Les maîtres du clavecin français


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    Seen from today’s vantage points, some periods in the history of music seem to be almost unbelievably blessed with a flourishing of talents and with remarkable outputs in some particular fields. One has to think, for instance, about the German Romantic composers, who were born within a few years’ span, or about the Italian operatic talents, both in the Baroque and in the Romantic era, and so on. In spite of the impression these data cause, however, it is not by chance or by some astral influence that such concentrations appear. Talents are born every day in every corner of the world; what changes dramatically is the possibility, for a musically gifted child, to have his or her talent acknowledged soon enough for a musical career to take place, and to find the funding needed for completing a long and demanding musical education. Finally, the musical profession must be socially and economically rewarded, otherwise talented people will limit themselves to the amateur’s enjoyment of music, without being encouraged to pursue a musical activity full-time.
    This combination of factors, some of which pertain to family conditions, others to the time and place of one’s birth, is not easily found; but, when it happens, the preconditions for a musical blossoming are met.
    Among the several “golden ages” of Western music, the French Baroque – which I omitted mentioning earlier – is one of the most important; within it, the repertoire and style of the keyboard school is a standalone. This Da Vinci Classics album offers a stimulating and enticing panorama on the styles, genres, ideas and perspective of the French keyboard school in the Baroque era.
    The album opens with a piece which was composed by a musician whose posthumous fame relies more on his organ output than on that for the harpsichord. Similar to J. S. Bach, with whom he allegedly had to compete at a kind of musical duel, Louis Marchand was best known by his contemporaries as an unrivalled master at the organ, and only secondarily as a composer and a performer of other instruments, including the harpsichord. But, very different from Bach, whose life was comparatively orderly and uneventful, and particularly marked by his Christian faith, Marchand was a picturesque figure, whose story is punctuated by scandals, mots célèbres, and a decidedly unconventional attitude. Similar to Bach, however, Marchand came from a family of musicians: and here we can observe the already-mentioned importance of coming from the right musical milieu.
    Marchand held important and prestigious appointments both at the French Court – where he was responsible for the organ playing, one trimester per year – and at some of the great cathedrals; his published works are mainly in the field of organ music, and some are really ahead of their times. As concerns his harpsichord output, all that can be certainly attributed to him consists of two Suites; the earliest was issued in 1699 and reprinted in 1702 (“Livre premier”), the same year when the “Livre Second” was published. The piece recorded here is the first movement of the first Suite, a “Prélude mesuré”. This term indicates a piece in a free form, as is characteristic for the Preludes, but with an identifiable rhythmic structure, lending it a temporal structure which contrasts with the total freedom of the non-measured Prelude opening the second Book of Marchand’s harpsichord works.
    Marchand was held in high esteem and deeply appreciated by his contemporaries, including Jean-Philippe Rameau. The roots of their art, however, must be found in an earlier generation, which can be identified with that of Louis Couperin (1626-1661). Here too we have a notable family of musicians, perhaps the most important in the history of the French Baroque. Louis was the first to move to Paris, together with his siblings; he had conquered the heart of noble patrons, starting with Jacques Champion, Sire of Chambonnières, and had been invited by them to Paris, where Louis’ career took off. Unfortunately, however, this was to last for just a decade, since Louis died at the early age of 35. Still, his Parisian years were extremely fecund both for him and for the capital – but also for his family; he was appointed to the post of organist at the Church of St. Gervaise, and – just as would happen with Marchand later – he held also important court appointments. One major innovation which Louis Couperin implemented was the possibility of playing non-measured preludes on the keyboard, thus bringing the extreme temporal liberty of these Preludes within the framework of tradition. And if we cannot be entirely sure of the anecdote about Bach and Marchand, we do know that there were reciprocal influences between Louis Couperin and Jakob Froberger, on the occasion of the German musician’s journey to Paris.
