In 1987 I witnessed an aesthetic revolution: the recreation of Lully’s Atys. Somewhere between the costumes, the lights and the gestures, the Grand Siècle was reborn, a far cry from Sacha Guitry’s film Si Versailles m’était conté (A Royal Affair in Versailles)...
In the orchestra pit of the Opéra-Comique was the Arts Florissants orchestra. A whole generation of baroque musicians were blooming therein: Hervé Niquet, Christophe Rousset on the harpsichord, Marc Minkowski on the bassoon, Hugo Reyne on the flute. Under the direction of William Christie the face of music was forever changed.
Just what was going through Grand Siècle minds? An immoderate passion for dancing and a nostalgic feeling for the transience of pleasure, most likely. Lully, a frenetic libertine, never ceased to sing about them in his immense passacaglias.
Far away from the official portraits, let’s discover the other side of Louis XIV-era ‘pomp’. Let’s explore the intrigue, the passion for love so well expressed by the air de cour – an ancestor of French chansons. Let’s share in the immoderate passion for tobacco and coffee, so exciting at the time that Nicolas Bernier devoted an entire cantata to them! Let’s tremble with Couperin and Desmarest who’s sacred music was founded upon fears of plague and poisons.
It was under the rule of Louis XIV (who sacrificed the lives of thousands of workers to build his palace at Versailles) that quintessential French style was born. Rameau, Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn and Francis Poulenc owe all their elegant 21st century modernity to the famous Grand Siècle, woven just as much out of gold as out of shadows.