Those Pompous French

[Lully, Overture to Armide]

Opera in France was a completely different beast than its Italian cousin, with the glorification of state power front and center in its expressive agenda. Indeed, Taruskin writes: “Authority is what French music was all about, and Lully’s operas above all. They were the courtiest court operas that ever were.” (II, 86)

But they also represented a very particular, nay, a very French sort of political power. The French overture, a representative sample of which can be seen in the clip above, employed a distinctive, dotted rhythmic figure that quickly turned into “a universal code for pomp” all over Europe. (II, 91) National stereotypes, as invidious as they are, often have their origins in social reality, and Lully’s France provided plenty of cultural material for the essentialization of French culture by les étrangers and the French alike. For hundreds of years after the composition of these court operas, if a continental composer wanted to simulate Frenchness or simply represent a mood of stylized pomp, they simply had to draw on the musical techniques established by Lully and his cohorts.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the sound of Lully’s baton still reverberates around the world. Today, over 300 years later, people continue to associate the French with pomposity and conceit, daintiness and delicacy (as well as negative, gendered qualities like “prissiness” and “effeminacy”). The fine French restaurant is a stock setting for comedies, imbued as the location is with a prim formality just begging to be subverted; John Kerry was mocked for his ability to speak French (though those who believe a Francophile incapable of showing foreign policy muscle is clearly ignorant of Napoleonic history); and jokes about French cultural elitism are familiar to every American middle schooler (and many European kids too, I’m told). It’s fascinating, therefore, that some of these stereotypes established themselves as early as they did and were reinforced by musical practices.

Why is it that French culture, then as now, connotes arrogance to many people? Is there an inherently pompous quality to the French overture or was it simply seized upon as a representation of an already pompous court/culture/social ritual?

1 Comment

  1. the legacy of the ancien regime and the attendant centralization of political power in France contrasts with the city-state commercial centers of early modern italy.

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