The Culture and Reception 17th-century French Lute Music


The Précieuses of 17th-century Paris were, “enclaves of society women who sought to transfer the appurtenances of an elegant and noble life from the court to the Parisian society” (*Georgia Cowart and Peter Bennet, Music under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, 1610-1715 , p .80). The most famous of these salons were those of Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet (1588-1658), and Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701).

The Précieuses salon culture was characterized by, “A fascination with the ‘the little things,’ including flirtatious games and conversation, and with utopian dreams of societies based on salon ideals, emerged as an alternative to the neoclassical ideals of tragic heroism and the arts of the absolutist state. The study of emotional nuance likewise became an ideal allowing salon women an introspective understanding of the self, independent of the patriarchal domain of state and family” (*Cowart, Musical Aesthetics of the Siècle des Lumières, p. 357). An integral part of this salon culture was the performance of instrumental chamber and vocal music, with virtually all of the lute and harpsichord composers of 17th-century Paris spending a great deal of time attending and performing in these salons. We know, for example, that lutenist Denis Gautier (1603-1672) performed frequently in the salon of Ninon de l’Enclos (1620-1705); harpsichordist Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1600/01-1672) performed in the salon of the Duchess of Orléans (1644-1670); and harpsichordist Louis Couperin (c. 1626-1661) even  paid homage to the Précieuses with an allemande in c-minor entitled,  “La Précieuse.”

That these composers were so deeply linked with the salons of the Précieuses is clear, not only given their documented, professional participation in them, but also by the fact that the qualities of introspection, emotional nuance and a focus on ‘the little things,’ are all hall marks of these composers’ musical language and style.

The Reception of Seventeenth-century French Lute Music

Although it would become a genre of great distinction and French cultural pride, French lute music during the first half of the seventeenth-century was actually the stuff of significant controversy.

In the preface of his 1637 book, L’Harmonie Universelle, French philosopher, theologian, mathematician and music theorist Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) writes the following:

It is surely a strange thing that, of a thousand players of the lute and other instruments, one does not meet ten who take pleasure in singing sacred songs; they prefer to play a hundred courantes, sarabandes, or allemandes than one spiritual song, so that they seem to have devoted all their labours to vanity, which they pour into their heart by the ears as if by so many funnels. I must admit that I am of the opinion of the best political writers in thinking that this sort of music, which softens and enervates bravery, and dulls the wits of the young, should be banished from states, along with other things which corrupt morals, which could easily be achieved if magistrates set up prizes and honest rewards for those who practiced only Dorian music….

It’s not only Mersenne’s disdain for seventeenth-century French lute music that is surprising, but that this disdain contradicts himself in the very same work, where he praises transcribing the beauty and richness of lute music for other instruments. It’s also the particularity of his disdain though that’s striking – the specifics he gives for his and others’ contempt  are revelatory for understanding this repertoire’s early reception, culture and aesthetic.

From Mersenne’s commentary, we learn that French lute music was indeed very popular among lute players – much more so than sacred or Dorian music (by use of the term “other instruments”, we can safely infer that the harpsichord would have been included since, in 1637, the harpsichord was the only other instrument that had an established culture of composers and performers composing and performing dance music.)

We learn that this music was regarded by Mersenne as well as contemporary political writers as having not only a weakening  effect on its listeners, ( “….softens and enervates bravery, and dulls the wits of the young”), but also a corrupting effect (“…should be banished from states, along with other things which corrupt morals”).

And finally, we learn that, from Mersenne’s and his cohort’s view, playing this music put the emphasis on the performer and their abilities (“…they seem to have devoted all their labours to vanity, which they pour into their heart by the ears as if by so many funnels.”). That’s unlike playing sacred music which, presumably, was supposed to be self effacing and focused on the act of worship.

In just this one, relatively short statement, it is clear that lute music of seventeenth-century France was an extremely popular musical genre, wielding tremendous emotional power over both those who played it and heard it; over those who loved it and those, like Mersenne and other conservatives, who hated it and clearly felt threatened by it.

*References are made to essays contained in The Cambridge Companion to French Music (Ed. Simon Trezise, Cambridge University Press, 2014).