The Metamorphosis of Psyché

John S. Powell

Paper given for the conference Opera and Politics in the Ancien Régime under the aegis of
The UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies
at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library on 27 February 2009

     Few works in French theater have undergone such a striking metamorphosis as Moliere’s Psyché, which began as a tragi-comédie et ballet and became transformed seven years later into a tragédie en musique.  Given the political slant of this conference, I would like to examine the original version as an instrument of propaganda:  as an expression of royal authority and military might on the eve of the Dutch Wars.

     Psyché marked the apex of the collaborative ballet royal in which the various components— the design, the spoken verses, the sung lyrics, the music, and the choreography—were the work of a team of artists.  In the first edition of the complete play , published after the court performances, the au lecteur explains that Philippe Quinault supplied the lyrics (marked in red), with the exception of the plainte italienne, which the frères Parfaict, in their History of French Theater, tell us were by Lully.  Furthermore, the au lecteur (marked in blue) states that "M. de Molière a dressé le plan de la pièce, et réglé la disposition" Finally, toward the end of the au lecteur (marked in green) we learn that Corneille was brought in at the eleventh hour to help out Molière with the versification of Acts 2 and 3.  It is not made clear whether this Corneille is the venerated playwright Pierre Corneille , or his younger and less handsome brother Thomas .  This ambiguity has led one French scholar to speculate that it was Thomas—on the grounds that Pierre worked much more slowly after 1655, and probably would have been hard-pressed to churn out two acts “dans une quinzaine” (as stated in the au lecteur).  On the other hand, Pierre Corneille had given his latest play, Tite et Bérénice, to Molière's company to perform at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal starting in mid-December, and this would have brought the two playwrights into close and frequent contact.  In his Vie de Molière Voltaire accepted that Molière’s collaborator was indeed Pierre, not Thomas, Corneille; and, with regard to this collaboration of talent, he declared that “Only Racine was missing from this society of great men, in order that all of the most excellent men of the theater that ever were might have been reunited to serve a king who merited being served by such men”.

        At any rate, the King’s originally intended to have Psyché performed the first week of January 1671—for Carlo Vigarani, the set designer, wrote to Count Graziani on 12 December 1670 that “a grand spectacle is being prepared, which will be given on Epiphany in the theater of the Tuileries”.  In a subsequent letter written 3 days later, he complains about how tired he is in preparing these spectacles for the King’s entertainment.  Word had gotten out, and Paris was all abuzz in anticipation of this event, as Robinet reported:

All is being prepared at the Tuileries
For the royal
For ball, comedy, and ballet,
Where all will be a passing fancy.

Tout se prépare aux Thuilleries,
Pour de royales Momeries,
Pour Bal, Comédie & Balet,
Où tout fera du Feu violet.

The première performance was on 17 January 1671, and lasted 5 hours.  The 24 January 1671 issue of the Gazette de France gave a full account of the première, in which members of the royal family were present: 

Their majesties, consisting of Monseigneur le Dauphin, Monsieur, Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle d’Orléans, and all the Lords and Ladies of the Court, attended, for the first time, in the Machine Theater of the Tuileries Palace, the entertainment of a grand ballet, danced in the entr'actes of the tragicomedy of Psyché, performed by the King’s Company, with all the brilliance and all the splendor imaginable.

The amount of space devoted in the Gazette to this production was no doubt meant to impress its foreign and domestic readers with the magnificence of the Sun King's royal entertainments.  Indeed, one is tempted to view all printed accounts of this pièce à grand spectacle—particularly the livret, with its extensive description of the theater, its engraving of the Tuileries Palace, and its description of the décor and machine effects—as a type of political propaganda.  Most striking was the final scene, in which the Olympian gods arrive for the wedding of Cupid and Psyche.  According to the livret:

     The stage changes and represents the Heavens.  Jupiter's grand palace descends, and in the distance by three orders of perspective are seen the other palacdes of the most powerful Gods of the Heavens; a cloud machine emerges from the stage, on which Cupid and Psyche are seated, and they are taken away by a second cloud machine that descends to join with the first.  A troupe of little cupids arrive in five machines by completely different movements to express their joy to the God of Love; and at the same time Jupiter and Venus cross in the air and line up next to Cupid and Psyche.
     The Gods of the Heavens, which had been divided between Venus and her son, reunite in seeing them reconciled; they appear 300 in number on some clouds which fill the stage, and all together with concerts, songs, and dances they celebrate the wedding festival of Cupid.
In an undated letter Carlo Vigarani states that his machine-effects for Psyché surpassed those created by his father for Ercole amante:
Even though prepared in only seven weeks, the machine spectacle that has just been given was judged superior to that of the King's marriage in 1661.  Everyone especialy admired the last machine in which appeared 200 persons which, with singers, instruments, dancers, drums, and trumpets, created a miraculous effect.

