La belle homicide

French Harpsichord Music of the 17th Century

In most European countries, the first major works for harpsichord appeared in the 16th century. Oddly enough, however, in France—aside from a book “for the playing of organ, spinet and clavichord” published by Pierre Attaignant in 1529—it was not until the second half of the 17th century that music written specifically for the harpsichord began to emerge. Several important manuscripts dating from around 1650 contain, among other composers, the entire oeuvre of Louis Couperin (1626-1672), none of which was published during his lifetime. But the first publication of works for harpsichord in France appeared in 1670: a book for harpsichord by Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1602-1672).

The lack of pre-1650 harpsichord sources is regrettable, and several studies have tried to explain this “black hole.” Probably the most widespread hypothesis is that the harpsichord languished in the shadow of the lute’s great popularity. Yet documents from this period show that, on the contrary, the harpsichord and the lute were both very widely used by professionals and amateurs alike. The harpsichord should have attracted just as much repertoire as the lute.

On one hand, it is clear that the harpsichord played an indispensable role in French musical life because from about 1540, there are numerous references to joueurs d’épinettes, or spinet players, occupying important musical posts at court and in princely houses. During the 16th century, for example, there were Jean Dugué, “king’s spinet”; Michel Nollu, spinet player for Jeanne d’Albret; Jacques Gérofe, spinet player for Catherine de Bourbon; Nicolas de la Grotte, spinet player and organist at the court of Navarre; not to mention the important musical dynasties of Chabanceau de la Barre and Champion. In addition, there were necessarily a number of instrument makers active during this period. This important role played by harpsichordists on the French musical stage would remain constant until the Revolution.

On the other hand, there is also evidence for the harpsichord’s popularity in musical treatises of the period. The instrument is regularly compared with the lute or the organ. These instruments’ harmonic qualities allow them to sound multiple notes simultaneously, which meant they could both function independently for solo repertoire or take on the role of harmonic support in ensembles. The lute and harpsichord also generate sound in the same way, with plucked strings. In a treatise on musical instruments dating from about 1640, Pierre Trichet describes the spinet as an instrument that is “very frequent and common at this time, both in France and elsewhere.” Trichet compares the spinet with the lute, outlining the advantages of each: “One could say of the spinet that while it lacks the lute’s convenience of being very easy to move here and there, it does have the advantage of remaining longer in tune and of staying so without having to touch it for a month or more; whereas one must tune the lute at every moment; it is thus with good reason that it is so prized by so many, who give it a place of honour among their houses’ most prestigious pieces of furniture, ornamenting it with exquisite paintings and superbly detailed work.” Trichet even adds, to the spinet’s glory, that “not only do all the nations of Europe employ and cherish it, but even peoples foreign and far from our climate, such as the Chinese, use it to celebrate their feasts with more solemnity […].”

In the chapter on musical instruments of his 1636 treatise Harmonie Universelle, Marin Mersenne describes the spinet as follows: “The Spinet holds first or second place among Instruments that are harmonious, which is to say that express several tones together, and that sing several parts and make various consonances; I say first or second place because if one considers it carefully, judging the dignity of Musical Instruments in the same way one would judge the quality of voices, it would no doubt be preferred over its competitor, the Lute; but the convenience, gracefulness, and softness of the Lute have given it the advantage.”

Music publication in France

The lack of printed sources for harpsichord can be explained primarily by the despotic power wielded by the Parisian publishing house Ballard, which, until the second half of the 17th century, took advantage of its privileges to eliminate all competition. Music was thus published at the whim of editors skilled at games of influence and favouritism.

In the 1643 book L’entretien des musiciens (A Conversation with Musicians), the musician Annibal Gantez states: “ […] it is shameful that in France today, there are only one or two printers & that [France] is less favourable for musicians than Spain, Italy & Flanders, which have almost as many printers as cities, & that because of this, the works of the best composers of France go for nothing, whereas if there were many [printers], we would all be envious of each other to see who would be the best.”

