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Biographies Guillaume-André Villoteau

Image: Description de l'Egypte by Guillaume-Andre Villoteau
Description de l'Égypte by Guillaume-André Villoteau.

Translated from the French by Jan Lancaster

Villoteau (Guillaume-André), son of a teacher, born the 6th of September 1759, at Bellème (department of the Orne). Having lost his father at age three and a half, he was admitted some time afterward, as a choirboy, in the collegiate church of Mans, and made his first literary and musical studies in this cathedral music school. At the age of eleven, he was tonsured and provided with a simple ecclesiastic benefice, which provided him with the means to enter the college of Mans, directed by the Fathers of the Oratory. Scarcely had he completed his studies in humanities when, persecuted by the obsessions of his relatives for him to enter the seminary and become a priest, he made the resolution to flee and to travel as a wandering church musician, what was called then a vicarier; but soon tiring of this kind of life, he joined a regiment of dragoons. However, no one was less suited than Villoteau for the life of a soldier; besides, he had learned that his mother was deeply distressed by his absence and that efforts were made for him by various people to raise his benefice; he negotiated his discharge with his colonel and, released, returned to his studies. He took again his place in the choir of the collegial church of Mans; but he stayed there only a short time, having accepted the position of tenor which was offered to him in the choir of the cathedral of La Rochelle. The desire to acquire learning led him then to the college of Montaigu in order to take for two years a course in philosophy; then, to Paris, where he attended, for another three years, lessons by doctors de La Hogue and Asseline at the Sorbonne. After having received Holy Orders, he was associated with the choir of the cathedral of Paris, on the recommendation of Lesueur [probably Jean-François Lesueur, 1760-1837], and a rich stipend was going to be given to him, when the storms of the Revolution broke.[1] The little taste he had always had for the ecclesiastic state made him abandon it in order to enter, in 1792, the chorus of the Opéra, where he was then the leader of the chorus. It is a fact worthy of notice that the two erudite musicians which were the most honored in the musical literature of France, Perne and Villoteau, were both choristers at the Opéra at the same time. Both consoled themselves by study, the boredom of work little agreeing with their inclinations. Villoteau left this position, in the year VI of the Republic [1797], in order to join a group of eminent scholars brought to Egypt by General Bonaparte.