    While it is usual to refer to Louis Couperin’s works as being organized in “suites”, as was customary at the time, as a matter of fact they were not presented in this fashion to their first recipients. Only in 1970 did a musicologist propose an organization of the musical material to constitute “Suites”, on the basis of key, style, affinity. Thus, the piece recorded here (“Branle de Basque”) formally belongs in the XII Suite, but this is a modern way of thought which has no explicit parallels in Couperin’s way of organizing his musical ideas.
    Many pieces written by Jean Philippe Rameau are identified through original, and at times bizarre titles. Occasionally, the link between title and work is evident (one can think simply of La poule, a paradigmatic example of program music). On other occasions, however, the exact meaning of the title eludes us. And this, paradoxically, applies precisely to a work bearing the same name as its composer, La Rameau. We do not know with any certainty, in fact, whether the composer’s homage to his family name was intended to represent himself, or his wife, who was a skilled and appreciated singer, or the kind of music which filtered through the doors of their home. This piece, along with the others by Rameau recorded here, was originally written for violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord, thus paving the way for a novel and stimulating concept of “chamber music”. These pieces are offered here in arrangement realized by Siegbert Rampe (b. 1964), a celebrated performer and orchestra conductor who created fascinating adaptations from this repertoire, thus allowing it to be performed with reduced musical forces.
    The same fate of having been written for a chamber ensemble and transcribed for the keyboard by Rampe applies to La Cupis, another piece intended as portraying a musician. In this case, the person referred to by the tile is Marie-Anne Cupis, also known as “La Camargo” (1710-1770). “La Cupis” was a celebrated professional dancer at the Royal Academy of Music in Paris; her importance was such that she had a fundamental role in the premiere of one of Rameau’s operatic masterpieces, the opéra ballet of 1733 by the title of Hippolyte et Aricie. These works, together with the one which follows them in this album, belong originally in the so-called Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts, where the reduced number of the performing forces is compensated by the liveliness and transparency of the result. No doubts can arise as to the reason for the title of the Tambourins, where the musical evocation is articulated through a skilled use of both sound and style.
    Different from the preceding pieces, Rameau’s Les Cyclopes is not transcribed by a contemporary musician, but was originally composed for the harpsichord. It is found within a suite contained, in turn, in Rameau’s Livre de pieces de clavecin (1724). Here, the Cyclops are seen as the divine blacksmiths in the Greek Olympus; Rameau amuses himself (and the player, and the listener!) by suggesting a musical evocation of the din of such a gigantic forge. Several musical gestures are intended as reinforcing the imagery, and effectively manage to convey the impression of grandeur, energy, liveliness and power of the gods’ forge.
    François Couperin’s Les Rozeaux (i.e. the “Reeds”) is another piece bearing a suggestive and fascinating title, but this reaches an impressive level in his Les Folies françaises ou Les Dominos. By “Domino” we must intend here a Carnival mask, capable of covering the bearer’s entire face, and topped by a cloak. This suite, in twelve movements, represents a cortege of personages, each bearing a mask and representing a quality or a situation. They include “Virginity”, for instance, whose “domino” is invisible, or “Hope”, described as arriving with a green Domino.
    A first cousin of François Couperin might have cooperated with Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, a musician born in Turin, which at the time belonged in Savoy. From there, Royer moved to Paris, where he was held in high esteem, both for his keyboard works and for some of his pieces.
    Royer is the protagonist of two pieces of this Da Vinci Classics album, the first of whom is Le Vertigo, an impressive display of new virtuosity. Royer’s Marche des Schytes is an original adaptation after an operatic model, i.e. the Turkish march found in Royer’s own opera Zaide. Here, again, the quest for “special effects” on the harpsichord must have pained the composers/keyboardists, who knew what the result should have sounded like.
    The last piece which remains to be discussed was written by yet another Couperin, Armand-Louis. His L’Affligée (“the afflicted”) seems to display similarities with Rameau’s L’Enharmonique, and it is permeated by an intense, though somewhat slight, vein of melancholy.
    Together, these pieces represent a portrait at 360° of what could be done with a harpsichord and a sufficient quantity of inventiveness in the Baroque era; and their variety in terms both technical and musical is impressive, granting to the listener a time of fantasy, enjoyment and pleasure.
    Chiara Bertoglio ©2023