Accounts vary as to the number of performers who appeared onstage in the Finale:  Carlo estimated 200, while the Gazette de France, following the livret, stated 300.  Regardless of the exact number, all accounts agree that the visual effect was astounding—and this spectacular scene became immortalized in a tapestry woven by the Gobelins factory .   Is it purely by accident that the Royal Family was depicted as Olympian Gods in a mural by Jean Nocret, painted the year before?   Even more miraculous was the fact that the Queen-Mother, Anne of Austria, shown in the center of this mural in radiant health, had died 4 years earlier. 

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     Before I discuss the subsequent performances of Psyché, please allow me to go a bit into the political significance of this production.  Two years earlier Louis XIV had signed the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ending the War of the Devolution (1667-68), the first war between
France and Spain for the possession of the Spanish Netherlands. This treaty returned the district of Franche-Comté to Spain, and gave to France the city of Lille and 11 towns on the border of the Netherlands ( see the areas shaded in blue).  Meanwhile, Louis XIV sought to strike an agreement with Charles II whereby England would abandon the Triple Alliance with Sweden and the Dutch Republic in favor of aiding Louis in his coming war of conquest against the Dutch Republic.

     As ambassador, Louis sent his sister-in-law, Henrietta Anna
, who was the youngest daughter of
England’s Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France.  In 1661 Henrietta Anna married her first cousin, Philippe d’Orléans, younger brother to Louis XIV and known at court as “Monsieur”…and she thereafter was referred-to as “Madame”.   Despite their dysfunctional marriage, they had several children—the oldest of which, Marie Louise d’Orléans (born in 1662), was known as “Mademoiselle”.  Monsieur’s family is represented in the left part of this Olympian tableau ( Henrietta Maria, Monsieur, Marie-Louise, and Henrietta Anna).

     With her brother, King Charles II of
England, Henrietta Anna helped to negotiate the Treaty of Dover (1670)—whereby Charles promised to support French policy in Europe in return for a French subsidy that would free him from financial dependence on Parliament.  In fact, there were actually two treaties: a secret one concerning the conversion of England to the Roman Catholic faith in exchange for 2 million crowns from Louis XIV (which never took effect), and a formal one concerning an Anglo-French military and naval alliance designed to subjugate the United Provinces of the Netherlands.  Just two weeks after the treaty was signed, Henrietta Anna died under mysterious circumstances at the Château de Saint-Cloud, near Paris. At the time of her death it was widely believed that she had been poisoned by friends of her husband’s jealous lover and exiled favorite, the Chevalier de Lorraine.

     But I digress.  During this respite from warfare from 1668 to 1672, Louis XIV called on Molière and Lully to entertain the court with a series of grands divertissements, namely:  George Dandin, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, Les Amants magnifiques, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and finally, Psyché
—the Carnival entertainment for the winter of 1670-71.  The lyrics of the Prologue refer to these halcyon days of peace after years of warfare:

It is no longer the time of war;
The most powerful of Kings
Interrupts his exploits
to bring Peace to the Earth.
Descend, Mother of Cupids,
Come bring us halcyon days.
  Ce n’est plus le temps de la Guerre;
Le plus puissant des Rois
Interrompt ses Explois
Pour donner la Paix à la Terre:
Descendez, Mere des Amours,
Venez nous donner des beaux jours.

     Furthermore, Louis wished his subjects to partake of this royal entertainment.   Psyché was premièred not at Saint Germain en Laye, Versailles, or Chambord as were the other grands divertissements, but in Paris—in the magnificent Salle des Machines housed in the Tuileries Palace—seen here in blueprint. Its capacious playhouse, built in 1659-60 by Le Vau and equipped by Gaspare Vigarani and his sons, Carlo and Lodovico, was designed originally for Cavalli’s opera Ercole amante in celebration of Louis XIV’s wedding to the Spanish infanta Marie-Thérèse.  However, its acoustics proved to be so deplorable that the hall had lain dormant since the 1662 performance.   Its Olympian proportions could accommodate a large audience of visiting dignitaries, and certain performance days were set aside so that the populace of Paris could attend without the distraction of the presence of the royal family.  The venue, like the production itself, was designed to project the majesty of Louis XIV…and, for the benefit of posterity, an engraving of the Tuileries palace and a detailed description of the theater  was included at the beginning of the livret.

