Cher Public

Mind over matter

“Scientist, lover, gambler, unwed mother — the 1700s French intellectual Émilie du Châtelet was all these and more. But even so great a thinker might have trouble recognizing herself in Kaija Saariaho’s bland one-woman opera, which premiered Thursday at the Lincoln Center Festival.” [New York Post]

  • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

    It sounds just like what July in the city was made for.

  • Camille

    There is no there, there?

    At least that’s what it sounded like to me when listened to, with intentions of going the several hundred miles to the Spoleto Festival last year. Now I don’t know if I’ll even board the 1/9 to the glorious Gerald Lynch. Quelle dilemma.

    Thank you for the Post post, Monsieur JJ. You have saved me some geld, for sure.

    • brooklynpunk

      Dear Camille

      … there is NO LONGER a # 9 local, on the 7th Ave IRT line, if that is what ya were alluding to…..

      LOL..!

      • Camille

        Good 2 noh…next time I’ll drive up.

        Still thinking of going tonight in any case, if nothing other than to give support to a woman composer, writing about another woman.

        Well, back to the Utubers to give it another shot….

        n.b.--it really bothers me a lot she is not shown as enceinte, as that is a major part of her plight—borrowing time from the inevitable childbirth to give birth to her child of genius. Ever thus.

        • steverino

          Emilie was an amazing brilliant mathematician and equal companion of Voltaire- at Spoleto last year she was a dreary, depressed victim. Read the book. Its fascinating. Futral, however, was stunning physically and musically.

          This year at Spoleto Feng Yi ti (sic) was 46 minutes of obscurity.

          The Brevard Festival in the mountains of NC offered a stirring “Carmelites” in a black box theater seating 100 with only piano accompaniment. More emotional power than half the stuff I’ve seen at the Met in my 50 years of opera going!

          • Camille

            steverino, excellent advice, and here’s a list:

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            Biography -- Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil: Marquise Du Châtelet

            (1706-49)

            Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, born in Paris, 17 Dec. 1706 to a well-connected noble family, had every privilege for a little girl of her time. Her father, the baron de Breteuil was a favorite of the king, Louis XIV, and both he and her mother Anne de Froullay had relatives and friends who could help to advance the family’s interests. When she was eighteen, in 1725, they arranged for their only daughter to marry into one of the oldest lineages of Lorraine, a semi-independent duchy in northeastern France. The marquis Du Châtelet brought his title but little wealth. For the first years of her marriage, the new marquise lived a very traditional life: she bore him a daughter and two sons, ran their first household in Semur where he was the military governor, and when it was appropriate enjoyed all the pleasures of Paris: dressing elegantly, going to the theater and the opera, gambling at the houses of her noble friends.

            Probably in 1733 when she was once again in Semur awaiting the birth of her second son, Du Châtelet became interested in mathematics and began to read widely in philosophy and other learned subjects. She returned to Paris to take up serious study of Descartes’ analytical geometry first with Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and then with his colleague, the young mathematics prodigy Alexis-Claude Clairaut. From this point on, though Du Châtelet continued to care for her husband’s and children’s interests and ran the household-taking extra responsibilities when the marquis had to rejoin his troops for the wars of the 1730s and 1740s-she found time to continue reading, studying and finally writing and publishing her own works of “natural philosophy,” the equivalent to our modern “science.”

            Little is known about her early education. It is likely that she was allowed to study Latin and geometry with her younger brother, but otherwise she was self-taught. By the time she published her first book, Institutions de physique (Foundations of Physics) in 1740, she had read widely in Latin, English, and Italian in fields as diverse as moral philosophy, chemistry, physics, theology, mathematics, metaphysics, natural and experimental philosophy. The essay she submitted to the 1738 Royal Academy of Sciences competition “on the nature and propagation of fire” had been published, and she had been accepted as a member of the learned Republic of Letters. She gained additional fame when she bested the executive director of the Academy of Sciences on the issue of the proper formula for kinetic energy, saw her writings on science translated into Italian and German, and was elected to the Bologna Academy of Science. Just before her death 10 Sept. 1749 from a pulmonary embolism, a consequence of her last pregnancy, she had completed a translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia and her own commentary on it, that both corrected and completed many of the Englishman’s key hypotheses proving the role of attraction in the universe. Published in final form ten years later in 1759, as part of the excitement occasioned by the return of Halley’s comet- calculating a comet’s orbit had been one of the main proofs of attraction.

            The rest of Du Châtelet’s writings circulated among the learned, part of the clandestine literature of this first half of the Enlightenment. Her Discours sur le bonheur (Discourse on Happiness), a very personal exposition of what makes for our happiness- was first published in 1779 . Others exist only in manuscripts dispersed throughout libraries in France, Belgium and Russia. They include: a reworking and translation into French of sections of Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees; a massive critical commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Examens de la Bible; short essays on optics, liberty, and grammar.

