The history of music by women musicians, and their stories, have recently become a focus of interest and a source of countless fascinating surprises. In spite of the diversity of their provenances and of their different itineraries in life, there are frequently some common traits in their biographies and personalities, which are also found in the life of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729). Of course, the first requisite was, and is, the presence of a musical talent, and of an exceptional one, without which a musical career is almost impossible for anyone, male or female. But talent is not enough. One needs the opportunities to train it, and to offer it to the public. And this could be far more difficult for a woman musician than for a man.
Musical training for girls was provided mainly in two ways: either in their family, which in that case needed to be a family of musicians (most frequently this happened to the children of a father who was a professional musician), or at a convent, where a girl could be sent just for her education years, or in order to become a nun. Young women from the aristocracy would also receive private lessons in music, but in most cases music would remain for them an agreeable pastime among others, an ornament for the soul which could increase a girl’s chances of marrying up. The chances of reaching a professional level in music for girls who weren’t the daughters of a musician, nor were destined to religious life, were scarce indeed at virtually all times in Western history.
The second “must” is the presence of an audience, without which a composer, male or female, cannot test the success, the strengths and weaknesses of his or her work; without which they lose interest in music, and without which the communicative dimension of music gest irrecoverably lost.
Paradoxically, it could be easier for a nun to have a regular audience than for a lay girl, and married women could only seldom continue performing on a regular basis. While nuns normally did not play or sing outside the convent, crowds used to gather where their choirs and orchestras performed. Courts were the other venue where female musicians could be typically heard. And this was the case with Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who certainly can be qualified as a court musician. As for her background, she corresponds to one of the categories outlined above, since she came from a family of musicians.
Her family, the Jacquets, were related to many of the greatest French musicians of the era, including the Couperins and Daquins. Elisabeth’s father was a skilled and astute musician, who not only thoroughly trained her precocious and undeniable talent, but also taught her and her siblings (he had four children all in all) how to navigate the complex world of court politics and musical diplomacy.
Elisabeth was extraordinarily gifted, and, when she was only just five, her father obtained for her to perform for the Sun King, Louis XIV. The King was very much impressed, and would support the musician for the remainder of his life.
One major step in the direction of Elisabeth’s acceptance in the courtly world was the entrusting of her education, as a teenager, to the King’s Favourite, Madame Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, marquise de Montespan. Rather probably, it was Elisabeth who could have taught harpsichord to her mentor; still, Montespan was able to introduce her pupil into a world where culture and the arts were flowering, where one misstep could be fatal, and where one never knew how to properly guard their shoulders. At Montespan’s, moreover, Jacquet received a top-class education, which would have been largely barred for a girl from the bourgeoisie.
Equipped with her talent and intelligence, her father’s harpsichord lessons, and Montespan’s teaching, Elisabeth was ready for a career as a court musician. She played frequently for the King, but she also discovered a talent for improvisation (reportedly, her improvisations were pure genius) and for composition. Her improvisations were described thus by scholar Évrard Titon du Tillet: Jacquet had a “marvellous facility for playing preludes and fantasies off the cuff. Sometimes she improvises… for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners”.
The King was particularly impressed by one of her compositions, a Pastorale. Jacquet recalls that episode thus: “Your Majesty had learnt that I had set a Pastoral to music, and had the curiosity of hearing it, since nobody of my sex had ever attempted it. It was given on five consecutive occasions, interspersed with ornaments and dances, formed by the Court Princesses”. The work was also given at the Dauphine’s, while some time later the King commissioned Elisabeth a divertissement for the wedding of the Mademoiselle de Nantes. Unfortunately, as Jacquet recalls in the Preface to the Pièces de clavecin, that work did not see the light, “even though it was ready quite on time”. (For us, the implications of this gentle and polite sentence are lost, but in the world of the Sun King’s Court they must have had plenty of meaning).
Now, at 22, having left the Court after its move to Versailles, and having married an organist, Marin de la Guerre, in 1684, Elisabeth was ready for sending into the world a collection of what we would now call “Suites”, though they are not indicated as such on the score. She undertook the venture of having her Pièces de clavecin published in print; arguably, they had also some success, since at least two different prints have been found (one copy of each survives). She was authorized by the King to dedicate the collection to him, and, as the Mercure Galant reports, “The King received it with that obliging air which is so common for him, and told her that he had no doubts that that work would be exceptionally beautiful”. Exceptionality was the word: printed collections of harpsichord pieces were still very rare in contemporaneous France: among the few known examples are those by Chambonnières, d’Anglebert and Lebègue. Indeed, Jacquet de la Guerre (as she now was called) was used to be ranked among the musical elites. Four years after the publication of her Pièces, Titon du Tillet mentioned her in his Le Parnasse François (i.e. the “French Mount Parnassus”), in the company of such musicians as Lalande and Marais, and just a little step beyond Lully.