     The Marquis de Saint-Maurice attended the second performance of 19 January 1671, and he provides a few more details about the production.  Saint-Maurice was impressed by the five-hour length of the performance, and he reported that Vigarani's machines and set-changes all worked smoothly.  Most striking were the multiple on-stage bands of instruments in the Dernier Intermède were particularly diverse and colorful:


We were invited there the day before yesterday, and we remained there five hours; I admit…that I have never seen anything better performed nor more magnificent, which could not be otherwise, owing to the quantity of dancing masters—there being seventy of them which danced together in the final entrée.  What is also marvelous is the quantity of string instruments, of instrumentalists, and of singers—which were more than three hundred in number, all magnificently costumed…but as for the final scene, it is indeed the most astonishing thing that may be seen, for in an instant appears more than three hundred persons suspended, either in a cloud or in a glory, and that makes the loveliest symphony imaginable with strings, theorbos, lutes, harpsichords, oboes, flutes, trumpets, and cymbals.


Nous y fûmes conviés avant-hier et nous y demeurâmes cinq heures; j'avoue. . .que je n'ai encore rien vu ici de mieux exécuté ni de plus magnifique et ce sont des choses qui ne se peuvent pas faire ailleurs à cause de la quantité des maîtres à danser, y en ayant soixante-dix qui dansent ensemble en la dernière entrée.  Ce qui est aussi merveilleux est la quantité des violons, des joueurs d'instruments et des musiciens qui sont plus de trois cents, tous magnifiquement habillés. . . .mais pour la dernière scène, c'est bien la chose la plus étonnante qui se puisse voir, car l'on voit tout en un instant paraître plus de trois cents personnes suspendues ou dans des nuages ou dans une gloire, et cela fait la plus belle symphonie du monde, en violons, théorbes, luths, clavecins, hautbois, flûtes, trompettes et cymbales.


     The Gazette de France had reported that this 19 January 1671 performance was given “in the presence of the papal nuncio, the Venetian ambassador, and several other ministers” Then the court departed for the Château de Vincennes, where on 22 January they continued their Carnival festivities.  We learn from the Gazette de France (31 January) that the actors of the Hôtel de Bourgogne performed Quinault's Bellérophon, while Molière’s company performed Pierre Corneille's latest play, Bérénice, which had been in production at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. 

     Oddly the Gazette de France does not give specifics with regard to subsequent performances of Psyché, and so for these details we must turn to…The London Gazette.  This attests to the keen interest with which the English followed events at the French court.  An article dated 21 January 1670 (N.B. the old style) describes the première (“On Saturday last in the evening was danced the Grand Ballet for the first time at the Louvre, with a great deal of splendor and Gallantry,” and then goes on to state that “Yesterday the King went with the whole Court to Vincennes, where he intends to divert himself for Three or Four days, and on Saturday to be back again at Paris”.  In fact, they returned just two days later, “and in the Evening the great Ballet was danced over again, where the Court appeared not, to give the greater liberty to those of the Town to be present there” (27 Jan. 1670 [OS]).  According to the Gazette de France, performances continued “several times” throughout the week and on 28 January the court went to Versailles “in order to continue, similarly, in this beautiful place, the entertainment of the season”.  The king and court returned to Paris on 3 February, and  “the on same day, and on the 5th, their majesties enjoyed once again the entertainment of the ballet” (Gazette de France, 7 February 1671).  A 4 February 4 article in The London Gazette corroborates this, stating that “This Evening the great Ballet was danced over again at the Thuilleries, where their Majesties were pleased to be present with the greatest part of the Court.”  On 7 Febuary The London Gazette reported that “The Grand Ballet hath for these three or four last days been danced over again, to give the greater opportunity to all sorts of people, to see and admire the Magnificence of those Divertisements” .  In fact, we learn from the Gazette de France (14 February) that the final court performance took place on 9 February, when  “their majesties took, again, the entertainment of the ballet of Psyché”.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

     But Louis XIV had in mind further uses of this impressive work.  Plans for an extended tour of France’s northernmost fortifications, in preparation for the Dutch Wars, had been laid well in advance of the première of Psyché, for on 12 December 1670 the machinist Carlo Vigarani wrote that "The King will depart in April for Flanders, where he will spend five to six months."  Evidently a fully-staged performance of Psyché in Lille had been planned, for Carlo Vigarani was to accompany the royal entourage:  “The king, who has left Paris for Versailles and Saint-Germain, will go to Flanders; Carlo will accompany him, because his majesty is planning to give this summer at Lille a grand fête with machines."  The Gazette d’Amsterdam reported that no fewer than 150 carpenters and workmen, accompanied by numerous painters, left Paris on 13 March “to work on the machines”. Louis XIV had laid seige to this Flemish city in 1667, and under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle Lille was given over to France.  Lille, therefore, became a symbol of the Sun King’s ambitions, and a performance there of Psyché would serve a higher purpose.  It was to be a political tool, designed to send a powerful message to Louis’s new subjects.

