Conversations en musique

People making music together, conversing with each other through music, gaining as much pleasure from the act of playing as from the finished product: such was the ideal in a world before the concert hall became the principal venue for chamber music. Paris in the early eighteenth century was one place where this kind of music-making flourished. Alongside the growing number of professional musicians, the true amateur, the devoted lover of music, was an integral part of the city’s vibrant musical life. Much instrumental music was written for the intimate salons of these wealthy amateur players. Composers tried to exploit this new market by emphasizing the social aspect of music-making in the titles of their publications, such as Conversations galantes et amusantes (Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, 1756) or Conversations en Manière de Sonates (Alexandre Villeneuve, 1733). The works presented here are about this fine art of conversation without words, this Conversations en musique, as it was practised in the elegance and intimacy of the eighteenth-century Parisian salon.

Alexandre de Villeneuve (1677-1756) was employed by the Church, first in Arles, then in Paris, and finally at Versailles, where in 1726 he obtained the post of sous-maître de chapelle at the royal chapel. Most of his surviving compositions are vocal, either sacred cantatas or operas; two sets of instrumental Conversations en Manière de Sonates (1733) have also been preserved. The second collection is a set of duos for two treble instruments, and the sparse texture gives these charming suites something of a tête-à-tête intimacy. The conversational ideal is suggested immediately by the title of the opening movement of the First Suite in A minor, L’Entrevue, as it is in titles of other movements in the collection: Les Affligées, La Babillarde, and La Contrariante et contre faisante.

Jean-Baptiste Quentin (fl. 1718-c. 1750) — nicknamed “le Jeune” to distinguish him from Bertin, his older brother — was a violinist in the Paris Opéra and composer of music for the violin. He wrote a number of solo sonatas for the violin, along with chamber works including that instrument, such as the sonatas of Opus 15. Here, the compositional style has been greatly influenced by Italy: even the names of the movements — Allegro, Aria, Presto — speak that language and remind us of how influential Italian music was in eighteenth-century France, especially in the violin repertoire.

Conversation of a different kind is found in the music of Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772). Like Villeneuve, much of Mondonville’s music was written for the stage or choir loft, but he was better known as a virtuoso violinist and composer for that instrument. Mondonville has the distinction of being the first composer to elevate the harpsichord to the role of soloist in concerted music. In his collection of six Pièces de Clavecin en Sonates avec accompagnement de violon (1734), the harpsichord for the first time has the primary melodic role, supported and encouraged by the violin; previous to this, the harpsichord was left to improvise chordal accompaniment in support of the other instruments. By calling these sonatas Pièces de clavecin en sonates, Mondonville was drawing attention to the new relationship between harpsichord and violin, one of equal partnership in the musical discourse. These sonatas were the inspiration for a number of similar collections, including Rameau’s celebrated Pièces de clavecin en concert (1741).

The reputation of gambist Marin Marais (1656-1728) rests firmly on his many compositions for his instrument. He also left a collection of trios, Pièces en trio pour les flûtes, violons, et dessus de viole (1692), which is considered to be the first appearance of the trio genre in France. The music of Corelli, specifically his trio sonatas, was popular in certain circles in Paris, and Marais capitalized on the growing interest in the genre, especially with the musical amateurs who would have purchased this collection. Though this Suite II, in G minor, may have been inspired by the Italian model, it is uncompromisingly French in content with its traditional succession of assorted dances culminating in a set of passacaille variations.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) published his first volume of quartets for flute, violin, viola da gamba (or cello), and continuo in Hamburg (1730), later re-publishing it in Paris (1736) after a pirated edition appeared in 1733. An impressive trio of Parisian virtuosi championed these works: Michel Blavet, flute, Jean-Pierre Guignon, violin, and Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, viola da gamba. Such was the popularity of these quartets that Telemann published another set in 1738, and the two collections together became known as the Paris Quartets. In his 1739 autobiography, Telemann writes: “the marvellous way in which these quartets were played deserves mention here, if indeed words can convey any impression. Suffice to say that the Court and the whole city pricked up their ears most remarkably, and these quartets quickly won for me an almost universal respect.” There can be no doubt that some of the best instrumental music Telemann ever wrote is contained in these quartets. They present inventive and novel textures and contain very idiomatic and virtuosic writing for each instrument. Equally attractive is their wealth of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic interest, and the well-developed interplay between the musical protagonists, true conversations galantes et amusantes. One cannot accuse Telemann of thin textures or uninspired melodies here, as may be the case elsewhere: all is calculated to please the performer, the listener, and — in this case — the composer.

© Kelly Rice