Friday, 5 July 2013

Bougainville and Haydn and Tahiti?

June responded to yesterday’s posting with a connection between Metastasio (who wrote the libretto which Haydn used for his opera ‘L’isola disabitata’) and discussions about literature and Tahiti. This prompted me to investigate connections between Haydn and Tahiti in a different way. An early explorer, the Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville, visited Tahiti in April 1768. When Bougainville returned to France, he published an account of the voyage, 'Le Voyage autour du monde’. The book became a red-hot best seller, with passages such as the following, describing that first encounter: ‘…the girl carelessly dropt a cloth, which covered her, and appeared to the eyes of all beholders, such as Venus showed herself to the Phrygian shepherd, having indeed the celestial form of that goddess. Both sailors and soldiers endeavoured to come to the hatch-way. At last our cares succeeded in keeping these bewitched fellows in order, though it was no less difficult to keep the command of ourselves.’ Bougainville naturally drew on classical imagery, the source of most soft porn in 18th century Europe. He gave Tahiti the name of New Cythera, after the island of Cythera (now Kythera), the birthplace of Aphrodite. ‘Voyage autour du monde (A Voyage around the World)’ was a sensation because of its eroticism, but also because it seemed to confirm the idea of the Noble Savage, the Romantic notion that people in a state of nature were nobler and less corrupted than those in the civilized world. These ideas were already current when Bougainville left France. Remember Haydn composed his opera at the end of 1770s only a few years after Bougainville’s book was published in 1771. If Bougainville’s book was well-known and widely distributed Haydn would probably have known about it. The book was a sensation, especially the description of Tahitian society, which Bougainville depicted as an earthly paradise where men and women lived in blissful innocence, far from the corruption of civilisation. In L’isola disabitata, Haydn’s young Silvia certainly was happily living in blissful ignorance on the island. One other thing. Bougainville relates in his travels, that in St Salvador, the capital of the Portuguese possessions in America, he witnessed the performance of an opera by Metastasio. Perhaps Bougainville and Metastasio knew each other in Europe. Can we assume Haydn through his use of Metastasio’s libretto actually met the Metastasio? Is it conceivable that Metastasio would have related stories from Bougainville? Or is there some chance Haydn simply picked up Metastasio’s well-known libretto about an island because of popular interest in exotic remote islands?

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