Program Notes for 18 & 19 September 2010

Concert I: From the Court of Louis XV

Premier Concert................................................................................................................................... Francois Couperin (1668-1733)
Prélude
Allemande
Sarabande
Gavotte
Gigue
Menuet en trio

oboe, violin, viola da gamba, harpsichord, continuo

Suite in A minor, selections............................................................................................................. Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
Allemande
Courante
Sarabande
La Triomphant

harpsichord

Sonata in A majo.......................................................................................................................................r Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764)
Adagio
Allegro
Aria: Gratioso
Allegro

violin, continuo

 

*****intermission*****

 

Suite in G minor................................................................................................................................... Pierre Danican Philidor (1681-1731)
Lentement
Courante
Air en musette: Gracieusement
Gavotte
Sicilienne: Très lentement
Paysanne: Gayement

oboe, continuo

Suites in D major, from books 3 and 4, selections.............................................................................................. Marin Marais (1656-1728)
Prélude
Fantaisie
Allemande La Guinebault
Sarabande
Chaconne
La Brilliante

viola da gamba, continuo

Sonate in B minor, op. 3/3 ...........................................................................................................Jacques-Martin Hotteterre (1674-1763)
Prélude: Gravement
Fugue: Gay
Grave: Gracieusement
Vivement, et croches égales

recorder, violin, continuo

 

For this opening concert of our 2010/2011 season, we bring you a selection of music from the golden age of the French Baroque. Much of the finest music of this era comes from the court at Versailles, where four of the six composers on our program (Marais, Couperin, Hotteterre, and Philidor) worked under Louis XIV, the absolutist roi Soleil (“Sun King”). Louis’ retinue of composers and performers furnished music for official court functions, dancing, masses, and public spectacles as well as private concerts in the royal family’s apartments. While his weaker, musically-unsophisticated great-grandson Louis XV couldn’t match the splendor of his predecessor’s court, he also employed some outstanding musicians, including Leclair and Rameau, the other two composers on our program.

Louis XIV’s absolute political power was matched in the musical realm by the power and influence of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Tuscany, Lully was brought to Paris as tutor to a cousin of Louis’ who was studying Italian. He quickly became a favorite of the king, who saw to it that Lully received a first-rate education in music, dancing, and theater. He was granted various court positions as a dancer or musician, and in 1661 was named superintendent of the king’s music and naturalized as a French citizen. As a result, Lully came to enjoy a virtual monopoly over the musical establishment at Versailles. His operas, with libretti derived from the venerable tradition of Corneille and Molière and music fitted to the rhythm and cadence of the French language, set the standard for the classic French style. Politics, not surprisingly, played a role: the music performed at Versailles was strictly regulated as a means of asserting the political and artistic supremacy of France, and court musicians were discouraged from studying abroad.

Given Lully’s Italian origins, it’s somewhat ironic that he came to be regarded—quite rightly, to be sure—as the standard-bearer for the French style in the debate over the relative merits of French and Italian music that unfolded after his death in 1687. Musicians were now free to travel to Italy and pick up the more extroverted and virtuosic Italian styles. Moreover, as Louis weakened under the strain and expense of multiple wars and domestic troubles, the center of intellectual and artistic life had shifted from Versailles to cosmopolitan Paris. There, the discovery of Arcangelo Corelli’s works led to a craze for writing Italianate sonatas, while the pamphlet wars comparing French and Italian styles raged on. In 1713 the newspaper Mercure galant called for the union of “the wise and ingenious taste of the Italians” with “the natural and simple taste of the French.” And indeed, the story of French Baroque music is, to some extent, the story of this rapprochement of styles.

Among the composers who came under Corelli’s spell was the young François Couperin, a brilliant keyboardist who was appointed organiste du roi (and Louis’ music teacher) in 1693. He soon became active as a court composer of chamber music, solo harpsichord music, and sacred works for the royal chapel. At about the time of his initial appointment he was experimenting with composing trio sonatas in the Italian style, even going so far as to sign them with an Italianate anagram of his name. His ultimate goal, however, was not to compose “Italian” music but to combine the best of the French and the Italian styles—an ideal that was reflected in the title of his 1724 collection Les goûts réünis (“the styles united”). This volume—also known as Nouveaux concerts—was a follow-up to the four Concerts royaux, published in 1722 but composed earlier; Couperin’s preface mentions performances given in 1714 and 1715, at the end of Louis XIV’s life. We open our program with the first concert, in a way the most conservative of the four and thus probably tailored to the liking of the aging king for whom it would have been performed. This concert follows the plan of the classic French suite: a prelude followed by a standard set of courtly dances, plus a gigue and two lighter dances known as galanteries, in this instance a gavotte and a minuet.

