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Saturday morning quotes 3.5: Ideas old and new

June 15, 2013

Occasionally we run across interesting historical snippets scribbled by highly-opinionated observers of the contemporary culture of a different age, and we are compelled to share them despite the unpleasant reality check.  Charles Burney’s dismissive remarks about John Dowland’s skill as a composer is an example that springs to mind.

Today’s quotes are drawn from the writing of an elusive figure associated with the court of Louis XIV, Michel Depure, and excerpted from his published collection of short essays, Idées des Spectacles anciens et nouveaux (Paris, 1668).   The quotes that concern us are from a discussion of the all-important pastime of social dancing and the appropriate choice of instruments to accompany dance.

Du Ballet; Des Instruments

“It is a question of making a choice of the instrument that we judge to be most suitable to make one dance and, what is more, to dance well.  The theorbo is suitable only to accompany a voice in concert, or to play Allemandes, Sarabandes, and other pieces where there is more majesty of melody than vigor of the dance.  The same with the lute.  Both are too solemn; and the great number of strings that are touched and the chords that are formed to charm the ear only hinder the feet.  These are the instruments of repose, designed for serious and tranquil pleasures, whose languishing harmony is enemy of all action and demands only sedentary auditors.”

“…And as for the guitar, I can get on without it, and would use it only to ruin my ears or lacerate my insides.  May that be said in passing and with no malice.”

Just reporting the facts…

UPDATE 16 June 2013

Responding to requests to clarify the source of the quotes, the original text is given below:

(Chapter on the Ballet begins p. 209, Section Des Instrumens begins on p. 271: quote derived from p. 273-274 and 275)

Il s’agit icy de faire choix de l’Instrument que nous jugerons le plus propre pour faire dancer, & qui plus est, bien dancer: Le Tuaurbe n’est propre qu’à accompagner une voix, qu’ aux Concerts, ou qu’a joüer efin des Allemandes, des Sarabandes & autres Pieces, où il y a plus de la majesté du Chant, que la vigueur de la Dance.  Il en est de mesme du Lut.  L’un & l’autre sont trop graves, & la grande diversité des cordes que l’on touche, & des accords que l’on forme à la fois à force de charmer l’oreille, ne fait qu’embaraser le pieds.  Ce sont des instruments de repos destinez aux plaisirs serieux & tranquiles, & dont la languissante harmonie est ennemie de toute action, & ne demande que des Auditeurs sedentaires.

[Pour la Harpe on n’en veut point parmy nous:] & pour la Guitare, ie m’en passeray-bien, & ne m’en voudrois servir que pour m’arrcher le oreilles, ou pour me déchirer les entrailles.  Cela soit dit en passant, & sans aucun  malin vouloir.

  1. I reckon he’s right about the lute, though a bit harsh as far as the guitar is concerned. We’re talking the Gautiers and the like here, and I can’t really see anybody wanting to get up and dance to that music, much as I love to listen to it.

  2. Michel Depure’s comments seem like a fairly clear description of the state of expectations mid-17th century. It was, after all, the time of Lully, of the Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi, and of an orchestra that included enough hobos and baboons to cause structural damage to buildings. Realistically, I can’t imagine the lute used as a solo instrument for dancing – and neither could Mary Burwell’s lute tutor.


  3. He had obviously never heard Corbetta or Bartolotti playing the guitar – or even Lully for that matter.

  4. I’m sure it was difficult to hear anything subtle with one’s ears ringing from the blaring noise of a few score of fiddles, not to mention hundreds of hautbois et basson, the shuffling of slippers, and the rustling of reeking silk brocade. What a tasteless and tiresome time it must have been keeping up with the Bourbons.


  5. Dan Winheld permalink

    “…And as for the guitar, I can get on without it, and would use it only to ruin my ears or lacerate my insides. May that be said in passing and with no malice.”

    And this from a man who never heard the likes of Dick Dale, Roger Daltrey, Junior Brown, the great Jimi Hendrix, and -(bottom of the barrel with this one) Ted Nugent.

    THAT’S how we lacerate insides, outsides, & ears- in passing, with lots of malice!

    -Oh yes, my lute playing has never given anyone cause to get up off their chair, except for the occasional hasty exit.

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