Have you ever been so bowled over by the beauty of a piece of music that you’re not even sure where to start? Us too! In this new series, we’ll be underscoring a single element of a beloved piece that you can use as a port of entry. Up next? The gilded entrance of Louis XIV, future “Sun King” in in Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit… a heavy-handed turn of symbolism that we’re still talking about four centuries later.
Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit premiered into a complicated political climate: 1653 France was divided. Louis XIV, still a teenager, had recently officially taken the reins of the country after several years of interim rule by a regency council appointed to accompany the child king. The nation was left reeling after a series of upheavals, both external and internal. And the young ruler’s new government initiatives were standing on fragile ground.
Enter, Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit. And enter the Sun King, literally.
It may seem strange to modern audiences, but in seventeenth-century France, ballets (and other forms of theater more generally) were critical tools of political messaging and every last detail from the staging to the plot played a part in the court PR machine. It was typical for members of the court to dance and the roles attributed to them—think Gods, warriors, saviours…— were often intended to be read as allegories for the role they hoped to play in society.
Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit is an extravagant, 13-hour spectacle comprised of a series of dances, each with its own elaborate narrative and costuming. While the ballet is rife with symbolism—we could spend hours dissecting it—the bit that has gone down in history comes at the very end.
As the name suggests, the ballet unravels over the course of a night, a series of vigils culminating in daybreak. Narratively, everything builds to this moment and it certainly delivers: Louis XIV, playing the role of Apollo, God of Sun, enters in a blaze of gilded glory… A bright spot looming on the horizon after a long night… A new dawn after a period of darkness… Do we need to continue…?
If anyone in the audience hadn’t quite caught on, the lyrics (yes ballets back then often featured sung portions!) made the political allegory explicitly clear. Here’s an excerpt:
Already I drive alone my shining horses
Which draw splendour and brilliance in their wake.
A divine hand gave me their reins;
A great goddess upheld my rights.
We possess the same glory: she is the Star of Queens,
I am the Star of Kings.
The symbolism was certainly heavy-handed, but the situation was dire, and a strong message was needed. Louis XIV—or the “Sun King” as he would go on to be known—went on to reign for a record-breaking 72 years.
And what of the music? Unfortunately, the full score has been lost, so today’s article is really more of a thing to watch for than a thing to listen for, per se.
In this reconstructed version, conductor and musicologist Sébastien Daucé relies on bits of found sheet music, including vocal airs by Jean de Cambefort and fragments of instrumental scores. The rest he filled in with creative license, drawing on his extensive knowledge of and research into the repertoire.
The next time you come across something about the great Sun King, think about how ballet training was once considered essential for a young monarch. Or just marvel at how strong his personal brand was. After all, how many other seventeenth-century kings are still referred to by their chosen nickname today?
August 4th, 2019, 3 PM (EDT)
From 1653 to 2017. Sébastien Daucé and Francesca Lattuada reconstruct a moment from history.