- Denis Diderot’s “Rameau’s Nephew”: A Multi-Media Editioned. by M. Hobson
Denis Diderot expressed a preference for viewing sketches over finished paintings and hearing music from afar, for the completed work of art or music he imagined inevitably surpassed reality. Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie—the vast compendium of knowledge whose network of keywords and cross-references the reader can navigate at will—is considered the precursor of the library card catalog and the internet. Diderot cast beyond the technological limitations of his own era, reforming the genres of painting, opera, theatre, and the novel, as well as anticipating film. How suitable, then, for Diderot to be published online. Rameau’s Nephewseems to cry out for a multimedia edition, bringing its realization in line with its conception as a protean combination of dialogue, music, and pantomime. Does Marion Hobson’s online edition under the musical direction of Pascal Duc and featuring an English translation by Kate E. Tunstall and Caroline Warman live up to the viewer’s vision?
As musical advisor to William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, Duc has played a crucial role in the revival and recording of eighteenth-century operas over the past thirty years—particularly those of Rameau the uncle—and he is uniquely qualified to select, direct, and perform the musical numbers in this edition. I recommend that readers refer to the interactive pdf version (which allows you to peruse notes and figures simultaneously, in sufficient resolution and in full colour, via the available hyperlinks) on a device that supports MP3 files in order to listen to the music while reading. Rameau’s Nephewis one of a handful of literary works—including the Bible, Lewis Carroll’s Annotated Alice, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire—composed of more copious (fictional, factual, or exegetical) notes than text. The extraordinarily helpful glosses of the multitude of contemporary references are considerably enriched by the addition of sound and image. The reader has [End Page 375]the unique opportunity to watch a gripping performance of Pergolesi’s La Serva padrona, the two-part Italian intermezzo that touched off the Querelle des Bouffonsin 1752, not between the acts of Lully’s tragédie en musique, Acis et Galatée, on the stage of the Opéra but rather between the pages of Rameau’s Nephewon YouTube. We are alternately transported, during the Nephew’s extended medley known as the pantomime de l’homme-orchestre, by exquisite recordings of Jommelli’s “Lamentations,” harbinger of the “new music,” and of Rameau’s “Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux,” harking back to the best of the old. The only discordant note is struck when Marian Hobson refers the reader to her 2013 French print edition of the text to discover more about key figures, such as Rameau’s uncle or Mlle Clairon, rather than reproducing her notes in English translation here.
With regards to the English translation, Kate Tunstall and Caroline Warman have not only preserved but also enhanced the lively repartee, fervent diatribes, and virtuosic pantomimes throughout. I would like to address two instances in which connotations and commentary risk being lost in translation, with the intent not to detract from the merits of this edition, but rather to contribute to an ongoing discussion of the interpretation of Diderot’s works. The first is the decision to translate “idiotismes” as “peculiarities.” Here, Tunstall and Warman depart from a long tradition of rendering “idiotismes” as “idioms.” This tradition includes dictionary definitions (idiotism, in English, is an obsolete word for idiom); translations of “idiotisme” into English and “idiom” into French in bilingual dictionaries; previous English translations of Rameau’s Nephew, including the 1956 Hackett edition translated by Jacques Barzun and Ralph H. Bowen and the 2006 Oxford World’s Classics edition translated by Margaret Mauldon; and countless scholarly books and articles. Though “peculiarity” is...