Prest on Cowart, 'The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle'

Georgia J. Cowart
Julia Prest

Georgia J. Cowart. The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. xxiii + 299 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-21155-8.

Reviewed by Julia Prest (University of St Andrews) Published on H-Music (October, 2017) Commissioned by Lars Fischer

A Post-Disciplinary Account of Music Drama as Propaganda and Counter-Propaganda?

The question of how to bring music more firmly and centrally into the discussion of history strikes at the heart of a pressing paradox: the current emphasis on the merits and desirability of interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or multidisciplinary work, when the very term “disciplinary” continues, perhaps inadvertently, to uphold the notion of separate academic disciplines. The relative lack of attention that historians have paid to music is partly owing to a perceived disciplinary boundary that separates history from musicology and even from music history (and, occasionally, it should also be acknowledged, to an enduring prejudice that holds music to be a pleasant but academically frivolous object of study). Yet, if music departments encompass a diversity of talents and trainings, ranging from those of performers and composers to musicologists and music historians, the music historian in particular is likely to share a good number of skills, methods, interests, and especially sources with members of her or his neighboring history department. While music historians have generally earned a degree in music, historians have generally graduated in history. Ordinarily, this will affect how they are perceived by others far more than it actually distinguishes their academic approach. These are some of the obstacles and issues that we must face when attempting to make the study of music a staple of the study of history. Georgia J. Cowart’s book serves as welcome inspiration for the kind of work that can result from musical training, a transdisciplinary approach (I am tempted to say that her work is “postdisciplinary,” but perhaps that is an aspiration too far), years of reading, and, of course, good scholarship.

One useful measure of Cowart’s achievement is a comparison with Robert M. Isherwood’s earlier work on a similar topic (Music in the Service of the King: France in the Seventeenth Century [1973]). Like Cowart’s, Isherwood’s primary interest lies in the politics of stage music or music theatre and his primary focus is on the reign of Louis XIV. Where Isherwood opted for a century (another symptom of how we classify academic studies according to artificial boundaries), Cowart opts for a reign that spanned two centuries. But the overlap between both works is considerable and the early reception of Isherwood’s book can shed some useful light on the extent to which the role of music in history has or has not evolved in the last four decades. Unusually, Isherwood’s volume was reviewed twice in the Journal of Modern History. As the book review editor explained in an accompanying note, this sometimes occured when the reviews “offer different points of view or where the book, or different parts of the book, call for different kinds of expertise.”[1]

The two reviewers were (though I hesitate to use these labels) the historian John C. Rule and the musician, musicologist, and music historian James R. Anthony. Both reviewers commended Isherwood’s extensive use of primary material and his careful documentation, but Rule took issue with some of his argumentation and ensuing conclusions, while Anthony highlighted his inadequacies as a musicologist. Rule’s review made little mention of the true significance of music theatre in the broader context of Louis XIV’s reign and he noted, but did not really engage with, Isherwood’s insistence on music as a genuine political tool; instead, he offered us a lesson in absolutism and the later years of Louis’s long reign (now known as the “third reign”). Anthony was perhaps more aware of the problem of academic disciplines, acknowledging that Isherwood’s book had “much value for the music historian,” while predicting that musicologists would be able to “overlook” the many musical errors that it contained.[2] Despite these less than glowing reviews, Isherwood’s welcome insistence on the political role played by music, and especially stage music, in seventeenth-century France proved influential.

Cowart, too, explores the politics of stage music, expanding Isherwood’s and other scholars’ findings in some important ways. The most significant of these are, first, the extraordinary scope of Cowart’s book, which ranges from the court ballets of the young Louis XIV to the opera ballets that coincided with his old age; and, second, her exploration of the ways in which music drama was sometimes a vehicle for counter-political ideologies (or, to paraphrase Isherwood, music as a disservice to the king). If most historians are aware of the political thrust of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s operatic prologues and a good number of scholars have made significant contributions to the study of one or more other theatrical genres involving music, few have the expertise to move from early court ballet to late court ballet, from comedy ballet to tragédie en musique and from opera at the ballet to opéra ballet, taking in operatic parodies and Jean-Antoine Watteau’s theatrical paintings along the way. This is an impressive feat that allows Cowart to spot similarities, differences, and especially references between various key works and genres most of which have passed unnoticed until now. The references, she explains, function via allusion, parody, satire, and tribute. Some of these are more explicit than others and some of Cowart’s conclusions are more convincing than others too. The fact that a number of ballets produced at the Paris Opéra between 1695 and 1713 share their titles with court ballets from the 1660s (these include La naissance de Vénus and Les amours déguisés) seems more than coincidental and gives credence to Cowart’s analysis of the newer works in light of their predecessors. At other times, however, even Cowart seems uncertain of the apparent parallels that her breadth of knowledge has allowed her to detect, prefacing her findings with the phrase “may be read as.” Although this is a wise precaution, its repeated use, especially in the last third of the book, does invite the reader to doubt the extent to which some of the allusions discussed could have been detectable by Louis XIV’s contemporaries. That said, Cowart is right to argue that this near-undetectability may have been precisely part of the plan.

Meanwhile, taking the political potential of music drama under Louis XIV as a given, Cowart is able both to extend her analysis to include a wider range of material than ever before and to explore the related but less familiar phenomenon of music drama as a form not just of propaganda but of counterpropaganda. The latter, she argues, ranged from subtle moments of resistance to subversion. Here, too, some of the examples are more convincing than others, though there is no doubt that Cowart has done us a great service by insisting on the number of music dramas performed in Paris during Louis XIV’s reign that were not absolutely on message. The operatic activity promoted by the Dauphin certainly represented a threat of sorts to an aging king who did not appreciate, for instance, the work or symbolic capital of the Italian-inspired composer André Campra. As the king became more and more detached from evolutions in music theatre, so too did he become more and more detached from his public (and vice versa).

These twin evolutions are paralleled by a gradual shift from music theatre’s base at court, with the court ballets, via the dual audiences of Lullian opera (commonly premiered at court before being transferred to town), to the public genre of opéra ballet. If music theatre is political, then the audience matters and the king’s absence from that audience signaled a new emphasis on public pleasure and a waning of kingly power. Likewise, if the control of pleasure is also a political tool, then the Opéra can indeed be understood to have become a kind of counter-court, as Cowart argues. It is a well-known fact that Louis XIV’s personal pursuit of pleasure provoked political difficulties during his youth; one of Cowart’s insights is that his dwindling interest in pleasure (his own and that of those around him) also contributed to the greater political difficulties that the king encountered in his later reign. To arrive at such important, and mostly convincing, conclusions while providing accurate analyses of musical scores en route is testimony to Cowart’s achievements. Finally, while Cowart’s wide-ranging and nuanced study is as complete as anything of its kind ever can be, she generously points to numerous related research topics that are still in need of scholarly attention.


[1]. John C. Rule and James R. Anthony, reviews of Music in the Service of the King: France in the Seventeenth Century, by Robert M. Isherwood, Journal of Modern History 47, no. 2 (1975): 345.

[2]. Ibid., 347.

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Citation: Julia Prest. Review of Cowart, Georgia J., The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle. H-Music, H-Net Reviews. October, 2017. URL:

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