Programme Notes: York Early Music Festival, July 2010

It is well-known, at least here in Albion, that many a French specialty is of foreign origin. French cookery in its classic tradition descends, of course, from the innovations introduced by the capi cuochi of Catherine de Médicis. In the visual arts, the first School of Fontainebleau was virtually the private domain of Italians and Flemings, while men like Nicolas Poussin studied in Rome and Jacques-Louis David spent his career painting the Latins, Greeks, and their ersatz modern imitators. From puff pastries to frangipane tarts toharicots verts, from Gauloises and Gitanes to café en dehors, Gallic pride speaks in Roman, Turkish, Venetian, and even New World accents.

The history of French music is not all that different. Let us see how one source of keyboard music reflects this diversity and variety of influences. Bibl. Nationale, Paris, Rés. Vm7 674-675, better known as the ‘Bauyn’ MS, is not only one of the most important sources for French music of the seventeenth century but also provides great insight into the kind of non-French music circulating in Parisian circles of the 1640s and 1650s.  Next to pieces by Louis Couperin and the claveciniste du roi, Jacques Champion de Chambonnieres, it gives a special place of honour to works of Girolamo Frescobaldi (or, as the Bauyn MS puts it ‘Jerosme’) and the travelling German virtuoso Johann Jakob Froberger. The presence of works by these men attest to the particularly éclatante reception given to the new Italian style upon its arrival in France, while the inclusion of an anonymous transcription of a passacaglia from Luigi Rossi’s L’Orfeo(1647) is a small reminder of Cardinal Mazarin’s short-lived essay at introducing Venetian-style opera during the regency of Anne of Austria. If, as Davitt Moroney surmises, the Bauyn MS is part of a copy of Louis Couperin’s private papers made after his death, could it be that this transcription of Rossi was even made by Louis Couperin himself?

As the various movements in the Bauyn MS are grouped according to form or type of dance rather than according to tonal classifications as with the suites and ordres of the eighteenth century, I have tried to base my own selection of Couperin le vieux‘s pieces in a-minor on the distribution and order of dances in the Lullian opera-ballets in which Couperin (as a gambist) would most certainly have taken part in the 1650s. In the great French classical ballets as described by Prunieres and other scholars, the King and the nobility made their entries masked – can we, too, perhaps see various moods and types of the Courante, the favourite dance of Le Roi Soleil (I have included two of them to please His Majesty), as reflecting these myriad ‘masks’ and characters of the Royal ballet? In such ballet suites as that from Lully’s Psyché (1656), one finds that the order of dances reflects a certain train of thought – either all culminates in that most noble and stately of dances, the Chaconne, or the various movements become more and more pastoral and rustic until they descend into the grotesque. The instrumental idioms based on these grand entertainments followed suit – one has to go no further than the Pièces de Viole of Marin Marais (the IIIe Livre of 1711, for instance) to find that most rustic, vaudevillian dances come toward the ends of suites. Thus, dignified allemandes and sarabandes lead to the Rigaudon, the Bourée paysaneLa ChanterelleLa Muzette, the Charivary, to name but a few. Inspired by these models, I have placed the ‘Menuet du Poitou’ and ‘La Piémontoise’ at the end very end of the set in a-minor; one can imagine one’s carriage leaving Paris for the refreshing open air of the provinces and their spicy, earthy cuisine.

Should we be surprised that Couperin himself would have treasured the works of foreigners? Not at all. After all, the ricercars and toccatas of Frescobaldi and Froberger contain within them that same ‘intelligent esotericism…[and] beautiful dissonances’ referred to by M. [Abbé] Le Gallois’ famous letter of 1680 in discussing Couperin’s own gifts as a musician. Musicians, being true world citizens, know a good thing when they hear it.

Let us leave the intrigues and colourful characters of the Court of the Sun King for a cosmopolitanism of a different sort, this time the scholarly, erudite kind in the great university town of Leipzig. Far from being the provincial backwater depicted by nineteenth-century commentators, the Leipzig of the High Baroque – after glittering Dresden, the second most important city in Saxony – was a renowned centre of learning and in particular was famous for its regular trade fairs, its prominent position in the book trade, and, until 1720, a respected and active opera-house. Johann Kuhnau, Director musices in Leipzig and cantor at the city’s Thomasschule, was one of the last musical polymaths in an academic tradition that had its origins in the Medieval homo universalis. Compared to his successor J.S. Bach, who had no formal schooling after the age of fifteen, Kuhnau was described in Salomon Riemer’s Leipziger-Chronik as ‘a learned man, expert in art, who not only had a good understanding of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, but also in addition to his music, was a finished mathematician, and no less, before he became Cantor, had been a well-learned lawyer’ (!). The Musicalisches Vorstellung Einiger Biblischer Historien (1700), popularly known in English as the ‘Biblical Sonatas,’ provide insight into the fascinating personality of this man, who incidentally in the same year as this keyboard collection published a celebrated satirical novel, Der Musicalische Quacksalber (‘the Musical Charlatan’).