A new career opened itself for him, an honorable career for which he proved himself worthy by his patient investigations and by his noble character. His goal was to gather facts and materials concerning music of the various Oriental peoples who mixed on the soil of Egypt, particularly the Arabs, the Copts, the Greek monks, and the Armenians. Furnished with an abundant harvest of notes, musical treatises and instruments, he returned to Paris in the year VIII [1799], and put himself to work with ardor to the part which he would provide to the great work, the Description de l'Égypte. For several years, he occupied himself researching, in the great libraries of Paris, the appropriate documents to fill in the lacunae of his researches in Egypt, and to obtain from the friendship of the Orientalist scholars Silvestre de Sacy [Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, 1758-1838], Herbin [Auguste François Julien Herbin, 1783-1806] and Sédillot [Jean-Jacques Emmanuel Sédillot, 1777-1832], translations from the original treatises of Oriental music. I knew him during the years 1804 to 1807, [when he was] occupied with these researches the results of which appeared successively in the volumes of the Description de l'Égypte. The various parts of the work by Villoteau are: 1) Dissertation sur la musique des anciens égyptiens [Treatise on the music of the ancient Egyptians]. 2) Dissertation sur les diverses espèces d'instruments de musique que l'on remarque parmi les sculptures qui décorent les antiques monuments de l'Égypte, et sur les noms que leur donnèrent, en leur langue propre, les premiers peuples de ce pays [Treatise on the various kinds of musical instruments which are among the sculptures which decorate the antique monuments of Egypt, and on the names that were given to them, in their proper language, the first peoples of this country]. These two treatises are contained in the volumes which concern the ancient period of Egypt. Michaëlis has translated the first [treatise] into German under the title: Abhandlung über die Musik der alten Ægyptens. Leipsick, 1821, in octavo, 190 pages. 3) De l'état actuel de l'art musical en Égypte, ou relation historique et descriptive des recherches et observations faites sur la musique en ce pays [On the current state of musical art in Egypt, or historic and descriptive account of researches and observations made on the music in this country]. This section, which consists of 240 printed pages (small folio) is part of the fourth volume of the modern period, in the original edition. 4) Description historique, technique et littéraire des instruments de musique des Orientaux [Historical, technical, and literary description of the musical instruments of the Orientals]. This fourth and last part of the work by Villoteau is found in the seventh volume of the modern period and consists of 170 pages. While the greatest care presided over the researches of this scholar on the music of the ancient peoples of Egypt, while one notices in them a rare erudition, while, finally, there was evident in them the literary conscience of an honest man, the absence of factual data has obliged him to take recourse often in the field of conjectures and to take as his guides Jablonsky, Kircher and other scholars who, in the course of the last centuries, tried to bring to light the history of the manners, arts and literature of a people who were entirely mysterious. The conjectures of Villoteau often seemed felicitous and are accompanied by ancient texts which were at the disposal of the author, and which were able to serve him as proofs; but, in the end, these were conjectures, and could not be otherwise, given the state of the knowledge that one had of Egypt in the period when the author was compiling his work. The various collections of antiquities gathered from that time in the tombs of this country [Egypt] and brought to Europe, have placed at our disposal instruments for which one had formerly only more or less crude representations, more or less false, and which shed daylight on this matter. The other parts of the work by Villoteau, having as the object the report of the current state of music of the different peoples who live in Egypt, have the benefit of resting on the obvious facts; and, as the author has united very extensive knowledge with a deep and varied erudition as he has elsewhere enlivened his researches with an indefatigable zeal which does not retreat from difficulty, he has given precious information on the music of the Orientals which corrects the incomplete or false notions which we have received from Kircher [Athanasius Kircher, 1602-1680], Laborde [possibly Jean-Benjamin Laborde, 1734-1794], Pockoke [Richard Pockoke, 1704-1765], Norden [Frédéric Louis Norden, 1708-1742], and other writers and travelers. His work concerning the chant of the Greek Church merits praise particularly. I have given in the Revue musicale, an analysis of the works of Villoteau (t. I, p. 370-381, 389-402, et t. II, p. 1-9) [vol. 1, no. 15, May 1827: 370-381; vol. 1, no. 16, May 1827: [389]-402; vol. 2, no. 25, August 1827: [1]-9]. This scholar had prepared another treatise on the nature and the character of various kinds of chant and of poetry in use in ancient Egypt; but he was not able to get it inserted into the Description of this country, because it was considered too conjectural by the commission responsible for the publication of this great work. In order to complete finally the task he had undertaken with regard to the music of the Orientals, he was prepared to edit a dictionary on all that concerned the theory and practice of this music with the translation and explanation of technical terms of Arab, Turkish, Persian, Ethiopian, Armenian and modern Greek music; however, he only left the collection of materials for this work.

Villoteau had read, for the Société libre des sciences et arts de Paris, a Mémoire sur la possibilité et l'utilité d'une théorie exacte des principes naturels de la musique [Treatise on the possibility and usefulness of an exact theory of natural principles of music]; this small work, which was only the prelude of a much more considerable work and of which it will be mentioned momentarily, appeared in Paris (by the imperial printer) in 1807, a large octavo of 88 pages.[2] The book, which was only the introduction, was subsequently published under the title: Recherches sur l'analogie de la musique avec les arts qui ont pour objet l'imitation du langage pour servir d'introduction à l'étude des principes naturels de cet art [Researches on the analogy of music with the arts which have as their object the imitation of language in order to serve as an introduction to the study of the natural principles of this art], Paris (by the imperial printer), 1807, 2 vols., in a large octavo, the first volume consisting of 536 pages with a preface of xcvi pages, the second volume consisting of 598 pages, with four large tables. There were so few readers in France for these books on music, during the period in which they appeared, that they did not sell. Renouard reported a singular anecdote on this subject, in the Catalogue de la bibliothèque d'un amateur [Catalogue of the library of an amateur] (Paris, 1819, 4 vols. in octavo). The French government then granted licenses to some businessmen to go find in the ports of England some cargo of colonial merchandise on the condition that they would export products of French industry for a value proportionate to those that were imported. But, businessmen chose ordinarily merchandise fallen in disrepute and for which they could procure a discount, because they were bound to throw them overboard before arriving on the coasts of England. The greatest part of the edition of Villoteau's book was selected to complete the cargo of a ship, and was thus destroyed. One must not always attribute the poor success of this work solely to the indifference which reigned among us for musical literature during the period when it appeared; for it was not noticed that it may have been rare since the taste for that literature has been developed among the French. The subject of the book and its form have been the first causes of the oblivion in which it has fallen. The title clearly indicates that Villoteau intended to revive the old mistakes of Batteux and Chabanon, but by giving them a scientific development for which he had the technical knowledge which his detractors had lacked. Remarkable oddity! Villoteau, no more than those who had preceded him in this doctrine, did not perceive that to reduce music to the principle of imitation, means to remove from it the sublime of the ideal in order to reduce it to empiricism; means to lower it in wishing to raise it; means to narrow the domain which is proposed to be enlarged. Declaimed chant is undoubtedly part of this art, and truth of accent is one of the elements of its aesthetic; but this is only a speck in its immensity. Villoteau often cites Plato in the particulars, but he did not comprehend the sense of the philosophy of this great man in that it was much more elevated with regard to music. Plato gives to music an entirely ideal principle and never dreamed to make of it an art of imitation. Villoteau did not reflect on that however: the relationships of music with language, had they had the reality which he supposes, could well indicate its destination, but would not be its principle. There is an abyss between the vague theory of this alleged principle of imitation developed in the first part of his book, and the formation of the technique of the art, which is the object of the second part of the book: all of the efforts of the author to prove it [his theory] have been unfruitful. One of his favorite ideas is of reforming music in order to make it the guardian of morals: this idea is borrowed from antiquity; but, again, he is mistaken, because music does not rule the morals; its various characteristics are, on the contrary, the product, and its successive transformations are in necessary relation with the transformations of the society. We add that the progress of the book by Villoteau is slow, constrained, not very logical, so that the main point is often lost from view by the useless digressions and by a style lacking in vigor and precision.