     The travels of the King and his court were chronicled in the Gazette de France, and also, interestingly, were closely followed in The London Gazette.  Whereas the Gazette de France provided the official account and detailed the itinerary of the King’s travels, The London Gazette showed a keen interest in the court’s activities and its reception, the troop movements on both the French and Dutch sides, the arrival of soldiers and munitions from Spain, the construction of fortifications, and the unnerving reaction of the Dutch to the unfolding events.  From Saint Germain en Laye, the King and his court departed on 23 April in a grand cortège that would provide many provincials with their first glimpse of their monarch’s splendor.  Accompanying him was his pregnant queen Marie-Thérèse whom The London Gazette reported was “with child”, his 2-year-old son Philippe Charles (known as the duc d’Anjou), the king’s brother Monsieur, Monsieur’s daughter Mademoiselle d'Orléans, and many gentlemen and ladies of the court.

     The goal for the first day was to be the Château of Chantilly where, according to The London Gazette, the king’s cousin, Louis II de Bourbon, Prince de Condé was preparing to receive the entourage.  During that evening and throughout the next day, Condé regaled Louis with tours of his gardens and fountains, together with concerts, firework displays, and hunting excursions.  A special issue of the Gazette de France described the two-day fête in detail.  The royal court arrived at the forest entrance, where they were received by the Prince de Condé, the Duc d’Engüyen, and a large entourage of nobility (p. 438).  They then entered into the gardens, and were led to a little woods where there was a verdant grove lit by 30 chandeliers and as many girandoles, and ornamented with  60 vases holding jonquils, narcisses, and anemones (p. 439).  While they enjoyed there a light meal, they listened to a performance of an excerpt from Psyché, given in the Cabinet des Peintures.  “These lovely voices repeated an Air from the last Ballet du Roy, where Vulcan exhorted his cyclops to work diligently on some golden vases intended to decorate the Palace that Cupid was having prepared for Psyche; and it was said that this same air was used there to excite Art and Nature to join their finest efforts on behalf of the pleasure of the Monarch" (p. 441) ( ).  They then retired to the Château, which was lit by “une infinite de Lumières”, for a supper, (pp. 442, 443, 444) and a 2-hour fireworks display given on the canal.  The following day, a Friday, was given to the hunt—and no less than 5 types of game:  the stag, the doe, the hare, the magpie, and the pheasant.  This was followed by a dinner featuring several kinds of fish (p. 445).  Then they embarked on a gondola ride through the canals to a small palace (p. 447) that the Duc d’Engüyen had built in a little park to the right of the château.  There they were served a light meal, accompanied (p. 448) by a concert of strings and oboes.  The next day the King and his court departed to continue their voyage to Flanders.

     The fable of Psyche and Cupid held special significance for the Prince de Condé--for in 1541 his ancestor, the Counstable Anne de Montmorency, had commissioned 44 stained glass windows for his Château d’Écouen (and which are now housed in the Galérie de Psyché at Chantilly). Chantilly was itself a veritable 'Palais d'Amour', and Vulcan's air no doubt made the listeners take note of the splendor of Condé's many objets d'arts.

     The Gazette de France
is silent with regard to a famous tragedy that occurred on the second day of the royal visit.  This was a Friday, and François Vatel, Condé's maître d'hôtel, planned an elaborate fish dinner.  Although the Gazette mentions only that all kinds of fine fish were served, it remains silent about an incident that would be reported in a letter written by Mme de Sévigné, written to her daughter on Sunday, April 26, 1671.  