The most facile models for these works may be found in the naively programmatic keyboard pieces of the Austrians Alessandro Poglietti (d. 1683) and Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693), which is probably why Kuhnau’s sonatas receive, at best, short shrift from scholars who speak of this period in tones that merely ‘prepare’ for the arrival of the Great Bach. I propose, as but a performer who loves this music, a different approach. Perhaps in presenting these sonatas Kuhnau is posing a very serious question: can instrumental music convey the same sentiments and ideas as texted (vocal) music? And, can composers and listeners assume the existence of a common melodic, harmonic, and gestural vocabulary that functions without the presence of text? The question is not a silly one. After all, in a work known by seventeenth-century thinkers, Dionysius remarked, ‘the science of public speaking is, after all, a sort of musical science, differing from vocal and instrumental music in degree, not in kind’ (De compositione verborum, ca. 30 B.C.). Kuhnau must indeed have had even the subject matter ‘as theatre’ in his mind while writing these sonatas – for instance, as regards the sonata featured in our programme, many years before the young Kuhnau took part in a Lenten musical play at Zittau’sJohanneum entitled ‘Von Jacobs doppelter Heyrath’ [of Jacob’s double-marriage].

With the English Suites (806-811) of Sebastian Bach we witness a relatively young composer who, after a few years of admirable but ultimately somewhat unwieldy sins of youth, has finally discovered his real voice. Dare we call it ‘Bachian?’ Perhaps. Written in the period of Bach’s career spent in Weimar (1708-1717), these works are like nothing that came before from either Bach’s pen or, indeed, from any of his contemporaries and predecessors. The keyboard works surviving from before – six toccatas (BWV 910-915), thecapriccii in B-flat and E (BWV 992-993), the Sonatas after Jan Adam Reincken (BWV 965-966) – are firmly grounded in the angular, long-winded North German style of the seventeenth century, a manner dominated by Rhetorical constructs and a harmonic language that is neither completely tonal nor completely modal. The English Suites, on the other hand, breathe in the fresh, new airs coming from over the Alps and from beyond the Rhine. The cosmopolitan nature of these works should put to rest, once and for all, the silly image of a composer impervious to trends around him.

Indeed, no sense of contempt or condescension toward his fellow composers is apparent in the way Bach takes inspiration for the Suites’ préludes from the (then) avant-garde concerti of Vivaldi and the Marcello brothers. The prélude of the second Suite in a-minor (BWV 807) is written with the orchestral textures and strong delineation between solo and tutti of the Venetian concerto in mind. Even when the texture of the keyboard writing appears in only two parts, it being Bach, of course, the wash of harmonies in semiquavers is always meant to give an impression of multiple parts. For the first time in his keyboard writing Bach restrains his otherwise dominating obsession with through-composed counterpoint by simply re-stating the opening ritornello of the prelude to close the movement in the very manner of a concerto. Even the Corellian sonata makes an appearance, as seen in the concluding gigue in 6/8. This gigue à l’italienne is, in its own way, a rare bird. Usually, as in a number of the other English Suites and in the later Partitas (BWV 825-830), Bach infuses the concluding gigue of a set with the totum of his compositional powers, using it as an essay in intellectual and compositional virtuosity like an orator who skillfully packs his conclusio [Cicero] with an aim toward maximum impact upon his listeners. The gigue of BWV 807, however, is best explained through reference to the classic French orchestral suite – as we have observed above in our discussion of Louis Couperin, it is common to find the simpler and more rustic dances at the close of a suite, perhaps as a foil, in Bach’s case, to the dizzying emotional heights of a complex and florid Sarabande.

The sophistication of this suite, the plasiticity and perfection of its melodic gestures, its combination of superb élan and touching restraint astound connoisseur and casual listener alike. When we place it next to Kuhnau’s sonata, we cannot help but feel, rightly or wrongly, that the latter’s veneer of cosmopolitanism starts to crack and peel a bit. Thus we proclaim: Poglietti is dead – long live Vivaldi!