Music and the Scenic Portrayal of Gods, Men, and Monsters in Pierre Corneille's Andromède

Written during the time of the Fronde, Pierre Corneille’s machine play Andromède presented a parable in the tale of a Perseus, who delivers the Ethiopian people from a monster threatening their land. This myth, however, allowed for divergent political interpretations, for, in view of the prevailing anti-Italian sentiments of these troubled times, the rebellious Paris Parlement no doubt associated Andromeda with the regent Queen-Mother, and the monster with her Italian prime minister, Cardinal Giulio Mazarini. Andromède established many of the musical conventions of the French machine play, where music and scenic effects delineate the worlds of gods, mortals, and monsters. The gods, who sing in the lofty realms of the Prologue, speak in irregular verse when they address mortals on earth. Music also accompanies the miraculous appearance of the deus ex machina, while it serves the practical function of masking the noise of the machines. Mortal beings are shown making music in realistic situations, where music enters everyday life (serenades, sung prayers, victory chants, and wedding songs).  Monsters, on the other hand, not only seem to be singularly unmusical, but appear to be repelled by music’s supernatural power. The 1650 court première of Andromède became legendary, and set a new standard for French lyric theater. Thirty-two years later, the Comédie-Française mounted a full-scale revival with new music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.  This was a sumptuous production that aimed to re-establish the pre-eminence of Andromède and to rival Lully’s and Quinault’s tragédie-lyrique on the same myth. Following Corneille’s directive, Charpentier’s music is introduced only ‘to entertain the ears of the spectators while their eyes are engaged in watching the descent or ascent of a machine, or are focused on something, like the fight between Perseus and the monster, which would prevent their paying attention to what the actors might be saying’.


John S. Powell
Symposium Title: 
Gods, Men and Monsters – 2001
Author affiliation: 
Department of Music, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA