Loving the French Baroque

Why we should all love the French Baroque

We might begin by asking why, for many on this side of the channel and on the far side of the Rhine, this is still unfamiliar territory. Part of the answer is that French music, of all periods, has tended to develop along its own lines with particularly distinctive approaches to harmony and instrumental colour. Within the period under immediate discussion, for example, Rameau regularly used the bassoon for almost wilfully wandering counter-melodies within the orchestra whereas the Bach/Vivaldi school occasionally gave it stand out solos but mostly anchored it to the bass line. In later periods, does any nation have an equivalent to Berlioz, Fauré or Debussy? Not that springs to my mind. In England the foreigners who have dominated our musical landscape, either by reputation or by visiting, have tended to be from the Italo/German scene – Corelli, Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms . . .

There are also practical reasons why French Baroque music has been neglected. The notation can appear forbidding – bristling with idiosyncratic ornaments, for example. The rhythms as written are often not the rhythms required (though that is also true of much other 18th century music). The choral music adds to these hazards a typical scoring that divides the choir into 5 parts – SATBarB – which would challenge many modern choirs outside specialist professional circles. And getting down to real basics, until the last two decades the music has simply not been available in reliable (or even legible) and affordable editions, and on an equally basic level, no-one outside specialist academic circles knew that a lot of this music was there!

So, having found it, why should we love it? Well, on the ‘if you like this, try that’ basis Charpentier, Rameau and Mondonville do speak essentially the same musical language as Purcell, Bach and Handel – all universally acclaimed and enjoyed. In fact, the first time I heard Mondonville’s Dominus regnavit I thought it was by Handel. Secondly, the perceptive listener will warm to the skilful manipulation of choral textures that French composers indulge in. The basic five parts regularly reduce to three or expand to six, and in the case of Lully divide into two groups which, when combined, produce a stunning nine parts. In the pieces included in our programme Charpentier writes in six parts, contrasting three part trio sections for sopranos with ATB responses while the wonderful mass by Louis le Prince (who he? no-one really knows!) is for SSATBarB.

These full ensembles are used to create some wonderfully rich harmony – to my mind and ear the French Baroque’s most powerful card. The basic chord of Western harmony contains three different pitches three notes apart – C, E, and G for instance. Writing in many parts Rameau and company overcame this trifling inconvenience by simply adding more notes – an A perhaps. But that clashes with the next-door G – which is then pushed down to F which now clashes with the E and the music is propelled inexorably onwards. (150 years later Debussy did much the same sort of thing but just left the discords hanging).

The Ripieno Choir’s programme on November 15th will be just as revelatory and enjoyable as our recent Bach Cantata Calendar or, more pertinently, our Christmas with the Sun King and Charpentier Tercentary evenings. Tickets are available via this website or the various other methods listed. We look forward to seeing you there.

Finally, for anyone grappling with ‘who was who and when’ here is a list of our French heroes (in bold) surrounded by their perhaps more familiar contemporaries.

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672)

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

Louis le Prince (fl. c1660)

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c1645-1704)

Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726)

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772)