Jean Jacques Rousseau and music

Posted on April 11th, 2011 by

If this is your first time visiting this website, do look around – use the ‘Search’ facility (there are over 2000 posts on many subjects!)

If you have a question, use the contact button, or E mail me direct, at

I look forward to hearing from you.

Here is the link to my recordings available on Spotify:

Children of Nature


J J Rousseau-himself a composer

Ancient Air-Tr. Pierre Baillot (Workshop recording-Peter Sheppard Skaerved-Stradivari 1698)

‘Ranz des Vaches’-Arr. by Pierre Baillot from J J Rousseau ‘Dictionnaire de Musique’

Pierre Baillot, in the wonderful drawing by Ingres

This ‘Ranz des Vaches’ proved useful to composers looking for some easily accessible ‘alla rustica’ material’. The composer Chevalier Neukomm published a quintet ‘Une Fetee de village en Suisse’ in 1800. This is a totally programmatic work, finishing with a bucolic village dance. According to the programme attached to the part books, this dance is interrupted, by the sounds of the ‘Ranz desVaches’ played by the shepherd to call his flock home. This is played by the most pastoral of string instruments, the viola, and is directly culled from Rousseau. Have a look!

‘Ranz des Vaches’-Giovanni Battista Viotti

Rousseau’s sensational autobiography, the Confessions (1766) was written in exile at Wootton Hall in Staffordshire. This began to establish a new notion of the individual, one which helped to engender a new kind of performer, as the fires of Revolution burnt away old certainties. Child of Nature Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1784) articulated the importance of the arts and sciences for manners, society and government. He wrote: “Necessity raised up thrones; the arts and sciences have made them strong.” It was the ideals embodied in the Social Contract which finally brought and end to the Bourbons, yet Queen Marie Antoinette had made symbolic pilgrimages to the philosopher’s grave, and had even built a shrine to him. It was the nobility who first benefited from the educational reforms advocated in Rousseau’s ‘Émile’.

Rousseau advocated a new kind of virtue, the ‘sublime science of simple minds.’ It was this ‘sublime science’ which Viotti seemed to embody. His fellow composer, André Erneste Modeste Grétry (1741-1813), whose admiration of Rousseau knew no bounds, expressed how this ‘sublime science’ might offer an ideal for melody: “…if there is too much learning in music, and too many complications in the accompanying parts, the melody-which is the main point of this art-is destroyed. I would much prefer unaccompanied song (if it is good) to [song] accompanied by many orchestral parts that smother it and make me search for it as a diamond lost in the brushwood.” He might have been describing Viotti’s own melodic refinement.

Here’s my version of Rousseau’s melody ‘by Pinday’, from his ‘Dictionnaire de la Musique’

No musician celebrated the Rousseau-ean ideal more than Viotti, through his music, performance, and personality. This endeared him to musicians and audiences on either side of the revolutionary divide. An essential part of his appeal, was the sense that he was both a ‘child of nature’, and someone who never lost his love of the true nature of childhood. In England, he was enraptured by the pure voices of church choirs, just as he cherished the opportunity to writing songs that the Chinnery children could sing for their mother, Margaret, and to accompany her children at the violin. He made a point of taking Cherubini, on his first visit to London, to hear the distinctive timbre of the boys voices in the St Paul’s Cathedral.The German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) heard just such a performance in the Cathedral on his visit to London in 1826, two years after Viotti’s death; he was astonished to see the huge space under Wren’s dome filled with a choir of children from every London parish, the congregation of thousands filling the building.

If there is one piece of music that best sums up the spirit of Rousseau, this ‘sublime science of simple minds,’ it is Viotti’s Ranz des Vaches. This tiny piece, and the piece of writing that accompanies it, bring together so many of the ideals that drove the revolution and its aftermath; a belief in the importance of a vernacular, unstaged artlessness, the perfection of nature, modesty of means resulting in inspiring effect, music as philosophy, philosophy as music, and a radical reconsideration of notation and use of the instrument, not to omit extraordinarily high ideals as to the potential for a true communication between the performer and the audience. “I thought that I should write this down without rhythm, that is to say, without measure. This is one of those cases where the melody comes into being without genesis, that it is itself, itself alone. The least ‘measure’ would destabilise its effect.” Viotti’s masterpiece, published, as he wished ‘sans mesure’.

Viotti wrote the following text to accompany the Ranz des Vaches:

“I do not know whether it is known by many people; all that I can say is that I heard it (the Ranz des Vaches) in Switzerland, and I learnt it there in order to never forget it. I was walking by myself towards the end of the day, in shady places where one would never wish to talk; the weather was beautiful, the wind, which I detest, was in repose; all was calm, like my sensations, and I experienced that particular melancholy which, at the at time every day, concentrates in my spirit. My thought was indifferent to my thoughts; it wandered, but they did not follow. Scarcely any thing held primacy in my heart…my imagination stood, as one might say, immobile, and free from passion, without movement. I wandered hither and thither, I climber, I descended the imposing rocks; chance led me into a ravine which had never caught my notice till then. I soon realised that it was exquisite…flowers, grass, streams, as it were in a tableau, forming a perfect harmony. I sat down involuntarily on a boulder, without any fatigue, and abandoned myself to that profound reverie where my ideas, blend, and mix themselves up so much that I forget that I am on the earth. I will be able to say nothing as to what produced such particular rapture in me, whether it was the slumber of the soul, or even the absence of cognitive function; I will simply say that I love it, that I am caught up by it, and I would not ever want to rationalise it. I was still there, sitting on the rock, where suddenly my ears, or rather my entire being was struck by such sounds, some precipitate, some long and sustained, which arose from one mountain and flew across to another without being repeated by the echoes. It turned out to be a long trumpet; a woman’s voice was blending with its sad sounds, soft and sensitive, forming an exquisite unison. Struck by such an enchantment, I pulled myself together suddenly, and roused myself from reverie, shedding a few tears. I listened carefully to engrave this ranz des vaches on my memory, which I am communicating here. I thought that I should write this down without rhythm, that is to say, without measure. This is one of those cases where the melody comes into being without genesis, that it is itself, itself alone. The least ‘measure’ would destabilise its effect; that is so true. Its sounds reached out in space, so that one could not possibly know how to determine the time that would be necessary for it to progress from one mountain to another. It is thus the emotion and the thought which above all most carry us to the truth of its execution, through which rhythm and cadence are ‘measured’. This Ranz des Vaches would be rendered utterly de-natured were it marked up in measures; it would lose all of its simplicity. Thus, in order to render it in its authentic sense, and as much as possible, as I heard it, it behoves that imagination must carry you there, where it was born. Thus, in performing it in Paris, where it requires all of our faculties to feel it as if in Switzerland. It is thus that in certain rapturous moments, I have played it on my violin, accompanied by the Muse. The best of my friends have heard it.” (26th June 1792)

The discovery of music in the countryside was a recurring pastoral trope, much used in simile by Milton. However Viotti’s era saw an upsurge in reportage of such events, such as Mrs Rowe’s Rural Adventure, which was reprinted in A Common Place Book. She wrote:

“I had a great inclination to ramble in these agreeable shades, and, alighting, ordered my footman to wait at the place where I left him. It was not long before I came to the centre of the forest, in which there was a large grass plot of a circular figure, with a double row of high elms growing in the same form round it. In the midlle of the green was a little mount, which, by easy steps of turf, had a winding ascent to the top, where stood an arbour of jessamine, woodbine, and roses, twisted together with a sort of elegant disorder. The gaudy blossoms pleased the sight, while the mingled sweets perfumed the ambient air. On the lower branches of the circlibg elms hung several gilt cages, wit a variety of singing birds in them, which were now chanting their evening songs, while a musical flageolet, in clear and shrill reponses, answered from the delicious arbour.”

A few pages later, the same Common Place Book related the story of a ‘rambler’ discovering a one-handed flute player, wandering the lanes of Normandy.

The ‘simplicity’ which Viotti had celebrated in the Ranz des Vaches had immediately been noted in his playing when he arrived in London. On the 20th February 1793, The Oracle critic wrote, “Viotti is original and sublime. He reaches at unattempted grandeur and he never fails. What may be expected of him it is impossible to conceive -He has a soul capable of magnifying simplicity into the wonderful.”

In the version of the Ranz des Vaches which Viotti copied out for his admirer, Ange Marie d’Eymar (1747-1803), a deputy of the 1789 ‘States General’, he was keen to note that this was not the piece that J. J. Rousseau had included in his Dictionnaire de Musique.` Both pieces were eventually reprinted in Pierre Baillot’s L’Art du Violon, as examples of “particularly appropriate to the study of swells.” Eymar reported,that Viotti played it with tremendous emotion, on the ‘days that he consecrated to music’, no doubt with the “strong tremolando” of which the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung was some what critical. Pierre Baillot remaked upon the ‘ideal simplicity’ of Rousseau’s own music. L’Art du Violon includes just such an example; as he put it “…we are confining ourselves here to giving the simplest example of harmonics”-that being Rousseau’s brilliantly effective Air à Trois Notes. This piece is built entirely fromthe notes G, A and B natural. Ironically, Baillot offered a rather Paganini-esque approach to the piece, evoking the sound of the ‘primal’ pipes or auloi through combinations of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ flageolets. This simple piece had made a huge impact in the years after the Revolution. Between 1793-1816 many piano variations and pots-pourris on ‘La Romance à Trois Notes’ appeared, by composers including Fabre Olivet, Joseph Gelinek, and Frédéric Kalkbrenner.

