Gustav Leonhardt - harpsichord (clavecin)
After the original version for viola da gamba, transcribed for harpsichord by Jean-Baptiste Forqueray(1699-1782)
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Musical portraits from the era of the Sun King and Louis XV
The reign of the Sun King Louis XIV, the so-called "grand siecle" is often considerated to be the golden age of French harpsichord music. In fact yet the works for harpsichord both by Francois Couperin and by Jean-Philippe Rameau were actually composed after the death of Louis XIV in 1715, with the harpsichord attaining its greatest popularity during the reign of Louis XV (1723-1774). It was this latter period which was to witness the creation of instruments and compositions of utmost perfection, comparable to the contemporary German works for harpsichord and clavichord written in the so-named empfindsam or "sensitive" style by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Gottfried Muthel. This golden age was, however, to come to an end, caused by a new orientation in French art: the triumph of the Italian over the French style, combined with the "musical invasion from the east", through composers such as Johann Schobert and the Mannheimer Johann Stamitz. The harpsichord, as the instrument of the "ancien regime" per se, was doomed to a glorious if melancholy demise, whilst the fortepiano was already gaining ground even in France. Even the stalwart support of Claude-Benigne Balbastre, one of the most important representatives of French rococo harpsichord music, was to be in vain. After having heard the harpsichord builder Pascal Taskin play on an English forte-piano, he prophesied that the majestic harpsichord would never be dethroned by this "newsounding thing".
A contemporary and colleague of Francois Couperin at the court of Louis XIV was the great gamba virtuoso Antoine Forqueray who, together with his son Jean-Baptiste, was the most important representative of a dynasty of musicians who originated from Scotland. From an early age, Antoine Forqueray demonstrated such a prodigious talent for the gamba, that he not only played before the Sun King at the age of five, but was retained at the court where he was brought up with the other pages. Following his appointment at the age of seventeen as a regular musician to the royal court, he caused a great stir with his unbelievable virtuosity and his improvised preludes and came to teach a large number of distinguished people, such as Philippe, Duke of Orleans, later to become the regent of France. As a gamba player Antoine Forqueray, who was said to possess a violent and irascible temper, was compared by his contemporaries solely to his rival Marin Marais. As a composer he succeeded in applying to the gamba his knowledge of contemporary Italian violin music, thus considerably extending the limits of what had until then been technically possible. If we are to believe the "Mercure de France" of August 1738, only Antoine Forqueray himself and his son were capable of playing Forqueray's very difficult Pieces de Viole-the only criticism, incidentally, which the critic could add to otherwise unmitigated praise.
The twenty-nine Pieces de Viole by Antoine Forqueray were published by his son in 1747, two years after his father's death, in a version arranged by Jean-Baptiste for two different instrumentations: one for viola da gamba with basso continuo and one for solo harpsichord. Jean-Baptiste furnished the edition with a figured bass and added three works of his own. To Jean-Baptiste, who foresaw the inevitable decline of the gamba brought about by the ever-increasing popularity of the violoncello, it seemed only prudent to entrust his father's music to the harpsichord.
Just like Francois Couperin and Jacques Duphly, Forqueray immortalized colleagues (Leclair) and well-known personalities in Parisian society (La Tour) in his harmonically rich character pieces. Thus La Regente represents a portrait of Duke Philippe of Orleans, himself a pupil of Forqueray. It is a noble and stately piece, full of contrasts, here a passage in "style luthe" and there a flurry of repeated notes or concatenations of triplets. In La Tronchin, Forqueray commemorates in musical form one of the Duke's personal physicians, Theodore Tronchin (1709-1781). The latter, born in Geneva, studied medicine under Boerhaave in Leiden
and settled first in Amsterdam, only some time later to return to his native Geneva where his good reputation as a doctor brought him many invitations to practice abroad: Only after being persistently urged by the Duke to do so, did Tronchin move from Geneva to Paris in 1766 where he came to be regarded as a benefactor to the poor and where he made friends with Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and Thomas.
La Angrave is one of the three pieces by the younger Forqueray. Light and cheerful in character, it is graceful and diaphanous yet contains some bizarre stravaganza effects. Following his father's fearless and resolute Rondeau La Eynaud, Jean-Baptiste's La Mourangis ou La Plissay, an elegant chaconne with its delightful middle section in the minor key, is a composition written in a style more engaging than that of his father.
La Marella, a brusque and fiery piece, is composed as if in a single breath and characterised by its dotted rhythms and restless chromaticism. The title evokes associations with the French game of hopscotch ("marelle"). In La Clement, the harpsichord player and composer Charles-Francois Clement (1720-1782) is immortalized. Clement, born in Provence, settled in Paris where he wrote trio sonatas, works for harpsichord, cantatas and operas. His music closely resembles the style of Michel Corette, Gabriel Guillemain and Jean-Joseph de Mondonville. The Sarabande La d'Aubonne is a serious work full of sombre chords in which the performer is instructed by the composer to invest his playing of the piece with consummate taste and sensitivity. Enriched with emotionally charged ornamentation, this work contains precise instructions on the correct sequence in which the hands are to strike the keys.
Le Riche La Poupliniere, a passionate music-lover and patron, was an energetic Secretary of State and so wealthy that he was able to maintain one of the best orchestras in Paris and to engage musicians such as Rameau, Johann Stamitz and Francois-Joseph Gossec. He purchased the Chateau de Passy, where Rameau spent every summer until 1753. Forqueray was also a frequent guest and apparently impressed by the carillon there. Le Carillon de Passy and La Latour are two rondeaus in G minor which, in ABA form, belong together and were played one after the other without a break. The first rondeau with its repeated notes, recreates for us the carillon at the Chateau de Passy; and the second rondeau surprises with its sudden octave leaps and small harmonic shocks.
In La Latour, Antoine Forqueray has painted a musical portrait of Maurice-Quentin La Tour (1704-1788) for us. La Tour was a French painter famous for his pastel portraits. One of his pictures shows father and son Forqueray together with Michel de la Barre and the Hotteterre brothers. La Tour had a dubious reputation on account of his often eccentric appearance and his candid and risque remarks. Once, when the flamboyant La Tour wanted to go from St. Cloud to Paris, he stripped off his clothes and allowed himself to be picked up by a passing boat. Another time he made an unbelievably great fuss about not wanting to paint a portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour, Louis XV's mistress. Eventually the stubborn artist consented to do it, but managed to extract a promise from the Marquise that they would not be disturbed by anyone during the sittings. One day the king joined them. La Tour, pretending not to have recognized him, collected his things and, before departing bad-temperedly, cried, "You said our sittings would not be interrupted!" It is thanks to the portraits painted by such colourful artists as Forqueray and La Tour that such a bright light falls on one small piece of the mosaic that was the cultural life of Paris in the 18th century!
-Clemens Romijn (Translation: John Console, 1992)