Music and French Baroque Gesture

John S. Powell

(Presented at the 15th Biennial International Conference on Baroque Music,
held at the University of Southampton, 11-15 July 2012;
a slightly different version of this presentation is published
in Early Music Performer, issue 30 (April 2012)

          This presentation was inspired in part by the Opéra Atélier production of the Quinault/Lully tragédie en musique, Persée, which I saw in Toronto in 2000.   Until then, I had seen very little gesture in Baroque opera productions, but I instinctively felt that what I saw in this instance had little basis in 17th-century French performance practice (video).  For me, this constant gesturing by the soloists marred what was otherwise a lovely performance (fn 1).

          Gesture is a word that hardly needs definition.  Yet in the 17th Century, the word gesture held a very specific meaning.  According to Richelet’s Dictionnaire françois (1680)(fn 2), it refers to “movement of the hand,” and moreover “movement of the hand conforming to things one says” (image).   Richelet makes a further distinction between “gesture” (geste), and “gesticulation”, making too many gestures or inappropriate gestures—which, he says, is not at all seemly (image, bottom).

          In the 17th Century, gesture was allied with rhetoric, the art of oratorical persuasion.  Training in rhetoric began in school, where the concept was broken down into five parts (image)inventio (Richelet’s "recherche"), dispositio (arrangement or disposition), elocutio (style or elocution), memoria (memory), and actio….which Richelet calls “Pronunciation”:

This is the fifth part of rhetoric.  It consists of regulating [régler] so well one’s voice and one’s gesture [geste] that they serve to persuade the mind and to touch the heart ofthose who hear us (image)

          Molière (image), the most influential actor of his day, studied rhetoric while a student at the Collège de Clermont in Paris.  Typically, such institutions concluded the academic year with student performances of a Latin play, often given with music and ballet.  Public performances allowed the students to hone and display their rhetorical skills before embarking on careers as lawyers, diplomats, priests…or even playwrights and actors.

          Indeed, many of the 17th-century's leading French playwrights—such as Pierre Corneille (image) and his brother Thomas Corneille (image)—were educated in Jesuit colleges for careers in law, and were well schooled in rhetoric and oratorical delivery. Consequently, 17th-century treatises targeted at orators, preachers, lawyers, princes, and other public speakers provide insight into the oratorical and gestural practices that might well have been used on the French stage.  

          Before continuing, it might be remembered that when Molière began preparations in the spring of 1671 to produce the tragicomédie et ballet Psyché at his public theater, the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, French opera singers as such did not yet exist.  His company hired ordinary singers  who were willing to sing not from latticed boxes (as had been the custom until then), but rather before the public, on-stage, and dressed like the actors (image).   It stands to reason that these fledgling opera singers were instructed by the company in proper stage delivery, complete with appropriate gesture.

          Whatever the case, there was clearly a demand for handbooks on rhetoric and public speaking in the latter part of the 17th century.  For the purposes of this presentation, I will refer to a handful of treatises by a variety of contemporary authorities on French oratory and expression—a Protestant preacher, a royal historian and rhetorician, a lawyer, a Jesuit teacher, and a retired actor: 

1.  Treatise on the Delivery of an Orator, or on Pronunciation and Gesture (1657) by Michel Le Faucheur, a Protestant preacher active in Montpellier and Charenton.   This treatise was frequently quoted in the 18th Century, and was translated into English, German, Spanish, and Latin.  (image)

2.  Method for good pronunciation of a speech, and for its lively delivery: a very-useful work for those who speak in public...especially preachers and lawyers (1679) by the historiographer and rhetorician René Bary, who provides a wealth of advice with regard to facial gestures, hand and arm gestures, and body language to convey various moods and passions.   (image)     

3.  French Rhetoric, or the Precepts of the Ancient and True Eloquence, Adapted to the customs of conversations and of Civil Society: the Courtroom: and the Pulpit (1671), written by Jean Le Gras--a prominent Parisian lawyer.   (image)

4.  The Eloquence of the Pulpit and of the Bar, according to the most Solid Principles of Sacred and Secular Rhetoric (1689), written by Etienne Dubois de Bretteville, a Jesuit teacher of Eloquence.   (image)

5.  Reflections on the art of speaking in public by M. Poisson, Actor to His Majesty the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony (1717).   Jean Poisson was the son of the actor and playwright Raymond Poisson (dit Belleroche) of the Hôtel de Bourgogne.  (image)

