Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

Composer

b Geneva, Switzerland 1712, d Ermeneville, nr Paris, France 1778. He ran away from his motherless and somewhat dysfunctional French Protestant family when was 16, cutting short his apprenticeship to an engraver, and became an RC at 18. After diverse but unsatisfactory periods of employment he turned to philosophy, becoming one of the dominant but turbulent thinkers of his time. After tuition from an ‘ill-equipped’ music teacher in Lausanne, he was largely self-taught, lecturing in Paris in 1742 on a new numerical system of notation which he published a year later as a Dissertation on Modern Music. Working as a professional music copyist or briefly taking other clerical and tutorial jobs, he was often supported by friends but constantly on the move; he took a common law wife in 1746 but placed their 5 children in an orphanage. In 1750 he first argued that the spread of knowledge had corrupted human nature by increasing inequality, laziness and luxury, adopting the concept of the ‘noble savage’ in a state of innocence. He criticised most contemporary drama but in 1752 wrote a successful opera, also produced in English at London’s Drury Lane Theatre; in 1753 his Letter on French Music proclaimed the superiority of Italian, most of his many other musical articles being equally polemical. In 1761 came his most successful work, the novel Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloise. He returned nominally to the Reformed faith c1755, but Emile (1762) suggested rather a form of anti-institutional Deism. Most famously, he proclaimed the ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ which became the slogan of the French Revolution—so long as people had pink skins. (The Rights of ‘Man’, formulated after his death, clearly did not include slaves.)

Rousseau visited England in 1766–67. His contributions to Denis Diderot’s monumental l’Encyclopédie (1751–76) proved characteristically too controversial and harshly critical of other composers to be accepted as they stood, so in 1768 he compiled his own Music Dictionary. He wrote a large number of letters. contributed to educational theory and moral theology, and composed some 100 songs, probably finding in music a release from the frustrations and failures of his social and political hopes. At the age of 66 he probably committed suicide; his posthumously-published autobiographical works (notably Les Confessions) attempted some analytical self-justification. See the fuller notes in M Drabble, The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1985 edn) and Grove. No.442.