Before the introduction of public orchestral concerts in the second half of the eighteenth century and the emergence of the symphony as the core of orchestral repertoire, there had already been a well-established orchestral tradition of mixed instrument ensembles in France for almost a century. Louis XIV was a great patron of music, and orchestral music was heard at all public royal appearances, official receptions and balls as well as for private and domestic enjoyment and edification. But most important of all was his whole-hearted support for the production of operas, ballets, and other forms of stage performances. Therefore it is mostly in theatrical works that we find the best of French orchestral music of the early eighteenth century. For in them we find not only the complete array of dances that accompanied the sumptuous ballets, but also the wide range of non-dance music such as overtures, preludes, ritornellos, entr’actes, and instrumental airs, written to help convey and underscore the gamut of feelings of the characters and the plots, and to anticipate and enhance the emotional and visual content of the stage presentations. Thus the excerpts from the two operas and Lalande’s dinner music on this program represent the best of French baroque orchestral music before the symphony became the mainstay of orchestral concerts in Europe.

Although Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726) is known today primarily as the leading composer of grand motets and other sacred vocal music at the court of Louis XIV, during his long career as a court musician he probably contributed in equal measure to both the sacred and secular musical establishments. He began his service at the court as one of four sous-maîtres of the royal chapel in 1683, and two years later was named Compositeur de la musique de la chambre. This dual appointment continued throughout his life. In 1689 he became surintendant de la musique de la chambre, the most prestigious musical post at court, and in 1715 he was given sole charge of the Chapelle. It was in his capacity as surintendant that he compiled the collection of orchestral music called Simphonies pour les Soupers du Roy. (At that time, the term simphonies simply meant instrumental ensemble music.) Throughout the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, les soupers du Roy were official fortnightly events when the king dined in public, entertained by music and observed by courtiers. Lalande probably began to contribute music for these important occasions when he became compositeur in 1685, and certainly was responsible for providing music for all the royal appearances when he became surintendant. Thus this collection of simphonies was the fruit of some 40 years of labor. As gathered in a posthumous manuscript copy of 1745, this collection contains over 300 pieces, more than 200 of which are from existing operas, ballets and divertissements by Lalande and other composers. These pieces are grouped into 18 orchestral suites according to tonality. Three of these suites were also entitled Caprice because each of them contains a set of original, capricious, and fanciful pieces rather than the standard and stylized dances of a regular suite.

The Caprice on this program is in six movements. The first three movements are played without pause. The first movement features colorful instrumental sonorities that alternate between the full orchestra and a varying small group of soloists. The second is an unusual rondeau with variations, in which the complete ABACA rondeau is played the second time with melodic elaboration and rhythmic variations. The third is a short but brilliant fantaisie. The fourth is a graceful gigue for solo violin with orchestra. The fifth is an uncommon quartet for solo bassoon and strings. It combines calm rhythm with frequent dissonant harmony, thus is at once gentle and deeply expressive. Its spell is broken by a short and sonorous transitional passage that ushers in the fast fugal finale, which brings this extraordinary work to a joyful conclusion.

Marin Marais (1656-1728), the most prolific composer of music for the viol (viola da gamba), was one of the two leading virtuoso players in the history of the instrument (The other was Antoine Forqueray). He and Lalande must have been friends since boyhood, for both were at the choir school of St. Germain-l’Auxerrois at the same time, from 1667 to 1672. Marais’s skill as a viol player earned for him a court appointment as joueur de la viole de la chambre in 1675, at the age of nineteen. The position carried with it the rank of “ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du Roi.” He soon became one of the king’s favorite musicians at the chamber music concerts, which were given at Versailles and at other royal residences. He was also favored with the professional patronage of Jean-Baptiste Lully, with whom he studied composition, and to whom he dedicated his first book of viol pieces in 1686. Marais’s instrumental works consists of five volumes of pièces de violes, containing 598 pieces, a volume of pièces en trio, and La Gamma et autres morceaux de simphonie for violin, viol, and harpsichord. He also composed four operas for production by the Académie Royale de Musique: Alcide (1693), Ariadne et Bacchus (1696), Alcione (1706), and Sémélé (1709). The most successful was Alcione, which was revived 1730, 1741, 1757, and 1771.