À Paris, ce dimanche 26e avril

     Il est dimanche 26 avril; cette lettre ne partira que mercredi; mais ceci n'est pas une lettre, c'est une relation que vient de me faire Moreuil, à votre intention, de ce qui s'est passé à Chantilly touchant Vatel. Je vous écrivis vendredi qu'il s'était poignardé: voici l'affaire en détail.
    Le Roi arriva jeudi au soir; la chasse, les lanternes, le clair de la lune, la promenade, la collation dans un lieu tapissé de jonquilles, tout cela fut à souhait. On soupa; il y eut quelques tables où le rôti manqua, à cause de plusieurs dîners où l'on ne s'était point attendu. Cela saisit Vatel; il dit plusieurs fois: « Je suis perdu d'honneur; voici un affront que je ne supporterai pas. » Il dit à Gourville: « La tête me tourne, il y a douze nuits que je n'ai dormi; aidez-moi à donner des ordres. » Gourville le soulagea en ce qu'il put. Ce rôti qui avait manqué, non pas à la table du Roi, mais aux vingt-cinquièmes, lui revenait toujours à la tête. Monsieur le Prince alla jusque dans sa chambre, et lui dit: « Vatel, tout va bien, rien n'était si beau que le souper du Roi. » Il lui dit: « Monseigneur, votre bonté m'achève; je sais que le rôti a manqué à deux tables. - Point du tout, dit Monsieur le Prince, ne vous fâchez point, tout va bien. »
     La nuit vient: le feu d'artifice ne réussit pas, il fut couvert d'un nuage; il coûtait seize mille francs. À quatre heures du matin, Vatel s'en va partout, il trouve tout endormi; il rencontre un petit pourvoyeur qui lui apportait seulement deux charges de marée; il lui demande: « Est-ce là tout? » Il lui dit: « Oui, Monsieur. » Il ne savait pas que Vatel avait envoyé à tous les ports de mer. Il attend quelque temps; les autres pourvoyeurs ne viennent point; sa tête s'échauffait, il croit qu'il n'aura point d'autre marée; il trouve Gourville, et lui dit : « Monsieur, je ne survivrai pas à cet affront-ci; j'ai de l'honneur et de la réputation à perdre. » Gourville se moqua de lui. Vatel monte à sa chambre, met son épée contre
la porte, et se la passe au travers coeur; mais ce ne fut qu'au troisième coup, car il s'en donna deux qui n'étaient pas mortels: il tombe mort. La marée cependant arrive de tous côtés; on cherche Vatel pour la distribuer; on va à sa chambre; on heurte, on enfonce la porte; on le trouve noyé dans son sang; on court à Monsieur le Prince, qui fut au désespoir. Monsieur le Duc pleura; c'était sur Vatel que roulait tout son voyage de Bourgogne. Monsieur le Prince le dit au Roi fort tristement: on dit que c'était à force d'avoir de l'honneur en sa manière; on le loua fort, on loua et blâma son courage. Le Roi dit qu'il y avait cinq ans qu'il retardait de venir à Chantilly, parce qu'il comprenait l'excès de cet embarras. Il dit à Monsieur le Prince qu'il ne devait avoir que deux tables et ne se point charger du reste. Il jura qu'il ne souffrirait plus que Monsieur le Prince en usât ainsi; mais c'était trop tard pour le pauvre Vatel.
     Cependant Gourville tâche de réparer la perte de Vatel; elle le fut: on dîna très bien, on fit collation, on soupa, on se promena, on joua, on fut à la chasse; tout était parfumé de jonquilles, tout était enchanté. Hier, qui était samedi, on fit encore de même; et le soir, le Roi alla à Liancourt, où il avait commandé un medianoche; il y doit demeurer aujourd'hui.
Voilà ce que m'a dit Moreuil, pour vous mander. Je jette mon bonnet par-dessus le moulin, et je ne
sais rien du reste. M. de Hacqueville qui était à tout cela, vous fera de des relations sans doute; mais comme son écriture n'est pas si lisible que la mienne, j'écris toujours. Voilà bien des détails, mais parce que je les aimerais en pareille occasion, je vous les mande.


     It is Sunday, April 26; this letter won't leave until Wednesday; but this isn't a letter, it's that which Moreuil has just told me so that I could repeat it to you, about what happened at Chantilly concerning Vatel. On Friday I wrote to you that he was stabbed: here are the details of the matter.
The King arrived Thursday evening; hunting, lanterns, moonlight, a promenade, the meal in a place carpeted with jonquils, everything that one could wish. Supper was served; there were some tables at which there was no roast, because there were several more guests than were expected. This affected Vatel; he said several times: "I have lost honor; this is a disgrace which I can't bear." He said to Gourville: "My head is spinning, I haven't slept for twelve nights; help me give orders." Gourville help him as best he could. The roast which had been lacking, not at the King's table, but at the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, kept coming back to his mind. The Prince went to his room and said to him, "Vatel, everything is going fine, nothing was ever as lovely as the King's supper." Vatel answered, "Sir, your goodness is too much for me; I know that there was no roast at two tables." "That's nothing at all," said the prince, "don't fret about it, everything is going fine."
     Night falls. The fireworks fail, because of a fog over everything; they had cost sixteen thousand francs. At 4:00 AM Vatel was everywhere, but he found everyone asleep; he ran into a small purveyor who brought him only two loads of fish; Vatel asked him, "Is that all?" He answered, "Yes, sir." He didn't know that Vatel had sent to all the ports. Vatel waited a while; the other purveyors didn't come; his head felt hot, he thought that he would have no other fish; he found Gourville, and said to him: "Sir, I will not survive this disgrace; I have honor and a reputation to lose." Gourville laughed at him. Vatel went up to his room, stood his sword against the door, and passed it through his heart; but that was only at the third stab, for the first two weren't fatal: He fell dead. However, the fish started coming from all sides; they looked for Vatel to distribute it; they went to his room, they started banging, they broke down the door; they found him drowned in his blood; they ran to the Prince, who was in despair. The Duke cried; he had come from Burgundy only because of Vatel. The Prince said to the King with great sadness: "They say it was because of his pride"; people praised him greatly, they praised and blamed his courage. The King said that he hadn't been to Chantilly for five years because he knew how much strain his visits caused. He told the Prince that he should only have had two tables, and not pay any attention to the others. He swore that he would not put up with the Prince's doing things like that any more; but it was too late for poor Vatel.
     Gourville tried to make up for the loss of Vatel; it worked: they dined very well, they had their light meals, they supped, the took their walks, they hunted. Everywhere the scent of jonquils, everything was enchanted. Yesterday, which was Saturday, they did the same again; and in the evening the King went to Liancourt, where he ordered a midnight meal like the ones after fasts; he has to stay there today.
     That's what Moreuil told me, so that I should send it to you. I throw my bonnet above the mill, and that's all I know of the story. M. de Hacqueville, who was there, will no doubt write to you about it, but since my handwriting is more legible than his, I'm writing anyway. I've written a lot of details, but since I would want them in your place, I'm sending them to you.

