The French Ballet

  April 19, 2022   Read time 3 min
The French Ballet
The distinctive feature of the ballet as a dramatic form (to which it owes its name) was its emphasis upon actual dancing and upon the kinds of structure, action, verse and song that dancing favored.

From at least the 14th century the trend of French taste in this direction had been manifest. It showed itself in a liking for pantomimic spectacles, in which situations and events were illustrated by dance-ensembles, for dialogue cast in the form of reciprocal verses that could be sung to dance-steps, and for a general shaping of words and music by the neat and exact form of dance-patterns. The reaction of all this upon musical method was decided. The French mind was not content with the more or less formless Italian recitative or any treatment of the arioso not distinctly rhythmic - that was not a clear 'tune.' It tended at first to exalt piquancy of tonal effect above truth to the text.

While not avoiding serious themes, it frankly sought to devise captivating entertainments rather than to evolve a grand form of monumental art. Ere long it seized eagerly upon instruments as specially effective means for the decoration and elaboration of dance-themes of all kinds. Thus was early laid the foundation of that sprightly and brilliant type of composition that has always been characteristic of the French opera - a type of great utility to musical progress even when its works were not of the highest intrinsic value.

The evolution of the French drama is traceable with exceptional completeness. Only a few points need here be mentioned. The Trouvcre play, Robin et Marion (1285), was peculiar because wholly devoid of religious elements, these being replaced by the secular features of amusing story, light song and dancing. It is suspected that there were other similar works, now lost. For over two centuries afterwards' the performances of Mysteries and Miracle-Plays were common and ambitious in various French towns, usually under the care of societies like the Confrerie de la Passion, Les Clercs de la Bazoche, Les Enfants sans Souci, etc., in whose hands the free use of music and dancing increased.

The' mascarade ' or mimetic ballet was not a French invention, but after 1500 it became specially associated with French court festivities, and in some form has remained peculiarly characteristic of the French drama. Though what is now called the ballet has fallen to the low estate of a mere divertissement in the grand opera or been transformed into the orchestic farce, its historic prototype was significant as a dramatic form that might have been the forerunner of the modern opera had circumstances favored it. The notable performance in 1581 of the Ballet comique de la reine was almost as early as any like undertaking in Italy and much more pretentious. Its scenic scale is shown by its expense - over 3,600,000 francs. Its arranger, though not the composer of its incidental music, was the Italian violist Baltazarini. Its music resembled that of the Italian madrigal-plays in that it did not include solos. The popularity of the form, especially because of its unlimited spectacular possibilities, is evidenced by the record that under Henry IV. (1589-1610) about 80 ballets were produced at court. If some constructive genius·had appeared, this early ballet might have becolne the progenitor of the opera proper. As it was, progress paused for almost a century.

A few attempts were made to import musical plays from Italy, as Sacrati's Lajilltapazza (1645), Rossi's Orfeo (1647) and Cavalli's Xerse and Ercole amante (1660-2), and French imitations seem to have been attempted in 1646-7. But, though French taste for theatric spectacles had long been supported by players and managers from Italy, the Italian musical drama commanded but scant applause. Meanwhile, the ballet advanced from its early miscellaneous plan to a more sustained unity. In this the literary leader was Isaac de Benserade (d. 1691), the court-poet, whose first work was given in 1651. But the progressive musical workers were Italians. Detached solo songs and part-songs began to be put forth in 1661 by lIIichel Lauroert (d. 1696) the first important French singing-master, father-in-law of Lully.