‘Tout, dans ses charmes, est dangereux’: music, gesture and the dangers of French pantomime, 1748—1775

Author: Law, Hedy

Publication details: Cambridge Opera Journal 20, no. 3 (2008): 241-268.

Weblink: https://www.jstor.org

Abstract: In 1779 Chabanon noted the potential danger inherent in gesture because it might produce instantaneous and harmful effects. This article examines how Rameau, Rousseau and Gretry incorporated putatively dangerous gestures into the pantomimes they wrote for their operas, and explains why these pantomimes matter at all. In Rameau’s Pygmalion (1748), Rousseau’s Le Devin du village (1752—3) and Gretry’s Cephale et Procris (1773, 1775), pantomime was presented as a type of dance opposite to the conventional social dance. But the significance of this binary opposition changed drastically around 1750, in response to Rousseau’s own moral philosophy developed most notably in the First Discourse (1750). Whereas the pantomimes in Rameau’s Pygmalion dismiss peasants as uncultured, it is high culture that becomes the source of corruption in the pantomime of Rousseau’s Le Devin du village, where uncultured peasants are praised for their morality. Gretry extended Rousseau’s moral claim in the pantomime of Cephale et Procris by commending an uneducated girl who turns down sexual advances from a courtier. Central to these pantomimes are the ways in which musical syntax correlates with drama. Contrary to the predictable syntax in most social dances, these pantomimes bring to the surface syntactical anomalies that may be taken to represent moral licence: an unexpected pause, a jarring diminished-seventh chord, and a phrase in a minuet with odd-number bars communicate danger. Although social dances were still the backbone of most French operas, pantomime provided an experimental interface by which composers contested the meanings of expressive topoi; it thus emerged as a vehicle for progressive social thinking.