Catherine Kintzler

1References to music can hardly constitute a decisive point of illumination on the thought of Montesquieu, who contributed no new element to the area. Unlike many of his contemporaries (Fontenelle, Voltaire, Father Castel, the président de Brosses), and even more unlike the following generation which gravitates around the Encyclopédie (D’Alembert, Diderot, Rousseau, Grimm or Jaucourt), Montesquieu had no ambition to write for the lyric theatre; he did not long debate theoretical problems relative to music, nor did he see in music a philosophical field of the first order, and except for a few brief remarks, did not get involved in the musical quarrels although they caused much stir during his lifetime – in particular the quarrel between Lullists and Ramists in 1733 or later the querelle des Bouffons in 1752, episodes that scan an unending comparison between Italian and French music throughout this period. Elsewhere, even if a few texts relate to it, his stay in Italy seems not to have been a determining event in his relationship to music, whereas it was an important moment in his appreciation of the visual and plastic arts, as Jean Ehrard has shown in his Montesquieu critique d’art.

2Rather the opposite appears to be the case: from the fact of its intellectually modest place, although quantitatively not negligible, this reference attests to the standard relation of enlightened minds to musical questions at the time, and shows that these questions, far from being technical or regional, had a general scope which no philosophical mind could neglect and which exceeds the field which we now call “esthetics”.

3Four points of explicit encounter between Montesquieu and music deserve to be poitned out.

41. Certain remarks belong to a classic humanist usage of musical reference, relative to the public, political, moral and ideological function of music among the Ancients (Montesquieu’s library at La Brède contains the abbé de Châteauneuf’s Dialogue sur la musique des anciens: Catalogue, no. [‣]). In chapter 8 of book IV of L’Esprit des lois, Montesquieu wonders about the importance of music as a political institution among the Greeks, attested as well by Plato as by Aristotle. He explains it by the necessity of giving the citizens an occupation that will temper the too exclusively warlike education they would otherwise have received: the role of music was thus to “make people more gentle”, and is more appropriate for that because, “of all the pleasures of the senses, there is none that corrupts the soul less”. Here Montesquieu takes up one of the themes of the moral powers of music, a theme that was then part of the general problematics of the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. It is used by the partisans of the Ancients in their praise of enthusiasm and poetic inspiration, and repeated later by Rousseau in his Essai sur l’origine des langues. A critique of this thematics is to be found in abbé Terrasson’s Dissertation critique sur l’“Iliade” d’Homère (Paris : F. Fournier, 1715, part III, section 2, ch.1), which prefigures Hume’s ironic remarks about the overevaluation of ancient works, all the more important that they are less well known. In his Commentaires sur “L’Esprit des lois” (1778), Voltaire remarks that the meaning of the term “music” was very broad in Antiquity. (exact reference in OCV, t. 80B, 2009)?

5One can also classify in this first category the remark that figures in chapter 2 of book XIV of L’Esprit des lois: the same music has different effects on people living in opposite climates (here the English and Italians) – it is still a question of considering music not in itself but considering its effect and situating its social function. Finally, item no. 1050 of the Pensées, repeating the thematics of the power of music among the Ancients, opposes an “imperfect” music, but one that moves, to a more sophisticated music that pleases without moving.

62. On the subject of the interest that could have led Montesquieu to the very important developments of acoustic and musical theory of his time (punctuated by the work of Joseph Sauveur in 1711 and then the theoretical work of Rameau between 1722 and 1737, continued in 1752 by D’Alembert’s Éléments de musique), we have found no direct evidence. But the catalogue of the library at La Brède allows us to form an idea of it: of the six works classified under the rubric Musici, three deal with theoretical questions, in particular Rameau’s Traité d’harmonie (1722) which could not have been acquired during Montesquieu’s life (Catalogue, no. [‣]). As Catherine Volpilhac-Auger points out in the introduction to the Catalogue de la bibliothèque de Montesquieu (1999), “it is too little for us to conclude that Montesquieu was interested in musical theory, enough for us to be sure he was not indifferent to it.” (Catalogue, p. 22).

73. The remarks situated in the musical esthetic debates, laconic and scattered, are nonetheless precise and often very perceptive.

8His stay in Italy allowed Montesquieu to opine on the comparison, then continual, between Italian and French music. In a letter to Bonneval dated 29 September 1728, he mentions an evening at the opera in Milan. If Montesquieu shares the general disapproval of the French regarding the uses of castrati (Pensées, nos. 388 and 1141), he explains it by strictly esthetic reasons: the voices are too uniform and have no other function than adaptation to a type of singing. Moreover, he confesses to having been struck by the seductiveness and versatility of Italian melody: “Italian music is more flexible than French music, which seems stiff. It is like a more agile wrestler. One enters the ear, the other moves it.”

9The parallel between Lully and Rameau also is taken up (Pensées, nos. 1204 and 1209), though very briefly: Lully is compared to Racine and Rameau to Corneille: “Lully makes music like an angel, Rameau makes music like a devil”: this remark may be relative to the debate provoked by Rameau’s first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, performed in 1733 by the Royal Academy of Music (see the Mercure de France of May 1734).

104. It is on the subject of opera, considered as poetic work, in other words as theatre, that Montesquieu shows the most interest and develops his thought more. Two passages, fragment 119 of the Pensées and a brief passage in the chapter “Pleasure based on reason” of Essay on Taste (OC, t. IX, p. 513, variant ll. 28-29) expose the fundamental principles of French opera.

