Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Enlightened Opera

Pastel of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Pastel of Jean-Jacques Rousseau drawn by Maurice Quentin de La Tour in 1753, the year in which Rousseau wrote his seminal “Letter on French Music”.

240 years ago today – on July 2, 1778 – the Swiss-born philosopher, novelist, educator, music theorist and critic, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau died at age 66 in the township of Ermenonville, roughly 25 miles north-east of Paris.

Rousseau was one of the greatest and most significant thinkers ever born to our species. According to Will and Ariel Durant, writing in their book Rousseau and Revolution, Rousseau:

“transformed education, elevated the morals of France[!], inspired the Romantic movement and the French Revolution, influenced the philosophy of Kant and Schopenhauer, the plays of Schiller, the novels of Goethe, the poems of Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, the socialism of Marx, the ethics of Tolstoy, and, altogether, had more effect upon posterity than any other writer or thinker of that eighteenth century in which writers were more influential than they had ever been before.”

Rousseau also helped to redefine the role and substance of opera at a time when opera – like movies and television today – was not just a form of entertainment but both a reflection and a driver of the political and social values of its time.

A little background

Opera was invented in Florence Italy around 1600 as a courtly entertainment. Its inventors were convinced that they were recreating, in modern guise, ancient Greek drama, which they believed was entirely sung.

In 1639, the first public opera house opened in Venice. By 1670, there were seven opera houses in Venice, pumping out over 50 different productions a season. Sadly, Venetian opera’s growing popularity resulted in operas of ever-lower literary quality: dog-and-pony shows that featured insipid stories, visual spectacle, and over-the-top virtuosic singing. In the words of Joseph Kerman:

“Venetian opera had thrown dignity into the canals. It was the worst period of Italian opera.”

And so ensued the first of many operatic reforms, during which serious writers and composers periodically attempted to rescue and re-elevate opera from puerile entertainment to high art.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the dominant style of opera was opera seria, or “serious opera”: a formulaic operatic structure that alternated arias and recitatives, peopled by gods and heroes drawn from ancient history and myth singing music as overblown as the characters themselves.

Opera seria was embraced by the royalty and nobility of Europe, who perceived its heroic plots centered around ancient gods, kings, and warriors as a reflection of their own magnificence. Ultimately, the absolutist rulers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries co-opted opera seria; in France, opera actually became a powerful propaganda tool of the state.

However, by 1750 opera seria’s days were numbered, and what would drive it to its doom was the rise of an ever-growing middle class.

Yes: a small-to-middling middle class of some sort had existed in Europe since the High Middle Ages: merchants who traded in capital and goods; bureaucrats; and skilled artisans who served the mercantile and administrative needs of the towns and cities. They were the “bourgeoisie”: literally, the “town-dwellers”.

However, by the early eighteenth century they were much more than that. Tremendous population growth and urban development had created entirely new patterns and methods of trade, manufacturing, ownership, and banking, all of which served to create a large and ever-growing bourgeoisie whose wealth was based on cash. A dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit had come to characterize the life of Western European towns and cities, as a large segment of the population strove to make money and perhaps even buy a title and some land. According to the contemporary Scottish novelist Tobias George Smollett (1721-1771):

“Without money, there is no respect, honor, or convenience to be acquired in life.”

Concurrent with the rise of the middle class was a social and philosophical movement called the Enlightenment (circa 1730-1780). The philosophical emphasis of the Enlightenment on the “individual” reveling in his or her “individuality” reflected the belief that an idealized “every person” was the essential unit in society, not the high clergy, royalty, or their aristocratic homies.

This emphasis on the “individual” was not an abstract theoretical construct but a response to a social, political, and economic reality. That reality was the large and growing middle class, a class that began to exert terrific pressures on Western European societies to meet its needs and desires. Those desires included a modicum of political power and control over their own lives, a craving for upwards mobility, education, economic and political stability, an end to social and religious injustice, and what the founding paternal units of the United States called the pursuit of “happiness” but what I like to call the pursuit of entertainment.

The sort of entertainment the new middle class pursued above all was music. The invention of the “public concert” and the explosion of musical amateurism that marked the eighteenth century assured that the musical tastes of the new, middle class amateur would have to be taken into account by composers and publishers alike.

