During the first half of the 18th century, chamber music blossomed in France. Nearly all French composers, from great geniuses to obscure provincial masters, wrote innumerable collections of suites, sonatas and various other pieces for popular instruments of the day: the violin, flute, viola da gamba, harpsichord and rustic instruments like the musette and the hurdy-gurdy. The pieces were often written for prosperous bourgeois clients, many of whom were amateur musicians.
Though uneven in quality, this vast musical output shows a variety of musical instrumentation which would be impossible to find in Italian and German works of this era. There are suites and sonatas with basso continuo, duets without bass, trio sonatas and suites, sonatas with two basses, quartets, keyboard pieces “which may be played with the accompaniment” of the flute or the violin, all testifying to the great creative liberty enjoyed by French musicians of the day. Dance suites and character pieces continued to be the dominant forms, of course, but Italian influence had begun to assert itself in a certain taste for virtuosity and in the French adaptations of the sonata and the concerto. Combining all these elements, composers attempted, as André Campra wrote, “to meld the delicacy of French music with the vivacity of Italian music.” Sometimes this music tested the virtuosity of the most accomplished musicians, sometimes it suited the more modest talents of the amateur.
At the same time, instruments were being used increasingly for their intrinsic qualities and became less interchangeable. Among these instruments we find the transverse or German flute. Transformed by the Hotteterres, a family of musicians and instrument-makers, it had evolved into one of the most popular instruments of the 18th century. In parallel with the flute, although by another route, the harpsichord, which had long since acquired its own solo repertoire, established itself as an essential component of chamber music, gradually abandoning its supporting role as basso continuo and taking up perilous obbligato passages.
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, whose compositions consist almost exclusively of chamber music, is certainly one of the musicians who best represents the spirit of the time. Born in Thionville, Lorraine on December 23, 1689, he spent his youth in Metz, then moved to Perpignan before taking up permanent residence in Paris around 1723. Nothing is known of his formal training, but we do know that early on he mastered both the violin and the flute, and that the latter remained his instrument of choice.
In Paris, his output and his reputation were such that he never needed to seek out the protection of the mighty. In fact, he held no official positions. This places him in a very exclusive group of 18th-century musicians who were able to live, and live well, as freelancers. After a prosaic-enough existence devoted to music and to his family, Boismortier died on October 28, 1755, at his estate at Roissy-en-Brie.
In addition to some cantatas, cantatilles and motets, Boismortier wrote for instruments in all possible combinations, as illustrated by the pieces for two viols, or the sonatas for two bassoons, for three or five flutes without bass or pour une flûte et un violon par accords sans basse (for a flute and a violin playing chords without bass). Among his contemporaries, there were suggestions that his music was excessively facile: the Abbé Raynal described him as “more abundant than learned” and, in 1750, D’Aquin de Château-Lyon affirmed that “his reputation would have been unalloyed had he possessed the discretion to publish but a portion of his works.” Still, in 1780, almost 30 years after his death, and in an age when musical tastes were as fickle as the shifting breeze, Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, in his Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne, writes of Boismortier: “Even though [his works] be long forgotten, whoever might undertake the task of exploring this abandoned mine might well find enough flecks of gold to produce an ingot.”
Boismortier probably published the six sonatas for flute and harpsichord of Opus 91 around 1742 (title pages of the day often bore no date of publication). He added a gushing dedication to the virtuoso flautist Michel Blavet, declared by the composer to be a “faithful friend.” Fraught as they are with technical difficulties, these sonatas are not intended for mere amateurs. The harpsichord parts demand true technical mastery, being replete with staccato notes, rapid scales and arpeggios, and frequent hand-crossings. They point to the possible influence of Scarlatti, some of whose works were published in Paris around 1740, in a book of Pièces choisies. The flute is not to be outdone, using its full range of slightly more than two octaves. Its part is full of scales and cascading arpeggios, repeated notes and long trills.
With the exception of the first sonata, which has four movements, the sonatas all follow the Vivaldian fast-slow-fast format. But, in terms of formal structure, the Italian influence stops there. Several movements are unmistakably French rondeaux, and several others conceal dances, such as the gigues which conclude the second, third and fifth sonatas, or the gavottes of the first and sixth. These dances, although indicated Gayement or Gracieusement, bring these sonatas closer to the older suite form.
The new element in this collection is the balance Boismortier establishes between the two instruments, which emerge here as inseparable partners. The Opus 91 sonatas are neither like Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concerts, nor are they flute sonatas with harpsichord accompaniment. Moreover, prefiguring what will become the Classical sonata, flute and harpsichord contrast or blend the idiomatic traits and phrase-turns of each, not merely sharing, as in Bach, three polyphonic voices indifferent to their specific qualities. We cannot be sure that Boismortier was the first to write this type of sonata — Telemann, at the same time, was composing “concertos” for flute and harpsichord without orchestra —, but Boismortier’s Opus 91 connects him much more to the latter generation of Bach’s sons than to his contemporaries, the elder Bach and Rameau.
Some may well observe that these sonatas offer the ear little more than lightness and gallantry, but they do so elegantly and ingeniously, without pretense or affectation.
© François Filiatrault
[In terms of] the personalization of the two instruments, their blending, the equality of interest between the two, Boismortier [in the sonatas of Opus 91] was perhaps the first to achieve the balance which later became the rule in the sonata for piano and a monodic instrument, violin, flute, oboe, etc. Once more, in this collection, we find the inventive spirit of a musician whom the passing of time allows us to appreciate more equitably than was the case during the long period of purgatory in which he expiated the success acquired perhaps too easily during his lifetime. —Marc Pincherle, Preface to the edition of Boismortier’s Opus 91, 1970.