Text of the booklet "J.B. de Boismortier. SONATAS FOR HARPSICORD AND FLUTE"
A Lifelong Sonata or Adventures of a Catalonian in Paris
As we know, in the eighteenth century France was the arbiter of fashion for many different aspects of European life. Almost everything that originated in Paris spread across neighbouring countries with the speed of light – the latest outfits, ideas, way of life, amusements, philosophical theories, dances, catchwords and even the bizarre affectation of rolling your ‘R’s in conversation. Thus an habitué of Paris salons seemed extraordinarily appealing as a man of culture who could be affable, brilliantly witty, something of a philosopher and a libertine, too, but undoubtedly a gallant gentleman.
The final touch in the image of this irresistible favourite of high society was his devotion to music for the flute: since every dandy was expected to understand flute music it had a ready audience, even if many were unable to play the instrument. The exceptionally elegant and delicate sound of the flute was a sy-nonym for the agreeable evenings with an intimate circle of friends that had featured in Parisian life since the flowering of rococo style, and the chamber music-making that accompanied it. This was the instrument of choice in the musical pursuits of inveterate music lovers, social lions and even monarchs: Frederick the Great of Prussia liked to play the flute, just as his grandfather Frederick I had played to harpsichord accompaniment by his spouse. This fashion for the flute was reflected in li-terature of the early 19th century – in Sheridan’s ‘The School for Scandal’, Griboyedov’s ‘Woe from Wit’ and Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’.
From the late 17th century there was an upsurge in interest in France for the transverse flute, still referred to as the ‘German flute’ (probably this type of flute first appeared in Asia and came to German territories before gaining popularity in Europe as a whole). In 1677 the German flute was first included in an opera orchestra for Lully’s musical tragedy ‘Isis’, and by the early 18th century it was already predominant both at court and at the Académie Royale de Musique. The composer Michel de la Barre, who published his ‘Pièces pour la Flûte Traversière’ in 1702, recalls in his ‘Mémoires’ that Rebillé Philbert and René-Pignon Descoteaux, celebrated flautists of the previous century, were among the first to play the instrument in Paris. Both were court chamber musicians and therefore the flute was presumably included in concerts at the royal apartments of Louis XIV. Evidence is provided by the ‘Mémoires’ of Sourches and Luynes from 1710, which describe an evening in Versailles hosted by the Duchess of Bourgogne: ‘The King, returning from Trianon, paid her a visit and there he chanced upon a very fine symphony composed of Descoteaux on the German flute, de Vizé on the theorbo, de Buterne on the harpsichord and de Fourcroy on the bass viol. The King stayed quite a while.’ Music of this kind must have been popular, since we encounter the same ensemble in descriptions of the Duke of Bourgogne’s residence at Saint-Moreil in 1701, three years later in Madame de Maintenon’s apartments at the Château de Sceaux, at the marriage of the Duke d’Albret (1696), at the home of the Princesse de Conti (1703) and in many other locations.
Due to its powerful, expressive tone and refinements in construction of the instrument by the Hotteterre family (one of them, Jacques Martin Hotteterre, devised his own model of the German flute that is still copied today), the transverse flute gra-dually replaced its predecessor and alternative, the recorder. The German flute also became a serious competitor of the violin: composers proposed two modes of performance for a large number of works, so they could be performed either on the violin or transverse flute.
The German flute soon became involved in eternal rivalry between the French and Italian schools. As we already know, the pioneers of Italian music in France were the sonata and concerto genres introduced in the late 17th century by musicians who had studied in Italy: Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Montéclair or the above-mentioned Hotteterre. By the 1720s the country was seized by veritable sonata fever, and old-fashioned Fontenelle with his naïve plea ‘Sonata, what do you want of me?’ clearly remained in a tiny minority. The haut monde vied with each other to flaunt their knowledge of Corelli’s fifth opus, and listening to Italian instrumental music after supper became the accepted practice. Curiously, this universal enthusiasm for Corelli replaced the public’s snobbish devotion to Vivaldi, who had become ‘le dernier cri’ for respectable Frenchmen after their first acquaintance with the brilliant Venetian’s ‘L’Estro Armonico’ in 1715. In the early 1720s François Couperin wrote his immortal ‘Les Apothéoses de Lully et de Corelli’, and ‘Les goûts réunis’ put an end to the age-old rivalry between French and Italian music.
By the time Joseph Bodin de Boismortier appeared on the Parisian musical scene on 29 February 1724, quite a number of solo and trio sonatas had been written by French composers. On the road from Perpignan to Paris he found himself in the thick of musical events, at the citadel for admirers of Italian music – the Château de Sceaux (here the famous musical fêtes entitled ‘Les Nuits de Sceaux’ were revived at this period by the Duchesse du Maine, featuring such well-known names as Nicolas Bernier, Jean-Joseph Mouret and Charles-Hubert Gervais). The novice composer quickly understood the significance of the proceedings and actively participated in the Parisian music lovers’ pursuit of new sonatas. Sonatas tumbled from his quill like fruit from a cornucopia. With disarming sincerity and irresistible charm he declared to his patrons on delivering yet another ma-nuscript: ‘This is the best I could do – I don’t know myself how it could be improved’. Soon there was lively criticism of Bois-mortier (he preferred to compose popular music and had no compunction about writing for groups of amateur music-makers), but the composer honestly met all such rebukes with the phrase: ‘I’m just earning money’. Clearly Boismortier achieved his goal – towards the end of his life the composer’s estate was valued at 50 thousand écus. The fact that he was accorded a royal privilege (a licence, in modern parlance) to publish his own compositions was an important factor here. Boismortier’s musical editions (each score prefaced by one of his many poems) sold well, which further enraged envious critics.
