Saturday, 6 April 2013

Dansez sous les ormeaux

I came across this piece composed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
He was a philosopher, writer and a composer of music. He was one of the great lights of the Age of Enlightenment in France, like Voltaire and Diderot, though they had different points of view on equality amongst people. Also in reading Saint-Simon memoirs the notion at that time of equality was not what we think of today, the people, the great ignorant masses ruled by superstition were not present in the minds of the philosopher. They had a different notion, it was more a reform of the privileges of the Aristocracy, doing away with excess and a political ascension of the bourgeoisie, the King would be the King of the French instead of the King of France.

Le Devin du Village, an opera in one act, words and music by Rousseau, was presented for the first time at Court in the presence of the King at the Chateau de Fontainebleau in October 1752, one can imagine the magnificent background of the French Court for this opera which was only a divertissement, it quickly became a big success in Paris amongst the bourgeois. The aristocracy failed to see that it was a pointed critique. A line in particular asks: are their concerts better than our light street dances (musettes), Beauty without artifice or Pleasure without art, references to the excess of the Court.

I love these old French songs, the style is fresh and simple, the words easy to sing. The story is of a shepherd Colin and his peasant girl friend Colette, they are in love but he is seduced by a wealthy lady who lives in a Chateau and she is said to have run away with a gentleman to the City. Le devin du Village, (soothsayer) plays the referee for this couple, bringing them back together in this love story.

This is the closing song of this one act opera, the words sung, Let's go and dance among the Elm trees under the light of torches held high by our suitors (galant). 

However one has to remember that Rousseau was a critic of French Society and of the Ancien Régime.
At the end of the opera, Colin the shepherd rejects the life of luxury at the Chateau and Colette the pleasures of City life among the elite. They prefer the simple idyllic pleasures of country life and their love, imagine on an antique theme. It is a rejection of the pleasures pursued by the aristocracy. One can imagine that the King who was an absolute ruler, laughed at all this silliness after all the Revolution was still 39 years away. Neither Rousseau nor King Louis XV would live to see it. It was for Rousseau a social comment of what he hoped would bring change to French Society. In a way today we have social media to do that, at the time of the Enlightenment it was a more intelligent and more articulate critique of society.

Allons dansez sous les ormeaux
Animez vous jeunes fillettes
Allons dansez sous les ormeaux
Galants prenez vos chalumeaux
Allons dansez sous les ormeaux
Répétons mille chansonnettes
Et pour avoir le coeur joyeux
Allons dansez avec nos amoureux
Mais n'y restons jamais seulettes
Allons dansez sous les ormeaux
A la ville on fait bien plus de fracas
Mais sont-ils aussi gais dans leur ébats?
Toujours content
Toujours chantant
Beauté sans fard
Plaisir sans art
Tous leurs concerts valent-ils nos musettes?
Allons dansez sous les ormeaux.


  1. I am rather fond of music from this era; pity it is not performed more often. Some people think opera 'starts' in the classical period.