Another exponent of both French and Italian styles at Louis XIV’s court was Jacques-Martin Hotteterre “le Romain;” the nickname possibly alludes to his having studied in Rome. The most celebrated member of a large family of woodwind-instrument makers, players, and composers, Hotteterre acquired court posts as an oboist and, later, as a flautist. As a writer and composer he produced some important theoretical and pedagogical works as well as a variety of instrumental pieces in a variety of styles, ranging from arrangements for flutes of popular airs (including some from Lully’s operas) to a volume of Corelli-esque trio sonatas (opus 3). We will perform the third sonata, in B minor, from this volume. It’s on the model of the sonata da chiesa (“church sonata”) in four movements, alternating slow and fast. The second movement is a fugue—not an especially French form!—but a rather vivacious, if not frivolous, fugue. The slow movements, while reminiscent of Corelli, sometimes seem to call for the characteristically-French practice of notes inégales, where evenly-written notes are gently “swung.”

Pierre Danican Philidor, a member of another large family of woodwind players, inherited his father’s post as oboist at court in 1697 and, later, worked with Couperin and Marais as a viol player in the king’s chamber-music retinue. Philidor’s extant compositions include a volume of six suites for flute, oboe, or violin with continuo. The fourth of these suites, performed this weekend by our oboist, includes several pieces of a pastoral character: a musette, where the oboe imitates a kind of bagpipe, with the continuo providing the drone; a siciliana; and, finally, a peasant dance in rondeau form. Even the courante (one of the standard courtly dances in the classic suite) suggests the forward-looking style galant in its alternation of duple and triplet rhythms.

The gambist Marin Marais, while doubtless acquainted with Italian styles, drew on them sparingly, if at all, in his compositions. The oldest of the six composers on our program, he was also the only one with a direct connection to Lully, under whose direction he played in in the orchestra of the Paris Opéra, and to whom he dedicated his first book of pieces for viola da gamba. In 1679 he was appointed to the court as a chamber musician, and, under Lully’s tutelage, became a composer of instrumental chamber music as well as operas. His four operas are in the Lullian mold, albeit relatively innovative in their use of text-painting, vocal and instrumental color, and expressive harmony. Marais is best known, however, for his five books of pièces for viola da gamba and continuo. Each book is loosely organized into suites—or, more accurately, into sets of short pieces grouped together by key, from which the performer makes selections to form a suite. While the first book consists almost entirely of the standard dances found in the classic French suite, subsequent volumes lean increasingly towards descriptive and character pieces. Our selections, from the third and fourth books, comprise a mix of types: a prelude, two dances, a chaconne (a set of variations over a bass line that is, itself, varied), a rather showy Fantaisie, and the aptly-named rondeau La Brillante.

In contrast to the four composers discussed above, with their long careers at Versailles, the violinist Jean-Marie Leclair served for only four years at the court of Louis XV before resigning in the aftermath of a quarrel with Pierre Guignon, his rival for the directorship of the royal orchestra. He had previously spent some years in Turin, studying, performing, composing, and traveling. On one of his trips, he performed with Pietro Locatelli at the court of Kassel; it’s been suggested that this performance was meant to enact the battle between French and Italian styles. In any event it seems that Leclair the composer was influenced by Locatelli, as evidenced in his opus-5 sonatas for violin and continuo, which Leclair dedicated to Louis XV upon his appointment to the court in 1733. We will perform the first sonata of this set. Like Hotteterre’s trio sonata, it follows the slow-fast-slow-fast plan of the sonata da chiesa. The influence of Locatelli (whose playing, incidentally, had been described as diabolical, in contrast to Leclair’s angelic style) can be heard in the brilliant passagework of the fast movements, while the slow movements—especially the gratioso Aria—bear a trace of a French accent that might be attributed, in part, to the many prescribed agréments, or ornaments.

Also associated with Louis XV was Jean-Philippe Rameau. An organist, teacher, and the author of a number of theoretical treatises, Rameau paid his first visit to Versailles at age 50. This marked the beginning of the long final phase of his career: for the next 30 years he worked as a composer of operas, ballets, and other theater music. In 1745 he won a royal pension and the title of “composer of music for the king’s chamber.” Most of Rameau’s solo harpsichord music, including the suite on our program, pre-dates his association with the court. The Nouvelle suites de pieces de clavecin, published in 1728, comprises two contrasting suites. The second of these consists almost entirely of genre and descriptive pieces, recalling Couperin’s suites (aka ordres) for solo harpsichord. The first, from which our selection is taken, is more traditional in its architecture, comprising three standard dances plus three genre pieces and a gavotte with variations. Our harpsichordist will be performing the three dances and one of the genre pieces. Despite its outward apparent conservatism, this suite shows Rameau’s mastery of French and Italian styles; note, for example, the intricate counterpoint of the Courante, the harmonic surprises in the Sarabande, and the brilliant theatrical gestures of “La Triomphante.”

 

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