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In the mid-eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most important French philosophers of the time, wrote Lettre sur la musique francaise (Letter on French Music) in response to the musical debate pitting French music against Italian music. In the first part of this paper, an attempt will be made to explain both Rousseau’s argument for so heavily criticizing the music of his people and what elements of Italian music he prefers; in the second half, an endeavor will be made to defend Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s opera against Rousseau’s criticism by examining an excerpt from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Arcie. In his letter, Rousseau seeks to determine whether France actually possesses its own music by explaining some experiments he conducted concerning “which of the two languages [Italian or French] is by its nature adapted to the best kind of music.” In one experiment, Rousseau gave some Italians “the most beautiful airs of Lully to sing” and he gave some French some Italian airs to sing. He observed that the Italian airs were melodious, agreeable, and well-cadenced, but that the French airs—while sung with the greatest exactness—were merely a series of notes set down almost randomly. In another experiment, Rousseau observed an Armenian man who had never heard any music listen to both a French monologue and an Italian air that were sung. Rousseau noted that “during the French song the Armenian showed more surprise than pleasure, but everybody observed that from the first bars of the Italian air his face and his eyes grew soft; he was enchanted; he surrendered his soul to the impressions of the music; and though he understood little of the language, the mere sounds visibly enraptured him.” Rousseau identifies three things... ... middle of paper ... ...lightning, and an earthquake, all imitated by the orchestra [m. 25]; and closes with dignified resolve in a slower accompanied recitative [m. 47].” After having examined Rameau’s excerpt, it appears that Rousseau’s ultimate conclusion is grossly unfounded. It would seem the French do have their own music, and Hippolyte et Aricie is an exemplar of eighteenth century tragédie en musique, combining several styles of accompaniment, texture, tempo, and harmony where appropriate to achieve maximum dramatic effect, and incorporating nearly everything which Rameau declared the French never possessed. Works Cited J. Peter Burkholder and Claude V. Palisca, Norton Anthology of Western Music, 6th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 700. Oliver Strunk and Leo Treitler, eds., Source Readings in Music History, rev. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998), 897.


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