Villoteau had been nominated as a member of the Institut de l'Égypte and for the commission for the great work concerning this country, decreed by the government. In his relations with his colleagues, he soon found himself ill at ease. Most of these scholars were men of the world, used to business and skillful in profiting from their position. The propensity for solitude and the complete unawareness of the world made Villoteau rather unfit to get on well together with them. The absence of all favor from the government in his regard, while his colleagues were blessed with favor, ended by giving him a temper. >Here (says M. Lecomte, author of a notice on Villoteau in the Gazette musicale in Paris) begins the saddest period of his life; he became suspicious, unjust toward several of his colleagues who were happier and more skillful; he blamed them for his unhappiness, and this idea followed him to the grave.' The growing vexation which he felt about the abandonment in which he was left caused him to make the decision to retire to the country. As the result of his inheritance and economies, he bought a property at Savonnières, a commune in Touraine, where he devoted himself to agriculture, exercising the functions of mayor, and forgetting art, science and the works of his past life. But new sorrows were reserved for him. The Paris notary, trustee of the money needed to pay the cost of his acquisition, swallowed it up, and Villoteau stripped, dispossessed, was forced to retreat to a house which remained to him in Tours, and he lived there with a modest pension, sustained by the public esteem for him (says the biographer cited previously), exercising various gratuitous functions, and contributing with zeal to the success of popular teaching. Then began again his works on music. The same ideas which had directed him in the conception of his Recherches sur l'analogie de la musique avec les arts qui ont pour objet l'imitation du langage [Researches on the analogy of music with the arts which have as their object the imitation of language], guided him in the editing of a new book to which he gave the title Traité de phonéthésie [Treatise on phonethesia]. Here is what he told me about it in a letter written from Tours, the 9th of December 1825: >I am busy at this moment with a work which is the fruit of researches and the most consistent meditations during the greatest part of my life, and the result of more than fifty years of experience. It is a treatise where I demonstrate the expressive property of sounds and inflections of the human voice, based on facts that daily experience allows every one to verify and to observe without difficulty and at every moment; that gives me the opportunity to establish a theory on the expressive property of sounds and of various intervals which make up the range of the voice, and of various qualities its timbre receives in the different affections of joy or of sorrow.' It is still, as one sees, the idea of the imitation of language by music; these are still the same errors, still the same impossibility of formulating useful applications to the real art. This work was one of the last disappointments of Villoteau; because having submitted it to the examination of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres of the Institut de France, the manuscript was sent to the music section, saying that the object of the book concerned it [music]; a discussion was set on the subject, and the result was that the author did not obtain the report which he was awaiting in order to hand over the work to the printer. The disappointment which he experienced over it perhaps hastened the end of his life. He died the 23rd of April 1839, at the age of eighty. He had married, at an advanced age, a woman who gave him a son, and who gave him proofs of tender affection until the end of his days.

