April in Paris: Versailles
Apr 10 at 4:00
Although humble in origin, the hunting lodge at Versailles certainly outgrew its first structure to become the most glamorous palace in Europe. Today, it remains a landmark of France’s magnificent history, from Louis XIII in 1630 to the bloody days of Revolution in 1789. At the time of Louis XIV, the so-called “Sun King,” the music created and performed at Versailles was unrivaled in sophistication. And like moths to the light, Europe’s finest musicians were drawn to Louis’ court to compose, perform, instruct, and indulge in all the festivities that Parisian life could provide. Many came from Italy, which ushered in a period of great musical development but also outright rivalry and stylistic animosity.
The French and Italians have not always gotten along in music history (to say nothing of larger political battles) despite long traditions of contact and mutual influence. A debate known as the querrelle des bouffons raged throughout Europe in the mid-1700s. At its most basic, this argument divided those who favored elaborate (read “artificial”) melodic style in the Italian manner over a simpler (read “natural”) French manner. Composers of instrumental music managed to stay just above the fray as they worked to merge elements of the Italian violin school (brilliant texture, alternating slow-fast tempo patterns) with the older forms derived from the French dance suite. Others, as in the case of Lully, Rameau, and Clérambault, were directly caught up in the stylistic war.
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749) pioneered a genre of French secular cantata, using a descriptive and vibrant instrumental approach for setting mostly classical stories from the Greco-Roman tradition. The French cantata derived from an older Italian model, but it insisted on subtle changes in the approach to text and was made more accessible by being less melodically ornate. La muse de l’opera, ou Les Caractères lyriques (1716) is a secular cantata for soprano and chamber orchestra in seven parts. Clérambault may not have written a complete opera, but La muse offers a glimpse of what “might have been.” The light-hearted concept comes from the wit of a young Parisian, M. de Moncrif, who condenses all of the stock operatic topics into this 18-minute sampler. War, hunting, the song of birds, and a journey into the Underworld are but four of the “lyrical characters” referred to in the subtitle. Clérambault’s evocative, highly enjoyable score offers a spectacle for the ears, which makes the absence of lavish visual staging (this is a cantata, after all) hardly noticeable.
The greatest family name in French music is Couperin, a dynasty of composers and performers active from 1601 until 1750. Louis Couperin (1626-1661) is the man whose rapturous “unmeasured” preludes offer a unique window into the world of 17th-century improvisation. The scion of the family, Louis‘ nephew François (1668-1733), created an enormous treasury of harpsichord works, as well as arguably the most important treatise on performance written during the Baroque era. He led a new generation of composers at Versailles that included men like Dieupart, lutenist Robert de Visée, and Marin Marais. Theoretical matters alone would likely not have sufficed to preserve François’ reputation at such heights. Fortunately, his numerous compositions - ranging from dance movements to evocative character pieces - ground his stylistic ideas in superlative practical examples.
Equally famous is Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose legacy in composition and theory has cast a long shadow over French music history. His system of chord theory and fundamental bass progressions laid out in the 1722 Treatise on Harmony remains in common use today. At the time, he was best known for challenging Lully’s command of the opera world. His simple airs and gracious instrumental writing helped forge the signature clarity of the new French style, as it moved away from the overly decorated mannerisms of the prior generations. Apart from his operas, Rameau is also recognized for his dozens of harpsichord works and several important instrumental suites. The familiar Tambourine, from Suite No. 8, features a richly strummed harmonic support that suggests a folk dance. La Cupis and La Marais are both drawn from the fifth Pièces de clavecin en concert, which offer true chamber suites with fully integrated harpsichord part (rather than just continuo support). The former strikes a contemplative mood, while La Marais is more animated across all players.
One of the particular genres explored among French composers was the tombeau or musical memorial. The earliest example on record is the haunting Tombeau de Mézangeau from 1638. Ennemond Gaultier (1575-1651), also known as Le Vieux Gaultier (Gaultier the Elder), composed this tombeau in honor of his teacher, Rene Mézangeau. The prevailing texture demonstrates the so-called style brisé or style luthé, referring to a manner of irregularly arpeggiated chords developed by Mézangeau and other 17th-century French lute and keyboard composers. This style is central to the Baroque performance tradition: notation never captured everything that took place in actual performance, and written-out, simple chord progressions could have as many possible “realizations” as players willing to take up the music.
Among his more notable contemporaries, Michel Lambert (1610-1696) was particularly revered for his “airs” or songs for accompanied solo voice. Not that he ignored other genres; his lute works are still treasured, and he earned a living also as a dance instructor. At one point, he also held the post of “master of the king’s chamber music.” Still, Lambert’s signature repertoire centers on solo voice. His feeling and sensitivity to text helped in the evolution of classical French opera as typified by his son-in-law, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Lambert’s outstanding collection, a volume of sixty airs published in 1689, includes “Ah! qui voudra” and “Je suis aimé.” Both epitomize the gracious and tender style that made Lambert’s airs so beloved, then as now. Two- and three-part vocal texture, close harmony, and chromaticism all hearken back to the madrigal tradition at its more refined.
