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Event is Past

Event is Past

Program Notes

The legacy of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) has cast a long shadow over French music history. Very little is known of his early life except that he came from a musical family in Dijon, traveled for a time in Italy, and had his first professional jobs as an organist (following his father’s example). Better documented is Rameau’s career after 1722, when he settled in Paris and brought forth a profoundly influential Treatise on Harmony. The system of chord theory and fundamental bass progressions laid out in Rameau’s Treatise remains in common use today. At the time, he was best known for challenging Jean-Baptiste Lully’s command of the opera world. With attentions divided between composition, journalism, and polemics, Rameau concentrated most of his effort on stage works. Nevertheless, he also made important contributions to keyboard literature, including both character pieces and organized dance suites.

Rameau was valorized by one side of the debate known as the Querrelle des Bouffons, which 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. Rameau landed squarely on the side of “native simplicity”: the belief that Italian influence could only corrupt and destroy the natural purity of French song. At the same time, he often drew material for his librettos from exotic settings, taking Parisian audiences to places in the theater that would otherwise never go.

As a case in point, consider the ballet-opera celebrating Les Indes Galantes (The Amorous Indies). Written around 1735, this work pulls together unrelated scenes ranging from Turkey and Arabia to Peru and 17th-century North America. Indeed, Rameau’s original inspiration stemmed from the appearance in Paris in 1725 of six Native American chiefs. Their visit roughly corresponds to a “return to nature” movement among European aristocracy later epitomized by Jean Jacques Rousseau (ironically to become Rameau’s chief opponent in the Querrelle). Our program opens and closes with two orchestral passages from Les Indes Galantes. Opening in the palace of mythical Hebe, the Overture showcases what we have come to know by the term “French overture”: an opening section in slower tempo, dressed up in regal tones by the majestic dotted rhythm pattern and frequent ornamentation. The second section is faster and more based on imitative counterpoint.

Beyond Rameau and Lully, the third major name in French music is Couperin, a dynasty of composers and performers active from 1601 until the Revolution. The scion of the family, François Couperin (1668-1733), created an enormous treasury of vocal and instrumental works while living at Versailles. François grew up surrounded by music and famous musicians, even enjoying private lessons with the music director at the royal chapel. Within a few years François would attain the highest musical job at Louis XIV’s court. He continued the family’s significance in harpsichord music, compiling four massive volumes of keyboard works and writing a major treatise on performance practice. Couperin often used poetic or descriptive titles for instrumental works, though the exact significance of some is still debated. Le Carillon de Cythère, from Couperin’s Book 3 of keyboard works, references the bells of Cythère, an Aegean island and ancient center of worship for the goddess Aphrodite. Couperin’s piece, which remains harmonically static and buzzes with trills and mordents, may have been directly inspired by painter Antoine Watteau, whose “Pilgrimage to the Island of Kythera” appeared in 1717, just five years before Couperin’s Book 3 was published in Paris.

Couperin led a new generation of composers at Versailles that included lutenist Robert de Visée, Antoine Forqueray, and Marin Marais (1656-1728), who previously had studied opera composition with Lully. Marais and Forqueray were widely considered the leading gambists of the day, and both created fantastic suites for their chosen instrument. Then as now, Marais is adored for his poetic, refined, and sensitive style. The popular 1991 French biopic Tous Les Matins Du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) – centering on the life of Marais – brought his music to global attention.

Near the end of his life, Marais composed Sonnerie de Sainte-Geneviève du Mont de Paris as homage to the bells of St. Geneviève Abbey in Paris. It is scored for small chamber ensemble, of which his beloved viola da gamba plays the leading role. The work typifies the form known as chaconne. Here the repeating cell occupies the smallest possible duration, simply stating a single measure of D-F-E in the bass. Above this fundamental bass, the violin and gamba elaborate all manner of ornamented melody, gradually increasing the rhythmic momentum against the obsessive harmonic repetition. Some respite comes as Marais makes simple modulations to related keys (A minor and F major) further into the form, though the original D minor returns to close this hypnotic work.

