From the “unlikely-to-get-season-tickets” department, we introduce you to Charles de Saint-Évremond, whose hedonism didn’t extend to attending opera.
The French essayist and critic Charles de Saint-Évremond knew how to have a good time. After fleeing to England in 1661 to escape prosecution for attacking the Treaty of the Pyrenees, which ended the Franco-Spanish War, he ended up in the embrace of Hortense Mancini–a soft landing to be sure.
Mancini was the most beautiful of five beautiful daughters of Lorenzo Mancini, an Italian Baron. After an ill-conceived marriage with one of the richest (but also one of the most unstable) men in Europe, Mancini found sanctuary under the protection of Charles II and then later James II.
Comfortably ensconced in London, she turned her home into a parlor for artists and writers looking for stimulation, intellectual and otherwise. Of course Saint-Évremond would find his way to her house, and although it’s not clear whether the stimulation he received there was anything other than intellectual, he surely found in Mancini a kindred spirit. Rational moralists both, they eschewed the idea that pleasure is a sin, as long as one’s pleasure does nothing to harm others. And indeed, Mancini developed a reputation, whether fairly or not, for her flings with both men and women.
Given this hedonism, you might think Saint-Évremond would be a lover of opera, which in the mid-1600s was just starting to migrate from Italy to France and England, but if you were to think that, you would be wrong. “The music, in some places, is charming,” he says in a letter to the Duke of Buckingham. “The whole together seems wonderful. But it must be granted me also that this wonderful is very tedious; for where the mind has so little to do, there the senses must of necessity languish. After the first pleasure that surprise gives us, the eyes are taken up, and at length grow weary of being continually fixed upon the same object. . . . The soul, fatigued by a long attention, wherein it finds nothing to affect it, seeks some relief within itself; and the mind, which in vain expected to be entertained with the show, either gives way to idle musing, or is dissatisfied that it has nothing to employ it. In a word, the fatigue is so universal, that everyone wishes himself out of the house; and the only comfort that is left to the poor spectators, is the hope that the show will soon be over.”
Well, this does not sound ike a man who will be getting season tickets anytime soon.
In any case, that was not the whole of Saint-Évremond’s criticism. Indeed, his letter to the Duke goes on at length, during which he mentions works by Monteverdi, Rossi, Cavali, and others, and then finally sums up by calling opera a wretched mix of music and poetry. And yet, he says at last, one should not advertise his distaste for opera, because it’s bad form. So, he advises discretion. “A man runs a risk of having his judgment called in question, if he dares declare his good taste; and I advise others, when they hear any discourse of opera, to keep their knowledge a secret to themselves.” Unless, of course, one is declaring one’s tastes to the Duke.
So, we can be sure that, if ever Saint-Évremond attended opera with Hortense Mancini he did not enjoy it. But he surely enjoyed her company nonetheless.—Nabob, On Baroque
The excerpts from Saint-Évremond’s letter are from a really terrific book, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (Schirmer Books, 1984).
More about Saint-Évremond
More about Hortense Mancini