- Comédie lyrique in 3 acts
- Composer: André Danican Philidor
- Libretto: Antoine Poinsinet & Bertin Davesne, after Henry Fielding; revised by Michel Jean Sedaine
- First performed: Comédie-Italienne, Paris, 27 February 1763; revised 30 January 1766
André Danican Philidor was both the greatest chess player of his day, and one of the fathers of the opéra-comique. Tom Jones (1765), an adaptation of Fielding’s picaresque 1749 novel, is considered his best work. Some critics even consider it the best opéra-comique.
“A profound musician,” Grétry wrote after Philidor’s death (Mercure français, 1795), “he was the first to bring to the French stage the melodious accents of the Italians combined with the strength of German harmony and genius.”
Philidor, Bonnet (1921) argued, began composing at the moment when two artistic currents clashed; his originality was to ally the almost contradictory qualities of both styles; he yielded to new tendencies, without denying ancient traditions. To the theatre-going public, he offered a living music, expressing the verve and gaiety, the tenderness and love of everyday people. At the same time, he preserved the old national characteristics: firmness of line, purity of expression, sobriety of accent, harmonic and instrumental innovation.
He was, Rushton (1976) claims, a decisive influence in the shift of French taste towards the Italian-based lingua franca of the rest of musical Europe, and raised opéra comique from a primitive condition to an art of real sophistication. His orchestration was more elaborate, his vocal style more expressive, inspired by Italian models, Kaminski (2003) argues.
“Nearly every one, even of his lightest comic operas,” Allen (1863) wrote, “gives evidence, not merely of originality in general, but also of novel improvement in the details – some unprecedented combination of the voices, some expressive ingenuity of rhythm, some bold innovation in managing the scanty resources of his orchestra. So far, in fact, was Philidor in advance of his countrymen, in his genius for instrumentation, that he even anticipated some of the effects, which are the glory of the great German school.” That said, some listeners found his scores ‘too noisy’ – “for such was the name given to a dramatic employment of the instruments, by those who had been accustomed to hear them only as an inexpressive accompaniment: Philidor was ‘noisy,’ in short, because he anticipated Gluck in making his orchestra, what Horace would have his Chorus, one of his dramatis personae.”
Philidor’s family had been court musicians since the time of Louis XIII (1610–43). His father was Louis XIV’s musician of the royal chapel and librarian; his elder brother, oboist at the Grande Ecurie, founded the Concert Spirituel.
Born in 1726, the young Philidor studied with Campra (composer of Tancrède) at Versailles, and composed his first motet at 12. Around this time, he learnt to play chess. He lived in in London for a decade; there, he once played three games simultaneously, with his back to the board, and beat his opponents. His monumental Analyse des échecs, the standard text for more than a century, was published in 1749.
On his return to France in 1754, he took up opera seriously. During his travels, he had learnt the Neapolitan style of opera. He composed his first opéra-comiques with Sedaine: Blaise le savetier (1759) and L’huître et les plaideurs (1759), both based on La Fontaine. Clément called Blaise the work of a more skillful contrapuntist than French composers of his generation – but thought neither work of great merit.
Philidor achieved his first success with Le Maréchal ferrant (1761), performed more than 200 times. The harmony was treated with exceptional skill, and the tunes were often interesting. Le Sorcier (1764) was another hit; Philidor and his librettist were called onstage to receive applause; before them, only Voltaire had received such an honour. A one-act reduction was performed in 1869, and still pleased the public.
Tom Jones, on the other hand, was a flop; it closed after only six performances. Clément thought only Philidor’s music saved Poinsinet and Daverne’s bad adaptation from a complete fiasco.
The librettists had reduced Fielding’s sprawling novel (18 books, nearly 347,000-words) into a little opéra comique. The story takes place among the huntin’ shootin’ gentry of Somerset. Tom Jones, a foundling, has been brought up by the blustering Squire Western and his formidable sister (ancestress of the Oscar Wilde dowager parts). Jones loves Sophia, daughter of Western’s neighbor Allworthy, but their elders arrange a marriage between Sophia and Allworthy’s loathsome nephew Blifil. Jones is banished, and starts to make his way to London. On the way, he stops at an inn; there, the lawyer Dowling reveals that he is really Allworthy’s nephew, and Blifil’s elder brother. With no restrictions of class or legitimacy, Jones and Sophia are free to marry, with their relatives’ blessing.