It was not until 1703—after 152 years in the music printing business—that Ballard finally published a book of harpsichord music. It would appear that the company had purchased the characters needed to print harpsichord tablatures in the 1550s but that they had never been used. When Ballard published Harmonie Universelle in 1636–37, Mersenne lamented that the characters needed to publish an example of harpsichord music were unavailable. So what happened to the set purchased by Ballard and his associate, Le Roy? Had it been previously sold or lost? Or was it simply ignored by Pierre Ballard, who ran the company from 1602 to 1639? One way or another, it would seem that Ballard’s goals as a music publisher did not include printing harpsichord tablatures.

Around the 1660s, Ballard’s grip on music publishing began to loosen; musicians were becoming frustrated and competition could no longer be stamped out. And although true multiplicity in French music printing was not seen until the 18th century, the beginnings of a trend toward more diversity could be seen. This trend was made possible by the advent, in 1660, of engraving, a new printing technique that fell outside the rights held by Ballard and that allowed musicians to self-publish their works and get around Ballard’s monopoly. Of course, to make an engraving required the kind of financial resources that could only be supplied by the good graces of wealthy nobles. In fact, the entire library of published 17th-century French harpsichord music—a grand total of six books that appeared between 1670 and 1689—are the result of such engravings.

Notation and transcriptions

Modern musical editions employ a conventional and uniform system of notation. This system’s many advantages for today’s musicians make it easy to forget the diverse methods of notation used in the 16th and 17th centuries. For instance, there was a wide variety of tablatures—notation systems adapted for specific instruments—including tablatures for the viol, spinet, organ, and lute. The lute tablature is an excellent example of instrument-specific notation. It consists of a six-line staff in which each line corresponds to a string on the instrument; letters placed on the lines indicate where the fingers should go on the lute’s neck. Lute tablature is an exception in that it has survived the move to uniformity found in modern editions, which often preserve the idiomatic lute tablatures in addition to providing a transcription in modern notation. Because modern notation is so uniform, the lute tablature has acquired a somewhat “savant” character—something decipherable only by specialists. Ironically, it is quite likely that the various tablatures were originally designed for amateur musicians, whose musical skills and knowledge were limited; professionals and accomplished amateurs would have had to easily read all sorts of notations. Today’s popular music frequently uses a simplified notation comparable to the various tablatures shown by Mersenne in Harmonie Universelle.

In the 16th century, most instrumental repertoire consisted in transcriptions into tablature of polyphonic vocal works, a practice that continued into the 17th century. In this way, repertoire travelled a great deal from instrument to instrument, especially since harmonic instruments such as the harp, harpsichord, organ, and lute could easily play all types of music. In Harmonie Universelle, Mersenne is very explicit about the sharing of repertoire between instruments and about how all sorts of music could be transcribed into tablature. In the preface, he states: “I have shed enough light in each of the treatises to make as many tablatures as one wishes.” Farther on, writing about the harp repertoire, he explains that “pieces played on the harp are no different than those played on the lute or the Spinet, which is why one may simply repeat here all of those I stated above.” Regarding the lute, he adds: “ Thus, because one can play all the semi-tones (on the lute) […] as on the organ and on the spinet […] there is no piece that cannot be played on the lute.” Finally, for the organ and the spinet, he writes: “I give here the four-part piece that I had mentioned so that one may see something of what the spinet can do when played by masters; it can be similarly played on the harp, […] and because the organ keyboard is no different from that of the harpsichord, there is no doubt organists can play it.”

