Pamela Thorby: recorders
Rachel Podger: violin
Susanne Heinrich: bass viol
William Carter: theorbo
The Sun King's Paradise
What is it about this music this exerts such a particular fascination on musicians and listeners alike? Perhaps it is the fact that all French music of this time is directly connected to the human body either through the voice or the movements of the dance. Or maybe it is the composers' constant awareness of and delight in instrumental sonority and colour. Marais suggesting the mixture of wind an string instruments in his trios as "fort agréeable": De la Barre's preference for the theorbo with the flute "because it seems to me that the gut strings of the theorbo go better with the flute than the brass strings of the harpsichord". This delight in subtle distinctions and love of timbre for its own sake is a source of pleasure in French music of our own time as well. We can draw a line from Rameau through Berlioz and Debussy and arrive at Messiaen and Boulez. But perhaps it is simple the feeling (which can be rare in other styles of early music) that the composers were actually in love with the instruments for which they wrote. Whatever the reason, after years of playing English, Italian and German programmes it is a pleasure for us to relax into this music, which always rewards the performer as well as the listener. It's a feeling for us perhaps like that of a pianist finally playing Chopin.
One piece in our programme needs a special mention; Les Caracteres de la Danse by Jean-Féry Rebel. Castil-Blaze tells us in his L'Académie Impériale de Musique: "He had written a caprice for the violin which gave infinite pleasure at the Concerts. Mlle. Prévost wanted to dance a step based on Rebel's brilliant solo. This novelty proved a marvellous success, the Caprice became the favourite step among amateurs and for half a century no ballerina found favour with the public without having first proven herself in this caprice."
Rebel made the Symphonie de Danse his won in a number of works and often featured Mlle. Prévost, most notably in Les Caracteres de la Danse. It uses the clever idea of creating a dance suite from a seamless montage of short bits; twelve seconds of menuet, nineteen seconds of chaconne and so on. After a relatively long Musette (over a minute) the work finishes with a furious presto entitled Sonata (a clever and appreciative dig at Italian violin pyrotechnics), and what Mlle. Prévost danced at this point is anyone's guess! It must have been spectacular, though, as she was given the honour of performing it for Tsar Peter the Great and inspired an eight-page poem in Mercure Galant:
The author has expressed in these verses what that inimitable ballerina Mlle. Prévost, who brought lustre to this felicitous musical caprice, expressed through her attitudes and by her steps, always brilliant, always varied...
Les Caracteres de la Danse is alone our programme in having been created for public consumption. It is perhaps worth mentioning the Rebel's orchestral score does not survive. We prepared our version from the published short score, printed and sold for use at home, mush like Liszt's piano arrangements of Beethoven symphonies. (I'm still waiting to hear some brave harpsichordist attempt the famous "Chaos" from Les Elemens, as Rebel allows in his published short score of that work.) The rest of the music was played at court or in private salons. We get a glimpse of our musicians at work in a letter to Madame de Sévigné by her cousin. Philippe-Emmanuel de Coulanges; the occasion is the wedding of the Duc d'Albert and Mlle. de la Trémouille:
For fun, the young people dances to the songs as is currently popular at court; those who wished played (cards) and those who wanted to listened to the lovely concert given by Vizé (theorbo), Marais (viol), Descoteaux and Philibert (flutes); that took until midnight, when the wedding was celebrated in the chapel of the Hôtel de Crequy.
I hope it is not too fanciful to suggest that our Suite in D might have been heard on this occasion. At the time of the wedding (1696) Marais' trios were hot off the press and the only ones in print in France. And one can easily imagine the effect of the final exquisite Symphonie: the dancers, pausing to catch their breath after all those menuets; the gamblers perhaps sensing for the first time the quality of dance band performing.
Madame de Sévigné's correspondence is one of the best points of entry into this vanished world. Ranging over half a century is distils the experiences of her life and bears witness to many of the main events in the Sun King's reign. She can be consummate grace and ease. I originally wanted to quote her on musical matters but can't resist the temptation to give, complete, one letter which conjures up so vividly the sense of life at court: the tragicomedy of the chef Vatel's suicide.
