• Tim Braithwaite

L’Abbé de Condillac on the Melody of Declamation and Recitative (1788)

‘Although our declamation cannot be notated, it seems to me that one might be able to preserve it in some way. It would be sufficient if a composer had enough taste to observe, in his melody, more or less the same proportions that the voice follows in declamation. Those who had familiarised themselves with this melody could therein rediscover, by ear, the declamation that had served as its model. Would not a man filled with the recitatives of Lully declaim the tragedies of Quinault as Lully himself had declaimed them? However, to make the thing easier, one would wish that the melody were extremely simple, and that its vocal inflections were not distinguished more than was necessary to make them perceptible. The declamation in Lully’s recitatives would be even more recognisable if he had put less music into them. One therefore has reason to believe that this would be a great help for those who have a disposition for declamation.’

Quoique notre declamation ne puisse pas se noter, il me semble qu’on pourroit en quelque sorte la fixer. Il suffiroit qu’un Musicien eût assez de goût pour observer, dans le chant, à-peu-près les mêmes proportions que la voix suit dans la déclamation. Ceux qui se seroient rendus ce chant familier, pourroient, avec de l’oreille, y retrouver la déclamation qui en auroit été le modele. Un homme rempli des récitatifs de Lulli, ne déclameroit-il pas les Tragédies de Quinault comme Lulli les eût déclamé lui-même? Pour rendre cependant la chose plus facile, il seroit à souhaiter que la mélodie fût extrêmement simple, & qu’on n’y distinguât les inflexions de la voix qu’autant qu’il seroit nécessaire pour les apprécier. La déclamation se reconnôıtroit encore plus aisément dans les récitatifs de Lulli, s’il y avoit mis moins de musique. On a donc lieu de croire que ce seroit là un grand secours pour ceux qui auroient quelques dispositions à bien déclamer.’



L’Abbe ́ de Condillac, Essai sur l’origine des connoissances humaines, tome second, nouvelle edition (Amsterdam, 1788) 77–88. Translation from Jed Wentz, “An Annotated Livret of Lully’s Roland as a Source for Seventeenth ­Century Declamation,” Cambridge Opera Journal 25, no. 1 (March 2013): 1–36.

This article by Jed Wentz is really wonderful, and well worth reading for anybody interested in the relationship between declamation and singing. It can be downloaded through his website here:


The painting below depicts two young women reading from a single score and was painted before 1815 and is attributed to Robert Lefèvre. The text identifying the page reads as follows:


Chanté par Martin

Paroles de Duval musique de Dalayrac

Prix 1F[ranc]16

chez Louis marchand de musique à la Croix Dor n°6’


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