The opera is considerably toned down from the novel. Many of the characters and episodes are missing, as is the sexual frankness. Here, Tom is an amiable youth, but not Fielding’s lusty roisterer (no rolls in the hay, or bedding women who may be his mother). Born out of wedlock in the novel, Philidor’s character is the product of a secret marriage – a sop to bourgeois sensibilities.
Sedaine revised the work; its performance on 30 January 1766 was the greatest triumph in Philidor’s operatic career. It was soon performed throughout Europe (1766: Geneva, Brussels, Dresden; 1767: Amsterdam; 1768: Vienna; 1769: Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Lübeck; 1776: Florence; 1778: Turin; 1779: Hamburg). Hailed as “le plus bel ouvrage qui soit au théâtre”, it was performed 124 times at the Opéra-Comique between 1771 and 1780.
Kaminski believes Tom Jones marks the evolution of the opéra-comique towards greater feeling, inspired by tragic models. Bonnet called it probably the masterpiece of the French opéra-comique repertoire. It is a true bourgeois comedy, where lifelike characters express sincere feelings in an almost plausible intrigue, passing through moods from exuberant gaiety to poignant sadness. He praises the freshness of its tunes, the fullness and delicacy of its harmony, the picturesque instrumentation, and the variety of sentiments – an ensemble of qualities he says one searches for in vain in all the French or Italian opéra-comique.
His praise is rather overstated, partly because he detests 19th century opéra-comique (facile, vulgar, and Italianate). Tom Jones is an agreeable little opera, but the score, to my ears, lacks the variety and invention – the comic wit – of Monsigny or Grétry, let alone Auber or Boieldieu. Most of the numbers are arias; the notable ones include Squire Western’s hunting song “D’un cerf dix cors” (which Clément thought better than the similar aria in Meyerbeer’s Pardon de Ploërmel); Tom’s “Vous voulez que je vous oublie”; and Sophie’s almost Mozartean “Ô toi qui ne peut m’entendre”.
Tom Jones is also one of the earliest French opéra-comiques to use finales and ensembles. Grétry hailed Philidor as the inventor of musical numbers with several subjects or rhythms; to him, the duet “Que les devoirs que tu m’imposes” was the best in this genre. Act II ends with a septet where the principals express their varying feelings (outrage, triumph, thwarted love, concern), while Act III opens with the first a cappella ensemble in French opera. Innovative as these were at the time, I prefer the ensembles in Monsigny’s Roi et fermier.
There are two recordings of Tom Jones: an English language version performed at Sweden’s Drottningholm Theatre, 1995; and a provincial French recording (Lausanne, 2006), conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire.
Philidor’s tragédie lyrique Ernelinde, princesse de Norvège (1767) “marked an epoch”, in the opinion of Pierre-Louis Ginguené (1777); it was “the first in our theatres to replace the archaic and soporific French psalmody by simply declaimed recitative, and by arias, duets, trios and other pieces of measured music in the Italian style”. Praised by Berlioz, Rushton considers it “probably the most important work staged at the Paris Opéra between Rameau and Gluck”. The opera has not been recorded.
More opéras-comiques and tragedies-lyriques, many unsuccessful, followed. During the Revolution, Philidor escaped to London in 1792, and died there in 1795. His works disappeared from the stage.
“The death of Philidor coincided with the dark days immediately following the Terror,” Bonnet wrote. “The torrent of the Revolution had engulfed the subtle and refined society which the author of Tom Jones had been able to please, and never were mentalities more different, more diametrically opposed, than those of the two generations separated by the great upheaval. Nothing that delighted the first could the second love. Philidor’s art had too well expressed the discreet and fine sensibility of the ancien régime to please the heirs of the regicides, the ideologues in love with antiquity, any more than, in the years that followed, the fiery apostles of Romanticism or the somewhat leaden bourgeoisie of the July Monarchy…. Those who appreciated the flat opéra-comique of the 19th century could no longer savour the delicate and firm art of a Philidor.”
- George Allen, The Life of Philidor: Musician and Chess-Player, Philadelphia: E.H. Butler & Co., 1863
- George-Edgar Bonnet, Philidor et l‘évolution de la musique française au XVIIIè siècle, Paris : Librairie Delagrave, 1921
- Félix Clément, Les Musiciens célèbres du seizième siècle à nos jours, Paris : Hachette, 1868
- Félix Clément, Dictionnaire des opéras, 1869
- Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
- Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
- Julian Rushton, “Philidor and the Tragédie Lyrique”, The Musical Times, Vol. 117, No. 1603 (September 1976), pp. 734–37