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Notes on our Feb 9 concert, “The French Connection.”

Notes on the “The French Connection.”                      9245894228_e9c5079cfc_z

– by Carsten Schmidt

The first half of the seventeenth century saw the evolution of a particularly French way of composing music for solo harpsichord.  It was by no means the first time the harpsichord was elevated to solo status, nor was it the only place where this was happening.  But French composers placed an unusual emphasis on the sensuous and unique sound properties that this plucked keyboard instrument is capable of producing.  The impetus for this may very well have come from the close ties of those early harpsichordists to their lutenist colleagues.  Not only did they initially share some of the same repertoire- a fair number of lute pieces are transmitted in harpsichord transcriptions- but it is quite likely that the earliest French harpsichordists were in fact also lute players themselves.  This was quite different from most of the other countries where solo harpsichord repertoires emerged – in the Low Countries and Italy, for instance, there was a much closer connection with the world of the organ. At the core of this new musical creation is an adaptation of lute techniques, which became known on as style brise or luthe, a breaking of chords in gentle and often extraordinarily creative and expressive ways.

Today’s program traces some of the French contributions to the harpsichord repertoire over almost a century, with works by three members of the Couperin family, D’Anglebert, and DuPhly.  Alongside you will hear works by three German composers, Froberger, Muffat, and J.S. Bach, music that would be inconceivable without the innovations of their French colleagues. The profound influence that this French repertoire had is not limited to the Baroque era.  Chopin, Schumann, and Rachmaninoff most certainly didn’t know a single note of Louis Couperin or D’Angleber, yet their own keyboard idioms are hugely influenced by those earlier masters. They absorbed them through the stream of tradition, from J.S.Bach’s music to that of Mozart and Beethoven.

A few comments on the composers:

Louis Couperin was born in northern France, but spent most of his professional life in Paris.  He and his two brothers came to the attention of Chambonnieres, the court harpsichordist, when they gave him an impromptu serenade for his birthday.  Chambonnieres introduced them at court, and Louis was appointed organist at St. Gervais, and also as a court gamba player. He died young, and none of his music was published during his lifetime.  But it survived in manuscript copies, and we should be very grateful for that, as his music represents some of the most beautiful and original keyboard writing of the Baroque era.

Johann Jakob Froberger was a German musician who was employed as organist at the Imperial court in Vienna.  This position did not prevent him from traveling a great deal.  He spent several years in Italy, where he studied with the famous Frescobaldi, and subsequently undertook trips throughout Germany, France, the Low Countries, to England, and perhaps even Spain. Because of his extensive travel, he became a crucial link between various compositional schools of his time. His deeply expressive music is often rather serious in orientation, such in the Lamento, written on the occasion of the death of his employer, Emperor Ferdinand III.

The works of Francois Couperin (Louis’ nephew) are often considered to embody the height of what the French school could accomplish with refined harpsichord sonorities. He published four books containing a huge variety of music. Many of those pieces have descriptive titles that also show him as an astute observer and commentator of the scene in Paris and at court.  For instance, Les Charmes (which uses the style brise to wonderful effect) is quite possibly a reference to some of his lute playing colleagues who were said to be endowed with particular seductive powers.  Barricades Misterieuses was for a long time a mysterious title in itself.  We now think that it refers to masks that were worn in a play that Couperin liked.  But it is quite possible that many of the titles were full of double meanings that even in his time only insiders would have fully understood.

Armand-Louis Couperin was a great-nephew of Louis Couperin, and he too was organist at St. Gervais in Paris – it was not unusual that these positions would be passed on from one generation to the next. He was highly regarded as an improviser, though occasionally criticized for his conservative taste.  Like his cousin François, he was also fond of giving his works short titles, many of which most likely refer to contemporaries he knew.

Jean Henry D’Anglebert was another prodigy of Chambonnieres, and he eventually succeeded his teacher as court harpsichordist.  Unlike Louis Couperin, he lived long enough to see some of his harpsichord suites published.  J.S. Bach apparently held him in high esteem, as he even copied out D’Anglebert ‘s list of ornament signs and their realizations, in order to help instruct his sons and other students in the art of ornamentation.

Georg Muffat was born in the western parts of the Alps and received his musical training in France, partly (we can assume) with the most influential composer active of the court, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Later in life Muffat settled in Vienna and Salzburg.  His Passacaglia is an excellent example of another facet of French approaches to writing for the harspichord, which is to imitate orchestral sonorities and genres.  It is a piece inspired by Lully’s many grand Passacailles that are integral to operatic repertoire in France.

Jaques DuPhly was one the last masters of the French harpsichord tradition.  Unlike many of his colleagues, he eventually focused his entire musical activities on performing on the harpsichord.  He was also in great demand as a harpsichord teacher.  His style absorbed many of the features of the generation that proceeded him, but he was also open to new appoaches that were more in line with the new styles of the mid-18th century.  It is interesting to think that the young Mozart would have very likely heard some of DuPhly’s works when he visited Paris.  Duphly died as a recluse the day after the storming of the Bastille.

Johann Sebastian Bach probably does not need much of an introduction.  The suite on today’s program is a perfect example of how he combined some of the essential textures and sonorities of French harpsichord writing with his unique mastery of the interplay of harmony and counterpoint.

The harpsichord heard in today’s concert was made in 2012/13 by Kees Bom in northern Holland. Its design is based on two instruments from around 1750 in Antwerp, the work of Joannes Daniel Dulcken. Dulcken was widely considered to be one of the best harpsichord makers of his time.  Kees Bom was involved in the restoration of one of those two instruments, which is now in the Vleeshuis Museum in Antwerp.