British audiences have never really ‘got’ French Baroque music. Not when it was written, not today. During the late 17th and 18th century, whilst this music was incredibly influential on composers like Johann Sebastian Bach (the most obvious example being his French Suites for keyboard), the only thing Britons had ears for was Italian music — Corelli, Geminiani, Handel — infiltrating everything from opera to songs sung down the pub.
And today, despite the resurgence in popularity of Baroque music and the performance traditions that go alongside it, French music of the period is still neglected. Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi abound, but to find a programme dedicated to Jean-Phillipe Rameau, François Couperin, or Jean-Baptiste Lully, you’ll have to look a lot harder.
Their music is florid and decorative, much as you would expect from musicians who worked in the dazzling surroundings of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV, a musical king who used the spectacle of immense performances, often featuring hundreds of singers, dancers, and instrumentalists, to assert his position as divine ruler of France. The music is sometimes startlingly dramatic, evoking the full force of the elements and the wrath of gods, at other times unbearably languorous, portraying heady pastoral scenes. Largely relegated by scholars in the 19th and much of the 20th century for being flimsy, effeminate music, lacking the discipline and counterpoint that for them made Bach a demigod (for music had to be authoritative and ‘masculine’ for it to be taken seriously as a discipline), no French composers of the age have ascended to the heights of a Handel or a Haydn. This music is not part of the canon, and it’s a tough sell to audiences.
So it was great to see an almost full Queen Elizabeth Hall for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the direction of John Butt, one of the greatest scholar-performers alive today (and, incidentally, the world’s leading expert on Bach). The programme was beautifully crafted, a chocolate-box of assorted treats by Campra, Lully, Rameau, Marais, Charpentier, Mouret, and Corette that were constructed to form a two act ballet in the French baroque style, conjuring up scenarios between Orphée and Eurydice, Apollon and Daphné, and Zoroastre and Amélite.
Joining Butt and co. on stage were dancers from Les Corps Eloquents, aiding OAE in its mission to look beyond just the notes on the page. Hubert Hazebroucq devised choreography based on historical records; dance moves were notated back then. The dancing felt a little light and precious, lacking the intrigue and sensuality that Louis’ court conjures up in the mind. For long periods the dancers left the space vacant, leaving a great portion of the stage empty with the band stuck at the back in rather gloomy lighting. I’d have preferred the dancers behind the band, raised; as it was the spectacle lacked the lustre, sparkle, and viscerality of Versailles.
Always apparent when John Butt directs is the effortless communication of his players and singers. Seated at the harpsichord slightly off-centre and wearing his directorship lightly, Butt was as much an ensemble member, raising the odd hand in the air to inject a change of tempo or shape a phrase. Mention must go to leader Margaret Faultless, who played Michel Corrette’s La Furstemberg, of course, without fault, the bow skipping across all four strings of her violin joyfully. Tenor Nick Pritchard sang with élan when portraying Orphée in assorted Lully and Charpentier, but at other times felt subdued, and on the whole lacked the haute-contre tone necessary to bring out the effervescence of the high tenor lines. Soprano Anna Dennis shone throughout.
The music by Campra and Lully that made up the first two scenes wafted along nicely enough, but it was when we got to Rameau that Butt took things up a notch, having so much more to play with. Contemporary reports of Rameau suggest that he was a very ambitious, single-minded individual. French dramatist Alexis Piron said of him, ‘all of his mind and soul were in his harpsichord; when he had closed its lid, there was no one at home’. But this does not paint the full picture; achievement for Rameau was synonymous with acceptance and recognition by scientists and philosophes, as he revealed in a letter to the mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert: ‘the most flattering reward to which I aspire is the approbation and the esteem of the learned.’ Despite an encouraging first Treaty on Harmony (1722), Rameau’s theorising became more and more muddled as he went on, becoming embroiled in a fierce polemic with Jean-Jacques Rousseau that left his dreams of being the complete musicien philosope in tatters.
His compositions, however, did reach the heights of creativity, and he was by far the most adventurous of the composers that served Louis XIV. The moment that captured this was Dennis’ singing of Air de la Folie from Platée by Rameau, his first comic opera written in 1745. Showing the roots of the da capo form (a ternary form comprising an opening section, a contrasting developmental section, followed by a repeat of the opening section) that would become the quintessential aria form for the late 18th century, it had all the humour, charm, and daring of a Mozart aria, which Dennis brought forth with alacrity, showing why Rameau was such a crucial pivot between the Baroque and Classical.
All in all, a tantalising appetiser; hopefully more Brits will develop a taste for French fancies