The socially pragmatic, enlightened zeitgeist of the time demanded that music resonate with the spirit of “naturalism” and individuality that were rampant in mid-eighteenth century Europe, a lyric and expressively direct music that could grace the ear of an aristocrat and still appeal to that idealized every person that stood at the heart of Enlightenment doctrine. Eventually, this lyric and direct Enlightenment era musical style came to be known as the “Classical style.”


In 1742, the 30 year-old Jean-Jacques Rousseau moved to Paris. He became a guiding light of the Enlightenment, an alienated intellectual/hippie who spent much of his time blasting the establishment, meaning the Catholic Church, the state, and the king. Rousseau came to believe in the essential goodness of what he called the “natural man”: of humankind uncorrupted by civilization. Conversely, Rousseau also came to believe that contemporary society was an artificial and “unnatural” construct, detrimental to the well being of individual people.

Beginning in 1749, Rousseau wrote the first of several articles for Diderot’s French Encyclopédie, which was to become the handbook of the Enlightenment. His articles – on music and political economy – rightly indicate that Rousseau perceived music and politics as two sides of the same coin.

As Enlightenment philosophy was crystalizing in Paris, a new sort of opera was being produced in the southern Italian city of Naples: opera buffa, or comic opera. Originally created as “intermezzi” – brief, two-act comedies that were performed between the acts of longer, “serious operas” – these comic operatic “interludes” quickly became more popular than the serious operas into which they were inserted. Like the oral-tradition street theater from which they evolved, these comic operas typically featured a man and woman – a basso and a soprano – in the throes of some domestic or romantic dispute. Their popular song-inspired music was as direct and “natural” as their characters and the situations in which they found themselves. Words were set to melodies consisting of short, balanced, contrasting phrases that sought to depict a character’s changing emotions at the moment he or she felt them.

The impact of these “comic” Neapolitan intermezzi on contemporary audiences was huuge. And nowhere was their impact felt more powerfully than in France, where audiences, accustomed to the ponderous ritual of “official state opera”, perceived them as a revelation. Denis Diderot, the editor-in-chief of the French Encyclopédie, expressed his astonishment with the new Italian comic opera by exclaiming: “What realism! What expression!”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau heard just such a two-act Neapolitan comic opera/intermezzo in Paris in 1752. That opera was La Serva Padrona (“The Maid as Mistress”), by the Naples-based composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). It was, for Rousseau, a “eureka!” moment. For years Rousseau had been assailing French court opera as being hopelessly artificial and overblown. Of course, by doing so, what Rousseau had really been doing was attacking the French royalty and aristocracy that consumed and supported French court opera.

Rousseau declared that La Serva Padrona was exactly the sort of “natural” opera the world had been waiting for, one that portrayed real people in real life, singing “natural” music, an opera relevant to the “every person spirit” of his enlightened time.

Rousseau’s stance sparked a colossal controversy, the sort of polemical brouhaha that no one does better than the French, bless them. Known as the guerre des bouffons – “The War of the Clowns” – the controversy pitted the defenders of French state opera against the supporters of Italian opera buffa. According to the musicologist Donald Grout,

“practically every intellectual and would-be intellectual in France [took] part in the quarrel”,

which qualifies the majority of the French population. Even the King and Queen took sides, King Louis XV on the side of traditional court opera and Queen Maria Karolina on the side of opera buffa.

The controversy came to a head in November of 1753 with the publication of Rousseau’s Lettre sur la Musique Française, “Letter on French Music”, as a result of which, according to Rousseau, “the king’s corner was annihilated.” Paul Henry Lang writes:

“The publication of this pamphlet represents a decisive point both in the history of opera and Rousseau’s musical life; it is his capitol manifesto concerning the sense, means of realization, and the future of the art of music.”

It was a future that would be characterized by the new Italian style and a conviction that the best music was one that appealed to the greatest number. Never before had social issues played such an important role in determining the sound and expressive content of Western music. The music of the Enlightenment – the Classical era – saw the politics of the individual and individual empowerment become a determining factor in the “sound” – the “style” – of Western European music. And from a philosophical point of view, no one had more to do with that than Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

For much more on the history of opera, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the “War of the Clowns”, I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses surveys “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” and “How to Listen to and Understand Opera”, which can be examined and downloaded (On sale now through July 26, 2018) right here!

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