          It is noteworthy that the last treatise was the only one written by an actor.  Interestingly, there are very few sources that address the acting style of the 17th-century French stage.  After all, the acting profession was still in its infancy in 1643 when Molière, then age 21, decided to abandon his studies at the Collège de Clermont to pursue an acting career.  Molière, shown here on the far left (image), developed a new brand of French comedy—one that featured the vivacity and physicality of the old French farce, but tempered by a naturalness of character.  Indeed, “naturalness” became the guiding principle that informed his personal approach to acting:  a natural tone of voice, naturalness in gesture, in movement, and so forth.  This was a revolutionary approach to a craft that had heretofore valued the robust and flamboyant artifice of French tragedy as practiced by contemporary actors … some of whom we see depicted in this painting.

      It is abundantly clear that stage acting in Molière’s time retained strong ties with rhetoric and oratory.  As Molière’s biographer Grimarest put it:

The actor must consider himself as an orator, who declaims in public a speech made to move the listener. Two essential parts are necessary for him to succeed: the accent and the gesture.  Thus he must study his appearance and cultivate his pronunciation, to know what it is to vary the accents and to diversify it with appropriate gestures, without which he will never succeed.  How is it that we see actors who seem tranquil when they dispute, angry when they exhort, indifferent when they show something, and cold when they are hurling abuse at someone.  It is just that which is commonly called “to not know, not feel what one is saying, to not have heart.”  (image)

          So, what appropriate gestures should accompany an oratorical delivery… whether it be a speech, a sermon, an address to the court, a theatrical monologue, or even an operatic recitative and aria?  Here, we might return to Richelet’s dictionary definition of gesture as “movement of the hand conforming to things one says.”  Notice that Richelet does not say “hands” in the plural.  All treatises agree that gesturing was done primarily by the right hand.  For example, the lawyer Jean Le Gras states categorically that: “All gestures must be made with the right hand, and not the left, which only accompanies or follows the right hand” (image).

          Many hand gestures are dictated by common sense, such as gesturing to a person when addressing or referring to him or her.  Bretteville lists some obvious gestures, some of which do enlist the involvement of the left hand:

2.  The movement of the right hand must suit the nature of the actions of which one speaks. For example, one must say “attract” while drawing the hand into itself; “repel” while pushing the hand away; “tear away” while separating the hands; “unite” while joining them together; “open” while opening them; “tighten” while clasping them together; “to raise” while raising them; “to lower” while lowering them, etc. . . .

3.  The right hand applied to the chest is a suitable gesture when the Orator speaks of himself, or when he speaks of some affection of the heart; but one should not strike the chest, as many are wont to do.

4.  One must raise the hand while vowing an oath. (image)

          Most authors agree that gesture must be confined to an imaginary frame that does not, in general, extend higher than the eyes or lower than the stomach.   According to the actor Jean Poisson:

To raise the hands higher than the head, to strike fists together or one hand inside the other, to put the two fists on one's sides, to point with fingers, to spread them apart, to stretch out and cross the arms, to gesture too much, to gesture with regular action (which is called to gesticulate), and to gesture first with one hand then the other alternatively—these are all vicious gestures which will not be put up with on the tragic stage, and which can be suitable only to comedy, and which, consequently, cannot be accepted in a serious orator.  (image)

          Here Poisson makes an important distinction between gesture appropriate for the tragic stage, and gesture suitable to comedy.  In the frontispiece to L’Impromptu de Versailles (left image), the central figure depicts Molière, who is demonstrating some of the mannerisms and gesticulations of the star actors of the rival Hôtel du Bourgogne.  Notice the broad gestures of both hands that exceed this frame, which contrasts with the more dignified postures of the actors who look on in amusement.

          In fact, frontispieces to printed plays by Molière and his contemporaries provide a wealth of iconographic information about stage gesture in the latter 17th Century. These have been largely overlooked by modern authors on Baroque gesture and, to my knowledge, there has been no systematic study of them until now. When we extend our study to frontispieces found in opera livrets and the collected works of opera librettists, we can begin to form a picture of the gestural practices of the lyric stage.

