Howard Mayer Brown Libretto Collection BLC 785 (Case ML50.2.B48 D47 1778) is a bound-with volume containing five operatic works by French composer Jean Étienne Despréaux (1748-1820). Despréaux, the son of an oboist, began his career as a dancer in the Paris Opera, later turning to composition. Despréaux’s operatic works were primarily parodies of the most popular operas of his time including the works of Gluck, Piccini, Rameau, and others. BLC 785 contains four of Despréaux’s parody operas:
- Christophe et Pierre-Luc, parodie de Castor et Pollux (785e) — a parody of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux
Each of the four parodies were performed before the king between 1777 and 1780 and printed by the king’s royal music printer, Pierre-Robert-Christophe Ballard. All four works also include a sub-title “en prose et en vaudevilles” that highlights their comedic nature.
Many of the sung portions of each of the four parodies are set to named airs (see example from Berlingue below). Some of the airs are traditional and some seem to be drawn from other operatic works. Further research may be able to better identify their origins and provide insight into Despréaux’s compositional process.
The fifth item in BLC 785 is a short prologue, Prologue pour l’ouverture du Théatre de Trianon, which seems to have been intended as a prologue to Despréaux’s Christophe et Pierre-Luc as evidenced by a short note at the end of the libretto–”le changement se fait, on joue l’ouverture pour la parodie de Castor & Pollux.” Opera, Tragedy, Comic Opera, and Stage Machinery are the main characters in this short work in which the theater represents chaos.
As I was researching Despréaux for this post I was somewhat surpised at how short the articles in both the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart were, and how few sources were listed in their respective bibliographies. I hope that perhaps study of Despréaux’s works like those included in BLC 785 along with any extant primary source scores by Despréaux and records on royal performances may help contribute to a better understanding of a minor figure in the history of opera in the 18th century as well as contributing to our knowledge of the history and popularity of parody operas.