Michel Corrette – Composer for the common man.
It is indeed much easier to describe what is not humour, than what it is.
John Addison, The Spectator, April 10, 1711
For centuries music and humor have been associated in diverse ways. If one were to judge by their offspring, this odd couple has, on more than occasion, been a happy one. Unlike the derision that has crept into the musical expression of our century – take the work of a Gerald Hoffnung or a Peter Schickele, for example – the target of Michel Corrette’s verve is not music itself. Less to provoke peals of laughter than to elicit a smile, he takes delight in borrowing from popular tunes, songs, musical theatre ditties and noels, adapting, harmonising, and stringing them together in workmanlike fashion in his innumerable “comic concertos” and symphonies for various combinations of instruments. Corrette’s devotion to the popular idiom places him in the worthy company of several other composers of note who, like Liszt or Bartok, drew much of their inspiration from the folklore of their native lands.
Michel Corrette was born in Rouen on April 10, 1707. His father, Gaspard, organist at the church of St. Herbland and composer of a remarkable Messe du VIIIe ton” published in 1703, gave the lad his first musical training before handing him over to François d’Agincourt, who had held for a time the organist’s position at Versailles. Through d’Agincourt’s efforts, the young Corrette was appointed organist at St. Madeleine’s in Paris. He settled in the capital in 1725, and in January 1733 was married at St. Germain l’Auxerrois. Over the next 50 years, he presided over a notable succession of organ lofts, moving from the employ of the Grand Prieur de France, whose apartments were located at the Temple, to the Jesuits, in the Rue St. Antoine, and then on to the Prince of Conti, The Prince of Condé, and the Duke of Angoulême. So substantial had his reputation become that in 1734 he was dubbed Grand Maître of the Knights of Pivois, and in 1750, Knight of the Ordre du Christ, honorific titles which would have carried some considerable distinction in his day.
But Corrette’s activity as a composer far outstripped his career as an organist. He wrote works in all the vocal and instrumental genres of the times: cantatas, cantatilles, ballets, motets, leçons deTénèbres, pieces and noels for the organ, pieces and sonatas for the harpsichord, concertos and symphonies. He was the first in France to compose concertos for wind instruments – this was before 1730 – and for organ, modelled on those of Handel. His career spanned almost the entire century, and his last composition, dated July 1792, was “Symphonie à grand orchestre” on the revolutionary air Ah! Ça ira. But his enormous output and his long life – he died in Paris on January 22, 1795, at age 87 – combined with the shift in taste that took place near mid-century, prompted the musicologist Boisgelou to pen a less than flattering assessment: “Corrette was a prolific composer, but his work died before he did.” Corrette was something of a pedagogue as well.
Between 1738 and 1784, he published 15 methods designed to instruct amateurs in the rudiments of virtually all the common instruments: violin, pardessus de viol, cello, harpsichord, guitar, mandolin, flute, bassoon, viola, harp, bass viol, hurdy-gurdy and recorder, not forgetting the voice. Quoting in his prefaces theoretical authorities as diverse as Aristoxenes, Zarlino and Marsenne, and musicians like Rameau, Handel and Leclair, he displays a formidable musical culture. In each of his methods he “the instrument is described, its particularities explained; Corrette demonstrates a concern for clarity in stating his propositions and a well-schooled sense of progression in his approach to the difficulties of each,” writes musicologist Yves Jaffres. But humor is never too far from our earnest pedagogue’s pen. In one of his prefaces, he cautions the student who might be tempted by laziness: “Those who find these lessons too difficult may simply wager the page number in the Royal Lottery until they have mastered the lesson; in this way, they will be double winners.” His friend, the violinist Pierre Gaviniès described his numerous pupils as “ anchorites”, a play on words for “ânes à Corrette (Corrette’s asses)”.
