Clavecin Pierre Donzelague, Lyon 1716
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What a strange, disturbing character, this Louis Marchand! Restless, cumbersome, self-conceited, slightly paranoiac, ambitious to the point of awkwardness, ready to trample underfoot all the musicians in the Kingdom to achieve his aims, and using means such that even the most tolerant became indignant, a bad husband, a bad father and a bad man ; furthermore, he was emotionally unstable and so impulsive as to be capable of risking his career because of a sour remark from the King. Quite a character, then... But for all that, he was a good musician, and in the eyes of his contemporaries, the best one: Daquin was not quite sure about Couperin's being superior to him.
Actually, very little is known about Louis Marchand. Although the anecdotes about him and his moodiness abound, they are often unverifi-able. What remains from him are (more than his work, which consists of a few, thin scores) lawsuits, court decisions, certified reports by notaries, in which he never shows up to his advantage, and which do not even give any information about his true personality.
He was born in Lyons in 1669, the son of Jean Marchand, "a mediocre organist", according to Titon du Tillet. Jean Marchand was organist at Nevers, after an appointment at Clermont-Ferrand (where he may have been replaced by his son). In 1689, at the age of twenty, Louis Marchand was living in Paris, in the rue Saint-Jacques. He married Marie-Angelique Denis, daughter to Louis Denis, instrument-maker and organist of Saint-Barthelemy. His career made rapid headway. Before he was thirty, he held concurrently the positions of organist of the Cordeliers, that of the Jesuits of the rue Saint-Jacques, and of Saint-Benoit. He had also coveted Saint-Barthelemy, but failed to oust its appointed organist. By then, his impossible character had earned him the enmity of his colleagues. Although already holding positions as organist, and none the wiser for the unhappy Saint-Barthelemy affair, he tried to take Saint-Merry "by storm". In 1706, he succeeded to Nivers at the Chapelle Royale. But he had no mean opponent in the person of his wife. Administering her property separately, she sued her husband's various employers to obtain that half of his fees be payed directly to herself; in the case of the Menus Plaisirs, she is said to have won. Rumour has it that Marchand stopped playing right in the middle of the King's mass, declaring that since he had been paid only half his due, he would not be able to go any further. True or false ? This would be improbable of most men, but not so of this terrible musician. In any case, he left the service of His Majesty, willy-nilly, and went abroad.
Marchand's reputation had gone far beyond the frontiers. German musicians, members of the Bach family, pupils of Bach's (Johann Krebs) had copies of his works. Bach himself, according Ludwig to Adlung, "played the works of Marchand with admirable lightness and artistry". His journey abroad took him to Germany, where his tour was an enormous success.
It was during this journey that, according to the tradition, the famous contest with Johann Sebastian Bach would have taken place, if Marchand had not shamefully escaped. This is a very obscure affair, which has often been interpreted in far too simplistic a way. The facts themselves are not clear; and the information rather vague. Under what circumstances did Bach come to find himself in Dresden ? Was it really a "musical contest" that was planned for the two musicians ? And whose idea was it ? Did Marchand clear off after hearing the formidable virtuosity of his (obscure) German rival ? Or did he, the great Marchand from Versailles, simply not deign to pit himself against what must have been, in his eyes, nothing but a small, provincial Kappelmeister, whose greatness was to be recognized only by posterity ? Everything is possible with this man of impulsive reactions, luciferian pride, and rather indelicate manners: everything, including escape on the point of losing face...
Be that as it may, after his return to Paris, Marchand settled down to a comfortable existence as teacher: the most expensive one in the Kingdom. He had recovered the Cordeliers' organ, but not that of the Chapelle Royale, even after the death of the Sun King. The inventory made after his death in 1732 shows very clearly that he was not lacking in anything. He had four harpsichords at home, among which a Ruckers, seven spinets, viols, nine lutes, valuable paintings, jewels, precious objects, golden furniture... A handsome career, indeed...
His work is slim: two small collections of pieces for harpsichord, five small books for organ, a few airs, the three Cantiques de jean Racine. We learn through the inventory made after his death that he left a whole trunkful of manuscripts. But it was quite in accordance with this man's temperament to have been so jealous as to allow nobody but himself to play his own works...
His two collections for harpsichord were published by Ballard in 1702. To the same extent that his organ compositions are brilliant, so are his works for harpsichord secret and difficult of access. They are sometimes austere, almost always serious, seldom smiling or even gracious. Though his pieces are skilfully written, their mastery is not obviously admirable as such. They need to be studied closely before they are found to be very great music.
Although they are built on the most traditional pattern (prelude-allemande-courante-sarabande-gigue), to which are added gavotte and minuet, and also a chaconne for the first of them, the two Suites of Marchand are as different as may be: the first is more noble and spacious, the second lighter, more graceful at times, or livelier.