          The frontispiece typically depicts a key dramatic moment from the play, one in which the action is frozen in time. Without the aid of cartoon bubbles, the drama of the scene must be conveyed to the viewer through body posture, facial expression, and arm/hand position. These frontispieces illustrate many of the oratorical gestures described in the aforementioned treatises. In the interest of time, I will confine my discussion to a half dozen or so of the commonest gestures:

  1.  Bretteville, our Jesuit teacher of eloquence, mentions a gesture that is frequently used on the lyric stage.  As the preacher Le Faucheur describes it:

          The right hand is placed at the right moment on the chest when  the
          orator speaks of himself, or when he refers to his feelings, his heart,
          his soul, or his conscience. I say simply placed, for one must only rest
          the hand upon [the chest], and not strike it, as many  do.

In addition to this lovely example from the Destouches opera Amadis de Grèce (1699), we can see this gesture in the frontispiece to Molière’s comedy-ballet La Princesse d’Élide (1663), made by one of the suitors to the eponymous Princess (image).

  2. The next frontispiece illustrates two more common gestures. This is the culminating scene from Molière’s Dom Juan, ou le Festin de Pierre (1665), where the statue of the slain Commandatore arrives to invite Don Juan and his servant Sganarelle to supper.  Sganarelle (at right) cowers, with his shoulders hunched in fright and makes the gesture of repulsion--as described above by Bretteville. The statue (center) imperiously asks Don Juan (at left) if he has the courage to come sup with him...while making the gesture of interrogation, which, according to the royal historiographer René Bary, “requires one to put the hand on the side, because this question requires a proud posture” (image).

  3.   Another gesture of authority is René Bary’s “gesture of command,” which may be seen in equestrian statues of Louis XIV (image).  To make this gesture:

          one extends the arm in a straight line and has the hand a little cupped toward
          the ground, for this action marks the inferiority of those to whom one

Here in the frontispiece to Pierre Corneille’s play Tite et Bérénice (1670), the Roman Emperor Titus orders Berenice, daughter of King Herod Agrippa I and Queen of Palestine, exiled from Rome… thereby putting his royal duty before love

  4. Bretteville says that for most expressions

          The body should always be turned toward the side of the hand gesture...except
          in expressing refusal, or the horror one has for something, for then it is necessary
          to act as if to repel with the hands and turn the head a little to the other side. 


This gesture of repulsion can be seen in the frontispiece to Thomas Corneille’s 1648 comedy Le Feint Astrologue, where Léonor, believing that she sees a specter of her beloved Dom Juan, repels him with her right hand while turning her body away.

  5.  Lamentation is a gesture that often requires the involvement of both hands. In Thomas Corneille’s 1673 tragedy La Mort d’Achille, the frontispiece shows Achilles as he lies dying at the hands of Paris (holding a dagger), while his beloved Trojan captive Briseis (left) looks on in horror and despair.  According to René Bary, in order to express lamentation:

          one inclines the head, sometimes toward the right shoulder and sometimes
         toward the left, one intertwines the fingers, and one turns the interlaced hands
         toward the chest. 

In her book L’Art du comédien, Déclamation et jeu scénique en France à l’âge classique, 1629-1680 (Paris, 2001), Sabine Chaouche provides the following vivid illustration of lamentation

           In many plays tears are the most powerful indicator of sadness or lamentation, and the presence of a handkerchief in the hand of the actor denotes the presence of tears on-stage--as seen in the 1695 Desmartes opera Théagène et Chariclée.  No doubt it was easier for the actress to use a handkerchief as a prop than to summon tears on command.  And weeping in the 17th Century was not confined to the weaker sex; in Rotrou’s Venceslas (1647), the king , learning of the death of his infant son, “holds a handkerchief to his face" ("se met un mouchoir sur son visage”) to hide his sadness and despair (IV, 6) (image).

          6. Frontispieces often provide a rich tableau, one in which words prove unnecessary.   Consider the frontispiece to Thomas Corneille’s 1651 comedy, L’Amour à la mode.  In Act 5, sc. 8, Oronte’s girlfriends confront him for two-timing them and, to drive home their respective points, the girls point their fingers in his face. This is René Bary’s “Gesture of the Notable.” whereby “one lifts the hand toward the face and marks things with the index finger” [p. 89].   Looking on in disbelief are Oronte’s sidekick Cliton, and the girls’ maid Lisette. Meanwhile, Oronte’s fourth-position ballet stance, with his left hand drooping on the hip, projects nonchalance…for, after all, he is innocent of such a breech of manners.

          There is every reason to believe that the gestural conventions illustrated in these frontispieces also obtained on the operatic stage. But with regard to opera: there seems to be a fundamental difference between engravings of plays which usually depict the interaction of characters in a key dramatic moment, and engravings of operas that aim to depict a culminating scene of theatrical spectacle.

