When it was first performed in 1675, the French baroque opera Thésée was touted as a "tragedy" in verse, and the poet, Philippe Quinault, was given top billing. Jean-Baptiste Lully's name appeared second: he was credited with having "supported" the words by "ornamenting them musically." For, in the France of Louis XIV, Poetry was the mistress, and Music was her servant.
This dominance of Poetry over Music was the central theme of an important "pedagogical project" that got underway in Paris in late September, when rehearsals began for a revival of Thésée. The project — known as the "European Baroque Academy, 1998" — was the third and most ambitious such venture sponsored by the Festival of Ambronay, France, with American-born William Christie, founder of the Les Arts Florissants, as music director. The aim was to provide these talented young people with the declamatory and rhetorical skills required of the "actors" in a French Baroque opera. After three works of intensive preparation and study, they would set off on a European tour. I had the honor, and the pleasure, to be the "rhetorician" on the preparatory team.
The project began last March, when auditions were held at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama of London, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and the conservatories of Paris and Lyon. Thirty-two soloists — most of them in their early twenties, and none of them professionals — were selected and divided into two casts that would perform on alternate days once the opera went on the road. Working directly from the 1688 Ballard printed edition, they spent the summer memorizing their parts.
On September 26 these 28 soloists — and the 10 instrumentalists (harpsichords, theorbos, viols, a cello and a guitar) who would improvise the continuo from the bass line of the original — assembled in Paris and went to work. It was a veritable tower of Babel, for the soloists' native tongues included French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian, Russian and Japanese! Acutely aware that the European community is composed of many national cultures, each of them unique, the participants proved incredibly resilient and open-minded; and they were determined to learn all they could about the French style as they brought to life an opera that had not been performed for over two centuries.
During the "Presentation" session, the opening day, I laid down three challenges for the participants:
1. They were to think of themselves as "actors," rather than "singers." And they were going to be "acting" in a "tragedy," not an "opera."
2. The sources tell us that Lully was described as an excellent "translator" of Quinault's poetic rhythms, and that he wove that "translation" into the score. So they are going to be taught to read that "translation."
3. The sources tell us that actors who didn't sing often used musical notation to capture their recitation on paper, so melodic was that recitation. We also know that Lully would go to listen to the spoken recitations of one of these actors, "La Champmeslé," then go home and use her spoken melodies and rhythms for his recitative. So they are going to be taught to recognize La Champmeslé's contribution, as preserved in melodic patterns, pitch accents and musical rhythms.
Then I passed out a sheet with 10 basic principles of musical declamation — 5 for Quinault, 5 for La Champmeslé. — that are absolutely essential for learning to read the poetics and the Expression in Thésée. I hoped that I wasn't going to seem too didactic, too rule-bound. Still, this approach had proved very efficient during my coaching of Peabody students a few months earlier for an opera by Rameau. And too, Christie was stressing the utility, for performers, of a "scientific" approach to declamation (see below, Christie's Prima la parola). So, I took the gamble; and as far as I can judge, my "scientific" approach proved to be not only effective for the singers' immediate requirements but instructive for their future needs as professionals specializing in the early-music. (I plan to add these materials to my web pages in the near future.)
For the next five days, Bill Christie listened to the soloists sing their recitative and the instrumentalists improvise an accompaniment. He diagnosed the major problems and gently but firmly shepherded everyone onto the path toward a performance shaped by poetic and rhetorical considerations. He then left for The Hague to rehearse the orchestra, leaving the Paris workshop to his assistant, harpsichordist Emmanuelle Haïm; his linguistic coach, singer Anne Pichard; and me. When Christie returned with the chorus being trained by François Bazola, work with the orchestra would begin, and the dress rehearsal would be only six days away. In other words, we three instructors had four days in which to turn our charges into confident "actors" who knew how to apply the principles of French baroque rhetoric and declamation to their musical recitations. And though we had not worked together before, we carried out the task with no disagreement about approach, aim or how to interpret historical evidence.
Less than half the soloists were native French speakers, so the first step involved making everyone sound more or less French, rhythmically and phonetically. That process had begun on the first day, I began working with the non-francophone soloists. I would recite their lines and they would mimic me, not actually singing, but speaking melodically and rhythmically. The emphasis at this point was on reciting, without music. This can be very frustrating for singers who do not actually speak French and have learned their role largely by rote. Since speech resides in the left hemisphere of the brain, and music/song in the right one, lines that sound quite acceptable when sung tend to sound horribly clumsy and foreign when spoken. But recite they must, and recite they did, for the payoff is enormous. That is to say, a subtle interchange between the two hemispheres takes place; and as the spoken declamation improves, so does the sung declamation. When the singer is at last allowed to sing the lines, the improvement is so palpable that they burst out in a surprised grin.
Since many of these talented young people will doubtlessly go on to shape early-music performance, I taught them general principles (all of them grounded on the 10 principles in my hand-out) that apply to all French music, 1660-1750, not just to their specific role in Thésée. For example, I would show them how Lully's notational rhythms not only correspond to Quinault's poetic ones, but provide musicians with clues to the state of mind /state of emotion that Anne and Emmanuelle would expect them to portray during a given bit of recitative or song. Once their speech rhythms began to sound quite French, I passed them on to Anne, who helped them overcome pronunciation problems, suggested the ornaments most appropriate for specific phrases and taught them the rudiments of the Art of Expression as it was practiced in the song of baroque France.
Concurrently with these coaching sessions, Emmanuelle charmed singers and instrumentalists alike, gently and expressively coaxing them to abandon the rigid rules they had learned in the conservatory. Without their realizing what was happening, she brought them to view the words as their prime concern, and the music as a vehicle for expressing those words. Ten days into the project, everyone was declaiming very well, and the continuo had learned to improvise melodies that flowed rhythmically across barlines, as if the instrumentalists had words to guide them.
As one intensive day followed the next, something very interesting and important began to dawn on me. Notes inégales and rhythmic alteration are not irrelevant to French performance, but they are subservient to song that instrumentalists who are familiar with the way speech rhythms are set to music don't need to think about such issues. For several years I have been arguing just that! And here was the living proof, right before my eyes and ears.
I have been saying that the French instrumental practice called notes inégales imitates the highly predictable speech rhythms of French song. I have been suggesting that, in French music at least, dotted notation does not imply the "overdotting/double-dotting" we are wont to give such passages. Instead, this notation tells musicians that the articulation of the note that follows the dot is longer than usual — indeed, occupies the entire time of the dot. (For, in song, the consonant of the syllable on the note after the dot is "prepared" during the dot by means of a long initial consonant, and the vowel of that syllable sounds with the short note, which is performed more or less as notated.) My heretical assertions caused a bit of a stir among windplayers.
There were, of course, no wind players in the continuo for Thésée; but as I listened to the instrumentalists' attempts to mesh with the singers, my mind kept going to the articles I had written for windplayers. For, as the project moved ahead, I became increasingly aware that neither William Christie, nor Emmanuelle nor Anne talked about notes inégales, "rhythmic alteration" or "overdotting." When singers tried to overdot one syllable and shorten the next, they would be urged to "give me more consonant" on the second syllable. Since the only way to do this without getting hopelessly out of step with the music is to perform the dotted rhythm more or less as written, the singers soon stopped overdotting and began concentrating on consonants instead. The few times that Christie mentioned notes inégales, it was to urge instrumentalists and singers alike to make the notes flow ahead toward a strong beat, rather than group them mechanically, two by two. I occasionally referred to overdotting or strong inequality in coaching sessions, but it was always to urge a singer to forget all those notions about rhythmic alteration that they had learned in school, because it was making them distort the lyrics. Interestingly enough, the soloist who initially had the most trouble with French declamation was English. The recitation problem was not caused by the foreign accent but by the singer's strict observance of an inequality and overdotting that hopelessly deformed Quinault's verse. One begins to understand why French singing treatises rarely allude to notes inégales — and why these discussions are to be found primarily in instrumental handbooks. An "unequal" performance of conjunct quick notes that mirrors the rhythms of French song, is a useful point of departure for a sensitive performance; but it is not an end in itself. That is to say, notes inégales permit an instrumentalist to mimic speech rhythms, albeit mechanically. In sum, song clearly came first, and inequality must be seen as instrumentalists' way of imitating song. The same can be said about explicitly dotted notes. Dotted rhythms show that passion has crept into the music and that consonants should be emphasized, as they are in passionate French speech. To lengthen the note with the dot and shorten the quick note that follows, is to misunderstand the meaning of dotted notation in French baroque song and instrumental music. (Chapter 7 of my forthcoming Harmonic Orator contains what I trust will be useful guides to performing notes inégales and dotted notes.)