His activity as a music publisher was equally significant. Corrette published and sold his own works, thos of his compatriots, not to mention those of foreign musicians less well known in France, such as Domenico Zipoli, Domenico Scarlatti and Joachim Quantz. Together with Gaviniès, Corrette launched, in 1765, a lawsuit, for what today would be termed unfair competition, against Messers Peters and Miroglio, who had opened a musical subscription bureau from which amateur players could rent scores. Parliament rejected his suit, but Corrette’s arguments mad him one of the first to have fought for the notion, still nebulous at the time, of copyright. Despite the reversal, which prompted him to declare that “the art of music is on its death bed, and unless a helping hand appears, all is lost!” his many and varied activities brought our composer a certain affluence; he owned several houses, and invested in business in Canada – to which we almost certainly owe the Marche du Huron and Noël américain – which insured him a considerable income. But Michel Corrette’s name is associated first and foremost with his 25 Comic Concertos, composed on popular themes. They were entitled “comic”, claims Pierre Larderet, “because [Corrette] gives the lead role, instrumentally speaking, to characters from the stage”. The first were published in 1733 under the title: Six Concertos comiques pour 3 flûtes, hautbois ou violins, avec la basse, oeuvre 8, ouvrage très amusant et récréatif. The others would be published as they were composed, up until 1760. They were conducted by the composer during the intermission – a kind of musical comedy, in fact – at performances of the Opéra-comique in the open-air theatres at the St. Laurent and St. Germain fairs.
The first of these, entitled Le Mirliton, draws its inspiration from the sing-song doggerel of L’enchanteur Mirliton in 1725. The second Concerto, L’allure, was performed in October 1732, and the seventh, La Servante au bon tabac, precisely one year later, while the Concerto turc, the fifteenth, was performed at the Comédie italienne in January, 1742, before his excellency Zaïd Effendi, ambassador of the Sublime Porte. Corrette makes use of well-known songs and popular tunes, such as J’ai du bon tabac or V’là c’que c’est qu’d’aller au bois. Even the satiric or openly risqué allusions of certain vaudevilles, such a La béquille du père Barnabas, La tantourelourette or Le plaisir des dames, becom grist for his prolific mill. His 25th Comic Concerto, entitled Les Sauvages and perhaps the most striking of all his works, used in its first movement the melody – no one knows whether it was originally written by Campra or Rameau – to which two North American aborigines from Lousiana danced at the St. Germain fair in 1725, then , the tune “Quand on sait aimer et plaire” from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Le Devin de villages, and finally, one of the era’s most popular songs, La Fürstemberg. Each movement presents a theme with short variations, often with rhythmic shifts; the instrumentation is at the discretion of the musicians.
From the seventeenth century onward, French organists drew upon the noels sung by the common folk as the raw material for suites of variations, often of a virtuoso nature, almost certainly because of their particular flavour. Meanwhile, the common folk invented new words for these all-purpose melodies, known as “timbres”. At one remove from popular ditties, noels were “profane, very profane airs, dance tunes, drinking songs, and New Year’s pieces, and not choral works for the church”, to use Michel Brenet’s description. Corrette would write, in addition to his pieces for the organ, a large number of symphonies and concertos on “ the best-loved French and foreign noels” in exactly the same spirit that suffuses his Comic Concertos.
Few would contend that Corrette ranks high among the great names of French music. In terms of style, he maintained up until the end of the century the old compositional forms of the Baroque,, but his inspiration is pleasing to the ear, ingenious, and often tender. From another perspective, however, his contribution as a pedagogue and a publisher did much to democratize the practice of music, while his Comic Concertos became part and parcel of the rehabilitation of popular culture that became on of the leitmotifs of the Enlightenment. They can be seen as the musical equivalent of the articles and engravings of the Encyclopédie, which describe, with infinite care, the merest technical details of the most humble trades. Their humor flows from the contrast between the origins of the musical theme and its “learned” treatment. Some might well see Corrette’s work as a precursor of music therapy. After all, did he not consider his Comic Concertos “of comfort to the melancholy”?
© François Filiatrault, 1997-99 Translated by Fred A Reed