Le coq du village, a Pantomime Ballet
by Maximilien Gardel (1787)
The pantomime ballet Le coq du village (‘The Cock of the Village’) was created by Maximilien Gardel (1741-1787), who was, at the time of the work’s creation, chief choreographer at the Paris Opéra and ballet master at the French court. The ballet premiered at the Opéra on the 18 February 1787. It was performed a total of only three times between Feb. 18 and March 2 of that year. The reason for this short run is straightforward: Gardel died shortly thereafter. On the 2 March, Gardel injured his foot, by stepping on a sheep’s bone, which pierced his toe, and on the tenth he died from the infected wound which had turned gangrenous (CS 30 Sept. 1798: 3). And Gardel’s successor as chief choreographer at the Opéra, his brother Pierre, chose not to remount the work: Perhaps the tone of this lighthearted piece was felt to be too low for Pierre, who preferred loftier fare. Indeed, a farce about man-hungry women fighting over the only available bachelor in a village was perhaps out of step with the grimness of the Revolutionary years.
The ballet was based on Charles-Simon Favart’s libretto to the comic opera Le coq de village (1743). The ballet score was a pasticcio, with pieces notably by Grétry, Dezède, and perhaps Gossec, and popular vaudeville tunes. A few sources state that Gardel’s adaptation followed the original plot very closely. Fenouillot de Falbaire de Quingey (1787: 192-93), for example, writes that Gardel’s
ballet La chercheuse d’esprit is nothing else but the charming work by monsieur Favart, wherein all the spectators sing the words quietly, while the orchestra plays the tunes and the dancers do the gestures. The pantomimes of Ninette à la cour and Le coq du village are likewise the comedies themselves reduced to mute expression.
Compare also the following: “Since Monsieur Favart’s piece is very well known, we will forgo any detail” (JP 19 Feb. 1787: 219); i.e., there was no need to give a summary since anyone who knew the opera would know the ballet. Likewise, the MF ( 3 Mar. 1787: 39) states that “it is the same as Monsieur Favart’s comic opera of the same name, which is too well known in order for us to give an analysis,” i.e., a plot summary.
Announcements in the JP refer to Gardel’s adaptation as an “anacreontic ballet” (2 Mar.) as well as a “comic ballet” (5 Mar.). These characterizations and the farcical nature of the story itself strongly suggest that the ballet was in the comic style, or a mix of the half-serious and comic.
The score to Gardel’s ballet (specifically the part books with a repetiteur score) is extant, although no scenario survives. In view of the contemporary remarks about the plot given above, the Favart opera libretto can be used to reconstruct the scenario and determine how the surviving music relates to it. In addition, knowledge of the background to some of the musical selections used as well as a few comments found in the reviews are also very helpful in determining what piece fits with a given scene.
DRAMATIS PERSONAE (AND ORIGINAL CAST)
Pierrot, the only available bachelor, who is in love with Thérèse (Auguste Vestris)
Thérèse, a shepherdess in love with Pierrot (Marie-Madeleine Guimard)
Gogo, a mischievous girl (Laure)
Rapé & Froment, aunt and mother to Gogo respectively, and aunts to Thérèse, both widows (Frédéric Schreuder / Schröder, Louis Nivelon)
Babet, Colette & Mathurine, village maidens (Louise-Françoise Langlois, Marie-Louise Hiligsberg, Marie Miller)
The tabellion, godfather to Pierrot (Gainetez)
An overture in reduction appears in the repetiteur score, but none of the books contains the parts to it. It follows then that it was ultimately not used.
SCENE 1 (No. 1)
The first scene in Favart’s libretto consists of a very short monologue by the tabellion, Pierrot’s godfather, which serves as an exposition (translated in full here):
It is indeed rightly said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. When there were lads in the village, the lasses had not the time of day for them, and no one bothered with Pierrot. But since they have all volunteered to fight for the sake of glory and only Pierrot is left behind, all the girls are in hot pursuit of him: he has his pick of them. And so my nephew has become the cock of the village. I mean to take advantage of the situation to see him well set up.
The most salient circumstance, which incites the complication of the plot, is the absence of the young men in the village due to an armed conflict. The only way to convey this in pantomime is actually to show the call to arms, the young men enlisting and then marching off. In fact, the JP review states that “the only change that Monsieur Gardel the Elder, the creator the ballet, allowed himself is all the more felicitous, since it explains the complete absence of lads in the village and makes the dénouement much more natural than in the play.” By “explaining” the dearth of young men, the reviewer presumably meant that Gardel dramatized the backstory, showing all the lads, except for absent Pierrot, carried away with patriotism, committing themselves to fight and then marching off, certain of glory. And the character of the music here, with its quick tempo, building momentum and controlled dissonances, lends itself especially well to a crowd scene, with bustling bodies forgathering and passions mounting. The music’s playing time of about one minute would be sufficient for such a scene.
