Most of the composers of the Baroque period first gained fame during their life-time as virtuoso interpreters ; one need only think of Vivaldi the violinist, or Bach, at the keyboards of his organ or harpsichord, enriching the repertoires of their instruments. Though his production was substantially smaller, Michel Blavet, perhaps the most distinguished French flautist of his century, did exemplary justice to the possibilities of the instrument perfected by the Hotteterre family midway through the reign of Louis XIV. Known at the time as the flute allemande (for reasons that remain obscure to this day) the Baroque flute, with its conical bore, comprising three, then four adjustable segments, as well as a key to facilitate attaining D sharp in the power register, pushed aside the recorder in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Musicians and audiences preferred its refinement, its subtle expressiveness, and its potential for modulating volume by breathing. Composers were quick to exploit these attributes – and to conceal the slight inequalities in intensity resulting from the cross-fingering necessary to produce half-tones.
Born in Besancon in March, 1770, Michel Blavet was the son of a skilled wood turner. In his father’s workshop he early on began to manipulate the instrument that later would be his, also becoming familiar with the bassoon. By the age of 21, he would describe himself as a musician. Curiously enough, having never had a teacher, he would play left-handed all his life. But, as the flautist Philippe Allain-Dupre was later to remark, “ this manner of playing is perfectly compatible with the position of the hands on a single-keyed instrument, even though the asymmetrical configuration of the mouthpiece normally favours playing from the right-hand side.” Most probably, Blavet either had instruments made to his particular specifications, or made them himself, as had Hotteterre and Quantz before him.
In 1723, shortly after his marriage, and with the encouragement of the Marquis de Levis, Blavet accompanied the Marquis to Paris, where three years later we find him in the service of the Prince de Carignan. It would not be long before he abandoned this first position ; the prince, deeply indebted, was unable to pay his musicians, who were later taken on by the Fermier General La Poupliniere, Rameau’s protector, where they were to form the core of his private orchestra. From 1731 until his death on October 28, 1766, Blavet held the post of Surintendant de la musique for Louis de Bourbon-Conde, Compte de Clermont. Rapidly, our musician’s reputation transcended existing borders ; while still crown prince of Prussia, the future Frederick ll – himself a talented flautist – on several occasions attempted to secure his services. Blavet declined the offer, to be appointed Ordinaire de la musique de la Chambre du Roi in or about 1736, then, four years later, principal flute at the Opera. He played, as well, in the orchestra of the Theatre des Petits Appartements, the musical activities of which were overseen the Marquise de Pompadour, alongside violinists such as Mondonville and Guillemain, as well as distinguished amateurs ; the Marquis de Sourches and the Comte de Dampierre on the viols, and the Prince de Dombes on bassoon.
Shortly after establishing himself in the capital, in March, 1736, Blavet appeared for the first time at the Concert Spirituel, the series of public concerts open to music-lovers from all walks of life, at which was performed music previously restricted to the Royal Court and to the luxurious private salons of Paris. Few doubt that his performance at the Concert Spirituel lent his career a determining impetus.
Over the years, until 1749, he performed, alongside virtuoso violinists like Guignon, Leclair and Mondonville, the works of French and Italian composers as well as his own compositions, including his one and only flute concerto. Two concordant accounts have also established that, in 1738, he participated in the premier performance of Telemann’s Nouveau Quatuors Parisiens on the occasion of the prolific German’s visit to Paris, In addition to Blavet, Hubert LeBlanc mentions such interpreters as Leclair, Forqueray the Younger on the viol, Camus on ‘cello, with the composer at the harpsichord, while Telemann himself appointed Guignon as violinist and Edouard, cellist. It is entirely reasonable to conclude that more than one musical evening took place. And it would appear that Blavet was a regular performer. A Telemann admirer, he was one of the original subscribers to Tafelmusik published five years previously inHamburg.
Though they were more taken with the interpreter than with the composer, Blavet’s contemporaries were unanimous in their praise of his artistry. The precision and beauty of his technique, the diversity of his expressive range, and his extraordinary dexterity in the rapid passages won unqualified admiration. Serre de Rieux, in his Les Dons des enfants de Latone, published in 1734, wrote that he “resurrected the art and the destiny of the flute from the somnolence to which it had long seemed condemned,” and that his playing was characterized by “a fresh burst of sparkling light.” Hubert LeBlanc, in his Defense de la basse de viole, published in 1740, wrote that “the flute, as played by Blavet, is to be preferred over the violin in its ability to imitate the voice,” which was , for its day, the compliment of compliments ; the human voice remained the absolute standard of musical expressiveness. Daquin de Chateau-Lyon, in his Lettre sur les homes celebres du regne de Louis XV (1752), reports that “by the admission of those who are aware, Monsieur Blavet knows no superior in the execution of sonatas and concertos,” concluding; “ the cleanest tonguing, the finest phrasing, a prodigious vivacity. Equally at home in the tender, the voluptuous and in the most challenging passages : behold, Monsieur Blavet.” We might also add that, in 1742, Boismortier, in dedicating to him the Sonatas of Opus 91, opined that “the ravishing sounds by which he penetrates our very sense are, for these pieces, the finest assurance of a public hearing,” while trusting that they will be received “as proof positive of the friendship they embody.” Last but not least, Quantz, whom he had encountered during a visit toParisin 1726, praised Blavet in his autobiography, declaring him to be the “most admirable” of all the flautists he had yet heard.
Blavet’s output is modest indeed. Apart from four operas, commissioned by his employer in 1752 and 1753 for the stage at the Chateau de Berry – his opera buffa, Le Jaloux Corrige, would be performed at the Opera at the height of the ongoing philosophical and musical controversy known as the “Quelelle des Bouffons” – he left, in addition to a concerto in manuscript form, three books of six sonatas each, the first for two flutes without bass, dedicated to the Prince de Carignan, and two others for flute and bass continuo, published in 1732 and 1740, one dedicated to the Duchesse de Bouillon, then mistress of the Comte de Clermont, the other to the Comte himself. For pedagogical reasons he would also publish, between 1744 and 1751, three Recueil(s) de pieces, petits airs, brunettes, menuets, etc., avec des doubles et variations, accomodes pour les flutes traversiers, violins, pardessus de viole, etc., consisting of arrangements for two instruments, without bass line, of opera arias or harpsichord pieces by several different composers, including Rameau and Handel, whose music was rarely heard in France at the time. The second collection, published in 1732, is entitled : Sonates melees de pieces pour le flute traversiere avec la basse, Blavet no longer belongs to the generation of “les gouts reunis,” which had explicitly set out to meld Italian and French forms and genres in order to “bring music to the point of perfection,” as Couperin put it. Abandoning the ancient suite of dances, the French now unabashedly wrote sonatas in the Italian manner, employing the virtuoso traits common to Vivaldi and Locatelli while adopting the Italian musical terminology that has become so familiar to today’s concert goers.
If we are to believe the numerous accounts of his artistry, Michel Blavet must be ranked among the finest interpreters of his age, irrespective of national origin. For a variety of reasons, from the technology of instrument making to the diffusion of music by means of public concerts, not to mention the possibilities held out by the new musical forms, the eighteenth century was undeniably the crucible of virtuosity, both vocal and instrumental. But the works of this great flautist prove that never was it to the detriment of the music.
Taken from the record liner notes of:
BLAVET, Sonates pour flute et basse continue, Oeuvre ll.
Claire Guimond, flute
with John Toll, harpsichord and Jonathan Manson, viola de gamba.
Available on www.early-music.com
Text by Francois Filiatrault, translated from the french by Fred A. Reed.