Curiously, many standard reference sources question whether this incident indeed ever happened.  Yet we can read in The London Gazette a brief report in an article dated 28 April 28, five days after the event in question.  

     On 25 April the royal entourage left Chantilly and, according to The London Gazette, traveled to Liancourt, then Amiens, Abbeville, Montreüil, Calais, Gravelines, and arrived at Dunkerque on 3 May.  Dunkerque had had a checkered past: originally Dutch, it had been captured by the French in 1646, recaptured by the Hapsburgs in 1652, captured by the English in 1657, and sold by Charles II to Louis XIV in 1662.  Because of its strategic location, Louis XIV had sent his military engineer Vauban and 30,000 soldiers to enlarge the old port and rebuild the outdated fortifications .  While the queen and her ladies of honor spent their days walking on the seashore and visiting local convents, the King occupied himself with daily visits to view progress on the battlements and to review his troops. According to The London Gazette:

The second instant (i.e., 2 May) his most Christian Majesty arrived with the Court at Dunkirk, where he hath a Body of 28,000 men compleat, who are dayly employed to work at the Fortifications of the place, by certain Divisions; the First enter at Five and continue till Nine, the Second succeeds and continues till two in the afternoon, and the third follows from Two to Seaven; at the end of each of which they are relieved at the fireing of two Guns; so that there is not a Souldier in the Army who works not five hours in a day, for which they have two Solz and a half extraordinary [pay] allowed them a day.

     Over the next few days the King consulted with his ambassadors to England and Holland and received various foreign dignitaries—who were uneasy about this massive buildup of French forces along their borders. Dutch concern over Louis XIV’s intentions were reported in several issues of The London Gazette, beginning in March:

We have advice here, that the French Troops in Lorrain are on their march towards these parts; and from the Franche Comte we are told, of the great quantities of provisions they are there making against next Summer for the French forces, who are to come that way, so that the people here, notwithstanding the assurances they have of peace, are not a little apprehensive of the French approaches.

On 11 April 1671, the Gazette de France reported that Dunquerque was to be the rendez-vous point of French troops that were being brought from Lorraine, and the troops accompanying the King on his tour of the frontier:

Everything is being arranged here [in Paris] for the King's voyage to Flanders, and this week the Duc de Duras left for Doncerai to receive the troops from Lorraine that await him there, and lead them to Dunkerque--where is the rendez-vous place of those who will accompany His Majesty, who has made  him Commander in Chief.

We can certainly understand the anxiety of the Dutch, as well as infer from this the wry enjoyment of Louis XIV in keeping the Dutch guessing at his intentions.  In a letter dated 21 May 1671, Saint-Maurice reported that:  

The Dutch are horribly fearful; they have spies everywhere on sea and on land, and one takes pleasure at giving them fright; the [Dutch] ambassador does not put on a bold front, as has been reported; he is stunned by all of this--by seeing the troops, all these people, all of these fortifications; he dares not reveal either his fear or mistrust because they would make fun of him, for only kind things are said to him; he has told me that he would like to go from here to Holland, to report personally to the Estates about this build-up.  I believe that they will be reduced to what one stitches together, provided that one might be willing to make some treaty with them which might make them safe.

The London Gazette reported on the countermeasures taken by the Hapsburgs to achieve a balance of power in the Spanish Netherlands:

From Brussels they write, that the Provinces have finally agreed on the raising of a considerable Summ of Money, toward the Fortifications of several places in those Countries; That all the discourse there is, of the likelihood of a War this Summer, and all needful preparations accordingly are making for their defence in case of the worst; That at Ostend were arrived 500 Souldiers more from Spain, which with those formerly spoken of, make up 1500 Men.

