Every week I'm sharing some of the correspondence of Gabrielle-Émilie de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet, and her lover Voltaire. This letter was written during a crisis, just after an attempt by the king's gendarmes to arrest Voltaire in Burgundy and throw him into prison in the town of Auxonne (pictured). The legacy of these events is still felt by the lovers in the new opera, Émilie & Voltaire, being developed this year by Nicholas Gentile.
We must conclude that my friend Voltaire—you know my feelings for him—is in prison at Auxonne, near Dijon. He left us several days ago to take the waters at Plombières (his health has long required it) but gendarmes sent here by the Governor of Burgundy have brought a warrant for his arrest and he is to be imprisoned at Auxonne until further notice. … I can’t tell you how devastating this is; I can hardly bear to think of my best friend, whose health is so terrible, locked in a prison where he will surely die of suffering, if not of some illness. I have no news of him and can’t defy the might of such a minister [Chauvelin, Minister of Police] by sending him mine … But of what use to Voltaire are our tears and regrets? I have no hope. Monsieur de Chauvelin is inflexible and I am inconsolable: I’ll never get over the loss of such a friend. Flirtation or resentment—anything at all—will do to console us after losing a lover; but time, which heals all wounds, would only poison mine …
I’m going at once to my château in the country. I can’t stand society any longer. Men are so false, so unjust, so prejudiced, so tyrannical! I must either live alone, or with people who think as you do. One spends one’s existence with envious vipers—what’s the use being alive and young? I’d prefer to be fifty years old and live in the country with my friend, Madame de Richelieu and you. Alas, we spend our lives planning to be happy and we never manage it. Farewell, monsieur: I can feel my suffering diminish even as I write to you, but I don’t want to strain your friendship.
You will soon be seeing Madame du Châtelet. The friendship with which she honours me has not failed me in this pass. Her mind is worthy of you and her heart is worthy of her mind. The good offices she extends to her friends are as great as the keenness with which she learns languages and geometry, and when she has rendered us every imaginable service, she still thinks she has performed none; such is her intellect and her learning that she believes she knows nothing and has no idea how intelligent she is. Take her to your heart and let us be her admirers and friends as long as we live.
I’d like you to give me some lessons here [Château de Montjeu, Burgundy, pictured], but since you’re remaining in Paris I’ll hurry my return and get there at the end of June at the latest. I flatter myself that I’ll then prove somewhat less unworthy of your tutoring.
I’m not aiming to do well in geometry for my own sake; I’m more motivated by my pride in your reputation. It doesn’t seem right for anyone who has you as a teacher to make such mediocre progress, and I can’t tell you how much it shames me.
I’m here in the most beautiful place in the world, with the most wonderful people: all that’s missing is the pleasure of seeing and listening to you. When I told Voltaire I was writing to you, he asked me to tell you a thousand things on his account—he’s worried, quite rightly, about the fate of his Philosophical Letters [a new, controversial book]. He’s immensely flattered that his enemies believe you contributed to his essays on Newton, and if it weren’t for the fear that he’ll be arrested for writing them, I think your approbation would make up for everything else.
Yesterday I was at at Fine Music recording studios in St Leonard's, Sydney. Here I am with composer Nicholas Gentile outside Studio C. The first video for the new opera Émilie & Voltaire is now on our Patreon page HERE.
Every week this year I'm posting a letter by either Émilie du Châtelet or Voltaire, while composer Nicholas Gentile develops the new Australian opera on universal themes: Émilie & Voltaire. Here is Voltaire writing to librettist François-Augustin de Paradis de Moncrif. The image shows the opera house in Nancy.
'You’re the only person in the world capable of thinking about other people’s doings in the midst of all you have to do yourself. Rest assured, I’m full of gratitude. The opera went very well yesterday. I went along at the end, to see how things had gone, and I heard excellent news. The audience is looking forward to the changes to the third act. But the music will need to be very lively and striking. My credit with the ch. de B. [the composer, the Chevalier de Brassac] consists solely in my tender devotion to him. In no way am I a connoisseur of music, but I do have ears and I can see what audiences like, and I venture to beg our amiable chevalier, on behalf of those audiences, to augment the sweetness, grace and gallantry of his music with a little vivacity and tumult. If the third act delivers the brilliant effect that it should, I’m hoping for fifty performances. Ah, what fun we’ll have, confounding the fools and the scoffers! In that pleasant hope I remain the tenderest and most zealous of your servants. V.'
Happy New Year! In 2019 Nicholas Gentile is composing Émilie & Voltaire with the assistance of the Fine Music 102.5 Kruger Scholarship. To introduce you to this exciting project, every week this year we’re posting an extract from a letter from one of these famous lovers: on music, the theatre, philosophy, Paris, Cirey, physics, mathematics, friends … and love.
An opera about Voltaire and Mme du Châtelet—what could be more natural? Voltaire, twelve years older than Émilie, claimed to remember her as a girl, but their first fateful encounter was at the opera in Paris in 1733: Moncrif’s The Empire of Love. So began a love affair that lasted until her death in 1749. Voltaire was a poet, playwright and librettist; Émilie played the harpsichord beautifully and sang whole operas by heart, her favourite composer being Destouches. Today's image is from Destouches' opera, Issé.
From Émilie to Aldonce de Sade, December 1733
Despite princesses and pompons, I give serious consideration to the fortunes of my friends … I abandon myself to society without caring for it very much. One inconsequential thing leads to another and I can often spend whole days without really feeling as though I’ve lived at all … I’m delighted that [Voltaire’s] Adélaïde pleased you: I was touched by it. I found it tender, noble, moving and well written; the fifth act is especially charming … Voltaire himself has been ill for three weeks and hasn’t been out. But his imagination is none the less lively and brilliant for that: he’s managed to complete two operas and hand one of them over to Rameau, to be performed in six months’ time. People are bound to have written to tell you what Rameau is like, and the different opinions that divide audiences as to his music: some think him divine and far superior to Lully; others think his work finely wrought, but not in the least pleasing or varied. I must admit I belong to the latter group: I like Issé [by Destouches] a hundred times better—it’s on at the moment and Mademoiselle Le Maure excels in the title role.