The Festival of Ambronay, especially Astrid Nou, who oversaw the project, is to be commended for having made this important pedagogical project possible. Thésée will be the subject of a two-part television documentary entitled Le chemin parcouru (issued by Ideale Audience, it was directed by Thierry P. Benizeau and produced by Pierre-Henri Loÿs). The first hour focuses on the preparations, the second hour will show highlights from the semi-staged performance worked out by Javier López-Piñon. The film will be shown to French audiences (France 3, I believe) in January 1999 and will soon be proposed to National Public Radio-Television. Will NPR decide to inform American viewers about this important pedagogical venture?
Especially to be commended is Alain Brunet, the director of the festival and of the European Baroque Academy. In the program for Thésée, Brunet summarizes the goals of the project in this way:
Académie Baroque Européenne d'Ambronay
"Since its creation in 1993, the Academy has continued to pursue the same objectives of education and instruction, for the benefit of young artists at the end of their training and at the beginning of their professional career. To attain these objectives, each year's Académie produces and presents a work from the baroque repertoire under the direction of a renowed conductor. ...
This year, for the first time, it will bring together 95 young musicians from 7 conservatories and representing 23 nationalities to present the tragedy Thésée by Lully-Quinault conducted by William Christie. This is an ambitious educational program which unites the Ambronay festival with conservatories from five countries — France, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium — and offers these young European artists a unique environment for study and scholarship, covering all aspects of this tragedy by Lully-Quinault: the art of declamation, rhetoric, the relationship between music, text, style....
It is also a project with truly professional aims, a professionalism in training and quality to guarantee the success of a prestigious tour in some of the most renowned theaters in Europe. The Académie therefore actively participates in establishing true links between these, all too often, secluded worlds of educational institutes and theaters....
Also from the program come "a few words from William Christie":
Prima la Parola
This pedagogical project based on Lully's Thésée is a very agreeable opportunity for me to be associated once again with the Académie Baroque Européenne d'Ambronay. after the success of our last project together in 1994.... The present project will involve a very close collaboration between myself and students of a high level, future professionals of different cultural backgrounds and nationalities and will enable us to share a common passion for French music of the baroque era. This experience will culminate in an important tour of many of Europe's finest concert halls. For a conductor it is also an extremely welcome opportunity to work in-depth in exceptional conditions which allow us to spend three intense weeks working just on the music before going on tour.
A project of this nature is of course a means of reflecting on how to teach students something about this music, but it is equally for me a means of enriching my understanding of it through the experience of rediscovery with each individual student: Lully and Quinault's conception a tragédie en musique is a synthesis of classical spoken tragedy, ballet and divertissement. On the one hand there is an infinite richess of texture and style to work on with the orchestra, and on the other hand problems of style and above all declamation with the voices, which makes working on the all important recitatives, for example, so much more interesting and exciting in this type of music. I will be accompanied in this project by, amongst others, my Musical Assistant, Emmanuelle Haïm, and a rhetorician, Patricia Ranum, whose tasks it will be to communicate to the students the value of the technical and stylistic requirements essential to the art of baroque vocal music. My aim is to transform each singer into a musical orator, but this metamorphosis can only be accomplished by in-depth research and an almost "scientific" knowledge of the art of declamation. An understanding of these elements is absolutely essential in this music in which tension and release constantly alternate. The public must be able to hear and understand everything: this is crucial.
