Conversations Galantes: Music of the French Baroque

Saturday, April 24, Houghton Chapel, Wellesley College


Sonate en quatour, op. 12, no. 6                  Louis-Gabriel Guillemain (1705-1770)
    Allegro moderato • Aria: gratioso • Allego

Troisième concert                                         Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764
   (from Pièces de clavecin en concerts)      
     La Lapoplinière • La Timide • Tambourin  

Les Femmes                                                   André Campra (1660-1744)


Sonata in D Major for traverso & continuo,             Michel Blavet  (1700-1768)
   op. 2 no. 5   
     La Chauvet (Largo) • La Dedale (Gavotta)  
     Fuga (Allegro) • Les Regréts (Tendrement)
     Le Marc Antoine (Rondo)

Paris Quartet no. 6 in E Minor                  Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
    Prèlude • Gay • Vite    
Gracieusement • Distrait • Moderé


Aaron Engebreth, baritone
Suzanne Stumpf, traverso; Sarah Darling, violin
Laura Jeppesen, viola da gamba
 Daniel Ryan, cello and basse de violon; Michael Bahmann, harpsichord

Program Notes

The composers represented on this program were innovators who shaped the course of French music during a period of profound stylistic change in the eighteenth century. Earlier in the century, François Couperin began experimenting with incorporating the Italian style in his compositions, writing sonata movements (rather than the dance movement suites that were prevalent) that he later incorporated into larger chamber music works. As the century progressed, the French public became increasingly accepting of Italian influences in vocal and instrumental works, and the genres of instrumental suite, opera, and cantata were also evolving out of the more rigid forms of the previous century.

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s work had a strong influence on Parisian musical culture during his time. Rameau’s instrumental works, consisting mainly of harpsichord suites, continued and accelerated the trend away from the traditional sequence of dance movements to freer groupings of genre and character pieces, with a greater emphasis on keyboard virtuosity. Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concerts were composed in 1741 while he was under the patronage of A.-J.-J. Le Riche de La Pouplinière. While these works were not the very first accompanied harpsichord pieces to be composed in France (Rameau acknowledged the influence of Mondonville’s Pieces de clavecin en sonates from 1734), they are an early and important example of the keyboard trio genre. The entire work consists of sixteen movements divided into five groupings. With the exception of the Tambourins in the Troisième concert, all of the movements performed on this concert are character pieces. Many of the pieces are named after personages in Rameau’s circle. La Lapopliniere is named after his patron, a wealthy financier who supported a community of musicians, artists, and writers.

Another composer associated with La Pouplinière’s household is the virtuoso flutist and composer Michel Blavet. Blavet’s playing was widely admired, and he enjoyed an international reputation, receiving accolades from Telemann, Quantz, Daquin, and Voltaire, among others. He was even invited to join the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia but declined the offer. In his opus 2 sonatas (from 1732) he, like Rameau, eschews the more traditional dance forms in favor of evocatively titled character pieces.
André Campra was a native of southern France where he spent the first decades of his life working as a church musician in Aix, Arles, Toulouse, and Montpellier. In 1684, Campra moved to Paris, where he became an influential composer of opera-ballets, a form he is credited with inventing. In his cantatas, he endeavored to combine the French and Italian styles. Les Femmes is from his first book of cantatas, published in 1708. The work’s text centers on the protagonist’s frustration with women and the vicissitudes of love. It shows great dramatic flair in a variety of movement types, including a sommeil (depiction of sleep). The work’s unconventional but effective ending is a deeply poignant final recitative.

Louis Gabriel Guillemain exhibited talent as a violinist at an early age. After two extended trips to Italy for study, Guillemain became a musicien ordinaire at Louis XV’s court in 1737, eventually becoming one of the most popular and highest paid musicians there. However, a passion for tapestries and extravagant lifestyle kept him in debt. Although his works were frequently performed at the famous concert series the Concert Spirituel, he never performed there, being too nervous to perform in public.
Guillemain’s quartets appeared in two publications in 1743 and 1756 respectively. Subtitled Conversations galantes et amusantes, these works are important early precursors to the flute quartet and string quartet. Although the instrumentation of these quartets is clearly influenced by Telemann, these works bear a closer resemblance to the classical quartet in their use of the gamba as a true independent voice rather than as an elaborated bass line. The conversational aspect of these quartets is another link to classicism and is particularly evident in the first movement of the sixth sonata of his opus 12. Here, melodic phrases and motivic snippets are continually passed among the players, calling to mind Goethe’s later description of a string quartet as “a discussion between four reasonable people.”

Georg Philipp Telemann traveled to Paris in 1737 at the invitation of several virtuosi who had admired some of his published works. During his stay, several of his works were performed at the Concerts Spirituels, and he published the set of Nouveaux quatuors en six suites, commonly known as the Paris Quartets. The works were premiered by Monsieurs Blavet (flute), Guignon (violin), Forqueray (viola da gamba), and Edourd (cello), with Telemann, no doubt, at the harpsichord. In Telemann’s own words, the performances “would be worth describing were it possible for words to be found to do them justice.” Telemann’s knowledge of and love for French music is amply evident in this work through the elegance of the ornamentation that pervades the work, and the use of the quintessentially French genres of overture (first movement) and chaconne (last movement).

© Daniel Ryan and Suzanne Stumpf