11The fragment from the Pensées takes up questions of morphology. Following the argumentation earlier developed by Perrault (in his Critique d’“Alceste” in 1674), Montesquieu underscores the modern character of the lyric genre; he notes its enchanting finality (as had La Bruyère in §47, “Des ouvrages de l’esprit”, in Les Caractères) and recalls that the gallant plot comes first in lyric tragedy (as Boileau had also remarked in his Satire X but for critical reasons): it is moreover in his eyes the reason that allowed certain poets to enjoy a success that was refused them by theatrical tragedy, reserved for a rougher genius.

12The end of the chapter “Pleasure based on reason” in Essay on Taste (Essai sur le goût, 2020, [‣], "lors qu’une chose est" [two stricken passages]; OC, t. IX, p. 514, variant on the line 37) takes up a more specifically philosophical question about the supernatural underpinning proper to French opera (as opposed to Italian opera, which more willingly makes use of historical action). Montesquieu concedes his preference for the former and advances an argument that for us takes the form of a paradox. Indeed, judged by the criterion of usual historical and natural verisimilitude, the supernatural action proper to the opera is certainly unrealistic, but beyond the fact that it does not exceed the general laws of verisimilitude transposed to the domain of fable, this supernatural property itself assures a realistic function since it makes it possible to legitimate the recourse to music, to song and dance. Making Cæsar sing shocks verisimilitude, making Mercury sing does not: “Because of the supernatural, the disadvantage of song is lessened”. In other words, the supernatural naturalizes and justifies the intervention of music. But what is a paradox to our eyes was one in no sense for contemporaries, as attested by numerous texts that develop the rationality and regularity of the relationship between the supernatural and verisimilitude (notably Mably, Dubos, Batteux – Marmontel was to give (in 1778?) a synthesis in the article “Vraisemblance” in the Supplément to the Encyclopédie). There again, Montesquieu demonstrates no originality, but the reflection presents a concentrated version of a whole aspect of classical thought. Montesquieu was able to attend performances at the Royal Academy of Music (the Paris Opera) during his stays in Paris (notably at the creation of the major operas of Rameau, Hippolyte in 1733, Les Indes galantes in 1735, Castor et Pollux in 1737 or Dardanus in 1739). He was able also to read a large number of poems written for the lyric theatre: in addition to the works of Quinault, the catalogue of the library at La Brède includes eleven volumes of the Recueil général des opéras représentés par l’Académie royale de musique depuis son établissement published by Ballard from 1703 to 1745 (no. [‣] in the Catalogue), as well as a collection of poems of Italian (no. [‣]) and French operas (nos. [‣] and [‣]).

13To these four occurrences we should add a curious element. It is known that The Temple of Gnidus was imitated in verse by several poets after Montesquieu’s death (notably Léonard and Collardeau). But in 1741 the Royal Academy of Music presented an act of ballet put into music by Roy (one of the rare musicians quoted by Montesquieu: see Pensées, no. 119 – but in fact by his son) on a poem in the pastoral genre entitled The Temple of Gnidus or the price of beauty, written by Bellis. Despite its brevity (eight pages in-12°) and its extreme inadequacy, this poem is visibly inspired by the reading of Montesquieu’s work, from which it takes the character Thémire and the episode of the beauty prize.


Texts contemporary to Montesquieu

Charles Perrault, Critique de l’Opéra ou examen de la tragédie intitulée “Alceste”, Paris: Barbin, 1674 (critical ed. by Buford Norman, Geneva: Droz, 1994).

Jean Terrasson (abbé), Dissertation critique sur l'Iliaded'Homère, Paris: F. Fournier, 1715.

Jean-Baptiste Du Bos (abbé), Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture, Paris: Mariette, 1719 (2nd ed. augmented: Paris: Pissot, 1733; Paris: ENSBA, 1993).

François de Châteauneuf (abbé), Dialogue sur la musique des anciens, Paris: Pissot, 1725 [].

Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (abbé), Lettres à Madame la marquise de P*** sur l’opéra, Paris: Didot, 1741.

Bellis, Le Temple de Gnide, a pastoral first performed by the Royal Music Academy on 31 October 1741, Paris: Ballard, 1742 [].

Recueil général des opera représentés à l'Académie Royale de Musique depuis son établissement, Paris: Ballard, 1703-1745.

Charles Batteux (abbé), Les Beaux-Arts réduits à un même principe, Paris: Durand, 1746 (Paris: Aux amateurs de livres, 1989).

Studies and commentaires

Robert Shackleton, “Montesquieu et les beaux-arts”, Atti del quinto Congresso internazionale di lingue et letterature moderne (1951), Florence, 1955, p. 249-253.

Jean Ehrard, Montesquieu critique d’art, Paris: PUF, 1965

Desgraves Louis, postface to Essai sur le goût, Paris: Payot-Rivages, 1993, p. 79-80; Chronologie critique de la vie et des œuvres de Montesquieu, Paris: Champion, 1998.

Michael O’Dea, “Montesquieu et la musique de son temps”, Du goût à l’esthétique: Montesquieu, Jean Ehrard and Catherine Volpilhac-Auger ed., Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2007, p. 47-60.

Bibliographical reference

Kintzler Catherine , « Music », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :