Royal Peculiar: The Music and Patronage of Philippe of Orléans, Regent of France

Article excerpt

For Peter Williams on his 70th birthday

PHILIPPE OF ORLÉANS, nephew of Louis XIV, took power as Regent on behalf of the five-year-old King Louis X V in 1715 and ruled France in this capacity for eight years, until the young monarch's coronation on 15 October 1722. In her recent biography, Christine Pevitt reminds us that

[h]is Regency was the time of Walteau, the young Voltaire, the Mississippi Bubble, the founding of New Orleans, the plays of Marivaux, the perfection of the Paris town house, and the Boulle commode. [...] The period has been condemned for its 'stupre [lewdness], lucre [profiteering due to John Law's monetary politics] et cruauté [cruelty]', and glamorised for its demonstration of the art of douceur de vivre. '

The Regent, his biographer says, 'has been dismissed as a rake, an idler, a débauché, and [at the same time] hailed as a dedicated worker for the good of the state, a statesman of vision, a wit and a hero, a modern man in his tolerance and freedom from bigotry.11

Philippe of Orléans was indeed a man of flesh and blood before being a high-ranking prince, but he was probably one of the most intelligent members of the Bourbon family. The Sun King knew it and fearful of repeating the same mishaps as Louis XIII, whose authority was disputed on several occasions by his brother Gaston of Orléans, did everything during the iyth century to move the collateral branch of the reigning family away from the throne, often to the benefit of his illegitimate children. Philippe I of Orléans (known as Monsieur), only brother of Louis XIV, was not given a good education, and people even went as far as to publicise his homosexual tendencies in order to discredit him entirely. His son, Philippe II of Orléans, was also to undergo humiliation. In 1692 he was forced to marry Mademoiselle de Blois, younger daughter of the King and Madame de Montespan. Then, at the end of 1693, he was abruptly sidelined from any military campaign in order to clear the way for the Duke of Maine, also born out of royal wedlock. Philippe II, therefore, had plenty of time to devote himself to the arts and patronage until, at the death of Louis XIV, he himself took in hand the destiny of the kingdom.

To dedicate himself to music and painting in particular was not difficult for the young prince. According to the Mercure de France of December 1723, '[i]t is difficult to depict accurately a merit as vast as that of Monsieur the Duke of Orléans as patron of the Arts; he knew them as well as did the most experienced artists,J For his mother, Elisabeth-Charlotte of Bavaria (known as Madame), *[m]y son has such a great talent for all aspects of painting that he never uses any expedients for designing and sketches everything from nature and living models. [Antoine] Coypel, his former teacher, says that every painter should be glad that my son is a great lord, because if he were an ordinary fellow he would surpass them all.'4 In the same way, she considered that her 'son knows music well, as all musicians agree'.5 An anonymous remark lost in the Mélanges Clérambault still notes that Philippe excelled 'a little too much [in musical composition] for a man of his rank'/1 All things considered, the future Regent had so pronounced a taste and gift for painting and music that he did not hesitate to paint or to compose himself, to the great displeasure of his contemporaries. Besides, other sources, including several of his mother's letters, agree that Orléans 'preferred the company of common people, painters, musicians, to that of people of quality1,7 being on familiar terms with them and supporting them in their careers. For instance, he intervened to have Marc-Antoine Charpentier and later Nicolas Bernier named as master of the Music of the Sainte-Chapelle; as for CharlesHubert Gervais, he owed him everything. He gradually gave up such recreations around 1707-08 in order to apply himself more and more to state matters.

It is this mistrust of his brother and nephew which distanced Louis XIV from the Orléans's family. …