In the French capital Boismortier’s career went from strength to strength, especially if we remember that his previous occupations had nothing in common with music. The composer’s life story is reminiscent of a sonata in three movements, akin to his last ‘geographical’ opus – the opera-ballet entitled ‘Les quatre parties du monde’. The three chapters of the composer’s biography are delineated by the borders of three French principalities: Lorraine, French Catalonia and Paris. Obviously he inherited the adventurous disposition of the elder Bodins, brave warriors of old. At some time in his travels the future composer’s father acquired the nickname ‘Boismortier’, to which his son added the noble prefix ‘de’. Several generations of the family dynasty achieved fame under this new surname. Those who have gone down in history include the artist Pierre-Etienne Bodin de Boismortier and the composer’s unmarried daughter Suzanne Bodin de Boismortier, who wrote two fairly well-known novels: ‘Mémoires historiques de la Comtesse de Mariemberg’ (1751), and ‘Histoire de Jacques Feru et de la valeureuse demoiselle Agathe Mignard, écrite par un ami d’iceux’ (1766).
Joseph Bodin was born in the town of Thionville, Lorraine, and while still a young man moved to Perpignan, following his music teacher Joseph Valette de Montigny, whose patron the Vicomte d’Andrezel (future ambassador of the French king in Constantinople) also favoured Boismortier. He could well have become a confectioner like his father, but the young adventurer cheated fate and found employment as tobacco purchaser for the Roussillon military units billeted in Perpignan.
Boismortier immediately fell in love with Catalonia. In all likelihood he later started the fashion for Catalonian exotica in Paris (since Catalonia was a separate territory from both France and Spain, its culture was a novelty in both countries). We may presume that in his once-famous motet ‘Fugit nox’ (the music has now been lost) which for two decades was regularly performed before Christmas at the Parisian ‘Concerts spirituels’, the composer used melodies from Catalonian carols and thus attracted public attention to his work. Boismortier was probably influenced by nostalgia for the beauties of Catalonia when he wrote several works for a duo of musette (a small, refined bagpipe) and hurdy-gurdy.
After his arrival in Paris Boismortier abandoned his career as performer (although we know he had studied violin and flute playing) and concentrated on composing music, publishing his work and conducting. As a result he was appointed singing teacher at the Opéra (as the Académie Royale de Musique was called in the 1740s), and then leader of the orchestra at market theatres, first Saint-Laurent and then Saint-Germain. His opera-ballet ‘Les voyages de l’amour’ (1736), featuring the famous dancer La Camargo, was worthy of comparison with productions of Rameau’s operas. Moreover, Boismortier’s compositions were frequently played at the ‘Concerts spirituels’ in Paris.
Boismortier knew how to enjoy life – he flirted with the ladies, made friends with aristocrats, appeared at prestigious salons in exquisite gilded finery and captivated his companions with biting witticisms (for this he was dubbed the heir of Paul Scarron, the 17th-century dramatist and poet with a great talent for comedy).
The transverse flute remained one of Boismortier’s favourite musical instruments. His first self-publications were the four books of sonatas for two transverse flutes without bass (1724). The author wrote in his preface: ‘Since a dozen sonatas for two transverse flutes of my own composition were published nearly a year ago in Paris, copied by hand, and since the copyists made therein many dire mistakes, I have resolved to independently present the same sonatas to the public, with the addition of a further dozen works, assigning them to four books in such a way that each contains three of the original pieces and three new pieces. If the public receives them favourably I shall publish a continuation thereof.’ This continuation followed immediately. A humorous verse on the subject was circulated among Boismortier’s contemporaries:
A happy fellow is Boismortier, whose prolific quill
Painlessly, each month, conceives a book at will.
Even during its heyday the German flute continued to develop apace, and many performers experimented with possible refinements. Michel de la Barre states in the preface to his collection ‘Deuxième Livre de Pièces pour la flûte traversière’ (1710): ‘There are two or three notes that I believe no one knows, and I cannot say how these notes should be performed in writing. But if those eager to learn would take the trouble to pass by my home… it would give me great pleasure to show them how, with no obligation from them’.
Likewise, Boismortier endlessly experimented with the flute: he was keen to combine the tones of the flute with other musical timbres and ensemble combinations. His legacy includes compositions for two, three and even five flutes and flute solos with bass continuo. His beloved ‘pastoral’ ensemble consists of a transverse flute with musette, hurdy-gurdy, recorder and oboe. Surprisingly enough, prior to Boismortier, or more precisely, before he wrote the Six Sonatas Op.91 in 1741, no French composer thought of combining the transverse flute with a harpsichord, although both instruments were the height of fashion in France and, as the German traveller Nemeitz wrote, ‘the French play these instruments with unparalleled delicatesse’.
By the time the Six Flute Sonatas were written Boismortier had already established his typical sonata structure, which was previously balanced between the three-movement sonata da camera and the four-movement da chiesa (forms of the Italian sonata for secular and church music). The balance was finally tipped towards the former: the structure found in Opus 91 consists of the movements Gayement – Gracieusement – Gayement (approximately corresponding to the Italian Allegro – Grazioso – Allegro). This late work by the composer is an obvious response to the style of ‘easy and light music’ that was in such great demand among his contemporaries: ‘Melodies like butterflies’, he joked. But this style in no way excluded the complexities of both instrumental parts. The harpsichord part is particularly notable in this respect – not only does it hold its own against the flute in terms of virtuosity and refinement, at times it dominates the flute.
Tatyana Koltakova, translation by Patricia Donegan
Text of the booklet "J.B. de Boismortier. SONATAS FOR HARPSICORD AND FLUTE"