For those of you who like to read these in advance of the actual event, here are the program notes for "Springtime in Paris," Ars Lyrica's next subscription program (on Sat March 20) at the Hobby Center. Looking forward to seeing many of you there!
Scion of a distinguished family of musicians, François Couperin “le Grand” began his career while still in his teens by succeeding his father as organist at Saint-Gervais in Paris, an important post that came with one of the capital’s finest instruments. In 1693 he became one of four organists at Versailles, where he also taught members of the royal family how to play the harpsichord, and after the turn of the century acquired the posts of composer and master of King’s chamber music. Unusually for his time, Couperin had little interest in theatrical music; instead, he was quite content to devote his considerable compositional energies to chamber and harpsichord works plus intimate motets for the church. The former especially, with their extraordinary richness and delicate surface filigree, are the musical zenith of the French Baroque.
Couperin, like many of his contemporaries, was fascinated by the modish Italian genre of the trio sonata. As popularized by Corelli especially, this genre posed a problem for French composers: how to reconcile its obvious attractions — virtuosic display, movements with formal logic, and its much-admired “southern expressivity” — while not abandoning the highly stylized dance suite, France’s greatest contribution to Baroque instrumental music. Couperin’s solution to this problem was a set of instrumental suites entitled Les Goûts Réunis, which ostensibly “reunited” the Italian and French tastes. Another collection entitled Les Nations, composed with the general purpose in mind, consists of four large suites that are headed by an Italianate sonata. La Françoise, the first of these, epitomizes Couperin’s inimitable style in its noble grandeur, tender melancholy, and a kind of innocent freshness. The remainder of our Suite in E includes subsequent movements from La Françoise plus a few movements from two of the Concert Royaux, all of which allow performance on whatever instruments one has at hand.
Jean-Baptise Lully’s instrumental trios, by contrast, are all excerpts from his stage works, some presumably countenanced by the composer himself and others arranged by other hands. Our Suite in C embraces both sides of this tonal center (major and minor) and features four binary dance movements plus a concluding chaconne, whose repeating harmonic pattern is put through some surprising twists and turns.
Armand-Louis Couperin, second cousin to François, composed in the same genres but in a much less rigorous manner. His harpsichord works (publ. c1751) span the gamut from intimacy to exhibitionism and reflect the simpler musical tastes of the mid-eighteenth century. Les Cacqueteuses (The Cacklers) is an amusing if unflattering musical portrait of a familiar character type, while l’Arlequine reflects the French fascination with all things Italian in the early 18th century, in particular the Harlequin figure so essential to the madcap antics of the commedia dell’arte.
The cantata was likewise appropriated from the Italians and given a kind of makeover à la Française. The new genre of the French cantata follows the same general outline as its model (a sequence of recitatives and airs) and, as in Italy, was cultivated not at court but instead in the newly fashionable world of the literary-musical salon. In the cantata the elegant ladies and gentlemen of Paris’ leading households found not only an ideal musical genre but a wonderfully plastic poetic form, one far removed from the staid sensibilities of the grand siècle. Classical mythology provided the subject matter for contemporary poets, who turned out verses that enterprising composers set with great attention to detail. Even when things turn out badly for the protagonists, the French mined these tales for their moral lessons. Montéclair’s Pan and Syrinx, for instance, reminds us that we may not always get what we want, but Love sometimes has something else in store for us: Pan’s pursuit of the lovely Syrinx ends with her transformation into a reed, which he fashions into his eponymous instrument, the pan-pipe, thus preserving her memory whenever he makes music.
Finally, the genre of the lute song or air de cour reaches just a bit further back into French history, to the age of Henri IV (d. 1610) and Louis XIII (d. 1643), providing a useful frame for the more familiar late French Baroque repertoire. During the first half of the 17th century, solo songs were a part of both large-scale court ballets and smaller domestic entertainments, and were by far the most popular kinds of musical publications in France. Guédron’s airs, the earlier chronologically of the two sets on this program, give us a glimpse of this genre at its birth, with simple but highly expressive settings of strophic poems. The songs of Le Camus show how this genre developed into more rhetorical mode of expression, with melody and bass lines that seem to follow their own muse, coming together only occasionally to punctuate the evocative verse. © Matthew Dirst