At the request of the Minister of the Interior, he translated into French, in his last years, the seven Greek authors of music published by Meibom, and added to them some commentaries: he had the time to complete this great work. The manuscripts of the Greek texts, the Latin version, and the French translation with notes were acquired by the library of the Paris Conservatory. One copy of this work is deposited in the library at Tours. It must not be believed however that Villoteau made his translation from the Greek text; if one wanted to publish it, it would be worth looking again at this text, because he could only follow the Latin version. Here, regarding this subject, is certain information that I can furnish. Stunned by reading in France litteraire by M. Quérard (vol. 1, page 7), that M. Achaintre [Nicolas-Louis Achaintre, 1771-1836], Hellenist scholar and philologist, had translated from the Greek the treatise on ecclesiastic chant attributed to Saint John Damascene [Saint John of Damascus, ca. 676-749], and which is found incorporated in the work of Villoteau on the music of the Orientals, I wrote to the translator of Dictys of Crete, to inform me about this fact, and I received this response to it:

'Évreux, 12 April 1834
I received only yesterday, the 11th of this month, the letter you have addressed to me dated the 1st; in consequence of which I could not respond to you earlier.

It is very true that I made the translation of the unpublished work of Saint John Damascene on Greek music in use during his time [late 7th- mid-8th century A.D.], and which was inserted in extracts in the article about the music of the peoples who inhabited Egypt in the first centuries of the Church; the article published by M. Villoteau in Description de l'Égypte, which, by mistake, M. Quérard calls Collection des monuments de l'Égypte [Collection of the monuments of Egypt]. M. Villoteau, then an esteemed musician and composer, had made brilliant campaigns in Egypt and, as a member of the Institut established by Bonaparte, he had reported about this country all of the monuments relative to its art, among others the small manuscript in question. Returned to France and taking part in the commission on Egypt, he was especially responsible for that which concerned music. M. Villoteau, upon the refusal of several scholars, even at the Institut, he was referred to me, and I accepted what he proposed. The manuscript was legible enough, but without accents and without punctuation, which made the translation of it rather difficult above all for the first attempt and for me who did not know any music just as M. Villoteau did not know any Greek. It was agreed that I would translate it word for word, interlinearly, and that, in a week, we would meet each other in order to put it into good French, following the rules of musical art, this work which ought to have been inserted in its entirety, but was done only partially, for lack of space. This is the truth. I do not know why M. Villoteau did not mention me in his work; but the fact of my cooperation was rather well known then, so that M. Quérard has attributed it to me with some justice. As I did not attach great importance to this work, [and] what I did was only through good-natured willingness, I have scarcely thought about it since.

Here, Monsieur, is all that I can tell you in this regard. I hope that this information may be useful to you, and I am happy that this circumstance provided me the honor of having a correspondence with you. I am, Monsieur, with the most perfect esteem,

Your very humble and obedient servant,
Achaintre père [Achaintre the elder, or Achaintre senior]
Man of letters, at Évreux'

This letter proves evidently that Villoteau was not able to make the French translation of the authors in the collection of Meibom from the Greek text and that he had to use the Latin version. If the French government wanted to publish that translation it would therefore be necessary for it to be reviewed and re-edited with care.

From Fétis, François-Joseph, 1784-1871. Biographie universelle des musiciens et bibliographie générale de la musique. Paris: Chez Alph. Royer, 1844, pp. 459-464. Reprinted in the second editions. Paris: Librarie de Firmin-Didot et Cie, 1878 and 1884, vol. 8, pages 349-353; and in the reprint of the second edition in 1972, vol. 8, pages 349-353.


  1. In a note by Villoteau published by M. Lecomte (Gazette musicale de Paris, 1839, p. 206), it was said that in order to escape the axe (guillotine) of the Revolution, in 1791, he was obligated to leave secretly the cloister of Notre Dame, and to take an apartment in the faubourg Montmartre, in the capacity of a professor of music and literature, etc. It is undoubtedly an error of date in this note, because there was no guillotine of the Revolution in 1791. [back to biography]
  2. This treatise gave rise to the writings of L.M. Raymond (see this name) entitled: Lettre à M. Villoteau, touchant ses vues sur la possibilité d'une théorie exacte des principes naturels de la musique, etc. [Letter to M. Villoteau regarding his views on the possibility of an exact theory of natural principles of music, Paris, Courcier, 1811, octavo. [back to biography]