Baillot explained the allure of the Ranz des Vaches. These pieces, he wrote, had:

“The charm of day-dreaming, a situation of the soul in which we would have trouble determining either a beginning or an end. This situation gives rise to a delicious sentiment when a tone-a single expression-directs one’s thoughts, fixing it suddenly on an object whose image is in the heart, and, touching the emotions, sets itself in harmony with our most cherished feelings.”

Viotti’s sensibility to nature, would have found a very sympathetic audience amongst British intellectuals during his years in London. The historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has pointed out that “Nobody knows how or when human beings got the idea that they were better than the rest of nature.” Perhaps the modern notion of human superiority was born in this cult. The very notion of ‘natural’ was in itself new to the English imagination; the abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833) alarmed his friends and servants by choosing to sit on the grass. In 1816, the multifaceted essayist, William Hazlitt (1778-1830), wrote his ‘On Gusto’ which extolled the ‘power and passion’ which was to be found in ‘what relates to things without expression to the natural appearances of objects.’ There were many who detested the vagueness of the very idea, such as the Scottish philoshopher and historian, Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), who wrote: “Of all the terms that are used in treating of human affairs, those of natural and unnatural are the least determinable in their meaning.”


The Harmonicon obituary reported Viotti’s susceptibility to the impression made on him by natural, inanimate objects.

“A simple violet which chance discovered to him buried in the grass, would transport him with the liveliest joy; a pear, a plum gathered fresh by his own hand, would for the moment, make him the happiest of mortals; the perfume of the one had always something new to him, and the taste of the other something more delicious than before….every thing affected his imagination; every thing spoke to his heart, and he yielded himself at once to its emotions.”

In this Viotti and Tchaikovsky were kindred spirits; during his first visit to Italy, staying in the villa of Madame von Meck, the Russian composer was moved to tears by the sight of violets growing in the Val d’Arno.

In the salons of the 1780s, Nature had been all the rage. The queen herself was in the forefront of applying this notion to fashion, and behaviour, and it was not long before the same notions began not only to liberate the dress and movement of women, but also the deportment, and even the training, of performers. It would have been inconceivable for the performers onstage, whether dancers, actors, and musicians, to have retained the stiff, corseted, bewigged, manner, when there audience were deporting themselves naturally. Gradually, though certainly driven by the revolutionary, in their way, innovations of salonistes such as Emma Hamilton and Viotti, idealistic fresh air began to blow through the corridors of power. Of course, these would blow stronger and stronger, and the gentle zephyr which such as Marie Antoinette had hoped would accompany her activities blew up into the ‘howlings of the tempest’ noted by Madame de Hausset.

Emma Hart (Hamilton) in Naples-“This drawing was made by Madame le-Brun, (1790) with a piece of charcoal from the kitchen, on a door of a room at the Casino of Sir William Hamilton…and removed on orders of the Chevalier who was eager to own and conserve this piece by this lovable and sublime artist.”

Two decades after the publication of Viotti’s Ranz des Vaches, a British kindred spirit, touring the continent, experienced more or less the same happenstance, the same emotions. It is difficult to read William Wordsworth’s On hearing the ‘Ranz des Vaches’ on the top of the Pass of St. Gothard, without the sensation that something of Viotti had got to him, or maybe, that, he had read Viotti’s tract, which was circulating in various forms by this point. Wordsworth wrote:

‘I listen, but no faculty of mine/ Avails those modulations to detect,/ Which, head in foreign lands, the Swiss affect With tenderest passion; leaving him to pine (So fame reports) and die, his sweet-breathed kine Remembering and green Alpine pastures decked With vernal flowers. Yet may we not reject The tale as fabulous. Here, while I recline Mindful how others love this simple Strain, Even here, upon this glorious Mountain (Named of God himself, from dread pre-eminence) Aspiring thoughts, by memory reclaimed, Yield to the Music’s touching influence. And joys of distant home my heart enchain.’

In exile in Britain, Viotti’s need for nature was probably satisfied, walking in the beech and hornbeam woods between Gillwell House and Fairmead Lodge, now all part of Epping Forest.. His love of the outdoors never abated; in 1822, he wrote from Bath: “The weather is superb, the air is fragrant with the most delicious perfumes, the beans are in flower, the clover is perfect, and roses are intertwined in the hedges.”

Epping-Sheppard’s Meadow-Amesbury Banks (pictured)-The Four Wantz-Warren Hill-Qvist’s Oak-Loughton Camp-Mount Pleasant-Queen Elisabeth’s Hunting Lodge-and the best Fly Agaric we’ve ever seen, plus Sloe bushes bent over with fruit and wonderful Crab Apples on Chingford plain. 5/10/13

As far as we know, Viotti never met William Wordsworth, but the two of them shared a similar love of Nature, a sense that Humanity was ennobled by its presence. “Touch,” Wordsworth enjoined, “for there is a spirit in the woods.”