His Excellency intends with few days to go for Bruges, where he will stay during the time his most Christian Majesty is in Flanders; and at the same time Count Marcin will go for Ipre, to see in what condition that place is in; where as is said, they have above 5,000 men in Garrison; and for their better security have made several Sluces, by which they can upon an occasion, put the Countrey thereabouts under water, and so hinder the approach of any Enemy.  His Excellency hath given order for the marching of several Troops which were quartered at Louain, Malines, and those other remoter parts, to march towards the Frontiers of Flanders, and to expect there his further directions.

“His Excellency” referred-to above was the 30-year-old Spanish Governor-General of the Hapsburg Netherlands—Don Juan Domingo Mendez de Haro, Count of Monterey —who watched these events unfold from a safe vantage-point 40 miles away in Bruges.

     Louis XIV celebrated the near-completion of the Dunkerque fortifications on 23 May 23 with a gala, al fresco production of the Prologue and Dernier Intermède of Psyché.  A special issue of the Gazette de France provided the world with a full account of these festivities.  According to this article, the pre-existing fortifications were in such a bad state that Vauban had them pulled down and entirely rebuilt (p. 533).  With the fortifications nearing completion, Louis XIV offered his court and the soldier-workmen “a most magnificent festivity...a Galantery truly heroic, in this frontier place, seen by 30,000 men-at-arms" (p. 538).  No doubt, this celebration was given equally for the benefit of the Dutch.  He gave Vauban orders to complete the Royal Bastion ( circled in yellow) so that it could serve as a stage for this “Feste belliqueuse”.  The symphony, chorus, and strings were stationed in the first of three tents.  700 drums of the regiment were positioned on the rampart, and fifes, oboes, and trumpets stood on a large mound of brushwood in the ditch; and 80 cannon were placed on the curtain wall between the Royal Bastion and the castle (p. 539).  The Gazette de France, with tongue firmly set in cheek, continues with the rhetorical question: 

Who, then, would not be convinced that this was the apparatus of a Battle, rather than that of a Festival?  Where had one ever seen the instruments of War serving Pleasure and the Celebration of Peace?  And what Potentate was ever entertained like this Grand Monarch, who takes relaxation from his Glorious Occupations by such things that bear the of Pain and War, thereby making all the other powers tremble when he plays with 80 pieces of cannon? (p. 540)

In a brilliant stroke of metatheater, Louis brought his soldiers and the royal family into the performance.  After the chorus sang “Nous goûtons une Paix profonde / Les plus doux jeux sont icy bas; / On doit ce repos plein d’appas / Au plus grand Roy du monde” the signal was given to the troops to cease their work.  Then while the chorus summons Venus and the halcyon days, Queen Marie Thérèse (who we will recall was "with child") arrived amidst the graces, followed by the ladies [of the court], who had assumed a certain air of conquest”. (

     The Prologue evidently led directly into the musical finale, depicting the apotheosis of Psyche and her marriage to Cupid.   “And at the place where Mars proposed to combine the image of War with their Divertissements, the timpani and trumpets, which were in a neighboring tent, immediately joined with voices, while the strings, kettledrums and the oboes on the ramparts responded in the intervals—and, amidst all of that, there was fired a salvo of 80 pieces of cannon" (p. 542) ( )  "All of these noises and different sounds mingled together, creating a kind of Harmony to which the ear had not yet been accustomed and which gave a pleasure mingled with fright, which elevated the Soul while entertaining it and caused one to admire the grandeur and magnificence of the King."  This was followed by a second and a third salvo of cannon fire, while the trumpets and kettledrums played.   And for several days afterwards, a number of foreign visitors came to view parades of Louis’s troops as well as the new work achieved on his fortifications (pp. 543-544).

     There is little doubt that this performance, together with the presence of Louis and his war machine, was calculated to deliver a powerful musical message to his Flemish neighbors:  that Louis was the first soldier of the day, and his kingdom the most powerful force in the world.   Moreover, he delivered this message with a theatrical flair typical of the Sun King.  The propaganda value of such a display was inestimable—particularly when the entrée of the Suite de Mars brought on a salvo of cannon-fire that would have rattled the cupboards of Don Juan Domingo Mendez de Haro in Bruges.  But even more lasting was the irony of Louis XIV at the northernmost strategic stronghold of his kingdom and on the eve of the Dutch War, heralded in Quinault’s verses and Lully’s music, as the harbinger of peace. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

     After Dunkerque, the royal entourage visited the newly-rebuilt fortifications in the cities acquired by the 1668 Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ( red dots):  Bergues (25 May), Lille (27 May), Oudenarde (29 May), and Tournai (31 May)--where court remained for two weeks. The Lille performance of Psyché seems never to have materialized—at least there is no further mention of it in the Gazette de France.   Most likely, the Dunquerque performance provided a coup de théâtre that could not be surpassed.  After leaving Tournai on 15 June, the King visited fortifications at Ath ( yellow dots), Binche (24 June), Charleroi (25 June), and Philippeville (26 June).  The London Gazette gives a more descriptive account of these travels.  After returning for a week at Ath, the court departed on 7 July for Versailles, where it arrived on 12 July before continuing on to Saint Germain en Laye.   The London Gazette reported on 9 July that “it is thought the present weakness of the young Duke d’Anjou, may have much contributed to hasten the Courts return.”  As it would happen, the child died during the return trip—a sobering reminder of how prevalent child mortality was in the Seventeenth Century.

