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Phèdre, by Alexandre Cabanel (1880)

Alexandre Cabanel  (28 September 1823 – 23 January 1889) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jean Racine’ Phèdre

Jean Racine (22 December 1639 – 21 April 1699) is the foremost dramatist (tragedy) of 17th-century France.  Racine is best known for his tragedies the most powerful of which may be Phaedra EN (Phèdre FR) which premiered 1 on January 1677, at l’Hôtel de Bourgogne, the best venue in Paris.

In Greek mythology, Phaedra is the daughter of Pasiphaë, the granddaughter of Helios, the personification of the Sun, and the daughter of Minos, king of Crete and the son of Zeus.  She is married to Theseus, the founding hero of Athens, who slayed the Minotaur, aided by Ariadne, Phaedra’s sister.  Ariadne gave Theseus a thread (le fil d’Ariane) to guide him to the Minotaur, was enclosed in the Cretan labyrinth.  The Minotaur is the child of Pasiphaë and a bull and, therefore, a half-brother to Phaedra and her sister Ariadne.  As for the bull, he may be the Sacred Bull, a White Bull. Europa was seduced by Zeus disguised as a bull. (See Europa, Wikipedia.)

Europa and the Bull - Red-Figure Pottery, Stamnos, Tarquinia Museum, circa 480 BCE (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Europa and the Bull, Greek Red-Figure Pottery, circa 480 BCE (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

In Racine’s tragedy, Theseus, Phèdre’s husband, has a son by a previous marriage, Hippolytus.  During a lenghty absence, it is reported that Theseus has died. Phaedra, who has fallen in love with Hippolytus, tells him she loves him.  Hippolytus is horrified.  However, Theseus has not died.  When he returns home, a jealous Phaedra—she has learned that Hippolytus loves Aricie—tells Theseus that she was seduced by Hippolytus.

Theseus calls on Poseidon (Neptune), who has promised to grant him wishes, and asks him to avenge him.  A monster comes out of the sea and kills an innocent Hippolytus who is riding on a horse.  Guilt-ridden Phaedra commits suicide.

Racine’s play is based on Euripides’s Hippolytus, but Jean Racine’s play is the work of a writer who views love as devouring passion.

Jean Racine’s Phèdre is a Gutenberg publication.

Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine

As for Gabriel Fauré‘s Cantique de Jean Racine, it was composed when Fauré was 19.  The text itself is a paraphrase, by Racine of a Medieval hymn entitled Consors paterni luminis In Racine’s paraphrase (see below) God seems distant as He also seems in Phèdre.  This hymn is sung at the beginning of Matins, the Canonical Hour that ends as day breaks.  Set to Fauré’s music, the meaning of the text, an almost despairing hope that God “notre unique espérance” (our only hope) will have mercy on powerless humanity is expressed in a poignant yet resigned manner.  Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine is the centrepiece of this post. 

Alexandre Cabanel: a portrait of Phèdre

Our featured artist is Alexandre Cabanel (28 September 1823 – 23 January 1889), an academic painter.  He won the Prix de Rome and was awarded the Grande Médaille d’Honneur at the Salons of 1865, 1867, and 1878.  In 1863, Cabanel was elected a member of the Institute, founded on 25 October 1795, and appointed professor at the École des Beaux-Arts

Cabanel’s art has been described as art pompier (pompous), but his portrait of Phèdre is exquisite and renders her inability to fight a fatal love. She looks powerless.  Cabanel’s most famous work is The Birth of Venus, 1863, housed at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris.

The Birth of Venus, by Alexandre Cabanel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(please click on the picture to enlarge it)

Le Cantique de Jean Racine: the Text

I have not provided an English translation of Racine’s Cantique.  However, translations of the canticle are available, in several languages, at ChoralWiki (simply click).

Verbe, égal au Très-Haut, notre unique espérance,
Jour éternel de la terre et des cieux ;
De la paisible nuit nous rompons le silence,
Divin Sauveur, jette sur nous les yeux !

Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante,
Que tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix ;
Dissipe le sommeil d’une âme languissante,
Qui la conduit à l’oubli de tes lois !

Ô Christ, sois favorable à ce peuple fidèle
Pour te bénir maintenant rassemblé.
Reçois les chants qu’il offre à ta gloire immortelle,
Et de tes dons qu’il retourne comblé !

composer: Gabriel Fauré (12 May 1845 – 4 November 1924)
work: Cantique de Jean Racine, Op 11
performer: unidentified
imagesCA1Z0ES3© Micheline Walker
October 6th, 2012