From lute to harpsichord

Throughout the 17th century, a great deal of French music for lute found its way into over forty foreign manuscripts for keyboard. These transcriptions have never became part of the French harpsichord repertoire, primarily because the composers are not recognized as French harpsichordists and because these works do not appear in French manuscripts before the end of the 17th century. However, it is certainly very plausible that the body of French works found in foreign harpsichord manuscripts is a reflection of the repertoire played by 17th-century French harpsichordists. The main argument to support this hypothesis is that French harpsichordists were able to play lute music on the harpsichord directly from the lute tablature, whereas foreigners would have had to transcribe them into a notation that was familiar to them. The significance for the French harpsichord repertoire of this broad dissemination of lute music is that it opens the road to discovery of a musical heritage that, until recently, has been knowingly neglected.

The works chosen for this recording are from various sources from the second half of the 17th century: foreign harpsichord manuscripts, French lute sources (manuscripts and published works), and French harpsichord sources (manuscripts and published works). The idea of taking pieces by different composers and grouping them by key was inspired by the way pieces are frequently presented in both French and foreign manuscripts. For example, the last section of the German manuscript Ottobeuren contains forty-six French pieces for harpsichord organized into eleven suites that, for the most part, have descriptive titles. The four composers identified (several pieces are anonymous) are all French lutenists (Gautier, Pinel, Dufaut, and Lambert). Another example is the English manuscript Babell, in which the pieces, most of which are French, were originally works for viol and lute, airs de cour (courtly songs), arias, and orchestral reductions.

It is interesting to note that just as lute tablature was becoming obsolete toward the end of the 17th century, several French sources for harpsichord appear containing pieces by lutenists. Just like the foreign manuscripts, the D’Anglebert opus (manuscript and printed) contains transcriptions of airs de cour, pieces for lute, operatic excerpts by Lully, and, of course, his own works. D’Anglebert even experimented with a system of notation using letters, much like lute tablature, for several of his harpsichord pieces. In his preface, in reference to these works he says: “I include several airs by Monsieur Lully. […] As they can be played to advantage on the harpsichord, I believed it fitting to offer here several with varying characters. I have added several Vaudeviles, […] these little tunes have an extraordinary finesse and a noble simplicity that is sure to please everyone.”

Certain very popular pieces such as La Belle Homicide appear in over twenty-five known sources, whether in manuscript or published form, for lute, harpsichord, and even for trio.

In addition, with a view to preserving lute music, the “Sieur” Perrine strongly encouraged lutenists to read and use “ordinary” notation. In 1680, he published a book of thirty-two pieces by the lutenists Ennemon and Denis Gaultier with the title Pièces de luth en musique avec des règles pour les toucher parfaitement sur le luth et sur le clavecin (Lute pieces with rules for playing them perfectly on the lute and harpsichord). It is interesting to note that he intends the pieces to be for both lute and

Perhaps it was because of Perrine’s influence that in the advertisement for his Pièces de luth composées sur différents modes…, Jacques Gallot mentions that for “those who wish to play these pieces in concert on other instruments, parts written in ordinary notation are available.” Unfortunately, these parts have been lost.

It is unnecessary to demonstrate here the similarities between lute music and harpsichord music—a number of studies have done so very convincingly. What remains enigmatic, however, is a definition of French harpsichord music. We look for a specific repertoire, and yet until the end of the 17th century, it was quite usual for instruments to play improvisations, popular tunes and even entire repertoires written for other instruments. Certainly lutenists had an influence on harpsichordists, but the reverse is also true; and all were influenced by courtly songs and ballets. If spinet players such as Jean Dugué, Pierre de la Barre, Nicolas de la Grotte, and Thomas Campion had had the opportunity to publish their works, we would undoubtedly be able to consider the history of the French harpsichord school from another perspective and furthermore, to observe that the French harpsichord school probably had its own tradition that existed alongside of, rather than subsequent to, that of the lute.

Johanne Couture, 2003 English translation by Traçantes,
service de traduction de la Société québécoise de recherche en musique.

Louis XIII, put to bed, falls asleep to the sound of the spinet played by the sieur de La Chapelle. Jean Herouard, Journal sur l’enfance et la jeuness de Louis XIII (1601-1628), Paris, 1868.