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The Age of Indulgence

Among the most famous images from the French Rococo, Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing perfectly captures the spirit of this in-between era. Set in a lush, overgrown, private garden, a beautiful young woman is pushed in a swing by an older clergyman while her lover hides in the bushes in the foreground, getting an excellent view up her gorgeous, pink, ruffled skirts. She kicks off her delicate shoe, delighting in the pleasure of a shared secret.

Such playful, highly-ornamented scenes privileging informality, frivolity, pleasure, and gallantry were a mirror on to the lives of the French aristocracy. With enormous wealth at their disposal and wielding significant political power, French aristocrats could pursue leisure as an occupation or lose themselves in romantic intrigues. They could decorate extravagant houses following the latest trends in art, architecture, and interior design, or establish their reputations as patrons of the arts. In fact, only a very small percentage of the population in France controlled 90% of the wealth, and the 1750s saw multiple attempts at tax reform (such that the wealthy would not be exempted from the taxes levied against the poor) ultimately defeated. (Is this sounding familiar?)

By mid-century, murmurs of the coming Revolution could already be heard in the writing of the philosphes—Voltaire, Rousseau, and others. Besides arguing in favor of free thought and social reform, enlightenment thinkers decried the degenerate excesses, erotic subtexts, and superficiality of Rococo aesthetics, calling instead for art that was heroic and virtuous, ordered yet refined.

The music you hear tonight makes no apologies for its origins. Despite its genesis in an age of indulgence, it is so much more than merely pleasing or even titillating; I hope you’ll also hear its daring, experimental side—that which locates it on the eve of an aesthetic revolution. These works from the 1740s and 1750s do not conform to our expectations about Baroque music, but they are not quite Classical either. Rather, they mix the humor and wit of early Haydn and Gluck, a little of C. P. E. Bach’s sturm und drang, and characteristically lush French harmonies together to create a truly unique sound. The result is a fusion of Baroque gestures and classical forms that combine with harmonic and technical virtuosity to yield expressive extremes.

The two quartets we perform tonight from François André Philidor’s l’Art de la Modulation (1755) achieve their sense of surprise and play through fast and unexpected harmonic modulations using the melodic and harmonic language of the nascent Classical period. François-André was the youngest member of the Philidor dynasty of musicians and wind players who worked at the French court from the 1660s onward. His fame, ultimately, rested more on his accomplishments as the first professional chess player than as a composer (Philidor’s treatise on chess has seen at least 100 editions in at least ten languages since its initial publication in 1749). Philidor’s music was the product of the same incredible intellect and imagination that could simultaneously play (and win) three games of chess blindfolded during exhibition games late in his career. In the 1750s and 60s, he earned a reputation as the leading comic-opera composer in France. His successor, André Grétry, perfectly described the fusion of concentration and creativity in his eulogy for Philidor: “How easily the vigorous intellect of this justly famous and sorely missed artist could grasp difficult combinations is well known. He would arrange a succession of sounds with the same facility that he followed a game of chess. None could vanquish him at this game of combinations; no musician will ever put more power and clarity into his compositions than Philidor put into his.”

It’s quite a shame that L’Art de la modulation was Philidor’s only published collection of instrumental music. Philidor’s Sinfonia 6 begins with a somewhat disconcerting adagio that repeatedly establishes the home key of D Major only to obfuscate it with meandering chromatic sighs. The allegro that follows is a true conversation galant that pits strings in sunny major tonality against the oboe who repeatedly responds in minor. This conversational quality and constant shifts in character lend this movement an operatic quality; one can practically imagine the climax of a comic opera in which pairs of would-be lovers sing simultaneously of their hopes, dreams, frustrations, and inevitable misunderstandings. Just as lovers are reunited and order established at the close of an opera, the final minuetto (so seemingly galant, simple, and charming) hints at a pleasure-filled pastoral bliss, only to be knocked off kilter by strange, unexpected chords and unprepared dissonances.

The opening quartet of Philidor’s collection, Sinfonia 1, uses similar harmonic and textural techniques to establish a sense of fun, exploration, and surprise. The opening section finds the oboe and violin playing in thirds, while pungent chromatic inflections and plangent melodic intervals abound. The fugue that follows is again rife with chromatic inflections and interruptions, as well as disquieting melodic augmented seconds. The Pastorella allows for some relief and peace; full of sonorous drones in G Major, it’s part-siciliano, part-musette, but, as usual, there’s trouble in paradise as wistful departures and chromatic shocks arrest the listener. The spirited Gavotta pops and crackles with excitement as it closes the work.

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin en concert (1741) take Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville’s 1734 edition as their inspiration. Set for obbligato harpsichord with violin and viola da gamba (or optional second violin or flute), the harpsichord part demands a unique virtuosity and flair that’s supported and enriched by the bowed strings. Rameau’s 3eme Concert betrays a particular debt not only to his personal patron, Alexandre Jean Joseph Le Riche de La Pouplinière, but also to Rameau’s own operatic output. The opening movement is either a direct tribute to La Pouplinière or a dedication to his wife, who was an accomplished keyboardist and student of Rameau. The wonderful rondeau theme of La Timide is borrowed from a charming air gracieux that had recently been heard in Rameau’s opera Dardanus (1739), while the visceral, fun Tambourins were heard first in Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (1737).

Though hardly a household name today, Mondonville was a violin virtuoso, conductor, and composer who stood on par with Rameau. The ensemble Sonata (suite, really) that we perform tonight derives from his 1734 collection of keyboard sonatas with violin accompaniment (a precursor to Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecin en concert). Mondonville later arranged these works for strings, oboe, and continuo for use by the orchestra of the Concert Spirituel. Following the mercurial ouverture, a graceful air en rondeau complete with droning figures in the second violin. The concluding gigha (gigue) is relatively simple harmonically but it gains excitement and vigor from rhythmic drive, undulating textures, and a display of virtuosity that must hint at Mondonville’s own prodigious technique.

Like Rameau, harpsichordist Jacques Duphly never successfully adapted to the new Viennese classical style that came into vogue in Paris in the 1760s and 70s. Instead, he continued the tradition of the great clavecinistes, composing character pieces and rondeaux such as Les Graces, which is infused with complex harmonic language and dripping with ornaments. Known for his especially light and sensitive touch, Duphly’s oeuvre owes a great debt to Rameau’s keyboard works.

We close our program with selections from Antoine Dauvergne’s 2eme Concert de Simphonies (1751). Dauvergne may have studied composition with Rameau in the 1730s, and began an appointment as a violinist in the Chambre du roi by 1739. He succeeded Jean-Féry Rebel as composer for the King’s Chamber Music in 1755, and took over direction of the Concert Spirituel following Mondonville’s tenure there. Our suite opens with a sparkling ouverture followed by an intimate, expressive pair of minuets. A rollicking, witty rondo is capped off by an extended, sublime chaconne.