Composers of instrumental music like Marais and the Parisian Louis-Antoine Dornel (1685-1765) managed to stay just slightly above the fray of the Querelle as they worked to blend elements of the Italian violin school (brilliant texture, alternating slow-fast tempo patterns) with the older forms derived from the French dance suite. Rather than debating relative merits, these composers tried to merge the best elements of both traditions to create a new sound and new formal possibilities. For instance, Dornel wrote numerous trio sonatas, a genre that emerged in the 17th century from Italian vocal forms. While many composers wrote trio sonatas – it was one of the most common Baroque forms – famous examples penned by Arcangelo Corelli around 1700 became the template for later developments.

Trio sonatas feature two treble melodic instruments plus basso continuo (usually a combination of bassoon, bass viol or gamba, and harpsichord or lute). In structure, two general trends emerged and eventually overlapped. On one hand, a sonata da chiesa (church sonata) typically included alternating slow-fast-slow-fast tempos and a fair amount of counterpoint, even fugue. The other type, called a sonata da camera (chamber sonata), included examples of then-popular dances and helped to inspire later dance suites by Froberger, Bach, and others. Dornel’s Sonata in G Major, Op. 3/4, suggests features of both church and chamber sonatas. Five movements are included, beginning with a slow Prelude based on melodic imitation. The remaining four movements are all in binary (AB) form, with each part repeated. Dornel places two lively Allemandes back-to-back, the first marked “gaiement” (cheerfully), the second “comique” (humorous). The following Sicilenne is slower and built on that dance’s traditional triple meter, while the traditional fast finale is filled by the “Air vif” (fast song).

As we have noted, many French composers prided themselves on nurturing a humane, natural expressive style that did not need the excessive displays cultivated in Italy. This was particularly germane in genres of vocal music. The recognized master of French songs or “airs” during Louis XIV’s reign was Michel Lambert (1610-1696), who worked alongside Lully at Versailles for many years. (Incidentally, Lully became Lambert’s son-in-law in 1662.) Not that Lambert ignored other genres; his lute works are still treasured, and he earned a living also as a dance instructor and “master of the king’s chamber music.” Still, Lambert’s signature repertoire centers on solo voice. He was a gifted singer and would often accompany himself on theorbo, offering a clear French analog to Italian Giulio Caccini, a pioneer in the invention of opera. Though several generations younger than Caccini, Lambert similarly sparked interest in a distinctive, national operatic art – the so-called tragédie lyrique – whose works deal with classical myth and in which lyricism takes center stage.

Lambert’s feeling and sensitivity to text helped in the evolution both of classical French opera and in solo song. Lambert’s outstanding collection, a volume of sixty airs published in 1689, includes the two examples performed today. The first, “Puisque par un arrest du sort,” offers a great example of the monodic song, scored for solo voice and lute accompaniment. The four-voice “D’un feu secret” presents familiar binary form, both sections of which are usually repeated. However, in these works there is a great flexibility for performance, including instrumental versions of the main material prior to the voice’s entering. The primary motives feature rising chromatic lines, a device well-used in the Italian madrigal tradition for heightening the tonal tension. Throughout there is an easy lilt to the triple-meter themes, and the frequent emphasis on the second beat may suggest elements of the sarabande style to some listeners.

The concert concludes with a return to Les Indes Galantes by Rameau, following from the Overture heard earlier. Later in the opera Rameau inserts an instrumental chaconne, one of the Baroque’s most popular forms based on the repetition of an underlying harmonic pattern. In this case, however, the repetition is broader and not as easily heard at all times compared to something like Pachelbel’s Canon or the Sonnerie by Marais just performed. Rameau’s chaconne moves through multiple keys, affects, and styles, and not all passages maintain the harmonic model. As such the repetition works in tandem with great variety to create a resplendent orchestral episode in the midst of the drama.

© Jason Stell, 2024

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