A painting by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, “Fête musicale donné par le cardinal de La Rochefoucauld au théatre Argentina de Rome en 1747 sur l’occasion du mariage du Dauphin, fils de Louis XV.” (“Musical celebration given by the Cardinal de la Rochefoucauld at the Theater Argentina in Rome in 1747 on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin, son of Louis XV.”)
As its title would suggest, this painting shows a large and rather formal concert. There’s an orchestra of (by my count) just over 70 musicians, which certainly supports the point I made here earlier about large orchestras in the Baroque era, and how unhistorically paltry the 30-odd musicians in the Met’s orchestra for Rodelinda were.
But what’s most interesting is the audience. (You can see the painting on the Louvre’s site, by the way, but it’s hard to make out any detail.) It’s clearly full of distinguished people. In the first rows of seats in front of the stage (the seats we’d call the “orchestra”), are cardinals, seen from behind, but identifiable by their red skullcaps. And in the rows behind them are other clerics, whose skullcaps are black. There are also what I take to be aristocrats, finely dressed men with long hair.
And what’s happening while the cardinals, bishops, priests, and noblemen listen to this formal, festive music? People circulate throughout the crowd selling drinks. Many members of the audience are talking, especially in the space behind the last row of seats, where aristocrats are standing, chatting with each other. But there’s also someone standing between the first and second rows of seats — standing with his back to the stage, talking to two clerics in the second row.
Clearly this isn’t our idea of a formal concert. But, equally clearly (and of course what it shows is borne out by other evidence, including other paintings), it’s what happened in the 18th century. Arrayed along the sides of the hall are tiers of boxes, with mostly women sitting in them. (Or, anyway, a lot of the people in the boxes are women; my memory isn’t entirely clear on this point, though I remember vividly that there aren’t any women either in the seats in front of the stage, or standing in the space behind those seats.)
Some of the people in the boxes are reading, presumably (since the books they’re reading are all the same size) following the text of the work that’s being performed, which is for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Others are talking, and many are checking each other out, looking not at the stage but at the other boxes, seeing who’s there and what they’re doing. Some of the people in the seats below are looking upward at the boxes, also checking out who’s in them.
Of course this wasn’t just any musical performance, but a special event, created by an important dignitary to celebrate a great event — and still the audience didn’t have to listen silently. Note also that (if I interpret a note on the Louvre’s website correctly) the Cardinal de la Rouchefoucauld commissioned the painting as well as the music. So if he was satisfied with it, as we have to assume he must have been (or else the painting might not have survived), he himself must have found the behavior of the audience absolutely normal.
The disposition of the orchestra, by the way, is very striking. The instruments are placed on stage on several levels, and are arrayed on each level in symmetrical groups. On the lowest level, there are cellos in the middle, with basses on either side of them, and a timpanist next to each group of basses. The next level has strings in the middle, and on the left and right, bassoons and oboes (two of each on each side). On the highest level, flanking the chorus, are trumpets, again on each side.
This is fascinating. We wouldn’t think of arranging an orchestra this way, but someone did in 1747. I’d love to hear how it sounded, with the bass instruments in the front, the core of strings in the middle, and the instruments whose sound adds color to the strings — timpani, oboes, bassoons, and trumpets — placed along the sides. Clearly the timpani, oboes, bassoons, and trumpets are doubled, which is one way to take what looks in the score like a baroque ensemble, and make it large. That is, the score would call for one timpanist, two oboes, two bassoons, and two trumpets, but in performance they had two groups of each instrument playing the same music.
In the middle of the orchestra stands a violinist, clearly leading the performance on his violin. (The other strings are sitting.)
And what’s downright weird is that there aren’t any music stands. The entire orchestra seems to be playing from memory. This I find really hard to believe, though I confess that I don’t have enough musicological knowledge to state firmly that it couldn’t happen. Still — in an age when performances were (by our standards) barely rehearsed�I just can’t imagine that they played from memory. Maybe Pannini just didn’t bother with the music stands. Which of course raises issues about how reliable paintings are as evidence of performance practice (an issue raised a lot with medieval paintings that show music being performed). But because this painting shows what both other paintings and written evidence confirm, I believe it’s accurate.