Alcione is based on the story of the love of Alcione and Céix from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Like all serious operas of the time, it has a Prologue and five Acts. The Prologue is mainly an allegorical introduction in praise of the king, represented here by Apollo, as a peacemaker. Here Apollo is accompanied by nymphs, fauns, naiads, shepherds and shepherdesses, who are all presented in fanciful ballets with interesting music. The story of the opera itself is about the trials and tribulation of the love of Alcione and Céix. Believing that only Apollo could assuage their distress, Céix embarked on the voyage to seek Apollo’s help, which unfortunately encountered the fateful tempest. When Alcione realized that Céix had died from shipwreck, she committed suicide in order to join him in their after-life. Thus is the triumph of immortal love. Such a tale offered the composer ample opportunities to write moving descriptive music for dramatic scenes. The three such movements in these excerpts are: the Prelude to Act III, which introduces the scene of sad farewell, with a ship ready to sail, the Tempest in Act IV, and the Ritornello for Act V, which accompanies the somber scene of a garden by the sea, covered with shadows of the night, where the body of Céix will soon be washed up by the waves. The opera ends with a grand Chaconne of thirty-three variations that glorifies the triumph of the lovers.

Jean-Marie LeClair (1697-1764) was the most important French violin virtuoso/composer of the eighteenth century. His long list of compositions includes 49 violin sonatas, 10 trio sonatas, 12 duets for two violins, and a dozen violin concertos. His works vastly expanded the technical capabilities of violin playing, and raised it to a new level of virtuosity. Born in Lyon, he first arrived in Paris in 1723, when he received the privilège to publish his first book of violin sonatas. At a time when French musicians were fascinated by Italian music and the Italian style of violin playing, LeClair went to Turin to study with the Italian virtuoso Giovanni Battista Somis from 1723 to 1727, returning to Paris in 1728. He was active as a violinist in the Netherlands from about 1738 until his return to Paris in 1743.

Notwithstanding his success as the leading composer of violin music, LeClair decided at age 49 to embark on a career as an opera composer with his opera Scylla et Glaucus. Its first performance by the Académie royale de Musique took place on October 4, 1746. Like Marais’s Alcione, the plot of this opera is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This love story involves the anger and revenge of the sorceress Circe, from whom the sea-god Glaucus sought help to win Scylla’s love, and who herself loved Glaucus. The tragic consequence was the poisoning of Scylla, which caused her to be mad, drowned, and turned into a rock. Scylla’s metamorphosis is prepared by the telling of an analogous story in the Prologue, the story of Venus turning the women of Amathonte into stone statues for denying her divinity. The Ouverture and the first three dances are from the Prologue. The next three are from Act I, the Prelude and Entr’acte from Act II, the Loure from Act III, the two Airs de Démons from Act IV, and the Mouvement de Forlane and Air gay from Act V. The final Simphonie, which accompanies the last tableau depicting the baying of monsters surrounding Scylla and the whirlpools, is to be played as fast as possible.

Although this opera was initially well received and had 18 more performances within the two months following its premiére, it was never revived in Paris. But inexplicably, the second Air de Démons from this opera was heard again twenty-five years later in the 1771 revival of Marais’s Alcione. According to account, it was inserted in the second act following the chorus Fleuves affreux (Frightful rivers), when the stage direction reads: “The stage becomes a vision of Hades. One sees Pluto and Proserpina seated on their throne. On one side are the Rivers of Hades supported by their urns; and on the other, the Fates.” So Marais and LeClair, who probably never met each other during their lifetime, did meet after all, figuratively, through their music.

LeClair died on October 22, 1764. He was found murdered in the garden of his home. Although there were three suspects, the gardener who found his body, his estranged wife, and a nephew/violinist, the police was unable to solve the crime conclusively. Thus his death remained a mystery.

©2006 John Hsu