FIRST BOOK (Suite in d minor) In spite of the presence of bar-lines on the score, the PRELUDE of the Suite in d minor is still akin to the unmeasured prelude. What Couperin said of his own in 1717 could be applied to it: "Though these Preludes are written in measured notation, there is however a conventional taste that must be followed ; what I mean is that the Prelude is a free composition where imagination abandons itself to everything that offers itself to it... Everyone who has recourse to the measured' Preludes must play them in an easy manner, without paying too much attention to the precision of the movements... ".
This Prelude is made up of a series of fairly distinct sequences, using traditional elements of lute technique combined with other features deriving from the toccata, with its shooting passages, sudden dives through the whole range of the keyboard, embryonic solos, and short phrases in the form of inventions in two or three parts. All of this in an impetuous disorder. But it must be remarked that the organist, too, is present in this work so obviously written for plucked strings : the long initial pedal point, the importance of the bass, and also other conceptual elements belong to the organ.
ALLEMANDE - Marchand's Allemande in d minor adopts the sedate, very intricate contrapuntal style which the French spread as far as Germany, where this dance originated. Whereas the Prelude burst forth its fugitive sparks in all directions, this piece on the contrary is admirable for the breadth of its sentences which, below a surface bristling with ornaments and vibrating with nervous impulsions, describe large, powerfully profiled curves.
COURANTEI & COURANTE II - The same is true of the two Courantes where, however, his mastery of composition in three or four real voices is even more evident: this is in the tradition of such as Chambonnieres, d'Angle-bert or Louis Couperin.
SARABANDE - In order to understand how two pieces so different as this d minor Sarabande and that in g of the Second Book can actually bear the same name, we must keep in mind that the sarabande has a very complex history and that it underwent an evolution which different traditions froze at different points of its process. It is said to have come from the New World and was introduced into Spain during the XVIth century. It was then a brisk three-time dance, known for its immodesty (it was condemned by the Inquisition). After making its entry into the Spanish court, it became widespread all over Europe and was modified till it became the slowest and noblest of baroque dances. But there exist several types of Sarabande, representing each a halt in this evolution. What Marchand presents respectively in each of his Suites are two sarabandes, the grave one and the light one, the ponderous one and the fluid one. That in d minor has a sombre, almost wild beauty.
The GAVOTTE EN RONDEAU suddenly relieves the tense and serious climate that has prevailed since the Prelude. It contrasts a lively theme with a series of two lightly textured couplets.
The MENUET must be taken at a quick tempo as was still the practice in the XVIIth century: it then takes on a grace and a charm which make us understand why this dance was such a favourite with Louis XIV's contemporaries, reputed to have been stiff and heavy, and with Louis XIV himself, reputed to have been cramped in his own majesty.
The GIGUE which we have here belongs to the very elaborate type of gigue after the French manner; it has severed all links with its Irish origin, except for its characteristic 6/4. The French gigue is fugal in texture (here in canon at the octave); the subject is inverted in the second part, after the double bar-line. Here it is full of vivacity and drive.
CHACONNE - Like the sarabande, it is also the outcome of the long evolution of a dance of Spanish origin: moreover, they both have some common characteristics, particularly this typical rhythm stressing the second beat of the 3/4. The theme is noble and grave. In keeping with the French tradition, Marchand contrasts it with a series of fairly clearly individualized couplets, in rondeau form.
SECOND BOOK (Suite in g minor) The PRELUDE is this time unmeasured (except for the single bar-line, in the first line, which seems to have gone astray...). This is the only sombre composition of the Suite: its pathos, chromaticism, with major and minor contrasting, evoke some of Louis Couperin's pieces.
The first ALLEMANDE had the intricate, skilful contrapuntal character devised by the French clavecinists. The second one is simpler, its four-time structure more solid, its melody more forthright: it stems from a more archaic type, one closer to the original German dance.
The COURANTE has a more moderate pace, and shows us Marchand once more moulding his long melodies, in a single span, over six or eight bars.
The SARABANDE is in very sharp contrast to the one of the Suite in d minor. To the great slow-paced and stately sarabande corresponds the little sarabande that can be found in Lully, light and vivacious, in simple triple time - or more probably in single time - and where the typical accentuation on the second beat does not occur. The impassioned and feverish character has disappeared.
The GIGUE is very odd. It also presents an archaic type with a 6/4 time signature, strong rhythms, unpolished and rustic melody. It reminds one that the gigue was originally a very nimble dance, where the dancers used to tap their heels vigorously.
The contrast is all the stronger with the light GAVOTTE and above all the MENUETS. Right from the first notes, we enter a new world, a more fluid and poetic one. The clean-cut straightforwardness which had characterized Marchand's music from the beginning seems to disappear all of a sudden. We are in a different universe: one that is linked to the lute technique, with which Marchand was not quite familiar. He only used it from time to time for some rapid figuration. Here, he uses it through the whole piece. Curiously enough, the mood is so akin to that of Couperin that we suddenly have the revelation, by contrast, of what must be the real key to Couperin's idiom : lute technique. Two minuets "en rondeau" succeed one another, offering a pleasant contrast.
-Philippe Beaussant (translated by Josine Monbet)