Rousseau, du Halde, and the Air Chinois

by Nathan John Martin

The “Air Chinois” that appears so prominently among the extra-European examples collected on “Plate N” of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de musique was brought back to France by the Jesuit missionary Joseph-Marie Amiot. Though not included in the latter’s posthumously issued Mémoire sur la musique des chinois (Paris: Nyon, 1779), which was assembled from Amiot’s notes by Jean-Benjamin de la Borde, the “Air” nonetheless figures among the manuscript materials preserved in Amiot’s Nachlass at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. These materials formed the basis of Jean-Baptiste du Halde’s brief account of Chinese music in volume two of the Déscription géographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l’empire de la Chine (Paris: Le Mercier, 1735), which reproduced the “Air” along with four other examples among its plates. In all likelihood, Rousseau first read Du Halde’s account in the late 1740s, in the course of his work in the Bibliothèque du Roi preparing materials for his employer Louise-Marie-Madeleine Dupin’s (née de Fontaine; 1706-1799) projected work on the history of women’s rights. (A few pages from Rousseau’s notes on du Halde survive in the Bibliothèque publique et universitaire de Genève and the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.) Rousseau referred to du Halde’s transcription of the “Air” in the entry “Musique” that he wrote in 1749 for Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and included a transcription in the musical examples that he prepared to accompany his articles at that same time. (The “Air” appears in the incomplete autograph copy of these musical examples that is preserved in the British Library.) Thanks to the Encyclopédie’s turbulent publishing history, the musical plates did not appear in print until 1772, by which time Rousseau’s own Dictionnaire (1768) was widely available.

As given in the Dictionnaire, the “Air” contains two mistakes (in comparison, that is, with the version transmitted by Amiot and du Halde): g2 and e2 as the second and third eighth-notes of m. 3 instead of f2 in both cases. (The mistakes are printer’s errors, introduced in the Dictionnaire: both the British Library manuscript and the printed text of the Encyclopédie give the correct version.) The misprints, for which la Borde criticized Rousseau severely in his Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne (Paris: Pierres, 1780), enjoyed a long posterity: Carl Maria von Weber, who used the “Air chinois” in the overture to his opera Turandot (1809), quoted it after the Dictionnaire’s version; as did Paul Hindemith, who incorporated it (freely) into the second of his Symphonische Metamorphosen (1943).

Obviously, it is somewhat precarious to talk, without further qualification, about errors and misprints in a transcription into European notation of an otherwise unattested Chinese melody that was passed through at least three intermediaries. (Efforts to trace the melody in modern China have thus far come to naught, either thanks to the Cultural Revolution, or because the eighteenth-century French transcription departs too much from latter-day versions of whatever its original source may have been to be recognizable.) Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Rousseau’s engagement with the “Air Chinois” and with the other extra-European examples that he reproduced in the Dictionnaire is his alertness to precisely these kinds of difficulties. “One will find in all these pieces,” he writes in the article “Musique,” “a conformity in their modulation to our music that will make some admire the worthiness and universality of our rules, and will perhaps make others doubt the good faith or the comprehension of those who have transmitted these airs.”


Nathan Martin holds an FWO Pegasus Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven.


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