            Until the last decade, Du Châtelet was best known because of her two lovers: Voltaire, the French poet, playwright and philosophe, who was her companion for fifteen years, even after he took his niece as a lover; Jean-François de Saint-Lambert, the young soldier-poet with whom she fell in love in 1748. He was the father of her last child, the daughter who occasioned her death on 10 Sept. 1749.

            Du Châtelet is significant not only for her writings- hers remains the only full translation of the Principia in French- but also for what her life and accomplishments tell about the possibilities for a woman of her day. She read, studied, wrote, published, and gained recognition in a learned world meant to be exclusively male. That all but her amorous life was lost to history, her writings forgotten or attributed to others, demonstrates how fragile women’s stories are and how important they are to discover and tell.

            SUGGESTED READING

            Judith P. Zinsser. La Dame d’Esprit: A Biography of the Marquise Du Châtelet. New York: Viking, 2006.

            Judith P. Zinsser and Julie Candler Hayes, eds. Emile Du Châtelet: Rewriting Enlightenment.

            Philosophy and Science. SVEC [Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century] (2006:1)

            Elisabeth Badinter. Les Passions intellectuelles. Paris: Fayard, 1999.

            Mary Terrall.”Vis Viva.” History of Science 42 (2004): 189-209.

            René Vaillot. Avec Mme Du Châtelet. 1734-1749. Edited by René Pomeau. Vol. I, Voltaire en son temps. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1985-95. Judith Zinsser
            Related Objects

            De la Liberte
            Image: jpg Grammaire Raisonnee
            Image: jpg Institutions de Physique (1740)
            Image: jpg Le Essay sur Le Optique
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            Les Lettres de la Marquise Du Chatelet (volume 1)
            Date: 1733-1739
            Image: jpg Les Lettres de la Marquise Du Chatelet (volume 2)
            Date: 1733-1739
            Image: jpg Manuscript Number MS2375
            Image: jpg Manuscript Number MS2376t1
            Image: jpg
            Manuscript Number MS2376t2
            Image: jpg Manuscript Number MS2376t3
            Image: jpg Manuscript Number MS2377t1
            Image: jpg Manuscript Number MS2377t2
            Image: jpg
            Manuscript Number MS2378
            Image: jpg Principes Mathematiques de le Philosophie Naturelle: Book 1
            Image: jpg Principes Mathematiques de le Philosophie Naturelle: Book 2
            Image: jpg

            NOW, about the Brevard Festival in North Carolina, I would genuinely like to hear more of your experience. I understand from your remark that you have, indeed, seen the Feng Yi Ting at Spoleto? Any thoughts about it as well?

            Cordially,
            Camille

  • parpignol

    sad because there is a lot of musical brilliance, both the composer’s and the performer’s, invested in this, but somehow it falls dramatically flat; NY Times suggests that it should be trimmed to under an hour; I wonder if that should be under half an hour. . .

  • Henry Holland

    I love Saariaho’s music, but after listening to a pirate of this (with Mattila), I have to agree, it could use some serious pruning. Maybe time to move on to a new librettist?

    • Nerva Nelli

      Yes, this piece is a monument to worthiness rather than an actual stage work. Futral does very well and some of the music is very compelling. I would by no means discourage people from attending-- but don’t expect *drama* per se. The back story, about Emilie du Chatelet’s life and work, is far more interesting than the opera…

  • Emilie was many things … but it IS only right to point out that “unwed mother” was never any of them. She was quite happily married at the time of her death in childbirth. Not to the child’s father, but that makes no difference at all. Really. None. She was wed and a mother.

  • steverino

    steverino says:
    Emilie was an amazing brilliant mathematician and equal companion of Voltaire- at Spoleto last year she was a dreary, depressed victim. Read the book. Its fascinating. Futral, however, was stunning physically and musically.

    This year at Spoleto Feng Yi ti (sic) was 46 minutes of obscurity.

    The Brevard Festival in the mountains of NC offered a stirring “Carmelites” in a black box theater seating 100 with only piano accompaniment. More emotional power than half the stuff I’ve seen at the Met in my 50 years of opera going!

  • oedipe

    Maybe Saariaho’s Emilie is a modern reinterpretation of the famous 18th century woman. This Emilie is not an accurate copy of the original, but a character with modern ideas and preoccupations, as seen through the eyes of the composer, sort of like in regie.

    But yes, I did listen to the opera when it first came out and it is indeed very boring.

  • la vociaccia

    Well, I enjoyed it thoroughly tonight. It’s certainly hard to warm up to, but I thought the music was quite beautiful (in a sort of George Crumb, I-see-what-you-did-there sort of way), and the whole experience was riveting, especially Futral’s performance. Elizabeth’s voice has matured into a very rich full lyric, with, as JJ mentioned, an especially luxurious middle. And her characterization was spot on (not to mention, she looked radiant). I’m still a bit flummoxed that the Met chose Popsy, Dessay, and now Damrau over her for Violetta.