Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Questions on Singing, Music, Modulation, Gesticulation, etc.

Could a Turk conceive that we have one kind of singing for the first of our mysteries when we celebrate it in music, another kind which we call “motetts” in the same temple, a third kind at the opera, and a fourth at the theatre?

In like manner, can we imagine how the ancients blew their flutes, recited on their theatres with their heads covered by enormous masks, and how their declamation was written down.

Law was promulgated in Athens nearly as in Paris we sing an air on the Pont-Neuf. The public crier sang an edict, accompanying himself on the lyre.

It is thus that in Paris the rose in bud is cried in one tone; old silver lace to sell in another; only in the streets of Paris the lyre is dispensed with.

After the victory of Chæronea, Philip, the father of Alexander, sang the decree by which Demosthenes had made him declare war, and beat time with his foot. We are very far from singing in our streets our edicts, or finances, or upon the two sous in the livre.

It is very probable that the melopée, or modulation, regarded by Aristotle in his poetic art as an essential part of tragedy, was an even, simple chant, like that which we call the preface to mass, which in my opinion is the Gregorian chant, and not the Ambrosian, and which is a true melopée.

When the Italians revived tragedy in the sixteenth century the recitative was a melopée which could not be written; for who could write inflections of the voice which are octaves and sixths of tone? They were learned by heart. This custom was received in France when the French began to form a theatre, more than a century after the Italians. The “Sophonisba” of Mairet was sung like that of Trissin, but more grossly; for throats as well as minds were then rather coarser at Paris. All the parts of the actors, but particularly of the actresses, were noted from memory by tradition. Mademoiselle Bauval, an actress of the time of Corneille, Racine, and Molière, recited to me, about sixty years ago or more, the commencement of the part of Emilia, in “Cinna,” as it had been played in the first representations by La Beaupré. This modulation resembled the declamation of the present day much less than our modern recitative resembles the manner of reading the newspaper.

I cannot better compare this kind of singing, this modulation, than to the admirable recitative of Lulli, criticised by adorers of double crochets, who have no knowledge of the genius of our language, and who are ignorant what help this melody furnishes to an ingenious and sensible actor.

Theatrical modulation perished with the comedian Duclos, whose only merit being a fine voice without spirit and soul, finally rendered that ridiculous which had been admired in Des Œuillets, and in Champmeslé.

Tragedy is now played dryly; if we were not heated by the pathos of the spectacle and the action, it would be very insipid. Our age, commendable in other things, is the age of dryness.

It is true that among the Romans one actor recited and another made gestures. It was not by chance that the abbé Dubos imagined this pleasant method of declaiming. Titus Livius, who never fails to instruct us in the manners and customs of the Romans, and who, in that respect is more useful than the ingenious and satirical Tacitus, informs us, I say, that Andronicus, being hoarse while singing in the interludes, got another to sing for him while he executed the dance; and thence came the custom of dividing interludes between dancers and singers: “Dicitur cantum egisse magis vigente motu quum nihil vocis usis impediebat.” The song is expressed by the dance. “Cantum egisse magis vigente motu.” With more vigorous movements.

But they divided not the story of the piece between an actor who only gesticulates and another who only sings. The thing would have been as ridiculous as impracticable.

The art of pantomimes, which are played without speaking, is quite different, and we have seen very striking examples of it; but this art can please only when a marked action is represented, a theatrical event which is easily presented to the imagination of the spectator. It can represent Orosmanes killing Zaïre and killing himself; Semiramis wounded, dragging herself on the frontiers to the tomb of Ninus, and holding her son in her arms. There is no occasion for verses to express these situations by gestures to the sound of a mournful and terrible symphony. But how would two pantomimes paint the dessertation of Maximus and Cinna on monarchical and popular governments?

Apropos of the theatrical execution of the Romans, the abbé Dubos says that the dancers in the interludes were always in gowns. Dancing requires a closer dress. In the Pays de Vaud, a suite of baths built by the Romans, is carefully preserved, the pavement of which is mosaic. This mosaic, which is not decayed, represents dancers dressed like opera dancers. We make not these observations to detect errors in Dubos; there is no merit in having seen this antique monument which he had not seen; and besides, a very solid and just mind might be deceived by a passage of Titus Livius.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01