Momus Turn’d Fabulist and Its ‘Grand Dance’

Momus Turn’d Fabulist; or, Vulcan’s Wedding was first performed on 3 December 1729 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It was described in the bills as ‘After the Manner of the Beggar’s Opera’ and the printed edition of the same year confirms that it was another ballad opera.

It continued to be revived until 1736-1737, although following the company’s move to its new Covent Garden Theatre during the 1732-1733 season it became an afterpiece. The Grand Dance of Momus was first advertised independently of the ballad opera as early as 17 December 1729. It lasted until 1740-1741, with a final performance in 1745-1746.

Momus is probably an unfamiliar figure to most theatregoers nowadays. In classical mythology, he was the personification of satire and mockery and appeared in Aesop’s Fables as a figure who finds fault with everything. By the 17th century he was seen as a buffoon and associated with the licence of carnival. All of these aspects are seen in his appearances in Thomas Carew’s 1634 masque Coelum Britannicum, as well as John Dryden’s The Secular Masque added to an adaptation of John Fletcher’s The Pilgrim in 1700.

In France, Momus featured in two ballets de cour – the Ballet des Bienvenus of 1655, in which he was described as ‘Dieu de la Bouffonneries’ and danced by ‘Baptiste’ (Jean-Baptiste Lully), and the Ballet de Psyché of 1656, as the ‘Bouffon des Dieux’ danced by ‘Molier’ (Louis de Mollier). In 1695, he was the central character in Desmarets’s opera Les Amours de Momus given at the Paris Opéra that year but not subsequently revived. The livret for this work does not name the dancers. Momus also had a significant part in Le Carnaval et la Folie, a comédie-ballet by Destouches, given at the French court in 1703 and then at the Paris Opéra in 1704. For its public performances, the leading dancers were Ballon and Mlle Subligny. It was revived several times, including 1719 when the leading dancers were David Dumoulin and Mlles Prévost and Guyot.

1719 was the year when Momus Fabuliste ou les Noces de Vulcain, a comedy by Louis Fuzelier and Marc-Antoine Legrand, was given at the Comédie Française. This was the source of the Momus Turn’d Fabulist performed in London some ten years later. The Introduction to the published text of the English ballad opera, in the form of a dialogue between a Player and a Gentleman, refers explicitly to the French play and praises the adaptation from a ‘French farce’ to an ‘English opera’. There is certainly more to be said about the figure of Momus and Momus Fabuliste, but my interest is (of course) in the dancing on the London stage. The frontispiece to the printed text of Momus Fabuliste provides a flavour of Momus as he appeared in the Paris farce.

The main difference between Momus Fabuliste and Momus Turn’d Fabulist is the addition to the latter of forty-two tunes for the sung ballads that punctuate the action and accompany the various fables that are told in the course of both the French play and its English adaptation. The story revolves around Momus’s mockery of each of the gods and goddesses in the classical pantheon, leading to the making of a match between Vulcan and Venus and culminating in the celebration of their wedding. Momus Turn’d Fabulist includes the stage direction ‘Here an Entertainment of Dancing in Honour of Vulcan’s Wedding’. This is the only reference to dancing in the piece and must have been what became the entr’acte Grand Dance of Momus. There is no music provided for this, as the adjacent ‘Air XLII. Parson upon Dorothy’ is almost certainly associated with the ‘Fable by way of Ballad’ that Momus calls on each deity in turn to perform. The stage direction is actually taken directly from Momus Fabuliste, which had music by Jean-Baptiste-Maurice Quinault. The score for the ‘Divertissement de la comédie de Momus fabuliste’ was published in 1719 but seems to survive in only a single copy not accessible digitally.

The immediate question is, did London’s Grand Dance of Momus use Quinault’s music? It is impossible to answer definitively, for there are no references to its music in the bills or elsewhere. The dancers in the Grand Dance of Momus are not listed in the bills until 1731, when it was given at a benefit performance for Mr and Mrs Laguerre. The leading couple was Nivelon and Mrs Laguerre, with five male dancers and four female dancers to support them. The inclusion of one more male than female dancer in these ensembles is a regular feature of group dances on the London stage. I have been tempted to assume that such casting points to a solo by the leading male dancer billed, who may or may not also dance with one of the women, but additional information (below) shows that this is not quite the case with the Grand Dance of Momus. Nivelon probably did dance a solo for he was billed alone during the 1729-1730 summer season in ‘The Celebrated Dance in Momus, to the Black Joke Tune’ at the Richmond Theatre. He probably choreographed, or arranged, the Grand Dance of Momus.

Could Nivelon have used some or all of Quinault’s music for Momus Fabuliste? Without access to the score it is difficult to follow up that possibility. We have few clues to Nivelon’s career before he arrived at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1723, when he was billed as ‘lately arriv’d from the Opera at Paris’ (in his case presumably the Opéra Comique). Research is needed to discover what he had been doing prior to his move to London and whether he may have been familiar with Momus Fabuliste and had access to its music. In any case, the Black Joke seems to have been a regular feature of the Grand Dance of Momus. A much later advertisement identifies the two leading dancers as a Sailor and a Lively Lass, with two Swains, two Nymphs and three ‘College Youths’ – the same number of male dancers as in the earlier bills but only two and not four female supporting dancers. (An internet search turns up the Ancient Society of College Youths, a change-ringing society established in the early 17th century, which may or may not be relevant to this choreography.) The Grand Dance of Momus must have been a divertissement, with a number of contrasting dances within it.

The various tunes in Momus Turn’d Fabuliste may have nothing to do with its dancing, but several of them point to other entr’acte dances and even two within pantomimes. There is the ‘Pierrot Tune’ and the ‘Highland Dance’, as well as the ‘Hay-makers Dance, in Faustus’ and the ‘Dance in Sorcerer’. The Black Joke (which does not feature in the printed ‘opera’) also has a wider musical history. I sometimes complain that we lack music for so many of the entr’acte dances on the London stage, but I obviously need to look more widely – there must have been a great deal of sharing between dances and musical entertainments more generally in the theatres.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s