“The early seventeenth-century lute repertoire of Ennemond and Denis Gautier and their contemporaries was characterized by a vaporous, improvisatory style filled with ornaments, arpeggios, and unexpected melodic and harmonic turns. It influenced the harpsichord music of Chambonnières, Louis Couperin, and Jean-Henry D’Anglebert, a repertoire eagerly embraced by salon society. Much of this music, both vocal and instrumental, had an effect of discontinuity and timelessness, undermining any clear sense of tonal direction or rhythmic drive. Its aesthetic suited the salon, which valued sensuousness and pleasure for their own sake. Its indirect discursive mode was suitable to the passing of time without pressing goals or need for forceful or pointed rhetoric…”
– Georgia Cowart, The Triumph of Pleasure: Louis XIV and the Politics of Spectacle, p. 136 (University of Chicago Press, 2008)
Pieces for a Private Place
This is indeed private music — music that was born and performed in the Précieuses salons of 17th-century Paris, the intimate bed chambers of the royal family, and the modest homes of the composers themselves and their middle-class friends and colleagues. Along with the viola da gamba and the solo vocal air (air de cour and later air sérieux), the lute (and harpsichord repertoire) represent a musical style whose intensity of expression, introspection and emotional nuance was unrivaled in its own time and worthy of performance and renown in our own.
Since discovering this repertoire while an undergraduate harpsichord and musicology major at the New England Conservatory (B.M., 2007), I have yet to find more entrancing music. In fact, I feel that the lute and harpsichord music of 17th-century France is the music that most perfectly reveals the harpsichord’s true nature, allowing its full beauty and expressive capabilities to be heard. Indeed, under the spell of this music, the harpsichord can become a fountain of endless colors that you can never seem to plumb the depths of fully.
Understanding the Aesthetic of 17th-century French Lute Music
“Since the lute sound was gentle, and the notes faded out as soon as they were played, lutenists created a style that eschewed the rules of strict counterpoint in a quest for a richer texture, inspired by the Italian seonda practica.”
“The quality of baroque lute music was not determined by the ingenuity of its counterpoint as much as by the way a composer used harmony to create an effect, an atmosphere, an unforgettable and sensuous instant of beauty [italics mine]. Thus in order to prolong the resonance and make the harmonies more interesting, chords were apreggiated, the tenor and alto voices were ‘broken,’ the rhythms offset. A new style was born in which melodic lines could be ambiguous and phrases asymmetrical, and where lines could move freely amongst the various registers. This style was in flagrant contradiction with the tradional rules of composition.”
-Benjamin Narvey, History of the Baroque Lute in Method for the Baroque Lute by Miguel Yisrael, pp. 7-8.
With Pieces for a Private Place, I am establishing a systematic, organized and “branded” way to explore the mysteries of this sublime music in performance, on recording and in writing.