SCENE 2 (No. 2)
In the second scene of Favart’s libretto, Pierrot appears, bearing several nosegays and ribbons in his arms, and comes upon his godfather. Pierrot informs him that he has been given all these by the local girls seeking a dance partner in the village festivities that are to take place this day. He complains that having to dance with one after the other will exhaust him. And this is not to mention that he is being called upon to do all sorts of things, now for one girl, now for another, and singles out Madame Froment’s daughter Gogo as a particular bother. To escape all this female attention, he at times feels tempted to run away and enlist. The godfather asks him what holds him back, and Pierrot reveals his passion: “I’m, I’m lovesick: Thérèse is my cure.” But neither the shy Pierrot nor the shy Thérèse has spoken of their feelings to each other. The tabellion thinks Thérèse unsuitable, since she is merely a simple shepherdess, that is to say, a girl without wealth, one who is unlikely to be provided with much of a dowry by her guardians and aunts, the two widows Froment and Rapé. He recommends that Pierrot set his sights higher, since he has the pick of the village. But Pierrot would rather be happily married and poor, rather than unhappily married and well-off. And Pierrot clarifies that any unreadiness on the part of the widows to provide Thérèse with a dowry is surely owing to the fact that the widows themselves desire him. Pierrot now sees them coming and runs off to avoid an encounter with them. The tabellion promises to try and help him.
The two most salient elements here are Pierrot’s lovesickness, and his unhappiness with being the object of unwanted female attention, and in particular the widows’ determination to win him for themselves. One would expect then that in the pantomime, Pierrot, as one of the leading characters, would be introduced here and something of his character and situation established, before any attempt to show the widows’ designs on him. The music is slow and rather pensive. Its twelve bars, with a playing time of about 50 seconds, is well suited for the entrance of lovesick youth, who is the unhappy recipient of unwanted overtures.
If this is correct, then this short scene might have unfolded as follows. Pierrot enters, perhaps from the queen’s side, to show his “passive” role in the village women’s active designs. Like his counterpart in Favart, he bears in his arms a number of small nosegays with ribbons, which feel more like burdens than gifts. He perhaps hears an approach (at the sforzando at bar 6), and hastens to hide himself behind a tree or some other prop. A bevy of village girls comes on further upstage, searching for him. They look about briefly but do not see him and so continue their search, exiting, a little forlorn that they cannot find him. Pierrot comes forth again (at the beginning of the repeat of the A section), checks to make sure that they are gone and gives a sigh of relief. His attention turns to the nosegays in his arms and, with some irritation, goes over to a bench or some other object, such as a barrel or basket, and throws them down, happy to be rid of these the tokens of unwanted attention. In fact, the germ of this scenario is indeed in Favart: At the sight of the widows’ approach, Pierrot rushes off to avoid an encounter with them (see the discussion concerning the next scene).
SCENE 3.1 (No. 3)
In the tiny third scene of Favart’s libretto, the two widows Rapé and Froment appear. They are Thérèse’s widowed aunts and guardians, and Froment is the mother of the ten-year old Gogo. They are, thus, to be thought of as at least middle-aged, probably old enough to be Pierrot’s mother. In fact, the MF review describes them as “vieilles” (‘old women’). The audience is apparently to understand that they have been pursuing him. They call out to Pierrot, but he does not stop in his flight.
Almost certainly, the music here, which is a passepied of only 16 bars to be played “very fast” (with a playing time of about 15 seconds), was intended for the entrance of the widows, one marked by hopeful urgency and wayward drive, as suggested by the tempo and many running notes. That it was indeed intended merely for an entrance is also suggested by the fact that it was shorn of its original final 36 bars, apparent from crossing out in the books.
According to the JP review (19 Feb. 1787: 219), “Messieurs Nivelon and Frédéric, clad as women, play the roles of the two widows, who are infatuated with the lad.” As such, they “throw much comedy into this pursuit” (MF 3 Mar. 1787: 39). The widows then were burlesque skirt-roles, not unlike that of Lison’s mother in Dauberval’s La fille mal gardée, which premiered only two years after Le coq du village.
One might imagine this tiny scene to unfold as follows. The two widows, straggling behind the bevy of girls that already passed, suddenly appear, in a searching manner, eager to find Pierrot, who does not notice them at first. Since they are in competition (see the discussion in the next section), a slight delay between their entrances might be expected, to suggest that they are not acting in concert. They spot Pierrot and are delighted by their discovery, uncontrollably expressing this delight, in a manner more fitting to younger folk well beyond their more advanced age.
