Instead of a letter from Émilie or Voltaire this week, here's a news flash from Nicholas Gentile:
'I was lucky enough to receive a grant this year from Fine Music Australia to write a new opera.
'Well the next chapter has arrived! I’m thrilled to have been accepted on scholarship to travel to Lucca, Italy this July to study at the Puccini International Opera Composition Course.
'I’ll get to work intensively with some of the finest composers and opera conductors in the world on my new opera, Émilie & Voltaire.
For continuing updates on the development of the opera please consider becoming a patron here.'
I didn’t receive the first letter you speak of but that doesn’t make me any less guilty for not having replied earlier to your last, or rather for not having expected it. But I wasn’t fit to write to you: I spend my life with masons, carpenters, wool carders and sculptors in stone; I can’t think any more. I’m no better fitted to write to you today, but I can’t resist doing so. I have to say how much I miss you in my solitude, and how little I regret the rest of Paris. If I weren’t here, I’d wish to be at Mont-Valérien … But you, you’re about to take a leap from Mont-Valérien to the North Pole; you’re deserting the Great Bear for Ursa Minor. You only love me when you can’t see me.
Here [at Cirey] Voltaire admires you more than ever and deserves to be your friend. If I could get you both together, I’d consider myself much luckier than Queen Christina: she left her kingdom [Sweden] to run after so-called learned men, while it’s in my own realm that I shall gather the kind of men she would have sought much further away than Rome. You know it’s only the first concession that mars our sense of self-importance: since I’ve dared to write to you from amongst my stone masons, you can count on my being punctilious from now on. Don’t punish me for being shy at first: send me your news—and believe me, neither Madame de Lauraguais, nor Madame de Saint-Pierre, nor all the duchesses in the world could possibly feel a more tender friendship for you than Madame de Cirey.
The image shows Maupertuis and his geometers/surveyors measuring an arc of meridian in the ice and snow of a river in Lapland: this is his expedition of 1736, to which Émilie refers, to prove Isaac Newton's theory that the Earth is relatively flatter at the poles.
These weekly letters, alternately by Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet, are chronological, otherwise I'd love to include here something beautiful by Voltaire on Notre-Dame, that beloved cathedral ravaged by fire just two days ago. However, as I recall, in his Temple du Goût, he preferred Baroque to Gothic architecture and considered Notre-Dame overdecorated. I'm sure he would have been devastated, however, by the catastrophe. It is heartening to hear President Macron's promise that the cathedral will be rebuilt.
I’m waiting for the delivery [of books and periodicals from Paris] without impatience, since I’m here with Émilie and The Century of Louis XIV, of which I’ve already done thirty years. There’s nothing in that century as admirable as she. She reads Virgil, Pope and algebra as one reads a novel. I can’t get over the ease with which she reads Pope’s essays ‘On Man’; it’s a work that sometimes presents problems for English readers.
If I weren’t by her side I’d be at yours, my dear friend. It’s ridiculous that we can be so happy while so far from each other. I’m truly delighted that Pollion la Popelinière thinks of me with some approval: ‘It’s to readers like him that I offer my writing.’ [A quote from the poet Boileau.] …
They say that Rameau’s opera would do well in the Indies. I think the profusion of his double crotchets might be putting off the Lully supporters. But in the end Rameau’s taste must become the dominant taste of our nation, as we become more knowledgeable over time. Ears are formed little by little. Two or three generations will alter the organs of a nation. Lully gave us a sense of hearing that we did not possess before. But men like Rameau will perfect it. You can tell me what you think about this, one hundred and fifty years from now.
My respectful compliments to your brothers and your sister. Adieu, I’ve a hundred letters to write. V.
Voltaire refers wittily here to Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (pictured) which is still performed today—more than confirming his judgment of its longevity.
You’ll tell me I’m very difficult to deal with: I’m not happy with your letter. It’s not that it isn’t charming—it’s just too short; you don’t say anything about yourself. It’s true that you speak to me in a way that would make me even happier than I am, if that were possible. You must know how much I love you, since while I’m here in the midst of a felicity that fills both my heart and my soul, I still want to know what interests you, and share whatever happens to you. Your absence makes me feel I yet have something more to ask of the gods, and to be perfectly happy I should be able live between you and your friend: my heart is bold enough to desire it, and feels no shame over a sentiment that the tender friendship I feel for you will preserve within me, all my life.
You don’t tell me when you’ll come to see me, nor when you expect the campaign to be over, nor how tiresome it must be for you [Richelieu was brigadier-general in the Rhineland]. I’m quite happy to live cut off from the world, but I won’t be cut off from your friendship. Consider: if, in the boredom and inaction of this campaign you write such little letters to me, what will you do when you’re in Paris? You’ll forget me for six months! But at least I can be sure that you won’t fail to think of me with friendship and sensitivity.
My dear Cideville, the sublime Émilie has heard and approved your delightful work [a pastoral poem] and she considers that the poet who can put such tenderness in the mouths of his untutored lovers must have a very knowledgeable heart.
Monsieur Linant [a young tutor hired by Voltaire for Émilie’s son] and I are living in her château. It falls to her to teach Latin to the preceptor, who will then pass on to the son what he has just received from the mother. From her, both of us will learn how to think. We should take advantage of such a happy time … To be worthy of her, one must be universal. For my part, I am at present her stone mason.
My hand, by turn in days of yore,
Though rather shaky, raised with pleasure
The flute of love in lightest measure
Or else the trumpet sound of war …
These days I’ve roundels to be made:
Pilasters, capitals I hone
From our rough unfashioned stone,
Wielding the chisel’s tempered blade …
Apollo built the majesty
Of Ilion for kings, but here
I’m happier in this wondrous sphere
As stone mason to Émilie.
Apollo, banished from Olympian
Heaven, regrets the azure space.
What could I miss in this fair place?
I’m the one in bliss empyrean.
I pity you, my friend, for not being here. How unfortunate you are, having to judge trials! Why don’t you leave all that behind to come and pay court to Émilie? Adieu my friend, I have to go off and lay a few planks, then hear some charming things said, and gain more from her conversation than I would from any books.
I’ve started work on the century of Louis XIV. I’ve no idea what to call it. It’s not a history at all, it’s the portrait of an admirable century. Vale, ama, scribe [Farewell, love, write].
Nota that the divine Émilie sends you a thousand compliments, and she’ll write to you if the stone masons don’t prevent her from doing so.