Nate Helgeson: Musique Fran├žaise - Part One

Musique francaiseSome of my colleagues are sick of hearing me say it at this point, but I basically only listen to French music. There was a good six year period where I listened to French music from between 1600 and 1750 pretty much exclusively (honestly!). One of the more puzzling aspects of the baroque scene, in the US anyway, is why so few other people seem to be with me on this.

I may be wrong of course, but I would wager that you have not heard of the following composers: Boësset, Montéclair, Philidor, Hotteterre, Campra, de Visée, Sainte-Colombe, Clérambault. Many classical music diehards may never have heard of the comparatively famous Rameau, Marais, or Charpentier.

What gives? Why isn’t French music better known? Well, it’s complicated. Some of it has to do with the field of musicology having been dominated early on by Germans. Some of it has to do with the massive and impractical expense of putting on French baroque opera. But honestly I think a lot of it is just inertia. We typically go to see concerts of music we already know we like. And if we don’t know that we might like French music, we don’t buy a ticket, and so groups don’t program French music, and the cycle continues.

So I present to you a little taster menu of French works from the late 16th century onward - a sampling of some of my favorites. Connoisseurs will notice there isn’t a lot of “standard” rep here, but I think you will be pleasantly surprised by this list.

This will be a two-parter. We’ll start with “petite” music - music for small forces - music of the chamber and the chapel. Then next time we’ll do the massive, extroverted, public-facing works, as well as some dance and “country” music.

First on our menu, I want to focus on one of the well-springs of French style: song. And so of course we’ll start with an instrumental piece… There are many great recordings of Marais’s Les Voix Humaines, and I encourage you to listen to every single one. But my favorite is still Paolo Pandolfo’s touching solo version.

After that we’ll go back in time to some airs de cour, or court songs. For one or more voices, often accompanied by lute or theorbo, they’re usually simple in conception: strophic, with “singable” melodies spanning only an octave and moving basically step to step, without leaps. Simple sounds like a bad word though - elegant would be better. Clear. Pleasing. Elemental.

Then, beginning with the Stabat Mater by Charpentier, we move both a little later in time and to the spiritual side of vocal music. A lot of religious music from this period is imposing and gigantic in scope. We’ll get to that stuff in the next playlist, because it’s glorious in all its corpulence. But there was also music for smaller forces, written for private chapels. In these pieces by Charpentier, Delalande, Campra, and Couperin I think you’ll hear a lot of same stylistic virtues from the airs de cour. Even though the musical language has expanded a little to include more dissonances and leaps in the voice, that simplicity of architecture but richness of harmony is still there.

And now for the instrumental music.

You knew some harpsichord would be coming eventually! There’s a huge variety of styles in French harpsichord music, from the innocence and charm of Corrette’s stars, to the dance sets of Dieupart, to the hilariously self-indulgent bombast of Balbastre and Royer. If you thought you hated the harpsichord, I hope something here changes your mind. I particularly love this version of la Janneton by D’Agincourt, which always reminds me, perversely, of the troika from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije.
This playlist is already getting really long, so I will be cruelly neglecting the theorbo repertoire, except to highlight one piece by Robert de Visée. We usually think of truly personal expression as the domain of later music. Baroque music was mostly “public,” and not autobiographical in any way. A rare exception is this Plainte, mourning the tragic early deaths of de Visée’s own daughters. De Visée’s music is well worth a deeper dive if this piece moves you. He was one of Louis XIV’s favorite musicians, and it’s not hard to understand why.

Next up, a little flute music. I think these pieces highlight the agility and range of expression of the flute, which made it a wildly popular instrument at the time. Flutists have a way of gesturing and articulating that is so close to a singer, but that you can seldom actually hear in a big concert hall. When we talk about French chamber music, somehow the giants of flute music, (Hotteterre, Philidor, Blavet, etc) have become footnotes in tiny print at the bottom of pages devoted to the much more famous Couperin and Marais. I think that might be because in modern times we tend to focus on complex, experimental, and exceptional works, and tend to ignore composers who are comfortably in the center of a style. Hotteterre’s flute music for instance, is as French-y as French gets. You know how sometimes you eat a strawberry and say “Dang, this strawberry tastes exactly like strawberries”? Wait, you’ve never said that? Well, Philidor and Hotteterre sound exactly like French chamber music. To me anyway, I don’t know. Come at me, musicologists.

Violin fans are going to have to wait for another day to get their fill, but there is at least a little something for you in this movement from Clérambault’s Medée. The whole thing is spine-tingling, but I wanted to highlight the violin playing in this movement. The bit at 3:15 where the violin wails away on the G string gets me every time. I hope this piece dispels anyone’s notions that the baroque violin has to be crystalline, dainty, or affected.

And finally, my buddy John Lenti likes to say that every concert should end with a chaconne, so here you go, John. I know you had the G major Handel in mind, but these two are pretty cool too. The Jacques Morel comes from one of the first discs of French music I ever owned. And the play count for the D’Agincourt one on my iTunes? 218.

There are literally thousands of other pieces I could have chosen for this playlist, so we’re only hearing a tiny slice of what’s out there, but maybe this potpourri will at least whet your appetite. I hope you enjoy, and stay tuned for next time when we dive into the opulent worlds of opera and grands motets, and explore a little bit of the country side of French dance music.


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