SCENE 3.2 (No. 4)
In the fourth scene of Favart’s libretto, the widows’ infatuation with Pierrot is fully revealed. From the very go, rivalry and jealousy inform their interaction. The programmatic piece of music here was almost certainly intended for the dramatization of the widows’ infatuation with Pierrot, their attempt to woo him, as well as their rivalry, the latter specifically through a fistfight, mentioned in a review of the ballet:
Two widows, portrayed by two men dressed as women, throw much comedy into this pursuit. One might feel justified in finding that this was taken to the point of caricature, when the two women have a fistfight and roll about on the floor. Even in the most burlesque comedy, there is a kind of propriety, delicacy, almost dignity, one might say, from which one must never stray, especially in this theater, and which can become flawed through such excess. But it is no great task to have it easily disappear, and when the subject is treated thus, and supported by an execution no less perfect, it will become extremely fine. (MF 3 Mar. 1787: 39-40)
The music at bars 47-65 was almost certainly the place where the fight took place.
SCENE 4 (nos. 5-7)
Favart’s fifth scene is for an interchange between the tabellion and the ten-year-old Gogo. The latter is a kind of mischievous village spy, an “imp,” as Pierrot calls her. She describes some of the goings-on in the village centering on Pierrot. She has been spying and has overheard the conversation between the tabellion and the widows. She says that the latter are smitten with Pierrot and that Pierrot is the talk of all the village girls. She dismisses all of the females in the village as unsuitable matches for Pierrot except herself. Indeed, she expresses her determination to have him as a husband. When the tabellion notes that “you are not yet eleven years old!” she brushes this objection aside, asserting that “love is found at any age” and that she knows that marriage will make her happy because her little finger tells her so. And she has been to Paris several times, and so she is not as stupid as one normally is in a village. She then asks the tabellion if she can have his godson Pierrot but is refused. She then states that in that case, she knows what to do in order to get her way and gives a hint: Her father was forced to get married to her mother because the latter stole his bouquet (a token of betrothal).
The main elements of this scene are a revelation of her character (a sneak who spies on people and who is willing to resort to underhanded means to get what she wants) and a revelation of her infatuation with Pierrot and determination to marry him, despite the fact that she is underage. To dramatize this in pantomime, one needs to see Gogo sneaking about and aggressively courting Pierrot. This scene appears to play out over three separate pieces of music (nos. 5-7).
In the first (no. 5), Pierrot presumably expresses some relief that the widows have left him in peace and settles down to some village task. Gogo then sneaks up on him (one might imagine that she sneaks up behind Pierrot while seated and covers his eyes, as Blaise does to Babet in Blache’s pantomime ballet Les meuniers of 1787).
In the second (no. 6), Gogo’s appearance here is perhaps outwardly for a favor or task to be asked of Pierrot but in fact is merely an excuse to spend time with him in order to woo him. In a different scene in Favart, Pierrot complains that “every morning, she comes and bothers me for hazelnuts.” (Gathering nuts apparently had a bawdy innuendo.) Gardel may have dramatized this, such that Gogo expresses her “hunger,” forcing Pierrot to feed her some nuts. She might even have him place the nuts in her mouth, perhaps taking his hand and moving it to her mouth in order to drop the nuts in. At the figurative level then, her (precocious sexual) appetite is a constant bother.
After seeing the aged widows acting as if they were youthful love-besotted maidens, one now sees an underage girl acting as if she were a libidinous adult. In either case, the amatory mismatch is underscored by the age differences. Indeed, the contrast must have been pronounced in performance, with the widows performed by men in travesty, and Gogo performed by Laure, who was only “twelve and a few months” old in September of 1786, according to Grimm, and so around thirteen in February of 1787 when Le coq du village premiered. And Pierrot was performed by Auguste Vestris, who in February of 1787 was nearly 27.
That this scene in the ballet was indeed for Gogo is suggested not only by the order of scenes in Favart but also by the choice of music here, namely, a vaudeville tune called “J’aime une ingrate beauté” (‘I love a thankless beauty’). The gist of the song is unrequited love. Indeed, Pierrot’s heart definitely lies elsewhere, and not with this “imp.”
The third (no. 7) was presumably for Gogo’s merry exit. The music here, with a playing time of about 20 seconds, is a vaudeville tune, known best under the title “V’là c’que c’est qu’d’aller aux bois / V’la ce que c’est que d’aller au bois” (‘this is what it’s like to go to the wood’). Favart used this tune in his parody Hippolyte et Aricie (1763), and his lyrics there also mention gathering nuts and a maiden pricking herself with an arrow.