Physics in Perspective

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 417–439 | Cite as

Hearing Pygmalion’s Kiss: A Scientific Object at the Paris Opéra

  • Kevin Lambert


In 1748, in his acte de ballet Pygmalion, composer and music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau arranged the Paris Opéra orchestra to play “nature’s chord,” harmonies that reproduced the overtones an expert ear could detect in every natural musical vibrating body. The following year Rameau presented his music theory to the French Royal Academy of Sciences for their endorsement. Disillusionment with the promise of Cartesian mechanics as a source of a unified understanding of nature opened up the possibility that matter might have properties beyond extension and motion, such as aversion, desire, and memory. Speculations about this material sensibility also coincided with increasing claims about the authority of spontaneous emotion and feeling. The experience of music at the opera was a significant resource for claims about the cultural authority of sensibility.


Jean-Philippe Rameau Pygmalion corps sonore vibrating bodies materialism Friedrich Grimm Denis Diderot 



I would like to thank Emily Bonney, Nonny de la Peña, Joe Gonzalez, Margaret Garber, Angeles Sancho-Velazquez, and Mary Terrall for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I have also benefited from Peter Pesic’s generous support and advice.


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© Springer Basel 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Liberal Studies DepartmentCalifornia State University FullertonFullertonUSA

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