Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Performing Music of the Grand Siècle

Eastside Road, April 25, 2018—
Performing Music of the Grand Siècle

Douglas Leedy

Continuing an occasional upload here of miscellaneous writings, mostly on musical subjects, by my friend the late Douglas Leedy, I post here a short review he wrote of a book on the performance of French Baroque music.
—Charles Shere
Performers devoted to Baroque music usually find the most difficult style to capturer is the French. With more and more first-rate recorded performances of early music available, it becomes easier to study different musical accents, including the French, by ear. One of the real revelations of musical style, and a very recent one, has come through excellent new recordings of large works by Lully and Charpentier, the two most important composers of the grand siècle or “great age,” the reign (1661-1715) of Louis XIV, an era that was graced also with music by d’Anglebert, Corbetta, Chamonnières, Louis and François Couperin, Visée and Marais, among others. the musical style of this period, important enough in itself, has special significance because of its influence on music outside France from Purcell to Bach and beyond into the classical style.

A remarkable new book that providers almost everything you need to know about the elusive, elegant grand siècle style is Betty Bang Mather’s Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque, modestly subtitled “A Handbook for Performance” (Indiana University Press, 1987; $37.50). The title of the book is a bit misleading; it is more for singers and instrumentalists than for dancers. But by presenting grand siècle music from the point of view of the dance (which was inseparable, in France, at least, from almost all secular music of the era), while at the same time making the connection to verse rhythm and poetic rhetoric, Mrs. Mather gives us important and truly indispensable insights into the music. As she says in her preface, “Our chief goal is to help modern performers give life and soul to French Baroque dance music through understanding why French dancing masters, librettists, composers, dancers, singers,, and instrumentalists created and articulated music as they did.”

Beginning with a lucid discussion of those two great opposites, Reason and the Passions, which grand siècle musical rhetoric unites, Mrs. Mather devotes chapters in turn to the subject of guitar strumming patterns, poetic rhythm, rhetorical proportions (what we would call “form”), tempo and meter, text pronunciation, and bowing and articulation on different instruments. Dance steps (and the progression of larger dance units, similar to the musical phrase or period) are carefully described and explained, beginning with the simpler Renaissance steps that led to the dance types of the grand siècle. Mrs. Mather is a specialist in Baroque woodwinds, and her mastery of the French style is evident in her sure-handed synthesis of its components.

It is as difficult to describe a dance-step in words as to describe how to play a musical instrument. The author does an admirable job, including also a brief instruction on interpreting the visually elegant 18th-century dance notations of Feuillet. Most musicians with a burning desire to try the steps — and the physical movements of the dance convey an unexpected wealth of insights and clues for musical performance! — will want an expert to show them the basics.

There may be as few frustrations for users of this book: Some of the author’s explanations fall short, some of the terminology confusing or cumbersome (“arsic-thetic,” for example), the subject of “affect” seems slighted, and some important terms (e.g., “break,” “petite reprise,” “mensural proportion”) are not defined clearly and are not to be found in the index. A glossary of terms would be very helpful.

Yet it would be hard to name a single volume with so much information on this subject: One of its useful features is that it summarizes recent research in a number of related areas, for example, on the controversy over the rhythmic interpretation of ornaments. The last third of the book takes up in detail 15 dance types from allemande, through folies and menuet, to saraband, giving for each one the tempo, dance steps, typical guitar rhythms and bowing patterns among other information. To get the most out of this part of the book, the previous chapters, cumulative in effect, need to pretty well understood. The reader especially can’t afford to skim over the presentation of the rhythmic patterns derived from Greek poetic meter. Those were considered by musicians of the time to be the rhythmic basis of dance music; for us today they provide some surprisingly valuable information for performers — it can make a difference, for example, in triple meter whether the figure dotted quarter-eighth-quarter* is interpreted as a “divided trochee” or as a “ternary dactyl.”

The book abounds in musical illustrations, both instrumental and vocal, and at its close Mrs. Mather appends six complete “dance songs,” mostly by Lully, which in effect summarize her study. This is an essential — and enjoyable — book for any performer or devotee of Baroque music.

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