article 50: Un-Certain-ty Principle

I passed on Article 49 (Titon du Tillet) to an esteemed and distinguished friend who is a great amateur of music. He was curious about my evident aversion to Lully, and I assured him it was less in regard to the Florentine’s music than to his horrible personality. I promised to send him a brilliant satire, Antoine Bauderon de Sénecé’s Lettre de Clément Marot À Monsieur De***, Touchant Ce Qui s'Est Passé à l'Arrivée de Jean-Baptiste de Lulli Aux Champs-Élysées (Cologne, 1688). Looking through my 1825 edition of the book I came across some footnotes which led me down the usual unexpected paths to things I should have already known about.

Lully had many enemies, and deservedly so. I sometimes wonder if he is the Italian godfather of the mean-spiritedness that I have nearly always encountered in the world of French music. One of the bitterest of Lully’s enemies was Jean de la Fontaine (1621-95), now remembered only for his fables, but one of the greatest all-round men of letters of the Grand Siècle. Lully had persuaded him to write a libretto (Daphné), and then turned it down after the poet had labored over it for six months. The affair resulted in a play (Le Florentin) and two poems (Épîtres XII and XIV) in which la Fontaine takes splendid revenge. They are all great fun, but the piece of most interest to a harpsichordist is Épître XII, addressed to Pierre de Niert “sur l’Opéra” in 1677, when the veteran singer, the first to bring Italian vocal technique to France, was already in his 81st year. La Fontaine laments the all-consuming fashion for Lully’s vast and noisy spectacles – “il faut vingt clavecins, cent violons pour plaire” – and yearns for the days when a single voice accompanied by a theorbo was the pinnacle of musical delight. At the very end the poet writes:

Avec mille autres biens le jubilé fera
Que nous serons un temps sans parler d’opéra;
Mais aussi, de retour de mainte et mainte église,
Nous irons, pour causer de tout avec franchise,
Et donner du relâche à la dévotion,
Chez l’illustre Certain faire une station:
Certain, par mille endroits charmante,
Et dans mille beaux arts également savante,
Dont le rare génie et les brillantes mains
Surpassent Chambonnière, Hardel, les Couperains.
De cette aimable enfant le clavecin unique
Me touche plus qu’Isis et toute sa musique.
Je ne veux rien de plus, je ne veux rien de mieux
Pour contenter l’esprit, et l’oreille, et les yeux;
Et si je puis la voir une fois la semaine,
A voir Isis je renonce sans peine.

The jubilé is the jubilee of 1677 proclaimed by Pope Clement VII. La Fontaine’s remarks about it and about churchgoing are ironical; he was a notorious freethinker. Isis was the Lully/Quinault production of that year, and our writer is rejoicing in the opprobrium bought upon his rival librettist by perceived allusions to Mme. de Montespan in the character of Juno. The most extraordinary aspect of the poem is that la Fontaine chooses the little salon of Marie-Françoise Certain as his refuge from censorship and court spies (pour causer de tout avec franchise), and as his center of musical bliss – a place he would like to visit at least once a week.

Mlle. Certain, about whom Titon du Tillet also enthuses, was 15 when the 56-year-old poet wrote his paean to her. He may not have known that she was probably already Lully’s mistress at that point. If she was, and he had, la Fontaine would possibly have been less enamored of the girl. And if the many scabrous, widely-circulated chansons about them are to be believed, her mother was also bedded by Baptiste. One or both of the Certains are said to have later denounced the Surintendant to the royal court when he returned to his former preoccupation with members of his own sex. That fit of pique led to a temporary disgrace for Lully.

Niert (or Nyert) had taken the lovely and talented Marie-Françoise under his wing and probably helped her musical development. Who her harpsichord teacher was is unknown. La Fontaine compares her to the foremost clavecinistes of earlier years and his present. The words “les Couperains” are yet another indication of how the three brothers were perceived as a unit. The two younger Couperins, Charles and François (i) were still alive in 1677, but the fabulist could have heard Louis (died 1661) play as well, since the former was often in Paris from around 1656.

Lully himself must have given Marie-Françoise many pointers between bouts of love, since according to Titon she played the instrumental music from his operas to his complete satisfaction. Later Mlle. Certain moved to an apartment down a block from the Hôtel de Lully (still standing at 45 rue des Petits Champs), at the corner of what is now the rue Thérèse and the rue Sainte-Anne.

We learn from a letter of 1687 (XXI, to a friend in London) that La Fontaine had a harpsichord in his own apartment, and that he liked to accompany singers; so he clearly was able to judge more than the girl’s mille endroits. “La Certain” became the subject of widespread mockery because of her many affairs. Poets and pamphleteers accused her, not only of promiscuity, but of prostitution as well, and she definitely had at least one illegitimate child by a marquis. How much of this was simply libelous spite directed against a brilliant, independent woman who refused to be consigned to the conventional alternatives of marriage, widowhood or an old maid’s convent cell cannot now be determined.

April 12, 2022

Portrait of Jean de la Fontaine
(Musée Carnavalet, Paris / photo by Naoko Akutagawa)

Hôtel de Lully, rue des Petits Champs / rue Sainte-Anne
(photo: Naoko Akutagawa)

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