The frequency of approving citations of Fontenelle’s famous question, «Sonate, que me veux-tu», re ects the degree of perplexity which met the idea of purely instrumental music in eighteenth-century French musical writing.Although the expressive qualities of such music were rarely denied tout-court, for a century whose pursuit of signs followed an almost exclusively positive conception, the question of what instrumental music signi- ed permitted of no easy answers. For this reason theoretical interest in the aesthetics of instrumental music was almost completely overshadowed by the enormous quantity of material devoted to vocal and theatrical music. The contributions to music theory by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau are often placed in rm association with this suspicion of the ‘emptiness’ of instrumental music.There are good reasons for this. Rous- seau’s musical writings are almost exclusively concerned with vocal music, his aesthetics of music amount essentially to an aesthetics of opera, and his own compositions are all either vocal or in some way theatrical. Moreover, in systematically pitting signi cant music against merely ‘sensational’ music, the prescriptive thrust of his music theory would appear strongly to condemn pure instrumental music as being neither relevant nor desirable. My intention in this paper is not so much to question the idea that Rousseau condemned pure instrumental music, but rather to suggest that the grounds on which he did so were neither so firm nor unambiguous as is often supposed. After giving a brief exposition of the extreme position taken in Rousseau’s Lettre sur la musique françoise, and offering suggestions as to why the extremity is exceptional, I examine a few key quotations from elsewhere in Rousseau’s musical writings in order to question whether the notion of musical signi cance, as developed by Rousseau in his writings, can really be conceived in opposition to non-vocal music.
2005. Vol. 3, 57-67 p.