…at least where French Baroque performance is concerned
'Equality' has become one of the great mantras of our times. Defining it is impossible but our politicians do their best to legislate inequality away and yet there are some who always manage to remain more equal than others!
I suspect Louis XIV didn't spend many of his waking hours worrying about the enormous gap between his wealth and that of most of his subjects. And the music produced during and for some time after his long reign positively welcomed inequality, the notes inégales, so some notes were certainly more equal. Perhaps this is the reason why the French music of this time is difficult to sell. Is it because it is mostly associated with the privileged classes of the time? I find that audiences rarely flock in droves to hear it but when they discover it by accident they usually surrender to its charms. I'm hopeful that with the anniversaries of the deaths of Jean-Philippe Rameau and Jean-Marie Leclair coinciding next year, and that of Louis XIV in 2015, more people will seek it out.
The period instrument movement has done so much to revive great swathes of wonderful music that had been forgotten for so many years and to persuade today's audiences to fall in love with it. The Italian style of Vivaldi and Handel has never completely lost its power to stir our emotions with its direct emotional appeal but the French manner is more elusive and the polar opposite of the Italian. The Frenchman, François Raguenet, who antagonised his fellow countrymen by falling for the Italian style when visiting Rome, tells us (1702) that ‘Their violins are mounted with strings much larger than ours; their bows are longer, and they can make their instruments sound as loud again as we do ours.’ The Italians loved extremes of tempo, dynamic and emotion, the heart of the style being a vocal one derived from a language centred on vowels. The French preferred subtlety of expression, pictorial representation and, above all, dance. Louis XIV adored dancing and because he became such a dominating force in European politics during his long reign not only his own Court but those of much of Europe danced too, many foreign courts importing French dancing masters to teach them how to do it. Dance was used in this context for the purposes of display, both personal and political. This may seem worlds away from our present culture but very similar gestures of display are made today by film stars and other celebrities on red carpets around the world.
The practice of notes inégales was a central one, as Couperin wrote in 1717: ‘We write [music] differently from the way we perform it, which causes foreigners to play our music less well than we do theirs. The Italians, on the contrary, write their music in the true [rhythmic] values that they intended. For example, we dot several successive scale-wise eighth notes, and yet we write them as equal.’ This inequality of rhythm was an extension of an inequality of weight given to the different beats of the bar, the French ‘rule of the down-bow’, which went hand in hand with the strong and weak beats of the dance. Whilst modern training of string players encourages them to learn how to play as equally as possible and disguise the natural weakness of the up-bow by comparison with the down, it is a relief not to have to fight the natural inequality of the baroque bow but embrace it!
Is French Baroque too subtle, too refined for the age in which we live? It is true that our age is one of informality and dressing down. Just recently the political leaders at the recent G8 summit deliberately chose not to wear ties. We no longer bow or curtsey to people we meet. These formal gestures are part and parcel of the French style and, therefore, part of the music. Baroque opera has become much more popular in the great opera houses of the world but whilst much more care is now taken to match the style of the playing in the pit to what we think was done originally, this is still quite rare concerning what happens on stage.
Leclair's music has become a passion of mine in the last few years and I'm working my way through his four sets of 12 violin sonatas, the first volume of Book 2 just released today, July 1, 2013, with volume 2 to follow in September. This music contains a wonderful mixture of Italianate fire and passion (Leclair spent some time studying in Italy) and French elegance, subtlety and refinement. A couple of movements from Sonata No 8 are available for you to sample. Sadly, he met a rather sticky end nearly 250 years ago, murdered in his home on the outskirts of Paris. His nephew seems the most likely culprit but no one was charged. I hope I've persuaded you to give this sort of music a try. Inequality is beautiful!
Listen to the Adagio from Leclair's Violin Sonata, Op 2 No 8 performed by Adrian Butterfield for his new Naxos disc on the Gramophone Player below:
Listien to the Allegro from Leclair's Violin Sonata, Op 2 No 8 performed by Adrian Butterfield for his new Naxos disc on the Gramophone Player below: