In the mid-eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most important French philosophers of the time, wrote Lettre sur la musique francaise (Letter on French Music) in response to the musical debate pitting French music against Italian music. In the first part of this paper, an attempt will be made to explain both Rousseau’s argument for so heavily criticizing the music of his people and what elements of Italian music he prefers; in the second half, an endeavor will be made to defend Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s opera against Rousseau’s criticism by examining an excerpt from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Arcie.
In his letter, Rousseau seeks to determine whether France actually possesses its own music by explaining some experiments he conducted concerning “which of the two languages [Italian or French] is by its nature adapted to the best kind of music.” In one experiment, Rousseau gave some Italians “the most beautiful airs of Lully to sing” and he gave some French some Italian airs to sing. He observed that the Italian airs were melodious, agreeable, and well-cadenced, but that the French airs—while sung with the greatest exactness—were merely a series of notes set down almost randomly. In another experiment, Rousseau observed an Armenian man who had never heard any music listen to both a French monologue and an Italian air that were sung. Rousseau noted that “during the French song the Armenian showed more surprise than pleasure, but everybody observed that from the first bars of the Italian air his face and his eyes grew soft; he was enchanted; he surrendered his soul to the impressions of the music; and though he understood little of the language, the mere sounds visibly enraptured him.”
Rousseau identifies three things which seem to him to unite in contributing to the perfection of Italian melody: the softness of the language; the boldness of the modulations; and, most importantly, the extreme exactness of time. The first “makes all the inflections easy” and allows for the singer’s unique characterization of style and variety. Because the second is more perceptible, it is more pleasing and adds a “lively energy to the expression.” The third and final thing—the one which gives to melody its greatest effect—makes the singing animated and interesting and the accompaniments lively and rhythmical. These three things, Rousseau writes, are the sources from which Italian music derives its charms and its energy. Italian composers incorporate these into their works by adhering to this idea of unity in melody in which the harmony, accompaniment, and bass work together to “convey only one melody to the ear and only one idea to the mind.”
As a result of the experiments conducted, the identification of the three unifying things which contribute to the perfection of Italian melody, and the discussion of airs and...