Throughout the history of Western music, there is a tendency to alternate between periods during which each nation or major ethnic group had its own musical style and periods were one international style held sway over the whole continent. The Renaissance (ca. 1450–1600) and the Classical (ca. 1730– 1830) were times when composers from all Western European regions were working in the same, international style; but the Baroque period (ca. 1600–1760) was a musical era marked by distinct national styles: the Italian, the French, the German, and (for the first part of the period, before the local style was completely swamped by the advent of Handel) the English. Of these four, the Italian and the French were the most widely known and influential. Musicians all over the continent were familiar with the Italian style because that, after all, was were the Baroque style originated.
The French attitude towards the Italian-born Baroque style was ambivalent, all the way through the period until it waned and was supplanted by the Classic style. French musicians and music-lovers were deeply impressed by the musical and expressive power of the Italian Baroque, and they wished to emulate that power; but at the same time they were very conscious of being French and of the need to create a music that was distinctly French but matching the Italian in expressivity. Many Italian artists and musicians visited and worked in France, particularly during the regency of Anne of Austria (widow of Louis XIII, before her son Louis XIV came of age) and her favorite, Cardinal Mazarin—who was Italian by birth (Mazarini). When Louis XIV did assume the government of France, choosing Jean-Baptiste Lully to be his chief musician, there was a strong reaction against Italian influence in music and the arts, and Lully achieved a lasting place in the history of music by creating a style of opera and of musical declamation of text that was peculiarly French and especially suited to the French language.
Lully’s position of pre-eminence was a musical reflection of his master’s policy of concentrating all power in France in his own hands (remembering that during the reigns of his grandfather Henry IV and his predecessors, France’s existence as a nation was almost ended by a series of disastrous civil wars). Lully had the authority to stifle the careers of any composers whom he might view as rivals, and did not hesitate to use this authority. Chief among those rivals was Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Charpentier was also mostly interested in composing opera, and had in fact spent a part of education in Rome as a student of Carissimi. Upon returning to Paris, however, Charpentier found that opportunities for producing operatic work was blocked by Lully, and he that the only venues for his output not under Lully’s control were the Church—for whom he wrote numerous oratorios, masses, and dramatic motets—and the salon. The Sonata for Eight Instruments was likely composed around 1685 for an entertainment at the Paris residence of the Duchess of Guise for which he also composed the chamber-opera Les Arts Florissant. In spite of the fact that Charpentier used an Italian designation “sonata” for this work, it is not at all in the form of a sonata, but rather a French dance-suite in every respect.
One excuse that was often used to justify thwarting Charpentier’s ambitions was that he was too much influenced by Italian music, on account of his Roman training. This is especially ironical, in view of the fact that Lully was Italian by birth, having been baptized as Giovanni Battista Lulli, and only arrived in France as a young man—but then made himself over to be more French than the French.
Marin Marais was, unlike Charpentier, in every respect a French musician. At a time when Italian musicians had completely jettisoned the viola da gamba in favor of the violin family, he was a virtuoso performer on the gamba, and one of the select group of chamber-musicians who regularly played for Louis XIV and his family at Versailles. As a composer is best known for his five books of suites for viola da gamba with basso continuo. The only other chamber-music which he published was a set of six suites for two treble instruments (the title page suggests either flutes or violins) and bass. They appeared in 1692, a decade when many French composers were fascinated by the new Italian trio sonatas, in particular those by Corelli. One way they responded to this new genre was to adopt the texture—two treble melodic parts with basso continuo—but adapt it to the suite of dances: this is the course which Marais took. Other composers, like François Couperin, actually worked in the Italianate sonata form. But Couperin was so wary, even in the 1690’s, of being branded an Italophile that he published them only under a pseudonym and did not acknowledge them as his own work until 30 years later.
By the 1720’s, French musicians no longer felt compelled to conceal there interest in Italian music. Jean-Marie Le Clair built his career as a virtuoso performer on an “Italian” instrument, the violin; in fact, the one musician to whom he was generally compared was an Italian, Pietro Locatelli. His best- known compositions are his very Italianate sonatas for violin and basso continuo, which he openly published under his own name. The two “Récréations de musique,” on the other hand, are very much French in style, not only in being dance-suites, but also in the manner of writing for the violin and flute. What does mark them, however, is a very distinctly personal sense of harmony, using many unexpected progressions. Of course, the one story about Le Clair that is indispensable for all program notes is that he died by another’s hand: he was going home from an evening of billiards and was attacked and killed outside his own door. It is thought that the assailant was hired to kill him, probably either by his wife who was not overly fond of him, or by his nephew who felt that Uncle Jean-Marie was not doing enough to promote the nephew’s career as a violinist. The case remains unsolved and open in the files of the Paris police.
©2007 Daniel Pyle