To Madame de Grignon (Madame de Sévigné's daughter)
Paris, Sunday 26 April 1671*
It is Sunday 26th of April and this letter will not go until Wednesday, but this is not a letter, it is a story Moreuil has just told me for your benefit about what happened at Chantilly concerning Vatel. I wrote to you last Wednesday that he had stabbed himself; here is the affair in detail.
The King arrived on Thursday evening. Hunting, lanterns, moonlight, a gentle walk, supper served in a spot carpeted with daffodils - everything was perfect. They had supper. There was no roast at one or two tables because of several unexpected guests. That upset Vatel, and he said more than once, ‘I am dishonoured; this is a humiliation I will not bear.' He said to Gourville, ‘I don't know where I am, I haven't slept for twelve nights. Help me give orders.' Gourville comforted him as much as he could, but this roast missing, not from the King's table but from the twenty-fifth down, constantly came back to his mind. Gourville told all this to Monsieur le Prince. Monsieur le Prince went to Vatel's room and said to him, ‘Vatel, everything is all right, nothing was so perfect as the King's supper.' But he answered, ‘Monseigneur, your kindness is overwhelming, but I know that there was no roast at two tables.' ‘Not at all', said Monsieur le Prince, ‘don't upset yourself, everything is going splendidly.' Night falls. The fireworks are a failure owing to fog, and they cost 16 000 francs. By four in the morning Vatel was rushing round everywhere and finding everything wrapped in slumber. He found a small supplier who only had two loads of fish. ‘Is that all?' he asked. ‘Yes, sir.' He did not know that Vatel had sent round to all the seaports. Vatel waited a short time, the other suppliers did not turn up, he lost his head and thought there would be no more fish. He went and found Gourville and said, ‘Sir, I shall never survive this disgrace, my honour and my reputation are at stake.' Gourville laughed at him. Vatel went to his room, put his sword up against the door and ran it through his heart. But that was only at the third attempt, for the first two were not mortal. Then he fell dead. Meanwhile the fish was coming in from all quarters. They looked for Vatel to allocate it, went to his room, broke in the door and found him lying in his own blood. They rushed to Monsieur le Prince who was terribly upset. Monsieur le Duc wept, for the whole of his trip to Burgundy depended on Vatel. Monsieur le Prince told the King very sadly, explaining that it was a matter of honour as he saw it. His courage was both praised and blamed. The King said that he had been putting off his visit to Chantilly for five years because he realized what an extreme embarrassment it would be. He told Monsieur that he ought only to have two tables and undertake all the rest. He swore that he would not allow Monsieur le Prince to take all this trouble, but it was too late for poor Vatel. However, Gourville tried to make up for the loss of Vatel. He did so, and there was a very good dinner, light refreshments later, and then supper, a walk, cards, hunting, everything scented with daffodils, everything magical. Yesterday, Saturday, the same thing and in the evening the King went on to Liancourt, where he had commanded a medianoche (midnight supper); he is to stay there today.
That is what Moreuil told me, to be passed on to you. I don't know how to end this, not that I know anything about it. M. d'Hacqueville, who was present at everything, will no doubt tell you the tale, but as his writing is not as legible as mine I am writing all the same. I have gone in for a lot of details but I am sending them because on similar occasions I should like them myself.
Like Madame de Sévigné, I don't know how to finish, except perhaps to hope that you will enjoy listening as much as we did playing, and to promise that even if we are not so fortunate we will try to survive to please you on another occasion!
William Carter, London 1999
* Taken from the Penguin edition, translated by Leonard Tancock
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Recorded at Toddington Church on 17-19 November 1998
Front cover: 'Vue de bosquet de la Galerie des Antiques dans les jardins de Versailles' - Martin Jean-Baptiste le vieux (1659-1735