The Montréal-based baroque music quartet Arion has been delighting audiences since 1981 with its performances of 17th- and 18th-century chamber music. Since its founding, it has toured in Canada, Europe, [...]
Entre Paris et Versailles: French Chamber Music in the 18th century
They spoke about it
Unlike Italy and Germany, with their multitude of capital cities, France established her national unity from an early date. The policies first of Richelieu and then of Louis XIV centralised not only the political, but also the cultural life of France, with the arts and music made servants to the ideal of absolute monarchy.
To Versailles, where, in 1682, the Sun King had officially installed his government, came the writers, painters and musicians who would make their age great. But if Versailles was the centre of power and the residence of the Court, Paris remained close by. It was not uncommon for musicians serving in the royal Chamber, the Chapel, or the “Grande Écurie” to maintain residences in the city as well as their place at Court. Such artists divided their time between Paris and Versailles, travelling frequently between the old capital and the new.
In the last decades of Louis XIV’s interminable reign, these comings and goings between Paris and Versailles became an important feature of French cultural life. A young generation of nobles, impatient with the etiquette of Versailles, began to escape to the ancient metropolis. There in the Parisian salons they mingled on a more or less equal basis with writers, artists and cultivated bourgeois. It was in this fertile milieu that the eighteenth century was born. While Watteau and Lancret were painting the gallant scenes which captured the spirit of the era, in music the Italian style gained in popularity every day.
French composers enthusiastically began to cultivate Italian forms. The sonata and the cantata, genres which are particularly well-suited to the salon, made their appearance in France. Here was proposed the union of French and Italian styles, which, as François Couperin avowed, would “make perfect the art of music.” So it was that in early eighteenth-century France modern chamber music came into being. The era of Louis XV was to be especially appreciative of this subtle, refined art — the art of the salon. This music was soon to find its way to Versailles as the musical ornament for the small rococo apartments with which Mme de Pompadour replaced the grandiose chambers of the princes of royal blood.
The present recording is devoted to three composers — Jacques Hotteterre, Jean-Marie Leclair and Gabriel Guillemain — who brought their genius to bear on this most agreeable aspect of the intellectual and artistic life of eighteenth-century France.
Born around 1680, Jacques Hotteterre counts among the first virtuosos of the transverse flute, an instrument members of his own family had recently perfected. As violist and bassoonist of the “Grande Écurie” and as ordinary musician of the royal Chamber, he still remained close to the style of Lully. Hotteterre cultivated the sonata and the suite, tinting them delicately with Italian harmonies. From a trip to Italy, where he came under Corelli’s influence, he acquired the surname “Le Romain.”
Although Hotteterre was an exact contemporary of Rameau, his style assigns him to the age of Louis XIV and the Regency. We find his name, as a musician, on the royal payroll until his death in 1760, but he composed all his works before 1722, with the exception of a method for the musette, published in 1738. His opus III appeared in 1712 and was dedicated to the Duc d’Orléans who was to become Regent three years later, after Louis XIV’s death.
The flute was to enjoy ever-increasing popularity throughout the century, but it was the violin, as developed by the Italian masters, that inspired the most remarkable virtuosos. Among these was a composer of the first rank, Jean-Marie Leclair. Born at Lyon in 1697, he was first a dancer and ballet-master at Turin. There he studied the violin with Giovanni Battista Somis, himself a pupil of Corelli. In Paris, Leclair made his début at the “Concert spirituel” in 1728. He scored a notable success as much for his playing as for his compositions. He performed for many years in the company of flutist Michel Blavet and violinist Jean-Pierre Guignon. Along with the latter, Leclair was named “violon du roi.” But his stormy temperament, the difficulty of enduring his rivals, or some unknown circumstance caused him to retire to Holland in 1737.
There he made friends with the violinist Antonio Locatelli, another pupil of Corelli. We find him again around 1750 in the service of the Duc de Gramont. Toward the end of his life, melancholic and misanthropic, separated from his wife and far from his family, he lived on the outskirts of Paris, where he haunted places of ill-repute. In October of 1764, Leclair was murdered in the vestibule of his house. At the time, he had been working on his second opera, the subject of which was Arion. A commentary of the day indicates in what esteem Leclair was held: the chronicler wrote that his murderers were “no doubt monsters who belong neither to their country nor to their century.” The foe of gratuitous virtuosity, Leclair was not a prolific composer. His works, almost exclusively instrumental, are always marked by modesty, elegance and finesse.
The perfection of Leclair’s writing and the complexity of his structures leave the instrumental works of his French contemporaries far behind. During his lifetime these qualities earned him the title of “Corelli of France.” Compared to his sonatas for the violin, the two Récréations en musique (published in 1736 and 1737 and advertised as “easy to play”) are in a form more traditionally French. Each is a vast suite en trio, opening with an overture in the style of Lully and including a chaconne in the grand manner.
Like Leclair, Gabriel Guillemain was to suffer a tragic fate. Born in Paris in 1705, he spent an important part of his youth in Italy. In sheer ability as a violinist, it is possible that Guillemain surpassed even Leclair. In 1737, he entered the service of the King, and found in the Marquise de Pompadour an attentive patron. But Guillemain fell victim to nervous disorders, became increasingly fearful of playing in public, and finally sank into alcoholism. He killed himself on the road from Paris to Versailles in October 1771.
The title of Guillemain’s collection, Conversations galantes et amusantes, which he published 1756, gives no hint of the violent destiny of its author. The pieces in this work are quartet arrangements of the Pièces de clavecin en sonates avec l’accompagnement de violon, which Guillemain had published ten years earlier. Telemann had already popularised the quartet form with two series of quartets, published in Paris in the 1730s. He revived and enlarged the device of separating the bass line into two distinct voices — a procedure sometimes adopted by the French. Guillemain followed the example of the elder composer, and by making a place for the flute in his new arrangements he was able to draw on that instrument’s expressiveness while taking advantage of its popularity.
© François Filiatrault
Translation: James Louder
If one turns […] to the play of intellect, then life at Versailles in the eighteenth century had little to offer, and Parisian society was fortunate to be free from the stultifying rituals of court procedure and the trivial day-to-day preoccupations of politics. Another thing that helped to keep the eighteenth-century salons free from too much toadying and pomposity is that the French upper classes were not oppressively rich. […] The salons where the brightest intellects of France were assembled were luxurious, but still not overwhelming. The rooms were of a normal size, and the ornament (for in those days people couldn’t live without ornament) was not elaborate as to impose a formal behaviour. People could feel that they had natural human relationship with one another [and those] who frequented the salons of eighteenth-century France were not a group of fashionable good-timers: they were the outstanding philosophers and scientists of the time.
—Kenneth Clark, Civilisation, 1969