Elisabeth’s marriage did not put a stop to her career, as happened to other female composers; her husband was a musician, and he fully understood his spouse’s talent. She kept playing and composing, even venturing in the production of a staged opera. In spite of the great expectations surrounding it, the opera did not meet with the success it deserved, probably mainly due to the libretto’s shortcomings. This experience dissuaded Elisabeth from ever again attempting a work for the musical theatre, but did not block her compositional activity, creating and publishing many other instrumental works (including Sonatas for violin and harpsichord which are also pioneering works) as well as sacred cantatas on Biblical subjects (and here too her stance was rather original in comparison with what was usual in the France of her times) and other vocal works.
Her private life was marred by a series of deaths, coming in close succession. Within a very short time, she lost her father, her husband, her brother, and – perhaps worst of all – her only, beloved son, who, reportedly, was in turn a young genius of music when he died at 10.
Still, Jacquet de la Guerre managed to recover from all this mourning, and, as a widow, opened her home for semiprivate concerts, where she performed to great acclaim, and for an intense teaching activity – her students included some of the greatest talents of the younger generation.
The thirty-four movements composing the “suites” of the Pièces de clavecin bear witness to their composer’s creative fantasy and to her mastery of both her instrument and of compositional techniques. They display a structure which would pioneer the shape of the French Suite, as it would be practised throughout the Baroque era. Each opens with a non-measured Prelude, which is, in turn, a precise and rather independent compositional choice. At times, these Preludes are followed by a “Mouvement” section, where, instead, some kind of beat and of regularity is required. Beyond the classical dances, such as allemande, courante, gigue, minuet, and those less frequently heard (canaries, chaconnes, and gavottes) Jacquet did not eschew the challenges of novelty, leading her to include a Tocade (French name of the Italian toccata), which is a unicum within the panorama of contemporaneous French music. Here we clearly find the influence of foreign masters such as the Italian Frescobaldi or the German Froberger: though Jacquet never set foot outside France, she was evidently acquainted with what was happening, musically speaking, beyond the Alps.
Her style is in fact a successful mixture of various inspirations, including a fascination for lute music (this is particularly evident in the case of the G-minor suite, which the Mercure galant defined as “imitating the Lute”). Lute music also inspires the Gigue II in G minor; in this case, the inspiration regards its rhythmic patterns rather than its sound or writing.
The evolution of Elisabeth’s style would be observable in the following years, when she issued another collection, the Pièces de Clavecin qui peuvent se jouer sur le Viollon: here, the composer demonstrates once more how deeply steeped she was in her time’s music, but also how innovative was her gaze to the future.
It is therefore with great pleasure that this recording of her Pièces of 1687 should be welcomed, representing, as it does, a further step towards the full recognition of Jacquet among the finest French composers of her age.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Salvatore Carchiolo is an italian harpsichordist, continuo player and musicologist. He was born in Catania (Sicily). He is graduated at the “Sweelinck Conservatorium" in Amsterdam, where he studied under Bob van Asperen. He is graduated as well in literature and music history at the University of Catania and his activity covers also musicological research. He has collaborated and recorded with the most renowned italian early music ensembles and has performed in countless prestigious concert venues all over the world.
Salvatore Carchiolo is harpsichord professor in Catania Conservatory and has taught thoroughbass in the Conservatories of Verona, Trapani and Torino. He is active as well as a musicologist and is the author of the most comprehensive essay on italian continuo performance practice as Una perfezione d’armonia meravigliosa. Prassi cembalo-organistica del basso continuo italiano dalle origini all’inizio del Settecento published by LIM.
Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre(b Paris, bap. 17 March 1665; d Paris,27 June 1729). French harpsichordist and composer. She came from a family of master masons and musicians (see Jacquet family), and from the age of five played the harpsichord and sang at the court of Louis XIV. Noticed by Madame de Montespan, she stayed for three years in her entourage. On 23 September 1684 she left the court to marry the organist Marin de La Guerre. Their son, as precociously gifted as his mother, died at the age of ten.
In Paris Elisabeth Jacquet gave lessons and concerts for which she was soon renowned throughout the city. Her first compositions were dramatic works, of which only the libretto of Jeux à l'honneur de la victoiresurvives. Her first publication, Les pièces de clavessin … premier livre, dates from 1687. In 1694 her only tragédie en musique, Céphale et Procris, was performed at the Académie Royale de Musique with little success, but the prologue was revived in 1696 at Strasbourg, where Sébastien de Brossard had founded an academy of music. In 1695 Brossard made copies of her first trio sonatas and those for violin and continuo. Only in 1707 did she publish her six Sonates pour le viollon et pour le clavecin and the Pièces de clavecin qui peuvent se jouer sur le viollon, followed later by her two collections of Cantates françoises sur des sujets tirez de l'Ecriture to texts by Antoine Houdar de Lamotte, and by three secular Cantates françoises. Whereas all her other works were dedicated to Louis XIV, this last was addressed to the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian II Emanuel. Le raccommodement comique de Pierrot et de Nicole is a duet which went into La ceinture de Vénus, a play by Alain-René Lesage performed at the Foire St Germain in 1715. Elisabeth Jacquet's last work seems to have been a Te Deum sung in August 1721 in the chapel of the Louvre in thanksgiving for the recovery of Louis XV from smallpox.