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“The naturalness of his [...]
Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711–1772) was, alongside Jean-Philippe Rameau, one of the dominant figures of the French High Baroque. He made his mark on both sacred music and opera, as well as on instrumental music, with a series of five increasingly innovative opuses published in his lifetime.
Little is known of Mondonville’s youth except that he was the son of the cathedral organist at Narbonne, his home town. We first hear of him only in 1733 in Paris, where, at the age of 22, he published a collection of sonatas for violin and continuo (Op. 1). The next year, he made his debut as a violinist at the famous Concert Spirituel and published two other collections, one of trio sonatas (Op. 2) and the other of Pièces de clavecin en sonates avec accompagnement de violon (Op. 3), from which the “sonata” that completes the program of this recording is taken. The title of the collection is a clue to its innovation, whereby Mondonville reversed the roles of the traditional violin and continuo form; instead, the violin accompanies entirely notated harpsichord pieces grouped into sonatas of three contrasting movements, fast-slow-fast. A number of Mondonville’s contemporaries would follow suit, including Rameau with his Pièces de clavecin en concert (1741).
After five more years of obscurity, Mondonville resurfaces in 1738 as first violin of the Concerts de Lille and having published his Opus 4, Les sons harmoniques. The title of this collection announces a further innovation. Although he returned to a more traditional form for the violin and continuo sonata, it was likely to better highlight his use of harmonics in the violin part, a new technique that he introduced in the collection’s preface and which marked an important moment in the instrument’s history.
Lille, the capital of French Flanders, was also where the composer premiered his first great sacred motets for soloists, choir and orchestra. But Mondonville’s career really took off in 1739 when, back in Paris, he was named violinist to the “Chambre et de la Chapelle du Roy.” In that year, his name appeared on the list of musicians in over a hundred concerts. The next year Mondonville premiered two more grands motets at Versailles with the queen in attendance, which earned him the title of “Maître de musique de la Chapelle du Roy.” The archives list 17 grands motets to his credit, but the music of only nine have survived to modern times.
In opera, he gained some attention in 1742 with his first effort, Isbé, and enjoyed his first triumph five years later with Bacchus et Erigone, featuring Madame de Pompadour in the leading female role. In 1749, Le carnaval du Parnasse had 35 performances, an exceptional number for the day, and was restaged several times, even as late as 1774, two years after Mondonville’s death. At the height of the “Querelle des Bouffons,” Vénus et Adonis (1752) and Titon et l’Aurore (1753), along with works of Rameau, served as ammunition for the French side, who opposed the supporters of Italian opera buffa.
Along with his duties at court and his defence of French opera, Mondonville was active in other musical spheres, and 1748 marked a turning point. In that year, he became co-director, along with Pancrace Royer, of the Concert Spirituel. He also married harpsichordist Anne-Jeanne Boucon, a student of Rameau’s known for both her beauty and her musical talent and to whom a number of composers dedicated works. Finally, it was also in this year that Mondonville published his fifth opus, a most curious and seductive collection whose title, Pièces de clavecin avec voix ou violon, does not really do justice to the surprising fusion of styles and genres employed by the composer.
The work is in fact a collection of nine sacred motets for solo voice and harpsichord; however, rather than a traditional continuo part, Opus 5 features a rich and entirely written out harpsichord part, much like J. S. Bach’s sonatas for harpsichord and violin. But while Bach’s works are generally trio sonatas in which the harpsichord plays the bass line and one of the upper parts, exchanging thematic material with the violin, the harpsichord parts of Mondonville’s motets are stand-alone pieces over which the voice unfolds richly ornamented, violinistic lines.
In fact, seven of the nine motets begin with a violin introduction, often substantial (nos. 1, 2, 4, 6 and 9) and occasionally brief (nos. 3 and 5). In addition, the vocal part is punctuated with short un-texted melodic passages, signifying a return of the violin, sometimes double-stopped. Curiously, however, nowhere is there a passage in which violin and voice are heard together in harmony.
As Mondonville stated in his forward, “I felt that this arrangement would be of particular interest to people who combine talent on both harpsichord and voice, since they could perform this type of music alone. Those accustomed to accompanying themselves while singing will find it easier to execute my idea.” This note has caused some scholars to speculated that Mondonville composed these unusually constructed works for his wife, who apparently also had a pleasing voice. The optional violin part would then have allowed the husband to join in with his young bride, making the work a wedding present of sorts.
This would also explain the peculiar choice of texts: psalm verses that urge one to rejoice by singing the praises of the Lord, with a generally lively tone. One moving exception, however, is no. 7, “Quare tristis es anima mea” (Why art thou sad, O my soul?), in the key of F minor; the harpsichord supports the voice with wide arpeggiated chords before arriving at an anguished suspension. The tension is resolved, however, with no. 8, the hymn of hope “Spera in Deo,” a lively allegro in the key of B-flat major.
If Mondonville did compose Opus 5 for his wife, her voice was certainly more than merely pleasing, because the vocal line is of a virtuosity that makes it difficult to imagine someone simultaneously performing both voice and harpsichord parts. In fact, the composer himself recommends studying the parts separately and, in the vocal part to carefully “distinguish phrases having a French flavour from those requiring an Italian flavour”—another example of this piece’s fusion of styles. Indeed, one will note how the vocal part tends to alternate between French-style passages, which are more syllabic and punctuated with short, incisively accented ornaments, and Italian-style passagi, virtuosic phrases of many notes sung over a single syllable of text.
But, conscious of the difficulties less versatile performers might encounter, Mondonville offered the following alternatives: “People who play the harpsichord but who have no voice could have the vocal part played on violin. In the absence of both violin and voice, the accompaniment alone will suffice.” Hence the title “Pieces for harpsichord with voice or violin.”
It is not known whether the cycle as a whole was ever performed in concert, but some of the works in Opus 5 are probably the “pieces de clavecin…” that appear individually on various programs of the Concert Spirituel and described as petits motets.
Translation: Peter Christensen