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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

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Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


John Hajdu Heyer, on the Lure and Legacy of Music at Versailles

John H. Heyer, The Lure and Legacy of Music at Versailles: Louis XIV and the Aix School (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2014), pp. 275.

Often noted but never accounted for, is the fact that the Western Europeans stopped both their civil and foreign wars in the years just around 1660. In southern France the cessation of rebellions occurred beneath the unforgiving eye of a young king, Louis XIV, whose impatience and enjoyment of allowing force to appear beneath the symbolic, changed the course of French history over the next 129 years. He did not march into Marseille at the head of splendid, well-disciplined troops; he purposely ordered that a large breach be made in the city wall, through which he and his army marched as conquerors.

With their factions, their petty fussing over jurisdictions and their complaints about not being paid, the parlementaires of Aix wanted nothing but to forget the immediate stormy past and celebrate the young king's glory. Louis freshened their memories and effectively humiliated them by barely taking notice of them. Provence had a new young master as skilled at dancing as he was at shooting, and as hungry for praise and transcendental heroic music as any sovereign in Europe. The Provençaux pulled out all the stops to praise him, and he responded graciously to the loudest fanfares and to the devotional, royalist intensity of solemn masses sung in his honor by choirboys and additional singers in all the cathedrals of the province, irrespective of whether he himself was present.

It is in this frequently somewhat bombastic Baroque political climate that John Hajdu Heyer (henceforth "JHH") turns to describing the quiet routines of the cathedral maîtrises, especially the one at St. Sauveur in Aix. Every knowable fact, beginning with the names of the choirboys and their teachers, is presented in loving detail. Thanks to the archives of the cathedral chapter, and those of the Aixois notaries, JHH brings to life the religious musical culture of the most prestigious musique in Provence, as it was lived during a golden age of French music, the classical age.

Particular attention is given to the complex relations between what was going on in Versailles and Paris, and in Aix -- center and periphery. Here is a perfect example of a major cultural feature (pace Norbert Elias) --- music, particularly religious music --- where exchange rather than emanationist diffusion occurred. The Aix chapter bought music by Delalande; and Aix-born Campra became maître at Notre Dame de Paris before moving on to Versailles, major exchanges, not diffusion.

JHH finds Guillaume Poitevin, the son of an Arlesian merchant family, to be a remarkably inspiring teacher-maître for decades (off and on) at St. Sauveur in Aix. Inventories indicate that he also composed, but as of now only a few fragments of his music have been found. Poitevin trained several generations of singers and future maîtres who were to occupy important maîtrises all over the South and as far north as Besançon (Blanchard) and Paris (Campra).

The chapter accounts reveal a sophisticated, regularized administration based on contracts and supervision. There were extra payments for instrument players performing at special ceremonies such as Te Deums ordered by the king. A balance between plainsong, motets, and motets à grand choeur echoed up to the vaults, and the quality of the singing was constantly supervised. If a choirboy became ill, his parents were informed; if parents seemed to be lacking, the chapter played him elsewhere and paid his room and board. Some joined the choir as early as the age of seven. When older boys could no longer sing, they often became serviteurs, a privilege that permitted them to stay on, performing a variety of duties. The serviteurs wore black, as contrasted with the red robes of the choirboys.

Over the course of his career, Poitevin taught Campra, Gilles, Cabassole, Estienne, Belissen, Salomon, Pelegrin and Blanchard -- all of whom became professionals in sacred music, and most of them maîtres at major churches in the South. JHH rightly draws on the research of other scholars, and a lot of his own, to bring together what can be known about a major moment in musical culture, far from Paris and Versailles.

Punishment for licentious conduct, or even a whiff of it, was swift. No matter how good a musician or maître might be, or how indispensable he was to the choir, the chapter seems to have punished him, even if it meant losing him temporarily. Yet maîtres often took leaves of absence and moved around, perhaps in search of a better position, perhaps for personal reasons. Poitevin's absence for several years remains mysterious. One cannot help but think of Ménétra, the late eighteenth-century glazier, who worked his way from town to town. Maîtres knew one another, knew about one another; so it might have been relatively easy to find temporary room and board. Travel stopped, of course, during the plague of 1720. JHH's pages on this horrible scourge contribute to our general knowledge of local responses to curb the disease.

Readers will want to know about how Campra fits into all of this before he went to Paris. A local boy, son of a surgeon who played the violin, Campra not only had a fine voice but also benefited from relatives who helped all the way to his appointment as maître at Notre Dame in Paris! Certainly there was great merit as composer, singer-player and teacher; but there was also indispensable support by influential persons. JHH has worked hard to find patronage links, but in general they elude him. Campra's dedication of his first book of motets (1695) firms up speculation: the dedicatee was a certain La Grange-Trianon, conseiller clerc in the Parlement, and canon in the chapter of Notre Dame. Clearly, La Grange-Trianon had clout! He facilitated Campra's selection by his fellow canons, who very probably had local candidates for the maîtrise at Notre Dame.