    Svitlana Shabaltina: Svitlana Shabaltina was born in Kyiv. Graduated from Gnesins Musical Pedagogical Institute, Piano department (Moscow) and post-graduated at the same institute. Prominent professor Boris Zemlianski influenced very much the future ofher creative personality. In 1990-1992 had an artistic internship at Krakow Musical Academy with well-known harpsichordist Elzbieta Stefanska.
    Svitlana gives concerts as a soloist and with different chamber ensembles, she has given concerts in Great Britain, USA, Holland, Germany, Italy, France, Poland, Turkey. She has also taken part at numerous festivals of modern and early music in Ukraine and abroad. Among them: International festival and congress «Musica Antiqua Europae Orientalis», «Dni Bachowski» (Poland), «Cembalissimo» (Hungary), «Bach readings» and «Five evenings of harpsichord» (Russia), Festival clavicembalistico «WANDA LANDOWSKA» (Italy), different festivals of early music in Ukraine.
    In 1995 Svitlana Shabaltina founded the first in Ukraine class of harpsichord at National Music Academy of Ukraine (Kyiv). She has been a professor of early music chair at the Academy since 2000. Students of her class have won diplomas and other awards of different international competitions.
    S. Shabaltina played first night performances of solo and chamber pieces of modern Ukrainian composers, recorded several CDs, such as 2 albums from the series «Ukrainian performers» (piano), «Ukrainian and Russian music of XVI-XVIII centuries» (harpsichord), «8-years W. A. Mozart music» (with eminent Ukrainian flutist O. Koudriashov).
    S. Shabaltina is a member of the jury at International harpsichord competition in Ruvo di Puglia (Italy) and chair of the jury at Harpsichord competition in Kyiv (Ukraine). She is the author of many articles published in special magazines of Early Music and of the book “Harpsichord through centuries” (2013). S. Shabaltina gives masterclasses and lectures in Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Turkey.
    Svitlana Shabaltina is the member of Société Européenne de Culture (Venice). Her name is mentioned in the dictionary «International Who’s Who in Music and Musicians’ Directory (In the Classical and Light Classical Fields) » Volume One 2000/2001 Seventeenth Edition.


    Armand-Louis Couperin
    (b Paris, 25 Feb 1727; d Paris, 2 Feb 1789). Composer, organist and harpsichordist, son of (6) Nicolas Couperin. Nothing is known of his education, but it may safely be taken that his father and perhaps other relatives provided for the musical side, and he may have received his schooling as a choirboy at St Gervais. His library, which amounted to 885 books at the time of his death, was unusual for a professional musician, and speaks for a lively intellectual curiosity. As his mother died when he was only 17 months old, he was brought up by his father and a maidservant. When he was 21 his father died intestate; as sole heir of both parents, he inherited his father’s position at St Gervais and the apartment that went with it. Shortly afterwards (7 February 1752), his marriage to Elisabeth-Antoinette Blanchet, daughter of the best harpsichord maker in France and a first-class professional musician, brought some 40,000 livres.

    François Couperin (ii) [le grand]
    (b Paris, 10 Nov 1668; d Paris,11 Sept 1733). Composer, harpsichordist and organist, son of (3) Charles Couperin (ii). He is the most important member of the Couperin dynasty. He wrote some of the finest music of the French classical school, and may be reckoned the most important musical figure in France between Lully and Rameau.

    Jean-Philippe Rameau
    (b Dijon, bap. 25 Sept 1683; d Paris, 12 Sept 1764). French composer and theorist. He was one of the greatest figures in French musical history, a theorist of European stature and France's leading 18th-century composer. He made important contributions to the cantata, the motet and, more especially, keyboard music, and many of his dramatic compositions stand alongside those of Lully and Gluck as the pinnacles of pre-Revolutionary French opera.

    Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer
    (b Turin, c1705; d Paris, 11 Jan 1755). French composer, harpsichordist, organist and administrator. His father was sent by Louis XIV to be the intendant of gardens and fountains at the court of Savoy; the family returned to Paris when Royer was still an infant, although he did not become naturalized until July 1751, less than four years before his death. For 25 years he was a central figure in Parisian musical life, with responsibilities at court, the Opéra and the Concert Spirituel. He acquired a great reputation for playing the harpsichord and organ (Laugier) and as a composer, was a brilliant and influential contemporary of Rameau through much of the latter's career. His first operatic essay was to contribute music to an opéra comique at the 1725 Foire St Laurent (Le fâcheux veuvage). His first term as maître de musique at the Paris Opéra (1730–33) saw the premières of his own Pyrrhus, with sets by Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni (1730), and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (1733). Important court appointments included maître de musique des enfants de France, jointly held with J.-B. Matho, and maître de musique de la chambre du roi. At the Opéra his principal successes were Zaïde, reine de Grenade (1739) and Le pouvoir de l'Amour (1743). In 1744 he began work on Voltaire's libretto Pandore, destined for the dauphin's wedding in 1745 but set aside in favour of a revival of Zaïde. The Duke of Luynes recounted the circumstances of the composition of the ode La fortune in 1746. The dauphin, just turned 17 but already possessing a good baritone voice as well as considerable talent, suggested to Royer that he should set the text of J.-B. Rousseau. Although the verses were described as ‘not being made to be sung’, Royer turned out a 45-minute divertissement, which the prince sang in his sisters’ apartments, surprising the courtiers, since he had only just begun music lessons. The work was repeated at court and at the Concert Spirituel by the much-admired baritone Benoit.

    Louis Couperin
    (b Chaumes-en-Brie, c1626; d Paris, 29 Aug 1661). Composer, harpsichordist, organist and viol player, son of Charles Couperin (i). He was the greatest of the Couperins after (4) François (ii) and one of the best keyboard composers of the 17th century.

    Louis Marchand
    (b Lyons, 2 Feb 1669; d Paris, 17 Feb 1732). French harpsichordist, organist and composer. According to Titon du Tillet, who gave his forename as Jean-Louis, his father Jean Marchand was ‘un organiste mediocre’. Not so Louis: by the same authority, he was so gifted that he obtained the post of organist at Nevers Cathedral when he was 14 and at Auxerre when he was 24; he later moved to Paris where he was offered almost all the posts then vacant. Titon exaggerated; and his assertion that Marchand was appointed to Auxerre at the age of 24 is disproved by documentary evidence showing that by the age of 20 he was in Paris – in 1689 he married a Parisian, Marie Angélique Denis, and by 1691 he was organist of the Jesuit church in rue St Jacques (from this early association with the Jesuits sprang Fontenay’s colourful account of Marchand’s being taken in, literally off the streets, by members of that order). Some years later the Mercure de France (August 1699) reveals that he had also acquired posts at St Benoît and the Cordeliers; the title-pages of his two harpsichord books, published in 1702, provide confirmation. In 1703 he occupied the tribune at St Honoré, only to retire from the position in 1707. About this time he entered royal service, replacing Nivers officially as one of the organistes du roi in 1708. Such was Marchand’s reputation that he was not required to compete for the vacancy (or so d’Aquin de Château-Lyon stated). In 1713 he undertook an extensive tour of Germany, where he played before the emperor and various electors. In September 1717 the Dresden court was to have been the scene of a contest between Marchand and J.S. Bach. Only German sources describe this unflattering episode in Marchand’s career (principally F.W. Marpurg, J.A. Birnbaum and Jacob Adlung); all agree that Marchand slipped away before the arrival of the celebrated Weimar organist. Titon, either through tact or ignorance, was of the opinion that Marchand’s return to Paris shortly after the Dresden débâcle was due to homesickness. On his return he was taken in by the Cordeliers, whose organist he remained until the end of his days. During these final years he was much sought after in society as a teacher; d’Aquin was the most eminent of his pupils.