ALBUQUERQUE BAROQUE PLAYERS
with Dana Maiben, Baroque violin
7:30 p. m., Saturday, 21 March 2015, Fellowship Christian Reformed Church
3:00 p. m., Sunday, 22 March 2015, Historic Old San Ysidro Church, Corrales
MUSIC OF THE FRENCH BAROQUE
Deuxième Recréation de musique, op. 8, selections Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764)
Forlane: point trop vite
oboe, recorder, violin, continuo
Sonata in F major Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)
violin, viola da gamba, continuo
Trio in G major, from BWV 525 in Eb major Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
recorder, violin, continuo
Pièces de clavecin in G major, selections Jean-Henri D’Anglebert (1629-1691)
[Sonade] from L’Impériale, 3rd ordre from Les Nations François Couperin (1668-1733)
gravement—vivement—gravement, et marqué—légèrement—rondement—vivement
oboe, recorder, violin,continuo
France and England, because of political systems and cultural preferences, came late to the Baroque—the Italian Baroque, that is. Both countries were ruled by centralized, conservative royal dynasties, which generally valued the old more than the new. Both countries were beset by serious religious disputes, resulting in Civil War in England and the weakening and, finally, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France, which had protected French Protestants. Yet composers in both countries produced a quite wonderful and unique corpus of songs, plays with music, courtly entertainments, viol pieces, keyboard music, and church music. In France, though, on the heels of the appearance of Italian opera in Paris in about 1650, all those genres (other than solo music for keyboard or viol) nearly disappeared, and Gallic versions of opera and cantata largely replaced them. With the arrival of Corelli’s sonatas and concertos several decades later, French versions of these Italian instrumental genres became all the rage. It seems that few French composers could resist the pull of Italian verve and brilliance despite the noted French aversion to anything foreign.
What were these Italianisms? For one, there was simply the matter of genre. In the realm of instrumental music, no sonatas existed in France before the 1690s, and French concertos came along even later, in the 18th century. The Italian invention of basso continuo, the strong bass line governing harmonic movement, was ignored in France until the mid-17th century. Italian music was more tightly organized and more contrapuntal than the French, and its focus on virtuosity more overt. To be sure, French composers balanced all these influences with their love of the natural, the nuanced, and the understated; and they remained dedicated to the dance as a central part of all their music. Many of them may have tacitly agreed with François Couperin’s ideal of les goûts réünis, where Italian and French traits joined in happy union.
The earliest of our composers, D’Anglebert, was, logically, the least influenced by Italian music. He did cultivate a friendship with Lully, an Italian who became the director of French court opera, but he was friends also with Chambonnières, a French keyboardist of the old school. When Chambonnières stubbornly resisted learning the art of improvising continuo accompaniments, D’Anglebert took over the older musician’s court position. Other posts as royal harpsichordist and organist followed.
D’Anglebert’s corpus of works consists entirely of keyboard music, represented well by his 1689 publication of harpsichord pieces in four suites by key area. In the G major suite, there are 12 pieces, 11 dances and an unmeasured prelude. Though earlier “préludes non mesurés” are written out using only whole notes, D’Anglebert helpfully offers some suggestions in the form of eighth notes. Nonetheless, the performer must make decisions concerning phrasing, rhythm, and grouping of notes and harmonies, and he or she must make what looks like monophonic writing on the page into harmony and melody. Today, D’Anglebert’s harpsichord works, including the preludes, are recognized as among the finest of the French Baroque.
Jacquet was a child prodigy, touted as such from the age of five, when she played harpsichord and sang at Louis XIV’s court. Madame de Montespan, Louis’s mistress, took the gifted child under her wing and became her patron. Upon Jacquet’s marriage to the organist Marin de la Guerre, in 1684, she left court, as was the custom, but continued to teach and write music and, after her husband’s death, to present recitals. She was the first French woman to compose an opera, and eventually she added cantatas, trio sonatas, and sonatas for violin and continuo to her list of works.
Her music is notable for its quick shifts between major and minor modes and for contrasts between pseudo-improvisatory slow sections, virtuosic passages, and folklike melodies. All of these traits are evident in the sonata on our program. At the end of her life, a biography was published that included her portrait with this saying: “I vied with great composers for the prize.”
Couperin, like Jacquet de la Guerre, divided his time between the court at Versailles, where he composed and performed, and the town of Paris, where he held a position as church organist, became known as a fine teacher, and had a royal license to publish his own music. He voiced the general opinion of his era in inventing the term les goûts réünis, which he described in prefaces to his music as the marriage of French and Italian styles, confessing his great love for Corelli’s music.
His four “sonades et suites,” Les Nations, were born in the 1690s as multipartite sonatas only. In this early effort to popularize Italian style, Couperin went so far as to publicize these pieces under an assumed, somewhat Italian-sounding name. In 1726, when the pieces were published, Couperin added sets of French dances to each of the four Italianate sonatas. It used to be thought that the sonata that opens L’Impériale had no precedent from the 1690s, but a few years ago a copy of the original, called “La Convalescente” and attributed to Couperin, was discovered in Dresden, in the hand of a violinist at the court there. The four Nations were presumably intended to represent major political powers of the time: France, Spain, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire (L’Impériale). Beyond the titles, though, there’s little or nothing in the music to identify geography or culture. We’ll perform only the sonata from L’Impériale.
Called by one 18th -century writer “the Corelli of France,” Leclair was clearly the most Italianate of our composers. From a family of lacemakers, he’d mastered that trade as well as courtly dancing and violin technique before leaving his home town, Lyon. His subsequent career was checkered, to say the least, as he gained positions and left them—or was asked to leave—and repeatedly crisscrossed Europe, traveling to London, Paris, the Low Countries, and Italy. In Italy, he received some violin training, and later he became known as the founder of the French violin school. Briefly, he worked at the court of Louis XV but departed in a huff when asked to share the concertmaster position with another violinist. In spite of his undeniable talent and musical abilities, Leclair’s argumentative personality caught up with him in the end: after he’d separated from his wife and moved into housing in a dangerous quarter of Paris, he was murdered, most likely by a nephew, who, curiously, was never brought to trial.
Most of Leclair’s music is for violin—sonatas, trios, and concertos—and there are some pieces for flute. The Recréation on our program, for example, lists flutes or violins as choices for the two treble instruments. Let’s not be misled by the composer’s description of this piece, “d’une exécution facile”: it’s “easy to play” only in comparison with the solo sonatas, where Leclair makes considerably greater demands on technique and musicianship.
Once again, we nod appreciatively and gratefully in the direction of J. S. Bach, whose 330th birthday is this weekend. His six organ trios, possibly composed for the nimble fingers and feet of his oldest son, Wilhelm Friedeman Bach, have in modern times—and perhaps earlier times, too—been transcribed for various combinations of two, three, and four instruments. In our arrangement, violin and recorder take the lines originally for the two hands, while the viola da gamba plays the pedal part.