Wednesday, May 18, 2016


What sort of a world was it, in 1685? 

Queen Christina of Sweden
For starters, the absolutely strong monarchy of France was a bit of an anomaly. Only Sweden and its Queen Christina rivaled Louis' France in size and power. Neither Italy nor Germany had yet coalesced into nations; both were a patchwork of principalities. Spain was a complete mess, and even England was living through the turbulent Stuarts – 1685 saw the end of Charles II and the beginning of James II, who would make it through only three years before being booted off the throne much as his father had been. Louis of France was the only king sleeping soundly through the night in 1685.

The turmoil in England meant less than the usual brilliant literature, although Dryden and Locke were publishing. Eighty years before, the novel had been born in Spain with Don Quixote; it would be another 30 years before the first important English novel was written (Robinson Crusoe, 1719). 

The strong French court gave the arts room to flourish, as we have discussed. Molière worked for years with Lully creating the incidental music for his plays. When they fell out, he began working with Charpentier. Molière died in 1673, rather spectacularly. He often starred in his own plays, including his last, The Hypochondriac. When called on to cough in the play, he began coughing in earnest, hemorrhaging blood from his tubercular lungs. Once he got that under control, he declared that the show must go on and finished the performance. Afterward, though, his attack began again and he died that night. Lully himself died in 1687, also giving his life for his art. While conducting the court orchestra, he slammed his giant ruby-encrusted baton down on his own toe. Infection became gangrene; he refused amputation because he so loved to dance, and died. (Charpentier survived into the 18th century, apparently dying quietly in his bed.)

Louis had a busy year, including the legalization of slavery in the French colonies and the outlawing of Protestantism in France. It was a bad century for human rights. He also around this time secretly married for a second time, to the devout Mme de Maintenon who greatly influenced him for his remaining decades.

Stradivari in his workshop
In music, 1685 was a very interesting year. Stradivari was busy in his workshop in Cremona. Seventeen-year-old François Couperin got his first paying organist job. Pachelbel, Biber, and Buxtehude were going full bore in Germany, as were Corelli and A. Scarlatti in Italy and Henry Purcell in England. Telemann, Rameau, and Vivaldi were all small children at this time, preparing to make their marks in the new century. And 1685 is famous for its births. Within these 12 months were born Handel, Domenico Scarlatti, JS Bach, and Lodovico Giustini, whom you probably haven’t heard of but who would be the first composer ever to write music for the newly invented piano in 1732.

Fun fact #1: Most of you reading this can hum the first movement of the Suite in D by the otherwise obscure composer Jean Joseph Mouret (born in 1682!), because it's the Masterpiece Theatre theme song and has been since 1971. Likewise, most people in Europe can hum a rondo from Charpentier's Te Deum, because it's the Eurovision Song Contest theme song and has been since 1954.
Mlle de Guise

In the quiet of his rooms on Mlle de Guise’s Paris estate, Charpentier wrote and wrote and wrote. (Fun fact #2: the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana has a manuscript in Charpentier’s own hand!) Out of all the wars and anguish of a difficult century, it’s the arts that have survived and have the most meaning for us today.

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