In his Les Magistrats du parlement de Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1960), François Bluche characterizes Charles de La Grange-Trianon as born into a slowly upward-mobile, high-bourgeois Parisian family that became noble in 1588. He had ties to many top robe families, some of which had members in the Parlement, and undoubtedly in the chapter of Notre Dame as well. From Bluche's "L'Origine des magistrats," Paris et Ile-de-France, Mémoires (Paris 1956), vols 5-6, p. 226, we learn that Charles entered the Parlement in 1682 at the age of twenty-nine and that he was dean of the conseillers clercs when he died in 1733. JHH has worked conscientiously to reconstruct the careers of almost a dozen of the professional musicians graduating from the St. Sauveur maîtrise. The most prestigious master of religious music in France was, of course, the surintendant de la musique du roi (he was also sous-maître de la musique et compositeur de la chapelle as well as maître de musique et compositeur de la chambre: Michel-Richard Delalande, whom the king himself protected.

JHH reviews the assessments regarding the composition of religious music in late seventeenth-century France and finds that the composers of the Aix school were not only more melodic, but more daringly so, than their northern counterparts.

The parties, factions and plots favoring this or another composer would intensify in the next century. Not unique to music (Jean Racine wrote no plays for years, as a result of a claque in 1677), the increasing tendency to view all cultural production as an expression of power at court damaged, rather than inspired, musical composition. One thinks of those hundreds of musicians (and would-be composers) in Versailles and Paris, playing away to oblivion. Others managed to get some of their works published, thereby escaping oblivion; but even the printed works of Boismortier, Dandrieu, Daquin, Fourqueray, Guillemain, Caix d'Hervelois, Leclair, Mondonville, Mouret, Danican-Philidor, Rebel, and Royer did not long survive the harsh and leveling obsessions of the court and/or public (the principal exceptions are a provincial who did not take up residence in Paris until he was thirty-nine, and a foreigner, Rameau and Gluck!). The story is nearly the same for lyric poetry. William Weber has shown how stable the canon of musical works became. Thanks to the Early Music movement, some of these composers' works will be played again. And who, in a secular, even atheist world, could anticipate the taste for long-forgotten sacred music? When they read this shocking assessment, many lovers of one or another composer or poet will angrily disagree, but.... The critical writings of Diderot and Caylus about painting had no real equivalent in music. The querelle des buffons did not inspire (except for Rousseau) a new or revived great musical moment. JHH cites Leopold Mozart's quite harsh remarks about musical performance in the royal chapel.

I write the above in order to raise a general issue about culture (the army might be included), as offices and ranks increased in number. In Aix, the maître de musique received help from a sous-maître whose duties were more menial (pp. 61 and 93). At Versailles, posts for musicians multiplied to the point that many in leadership positions were on duty for only three months a year. Royal secretaries of state likewise worked part time, often for only a month at a time, and four months a year. What was the result? The more duties were subdivided, the more chicanery and disputes. Who was responsible for what? Highly intelligent and well-trained by years of experience, royal servants up and down the hierarchy of royal services, from chapel to stable, wrote ever more precise instructions about the duties for each level of the hierarchy of services. An increase in arguments and work-stoppages was the usual result. Quarrels over the powers of appointment became vicious in the eighteenth century.

JHH sums up the reorganization of the royal music in 1761: they were prompted by an attempt to economize. Of course, that would be the stated reason; but what actually happened might have been a scourge of demotions for some, and promotions for others. Power plays in the guise of reforms were almost second nature to the Ancien Régime. JHH is surprised that Cardinal Fleury might have appointed someone without consulting the king. Such an appointment should not come as a surprise, because Fleury had enormous patronage powers and consulting the king about most appointments in sacred music would have been unnecessary. The obsession with being appointed "premier" this or that (think of Lully), with a monopoly to enjoy and defend, poisoned relations among and between different professions. Chapel masters in the provinces may have had to put up with fewer of these constraints; on the other hand, the pressures of the Catholic Reformation upon devout canons to avoid playing or composing secular music remained stronger in the provinces. Gossip about licentiousness and operas seems to have been believed by the devout in Aix, just as it was in Rome at roughly the same time.

JHH traces, to the extent the sources permit, the "graduates" of the boys' choir at St. Sauveur of Aix. Jean Gilles, the brilliant composer of the Messe des morts that still moves the coldest hearts, spent most of his short life as maître of St. Etienne in Toulouse. That he worked briefly elsewhere in the vicinity of Toulouse, suggests that he may not have been entirely satisfied with the post in Toulouse. The more general point is the extent to which the musical culture and working conditions in the South were sufficient to hold native musicians, should a call come from Paris or Versailles. Not every talented person wanted to leave family, friends and sunshine! This became apparent in the 1960s-1970s, when university faculties in Paris extended invitations to provincial professors, and the latter declined.

There is so much in this very interesting and learned book that is beyond my competence to summarize or comment upon; so I must stop writing and, with some regret, conclude. The dust jacket shows a large well-reproduced equestrian portrait of Louis by Mignard, with a conquered city (Maastricht?) in the background. The back of the jacket shows a small detail of Aixois choirboys in procession, ca. 1760. The Sun King seduces editors still, alas; but a full-color reproduction of the painting of the procession in which the choirboys are participating would really have complemented the book.