The King and the court helped to civilize France. The court, in 1664, comprised some six hundred persons: the royal family, the higher nobility, the foreign envoys, and the servant staff. In the fullness of Versailles it grew to ten thousand souls, 91 but this included notables in occasional attendance, all the entertainers and servitors, and the artists and authors whom the King had singled out for reward. To be invited to the court became a passion only third to hunger and sex; even to be there for a day was a memorable ecstasy, worth half a lifetime’s savings.
The splendor of the court lay partly in the luxurious furnishings of the apartments, partly in the dress of the courtiers, partly in the sumptuous entertainments, partly in the fame of the men and the beauty of the women drawn there by the magnets of money, reputation, and power. Some notable women, like Mmes. de Sévigné and de La Fayette, were seldom seen there, for they had sided with the Fronde; but enough remained to please a King extremely sensitive to feminine charms. In the portraits that have come down to us these ladies seem a bit ponderous, overflowing their corsages; but apparently the men of that time liked an adipose warmth in their amours.
The morals of the court were decorous adultery, extravagance in dress and gambling, and passionate intrigues for prestige and place, all carried on a rhythm of external refinement, elegant manners, and compulsory gaiety. The King set the fashion of costly dress, especially in ambassadorial receptions; so in receiving the envoys of Siam he wore a robe laced with gold and bordered with diamonds, the whole worth 12,500,000 livres; 92 such display was part of the psychology of government. Nobles and their ladies consumed half the income of their estates on clothing, lackeys, and equipage; the most modest had to have eleven servants and two coaches; richer dignitaries had seventy-five attendants in their household, and forty horses in their stables. 93 When adultery was no longer prohibited it lost its charm, and gambling at cards became the chief recreation of the court. Louis again gave the lead, bidding for high stakes, urged on by his mistress Montespan, who herself lost and won four million francs in one night’s play. 94 The mania spread from the court to the people. “Thousands ruin themselves in gambling,” wrote La Bruyère; “a frightful game . . . in which the player contemplates the total ruin of his adversary, and is transported with the lust for gain.” 95
Competition for the royal favor, for a lucrative appointment or a place in the royal bed, led to an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, calumny, and tense rivalry. “Every time I fill a vacant post,” said Louis, “I make a hundred people discontented, and one ungrateful.” 96 There were quarrels for precedence at table or in attending the King; even Saint-Simon worried lest the Duc de Luxembourg should walk five steps in advance of him in a procession, and Louis had to banish three dukes from court because they refused to yield precedence to foreign princes. The King laid great stress on protocol, and frowned when, at dinner, he found an untitled lady seated above a duchess. 97 Doubtless some fixed order was necessary to keep six hundred beribboned egos from trampling upon one another’s toes, and visitors praised the external harmony of the enormous entourage. From the palaces, receptions, and entertainments of the King a code of etiquette, standards of manners and taste, spread through the upper and middle classes, and became a part of the European heritage.
To keep all these lords and ladies from being bored into regicide, artists of every kind were engaged to arrange amusements—tournaments, hunts, tennis, billiards, bathing or boating parties, dinners, dances, balls, masques, ballets, operas, concerts, plays. Versailles seemed heaven on earth when the King led the court into boats on the canal, and voices and instruments made music, and torches helped the moon and the stars to illuminate the scene. And what could be more splendid or more suffocating than the formal balls, when the Galerie des Glaces reflected in its massive mirrors the grace and sparkle of men and women in stately dances under a thousand lights? To celebrate the birth of the Dauphin (1662) the King arranged a ballet in the square before the Tuileries, attended by fifteen thousand people. The Commune of 1871 destroyed the palace, but the site of that famous fete is still called the Place du Carrousel.
Louis loved dancing, praised it as “one of the most excellent and important disciplines for training the body,” 98 and established at Paris (1661) the Académie Royale de Danse. He himself took part in ballets, and the nobility followed suit. The composers at his court were kept busy preparing music for dances and ballets; there the dance suite developed which was so skillfully used by Purcell in England and the Bachs in Germany. Not since Imperial Rome had the dance reached such graceful and harmonious forms.
In 1645 Mazarin imported Italian singers to establish opera in Paris. The Cardinal’s death interrupted this initiation, but when the King grew up he founded an Académie de l’Opéra (1669), and commissioned Pierre Perrin to present operas in several cities of France, beginning with Paris in 1671. When Perrin bankrupted himself through excessive outlays for scenery and machinery, Louis transferred the privilège des académies de musique to Jean Baptiste Lully, who soon made the whole court dance to his tunes.
He too was a gift of Italy. The Chevalier de Guise brought him, as a peasant boy of seven, from Florence to France in 1646 “as a present” to his niece, La Grande Mademoiselle, who gave him work as an assistant in her kitchen (sousmarmiton). He annoyed his fellow servants by practicing the violin, but Mademoiselle recognized his talent, and provided him with an instructor. Soon he was playing in the royal band of twenty-four violins. Louis took a liking to him, and gave him a small ensemble to conduct. Through this little string orchestra he learned to conduct and to compose—dance music, songs, violin solos, cantatas, church music, thirty ballet suites, twenty operas. He became friendly with Molière, collaborated with him in several ballets, and composeddivertissements for some of Molière’s plays.
His success as a courtier rivaled his triumphs as a musician. In 1672, through Mme. de Montespan’s influence, he succeeded in acquiring a monopoly on opera in Paris. He found in Philippe Quinault a librettist who was also a poet. Together they produced a succession of operas that constituted a revolution in French music. Not only did these performances delight the court at Versailles, they brought the elite of Paris to the theater that had been built for Lully in the Rue St.-Honoré, and in such numbers that the street was blocked with carriages, and patrons in many cases had to get out and walk, often through mud, lest they miss Act One. Boileau frowned upon opera as an enervating effeminacy, 99 but the King granted a charter to the Académie de Musique (1672), and authorized “gentlemen and ladies to sing at the representations of the said Academy without derogation” to their rank. 100 Louis raised Lully to the nobility as a secretary to the king; other secretaries complained that this was too high a post for a musician; but Louis told Lully, “I have honored them, not you, by placing a man of genius among them.” 101 Everything prospered for Lully till 1687; then, while conducting, he accidentally struck his foot with the cane that he used as a baton; the wound, maltreated by a quack, developed gangrene, and the ebullient composer died at the. age of forty-eight. French opera still feels his influence.
One more name survives from the music of that lordly reign. The Couperins were another case of heredity in art, contributing composers to France for two centuries, and ruling from 1650 to 1826 the great organ in the Church of St.-Gervais. François Couperin “le Grand” held that post for forty-eight years; he was also organiste du roi in the King’s chapel at Versailles, and was the most famous harpsichordist of the “great century.” His compositions for that instrument were closely studied by Johann Sebastian Bach; and his treatise L’Art de toucher le clavecin (the French name for the clavichord) influenced the great German’s Das wohltemperirte Clavier. Was music in the Couperin blood, or only in the Couperin home? Probably it is social, not biological, heredity that makes civilization.