Medusa peering down at the Hall of Mirrors at the Château de Versailles, France (Photo Credit- Ian Pomerantz)
It is a well-known fact: classical music suffers from canonization, from the tendency of historians, performers, listeners, text-book publishers, radio broadcasters, and so many others to latch onto a few composers and a few musical works and to play them over and over again. There are benefits to cultivating the classical canon. By learning about a handful of works, people establish a form of cultural literacy that allows them to participate equally in a conversation about the same pieces of music and the same ideas. We develop a sense of pride and confidence in being able to talk at length about a subject that many other people know (or, according to the canon gods, should know). These are good things.
The danger of the canon is that we ignore works of music and composers that do not make the canon list. Often non-canonical composers include minorities. A non-canonical musical work may be considered to be deficient in some way because it is always compared with works that are already in the canon.
Baroque music is an odd beast in the story of the "classical" canon. Throughout most of the twentieth century, baroque music was considered inferior to 19th-century compositions such as Wagner's operas and Chopin's piano concertos. Even baroque music was plagued with canonic segregation; Bach's works, for example, were considered (and often are still considered) to be musically superior to, let's say, contemporary French music. But did you know that Bach modeled the opening of his St. Matthew Passion off of the Tombeau de Monsieur Méliton, composed by French court viol player Marin Marais in 1686?
This blog post is the first of a series called "Shattering the Canon" that will spotlight French baroque compositions, composers, and artists who might not be considered by everyone as part of the classical music canon corps.
In this post, we'll look at the tragédie en musique, Méduse, composed in 1697 by Charles-Hubert Gervais and Claude Boyer. At the time of the premiere of Méduse, Gervais served as the ordinaire de la musique of Philippe de Bourbon (the future Regent of France during the minority of Louis XV) and eventually became the latter's maître de la musique de la chambre. His operatic writing was strongly influenced by Jean-Baptiste Lully, but unfortunately, no complete recording of Méduse exists (Jean-Paul Montagnier, "Gervais, Charles-Hubert" in Grove Music Online). A copy of the libretto and manuscript reduced score, both of which were published in Paris, can be found on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France's site www.gallica.fr.
You have probably heard of the myth of Medusa, a monstrous woman with snakes for hair who could turn anyone upon whom she looked to stone. Representations of Medusa were everywhere in baroque France, from the halls of Versailles to the façades of government buildings. In Gervais and Boyer's opera, Medusa is introduced as the beautiful queen of an island off of Ethiopia. While preparing for a beauty contest against the goddess Minerva, she rants about the Greek prince Perseus, who ignores her while showing himself to be a loyal servant of Minerva. Though Medusa has trouble admitting it, it's obvious that she's in love with Perseus. Later, we find out that Perseus only visits Minerva's temple because it is the only safe space for him to meet with his beloved Princess Ismenie, who has been forced into hiding because of Medusa's jealousy. During a tender, if anxious, love scene between Perseus and Ismenie, Minerva arrives and assures the lovers that she will protect them.
Meanwhile, Medusa's friend Neptune finds out about Perseus and Ismenie, and alerts Medusa to Perseus's affair. Neptune captures Perseus and Ismenie and transports them to the garden of the Hesperides, where Medusa tries to seduce Perseus. Unsuccessful in her efforts, Medusa transports the lovers to a desert and threatens to kill Ismenie. At the last minute, Jupiter and Minerva arrive to save the day. Minerva transforms Medusa into the terrible snake-headed monster - but Medusa immediately takes advantage of her new hideous powers to transform Ismenie to stone. Where would baroque opera be without a deus ex machina, or a god to save the day? Minerva reverses the transformation, Perseus and Ismenie get married, and everyone (except Medusa) lives happily ever after.
What's really fascinating about this opera is the construction of Medusa's monstrosity. In his book, Monsters and their Meanings in Early Modern Culture (2011), Wes Williams writes that there were two ways of envisioning the monstrous in the early modern era. First, monsters could be something of enormous and abnormal proportion - in other words, monsters were monstrous because of their physical attributes. Second, monsters could be monstrous because of their internal motives and desires. In Gervais and Boyer's tragédie, Medusa becomes a monster long before Minerva gives her snakes for her hair. She becomes monstrous in the first act, when she shows signs of her out-of-proportion pride for her beauty (never claim you're more beautiful than a goddess!) and her murderous jealousy for Perseus. Her pathetic spiral into monstrosity makes this opera worth learning about.