well sung and executed.  “From the first scene, which is of a truly touching naïveté, I heard a murmur of surprise and applause rise up in the boxes, hitherto unheard of in this kind of piece.”

It wasn’t Rousseau’s first musical effort. Unable to write down the merest vaudeville, he once passed himself off as a composer he admired; stole his music, affixed a popular minuet, and performed it at a concert.

“Never since the first days of French opera, never in all the world, has such a cacophony been heard,” Rousseau recalled in his Confessions.  “Whatever people had thought about my claims to talent, the reality was far worse, it seemed, than anything they had expected.  The musicians were choking with mirth; the audience sat wide-eyed but unable, as they would have liked, to shut their ears.  The orchestral players, determined to have their fun by tormenting me, scraped away fit to burst the eardrums of a Quinze-vingt…  As my only consolation, I could hear the remarks which the audience were murmuring to each other, but which were meant for me: ‘It’s beyond endurance!’ said one of them; ‘What insane music!’ said another; ‘What an infernal racket!’ said a third.

“Poor Jean-Jacques; little did you know at this cruel moment that one day your music, performed before the King of France and his entire court, would inspire murmurs of surprise and applause, and that in all the boxes round about you the loveliest women would be whispering to each other ‘What a charming sound! What enchanting music! It goes straight to the heart!’”

Charles Cambon’s sketch for an 1855 production

Louis XV himself hummed “J’ai perdu mon bonheur” in what Rousseau called the most out-of-tune voice in his kingdom, and offered the composer a life pension.  His mistress Mme de Pompadour sang the role of Colin in a private production at her Bellevue estate, while the opera was performed at the wedding of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  That queen, fond of playing at dainty shepherdesses at Trianon, sang Colette in 1780.

Jacques-Emile Lavigne as Colin, 1811

Le Devin remained in the repertoire of the Académie royale for 60 years, until 1829 – when someone threw a perruque onto the stage.  (Berlioz, suspected, denied it was he.)  Félix Clément put its enduring popularity down to jobbery.  Rousseau lived in the midst of people of finance who could pull strings at the Opéra.  Francoeur, director of the Académie de musique, and the singer Jélyotte were the cronies of Rousseau’s one-time friend Mme d’Epinay, Mme d’Houdetot, and the family of the Live de Bellegarde.  These circumstances, Clément argued, explain why the Devin was able to be mounted at the Opéra, and supported at first by a coterie influential enough to make it a success.  Later, the work was maintained in the repertoire by force of habit and routine.

Certainly, the 19th century had little time for Rousseau’s once popular opera.  Berlioz savaged “the sickly little songs, the feeble-minded little falalas, the vapid rondos, solos, pastorals, and inanities of every description that his wretched little one-act opera is concocted of”. Clément judged it a mediocre work that would have been long forgotten if Rousseau hadn’t written it.  “The subject of the poem is one of the blandest of the bland bergeries, without characters or dramatic emotions.  As for the melodies, they have a stamp of simplicity and awkwardness which denotes at the same time a complete inexperience in the art of writing music, and an instinct for expressing feelings with the help of sounds.  But all this is rudimentary.  As much as the melody is badly prosodised, badly accentuated, so much the harmony is poor, lame, and incorrect.”

We are about to leap forward to the 1760s; French opera is about to turn the corner, and become great. Opéra-comique and Gluck are on their way. And the next review, of a French opera, will be entirely positive!


Further reading

  • Hector Berlioz, Mémoires, 1870
  • Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869.  [Online]
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, 1789.
  • Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, 1945.

Suggested recordings

  • Janine Micheau (Colette), Nicolai Gedda (Colin), Michel Roux (le Devin), with Louis de Froment, 1956.  CPO.
  • Gabriela Bürgler (Colette), Michael Feyfar (Colin), Dominik Wörner (le Devin), with Andreas Reize conducting the Cantus Firmus Consort, 2006.  CPO.
  • Caroline Mutel (Colette), Cyrille Dubois (Colin), Frédéric Caton (le Devin), with Sébastien d’Hérin conducting Les Nouveaux Caractères.  Versailles, 2017.  Château de Versailles.

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