Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Catherine Gordon-Seifert (Providence College, USA)

“Precious” eroticism and hidden morality: salon culture and French airs (1640-1660)

Before Lully opera, serious airs defined French musical style. Airs were composed and performed in Parisian salons, Madeleine de Scudéry’s being the most important. In contrast to Scudéry’s novels that present innovative ideas concerning women, power, and courtship protocol, airs seem like traditional courtly love songs of little significance. In salon culture, however, airs depicted “immoral” love, specifically male sexual arousal and seduction; explicit eroticism veiled beneath common metaphors and musical conventions. Even though written in a male voice, women performed airs. As such, those who cultivated notions of non-physical love and controlled discourse created a sensuous music set to a man’s eroticised utterances and allowed women to sing as men when otherwise they were forbidden by propriety to express base feelings.

In this paper, I establish links between eroticism and song-texts by reference to contemporaneous pornography and to provocative emblems that illustrate metaphors about love, and show that the musical settings represented physical manifestations of love sickness described in medical treatises. I suggest that the practice of women singing as men was simultaneously a purgation of the “immoral” to underscore the “moral” (as used in religious education) and a pretext for allowing women, through another’s voice, to express illicit feelings without damage to reputation. Indeed, ironic interactions and ambiguity were integral to a salon aesthetic. This study lays the foundation for future research on eroticism in French music that looks beneath conventions and explains, in part, how music, operas or airs, could be at once popular, educational, and controversial.

Last updated on 10 May 2004