I will conclude by translating an article on the project that appeared in Le Monde, October 18-19, 1998:
Lyons: "Venus is Swedish, Ceres is Spanish, Mars is a Parisian. They have been rehearsing the Prologue of Thésée, the latest project of the European Baroque Academy of the Festival of Ambronay. Eighty musicians have been here since October 8, under the baton of William Christie. They were recruited from the graduating classes of four great conservatories, which banded together for the event: The Guildhall School of London, the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and the national conservatories of Paris and Lyons. Twenty-three nationalities are represented in this young and enthusiastic tower of Babel which is learning Lully's and Quinault's language.
Around William Christie is his team from the Arts Florissants: François Bazola is ministering to the chorus; Christie's assistant, Emmanuelle Haïm is supervising the continuo and the singers ... and consoles a weeping soprano. For the work is intense. Concentrating, demanding, Christie provokes his young troop: "It's a collective problem," he tells them. "I could get involved right and left, but I don't want to be in charge of everything. It's up to you to take control of things."
"It is a bit intimidating to work with him, because he is a monstre sacré, but he is also a great pedagog," explains Jean-Christophe Henry, a fourth-year student at the Conservatory of Lyon, whose haute-contre [high tenor] voice makes him ideal for the role of Bacchus and who is majoring in early music. The string player, Lucy Theo, the only Englishwoman in the orchestra, finds that the Academy is "a wonderful opportunity to learn about French music." These devotees of the baroque are complement by others who come to expand their horizons. Franck Lunion, a Parisian, is singing the role of the bass, Arcas: "The focus is on the words. This will help me with other repertories such as Lieder, and with understanding melodies."
The work on the text, directed by Patricia Ranum, the rhetorician, and Ann Pichard, the linguistic assistant, is complemented by the semi-staging of Javier Lopez Pinon, who explains that: "We are trying to highlight contrasts, paradoxes, by acting and by motion." This intention is echoed in Christie's remarks to his musicians: "Make the difference between fort and doux clear. Exaggerate the gestures. This is not intimate music."
Forgotten for two centuries, Thésée was resurrected at Lyon, to which the Festival of Ambronay moved for the evening. It then set off on a tour to seven French and European cities. The Festival budgeted 3 million francs for the project. In 1993 its director, Alain Brunet, decided to combine training with stage performance. Jordi Savall, William Christie, Christophe Coin and Christophe Rousset have each in turn directed one of these academies. "We sometimes ask ourselves whether a pedagogical project should be staged for a paying public," commented Christie. "As far as I am concerned, it is a good thing: it makes the student confront his responsibilities as a future professional."
Three questions for William Christie:
1) Why did you chose Thésée for the
I had studied the work before and knew that it has interesting pedagogical possibilities. It is long (a prologue plus five acts), there are a lot of roles, and there is an orchestra and choirs. It permits students to expand their horizons, especially the students from the North, who know Bach, Purcell and Haendel but do not have much experience with French music.
2) Is the work very different from what you do
with the professionals of your ensemble, Les Arts Florissants?
We are working with tomorrow's professionals. They have made the decision to specialize in repertories that demand a considerable amount of historical knowledge. Many modern instrumentalists have acquired a few notions about baroque performance practices. But despite what some organizers or pedagogs think, those re-tamed and corrected creatures cannot replace specialists.
3) Why are you so devoted to pedagogy?
Because it puts us into contact with budding talent and helps them blossom. At Les Arts Florissants, we have always been pedagogs. We take young musicians, we follow their development, we turn them into soloists. Many of them have become stars. For example, Véronique Gens began with us. I love it! And the spontaneity, the freshness, and sometimes the naiveté of youth is very suited to this music, which was sung and played by very young musicians. I challenged the participants the first day: "We are re-creating a work that has not been performed since 1779. There is no tradition to follow, so we have to find it. I have confidence in you." We have been working with conservatories in this way for about ten years now. And we all come out of these projects with the extraordinary feeling that we have really created something.