The son of a prosperous shoemaker, Jean-Henri d’Anglebert’s (1629-1691) early years are all but invisible to the historian’s glance. He may have had one or more powerful teachers, but it was not until about his 25th year that his first compositions emerged. Notably, d’Anglebert’s works first appeared alongside pieces by Louis Couperin and possibly originated in that circle. Thus by the mid-1650s, d’Anglebert was closely associated with the most prominent French harpsichordists of the day. The bulk of his career unfolded in court and chapel circles around Paris, including Versailles, where he held several keyboard posts. His only published work, Pièces de clavecin, appeared in 1689 just before his death, though a fair amount of other music survives in handwritten copies. This collection was lavishly engraved for printing and included an invaluable “table of ornaments,” explaining in detail how each turn, trill, or mordent in a work like his unmeasured Prelude in G minor should be realized.
No one was more important to music at Versailles than Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). Lully would become the touchstone for generations of French composers, though ironically he was born in Florence and worked hard to dispel notions that he had brought “Italianisms” into French music. Lully entered the service of Louis XIV in 1652 and achieved almost immediate fame for his striking ballets; on occasion, the King himself would dance! He took charge of the royal string band, helping to fashion the violons du roy into one of the premier ensembles in western Europe. In the vocal genres, Lully achieved brilliant success with operas on mythical or classical topics. The king himself suggested the story of Armide and Rinaldo to Lully, derived from Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered (1581). Organized as a series of episodes related to the First Crusade, Tasso’s sprawling tale spends more time exploring marginal amorous intrigues, including the story of Armida and Rinaldo. Armida, an Arab sorceress, fails in her mission to destroy the invading Christians when she falls in love with the valiant and handsome Rinaldo, purported founder of the Italian house of d’Este. Rather than strike Rinaldo down, Armide uses her magic to entrance him. He is eventually restored to his senses by fellow Crusaders and abandons Armide, who joins Dido of Carthage among the forlorn leading women of literature.
One of Armide’s highlights is the Passacaille from Act 5. A passacaglia, to use its more common Italian name, was an established form favored in the Baroque. Its basic premise features a recurring melodic (and sometimes harmonic) pattern that repeats multiple times, each repetition offering chances for variation, ornamentation, and changes in mood and orchestration. Armide’s passacaglia in G minor vacillates between full ensemble and passages reduced to just three players (flutes with violin). Adding to its charm is the repeated chord progression, a stepwise descent from the tonic to the dominant in minor mode. Such technical terms may not resonate, but this familiar “lament bass” progression is one of the most commonly used passacaglia ideas. The entire ten-minute episode begins in the orchestra but flows without pause into a section featuring chorus. Lully brilliantly fuses instrumental and vocal textures while maintaining the dramatic momentum of the passacaglia. The scene takes a very congenial view of Rinaldo’s situation (he is a prisoner, after all), and the chorus is here simply to divert him while Armide skips off to consult with underworld oracles.
We close with music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), who worked for many years as private chapel composer for the son of Louis XIV. His style flourished after a period of study in Rome, which brought him into direct contact with Giacomo Carissimi and the latest developments in Italian vocal technique. Best known for sacred masterpieces like the Te Deum - which he actually set six different times - Charpentier also circulated in the theater world with Molière and Corneille. He was incredibly prolific. Even though many works have been lost, some 500 extant compositions testify to the skill and stylistic polish of a generally marginalized Baroque master.
Of Charpentier’s many Te Deum settings, the most famous is a D-major composition (H. 146) written around 1690. It is scored for soloists, chorus, and large orchestra, and it makes particular use of brass and timpani to engage a brilliant, celebratory tone. The work was lost for centuries until 1953, when French musicologist Carl de Nys discovered an over-looked manuscript held in Paris’ Bibliothèque nationale. As the text makes clear, a Te Deum offers praise to God and, perhaps next in line, the King. Its most famous music occurs in the opening Prelude/Rondeau - now the anthem of the European Broadcasting Union and commonly cited in films. Subsequent sections, many of which are quite short, flow smoothly between solo, duo, and choral textures. Some sprint by with vigorous urgency, while other passages (such as “Pleni sunt caeli”) create a more expansive feel with their longer, sustained notes and choral homophony. Generally, Charpentier favors larger forces for the earlier portions of the text, turning to a more intimate, lighter instrumentation to characterize the central Christological portions. His ability to combine orchestra and chorus is compelling, though the solo vocal passages (e.g., “Te per orbem”) may even outshine them. Touches of polyphony are used sparingly until the grand final fugue, “In te, Domine, speravi”, pulling on all the instrumental vocal resources at Charpentier’s disposal. Had the entire work been longer, it could perhaps be compared with Handel’s Messiah. But filling less than half an hour, Charpentier’s Te Deum takes on the luster of a precious jewel, hardly out of place in a setting like Versailles.
Each in his own way, these composers built a musical edifice every bit the rival of the glittering palace around them. Musicians and their careers often fall victim to the whim of employers and patrons. It is indeed fortunate that Louis XIV was himself an astute supporter of the musical arts, for his unprecedented 72-year reign could have made or broken French culture for generations. However one feels about the disconnect between royal splendor and the poverty of the larger population, it was Louis’ vision that transformed a simple hunting lodge into what we see today. Moreover, the sheer scope of operations at Versailles meant that many, many musicians were required. And that diversity and “critical mass” of talent tipped the scales in favor of a musical culture admitting no equal anywhere in Europe.
© Jason Stell, 2022