          A case in point is the Quinault/Lully opera Persée. To the left is the famous engraving of Jean Bérain, published with Lully's full score (Paris: Ballard, 1682). We see the two tritons (right) who have chained Andromède to the rock and, in the background (seen through the grotto) three nereides—apparently also making gestures of entreaty.  On the rocks above are a group of Ethopians who have come to witness the sacrifice, while, across from them, we see Persée flying to the rescue.  To the far right is Mérope, Andromède’s rival for Persée’s affections, who looks on (perhaps gloating ?) from a safe distance.   Two female figures on the shore face toward Andromeda—one (presumably Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s mother ) making a gesture of horror.  This gesture is described in more detail by Bary:

               The Horrific requires that one open extraordinarily wide the eyes and
           the mouth, turn the body a little toward the left side, and extend the two
           hands as in defense…for those who are on the brink of suffering the final
          cruelties seek everywhere with the eyes the means of avoiding death; that
          fright stifling the heart by the retreat of spirits forces the mouth to give a
          wider passage for air; and that this same fright that grips the heart, expands
          the mouth, turns the body, and extends the hands.

Here Bary underscores the importance not only of body posture and hand gesture, but also facial expression in conveying a particular passion.

          These gestures are more easily seen in the frontispiece published in the collected works of Philippe Quinault (Amsterdam: A. Wolfgang, 1684). Notice that the scene has been considerably compressed, the figures enlarged, and their hand gestures and bodily postures made more readily apparent.  Clearly here the emphasis  is on the characters and their reactions, rather than on the more spectacular elements of stagecraft.

          And speaking of reactions:  in French drama of the 17th Century the state of mind of another character is often judged by the characters on-stage, who comment on facial expression.  In Pierre Corneille’s early comedy La Veuve (1632), for instance, Chrysante advises Géron to flee when seeing Philiste arrive unexpectedly, whose “glances are filled with rage.” In Jean Mairet's La Sophonisbe (1634), Phenice refers to the “languishing glances” of her love-smitten queen.  Similarly, in Nahem Tate's libretto to Dido and Aeneas, Belinda says "See Madam, see where the Prince appears; such sorrow in his looks he bears as would convince you still he's true” (III,iii).

         Equally important on the theatrical stage was the act of listening on-stage while another character speaks.  In this regard, we are fortunate to have an account of Armande Béjart, wife of Molière, who created the role of Angélique in Molière's final comédie-ballet Le Malade imaginaire (1673).  Mlle Molière was praised for the believability and naturalness of her acting, especially in scenes with the veteran actor La Grange:

Has not this lovely scene from Le Malade imaginaire. . . .always had on the stage of the Guénégaud theater a charm that it would never have on that of the Opéra. Mlle Molière and La Grange, who sing it, admittedly do not have the loveliest voices in the world. I even doubt that they have a fine understanding of music, and while they sing correctly enough, it is not their singing that has been so highly applauded. Rather, they know how to touch the heart and paint the passions. Their portrayal [of human feeling] is so convincing and their acting so well hidden in naturalness, that one cannot distinguish reality from mere appearance. In short, they understand exceedingly well the craft of theater, and their roles never succeed as well when performed by others. . . .I have often noticed that Mlle Molière and La Grange show much judgment in their delivery, and that they continue to act, even when their speeches are finished. They are never inactive on the stage. They play almost as well when they listen as when they speak. Their glances never wander. Their eyes do not scan the boxes. They know that their auditorium is filled, but they speak and act as if they saw only those who share the stage with them.(fn 3)

In short, the actor must bring
all expressive resources to bear while on-stage, and must continue to act--even after delivering their spoken lines.  In his comedy Le Poète basque (sc. 9), Raymond Poisson (father of Jean Poisson) has his poet address an acting troupe which is preparing to perform his play:

I will at present discuss the subject,
and this will be for you like a tablature (i.e., a score).
I will indicate there tones, and mutations,
the facial gestures above all with the actions:
When I say nothing, observe my face,
you will see me pass from love to rage,
then, with marvelous art and with a surprising return,
I will then pass back from rage to love.
In short, I will demonstrate to your satisfaction,
and what a great actor is obliged to do,
do not overlook my smallest movement,
for the least merits an applause. (fn 4)

In conclusion, gesture should rightly be considered an extension of Baroque performance-practice, and the iconographic evidence provided by frontispieces to plays and opera livrets provide a starting-point for investigation.