Cantata Drama in the Baroque

Our first concert is in less than a month! On May 28th, Les Enfants d'Orphée will present a program of French cantatas and instrumental pieces. We are especially excited to announce that we will be giving the North American premiere of Philippe Courbois's cantata, Orphée, whose text was written by Louis Fuzelier (1672-1752). Why is this cantata so exciting? Why is any French cantata, for that matter, something worth getting excited about?

Courbois's most famous legacy to baroque music is his collection of seven cantatas published sometime before 1710. Cantatas were associated with intellectual salons outside of Versailles; the genre was especially appreciated in Paris. They were seen as fresh alternatives to the operatic courtly repertoire developed by Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Since history textbooks usually like to talk about what went on at court, Courbois (fl. 1705-1730) usually gets omitted from the list of composers featured in history lessons and concerts dedicated to this period.

Courbois dedicated his cantatas to the Duchesse du Maine, Anne Louise Bénédicte de Bourbon (1676-1753), who was the wife of Louis XIV's illegitimate son, the Duc du Maine. Élisabeth Charlotte, wife of the king's brother, gives the Duchesse a less than favorable description in her memoirs:

"Madame du Maine is not taller than a child ten years old, and is not well made. To appear tolerably well, it is necessary for her to keep her mouth shut; for when she opens it, she opens it very wide, and shows her irregular teeth...her wickedness is insupportable" (Memoirs of the Court of Louis XIV and of the Regency: Being the Secret Memoirs of Elizabeth-Charlotte, Duchesse D'Orléans, Mother of the Regent (L.C. Page, 1899), 312).

Of course, Élisabeth Charlotte had a right to be angry, since the Duchesse enjoyed badmouthing her son.

The Duchesse du Maine as Cleopatra (François de Troy, ca. 1690)

Despite the Duchesse's bad temper, Anne Louise Bénédicte cultivated a lavish court at the Château de Sceaux, where for years she organized night parties of exciting musical proportions in an effort to deal with her unceasing insomnia. Courbois probably dedicated his cantatas to the Duchesse in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to gain her patronage; many of his cantatas engage with the theme of sleep and sleeplessness, which the Duchesse would have appreciated.

Orphée is an especially hypnotic work of intense music and poetry. Unlike French opera, French cantatas merged Italian musical elements into a style that was still idiomatically French. They were much shorter than operas, featuring only a few airs (lyrical and melodic movements that follow a rigid rhythm) and recitatives (movements that allow for greater rhythmic freedom of the voice). The French loved the poetry of cantatas; the text was just as mind-blowingly awesome to listen to as was the music.

Let's have a preview of Orphée, which Courbois composed for bass voice, flute, violin, and basse continue (we will use theorbo and bass viol in our performance). The singer, who alternates between representing Orphée, Pluto, and an anonymous narrator, opens the cantata with a heart-rending cry to the heavens: "Oh, heavens! Oh fatal disgrace!" Orphée watches as his betrothed, Eurydice, dies, begging her to wait for him. A long silence signifies the moment and horror of her death before Orphée vows to rescue her from Hades. Over the next few movements, Orphée uses action-heavy text to describe vividly to his listeners the experience of voyaging to the underworld: "I'm descending to hell;" "I see the terrible river Styx." We follow Orphée down the river Styx, accompanied by a basse continue that uses melody and rhythm to imitate the river's churning waters, and we see Cerberus hulking in his cave. We listen as Orphée begs Pluto to release Eurydice. When a happy trumpet breaks into lyrical, dance-like phrases, we learn that Orphée has triumphed. He can take Eurydice back, as long as he does not look at her before they reach the world of the living.

Suddenly, the singer assumes the voice of the narrator, and tells us somberly that Orphée cannot resist to look at Eurydice. The narrator then addresses Orphée to tell the bard that he has lost his love forever because he couldn't control himself. Orphée watches helplessly as Eurydice's form fades into nothingness, and Hades closes in front of her with a powerful, descending melody.

Rather than ending on this depressing note, the cantata finishes with a cheerful air. Accompanied by a happily skipping violin, the narrator delivers the cantata's moral message: Good things come only to those who wait:

Ah! doit-on d'un feu trop tendre

Écouter toujours l'ardeur?

Lorsqu'on ne sait pas l'attendre

On perd souvent son bonheur.

Ah! must an overly tender flame

always give in to ardor?

When you don't know how to wait,

You often lose what will make you happy.

When you have the chance to listen to this cantata, reflect on the constant tension and release that the singer creates by switching perspectives between narrator and Orphée, and by addressing the audience and Orphée himself. Think about the feeling of excitement that listeners might have had over breaking the rules just a little bit by listening to the new genre of the French cantata rather than the old genre of French opera.


Michele Cabrini, "Preface," ix-xvi. In Philippe Courbois, Cantatas for One and Two Voices. Edited by Michele Cabrini. Middletown, WI: A-R Editions, Inc., 2012.

David Tunley, ed. The Eighteenth-Century French Cantata. A Seventeen-Volume Facsimile Set of the Most Widely Circulated and Performed Music in Early Eighteenth-Century France, vol. 14, Cantatas by Philippe Courbois (fl. 1705-1730); Cantatas by Thomas-Louis Bourgeois (1676-c. 1750). New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991.

#cantatas #PhilippeCourbois #Orphée

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