     Upon the king’s return musical excerpts from Psyché continued to be performed at court.  The Gazette de France reported on 8 August that “Their majesties enjoyed in the evening the performance of airs from the ballet of Psyché, which were followed with a superb party attended by all of the ladies”.  That winter excerpts of Psyché were recycled in Le Ballet des Ballets, a pastiche of intermèdes culled from earlier comédies-ballets.  Judging by the livret, Le Ballet des Ballets included 31 of the 38 numbers of Psyché:  its Prologue included excerpts of the Prologue (LWV 45/2-45/7); its Premier Intermède included the Plainte italienne (LWV 45/8-45/10) and the Quatrième Intermède (LWV 45/18); its Quatrième Intermède included excerpts from the Second Intermède (LWV 45/12-45/14); and its Septième Intermède consisted of the entire Dernier Intermède (LWV 45/19-45/37).

     Meanwhile, Molière and his Troupe du Roy began their 1671-72 season with a gala production of Psyché at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal,  complete with “machines, decorations, music, ballet, and generally all the ornaments necessary for this grand spectacle”.  During their Lenten break the company resolved to remodel the interior of their playhouse, to have their stage rebuilt in order to accommodate machines, and henceforth to have a permanent theater orchestra of twelve strings.  Moreover, the company hired professional singers to perform “on-stage, unmasked, and dressed like the actors”. Viewed with historical hindsight, this was probably a gambit to take over the opera privilège from Pierre Perrin and his associates.  Whatever the case, the first run of 39 performances of Psyché lasted from 21 July until 25 October of 1671.  The second run of 13 performances ran from 15 January to 6 March 1672, after which Molière and Lully seem to have had a falling-out (possibly over the opera privilège).  The third run of 31 performances at the Théâtre du Palais Royal lasted from 11 November 1672 until 22 January 1673—an unprecedented grand total of 83 performances.  Psyché clearly demonstrated that semi-operatic productions were financially viable in the public theater.

     In 1678, Lully converted the 1671 tragédie-ballet into a full-fledged tragédie en musique.  Philippe Quinault, Lully's usual librettist, was in disgrace at court over his previous opera Isis, and so the task fell to Thomas Corneille, Pierre’s younger brother.  Unlike the majority of Lully's operas, Psyché was not created at court; rather, the première took place at the Académie Royale de Musique on 19 April 1678.  The Mercure Galant states that the opera was extremely well received, that audiences were enthralled by Lully's music as always, and that they would never have guessed that Corneille had composed the libretto in so little time as three weeks.   Whereas Psyché was revived only twice at the Académie Royale de Musique (in 1703 and in 1713), it also received performances in Modena (1687), Lyons (1698), at Ansbach (before 1686), Wolfenbüttel (1686, 1719), and Marseilles (1734).

     In conclusion, Psyché proved to be a seminal work of French musical theater.  It was one of the most remarkable collaborations of artists (Molière, Quinault, Corneille, Lully, Vigarani, and Pierre Beauchamps) in French history.  It served as a tool of political propaganda on the eve of the Dutch War.  It amply demonstrated the commercial viability of musical theater to Molière, when he and Lully were, it would seem, positioning themselves to take over the opera privilege.  And in its last incarnation it was transformed into a successful tragédie en musique—in which form it was performed widely in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries.


 Links to articles, websites, and other materials relating to Psyché

Psyché : The Stakes of a Collaboration,” in Reverberations: Staging Relations in French Since 1500 - A Festschrift in Honour of C. E. J. Caldicott, ed. Phyllis Gaffney, Michael Brophy, and Mary Gallagher (University College Dublin Press, 2008), 1-25.
Psyché website devoted to tragédie en musique version (with complete score)

Psyché website devoted to tragicomédie et ballet version (with complete score)

1671 first ed. of play (Gallica)
1671 livret

Philidor ms copy of tragicomédie et ballet, made in 1690 (Gallica)
Philidor ms copy of tragédie en musique (Bibl. Municipale de Versailles)

edition, in Oeuvres complètes de Lully (Olms Verlag)

website of The London Gazette