9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


Charles-Hubert Gervais's Psiché burlesque and the Birth of the Comic Cantate française

Jean-Paul Montagnier

Since the works of G. E. Vollen (1970) and D. Tunley (1974; revised 1996), it has been accepted that the genre of the cantate française was pioneered by Jean-Baptiste Morin and Nicolas Bernier around 1703, and that its subgenre, the comic cantata, was inaugurated in 1710 by Philippe Courbois (Dom Quichotte) and later by Laurent Gervais "de Rouen" (Ragotin, 1732). The newly discovered Psiché burlesque, one of the wittiest pieces ever written by Charles-Hubert Gervais, makes this chronology obsolete. Published by Estienne Roger in the 1709 issue of the Recueil d'airs sérieux et à boire, Gervais's Psiché burlesque may very likely have been composed as early as 1703, the year Jean-Baptiste Lully's Psyché was revived at the Académie Royale de Musique. As a detailed analysis of the poem and of the score shows, Philippe of Orléans (eventually Regent of France) may have commissioned Psiché burlesque to his superintendent C.-H. Gervais in order to ridicule Lully's Psyché, i.e. a veiled manner to attack the lavish and successful spectacle Louis XIV's best artists performed during the king's heydays, and a manner to keep aloof from the Versailles Court. From about 1694 to 1706, Philippe of Orléans was indeed brushed aside from military campaigning, not to say from any responsibility: this was the fate of the Orléans family since Gaston (Louis XIII's brother) had challenged the king's power. By promoting the nascent cantate française, and more particularly Psiché burlesque, Philippe of Orléans thus attempted to emphasize his autonomy as the new duke of Orléans (his father died in 1701), and to transfer the musical avant-garde from Versailles to Paris. As a conclusion, this paper states (1) that the contents of Psiché burlesque extend beyond mere creation of a subgenre-the cantate comique -and that it was a subversive critic aimed at Louis XIV and his rather hostile behaviour towards the Orléans; (2) that Roger's Recueils, which are too often neglected by scholars, are valuable sources to deepen our knowledge of the history of French baroque music; and (3) that Ch. H. Gervais's role in the creation of the multi-faced cantate française may have been more important than has been thought thus far.

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Last updated on 22 March 2000 by Yo Tomita