Cantates Francoises Vol. 1
The 18th-Century French Cantata By the beginning of the 18th century, a vocal genre born in Italy had taken Paris by storm-the cantata. The popularity of the cantata in France, according to 18th-century musician and theorist Sébastien de Brossard, was due to the fact that "the French, being naturally impatient, have difficulty concentrating on the same thing for an extended period of time. Cantatas are ordinarily just long enough to entertain without becoming dull." The diversity of the cantata's form, with it's contrasting recitatives and airs, ensured that ennui was not possible. This recording features three cantatas that represent the full range of subject matter for the genre. Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre's Jephté is a sacred cantata, based on a biblical story, while Louis-Nicolas Clérambault's L'Amour et Bacchus is a secular work based on Classical figures. The occasional cantata is here represented by Clérambault's Le Triomphe de la Paix, a work written in celebration of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The foremost composer of sacred cantatas was Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. The texts for her twelve sacred cantatas were provided by Antoine Houdar de La Motte, a poet renowned for his dramatic output (including texts for a number of operas). Of Jephté, the Journal des sçavans remarked in 1711 that "everything interests in this cantata. The most vivid passions there give rise to extremely useful instruction." Inspired by the story from Judges where Jephthah foolishly swears to sacrifice to the Lord the first thing to come out of his house upon returning from battle, La Motte's poetry vividly depicts the rupture in the father's soul when his only daughter rushes to greet him. Though her father must kill her, the daughter willingly submits. Unusually for a sacred cantata, Jacquet de La Guerre chose to write for two sopranos-a choice that is not required by the text. Her music further heightens the expression of La Motte's poetry by characterizing the father's conflict through the use of extreme dissonance and rhythmic instability. The call to the daughter's companions to mourn her bears all the marks of a classic lament, with the voices uniting in falling melodic lines evoking flowing tears. Jacquet de La Guerre was equally renowned for her harpsichord compositions, including the Chaconne in D major from her second book of Pièces de clavecin (1707). Though highly ornamented according to the style of the day, the melodic line is always clear. Unexpected chromatic turns maintain interest in the composition. She was also the first woman to compose an opera for Paris (Céphale et Procris, 1694). Her much better-known successor, Jean-Philippe Rameau, also attempted to work with La Motte, but the poet turned him down. It was not until 1733 that Rameau's first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, would finally hit the boards. And what a noise it made. The intimacy and simple beauty of the famous "nightingale air" Rossignols amoureux would be well-suited to a cantata. The air is sung by a shepherdess near the end of the opera, celebrating the joyful reunion of Hippolytus and Aricia. Louis-Nicolas Clérambault never wrote an opera, but became the most celebrated cantata composer. Jean Bachelier relates an anecdote in the preface to his Recueil des cantates (Amsterdam, 1728) that demonstrates how well-known Clérambault's works were, even outside of France: When a Frenchman came to one of our concerts [in Holland], and heard performed the cantatas of Battistin and Bernier, he exclaimed, 'Hey, what? Monsieurs, is Clérambault not known to you? What? do you never sing his Orphée, his Medée, his Pigmalion, Léandre & Héro, or his Musette? Those are pieces of the utmost beauty, and few can match the graciousness of their melody, the force of their accompaniment, and the difficulty of their performance.' Someone replied that these works are known, and that they are certainly worthy of such high praise, and for that reason one does not profane them by performing them every day; instead, they are reserved for Sundays and holidays. L'Amour et Bacchus merits such high praise. The last cantata in Clérambault's Cantates françoises, Livre 1 (1710), the work pits Cupid (soprano) against Bacchus (bass) in a contest to determine who is more powerful. After a spirited argument in the first air, each in turn praises his own unique attributes. But when Cupid reminds Bacchus that even the god of wine can be a slave to love, Bacchus yields. Amicably, Cupid agrees to a truce, and the two pledge unity in the pursuit of pleasure. Clérambault excellently characterizes the proud gods with virtuosic passagework and noble melodies. His experiments with disruptive rhythm, particularly in the final duo, illuminate the qualities of the anonymous text. The work is notable for it's extremely florid accompaniment. One wonders whether the basso continuo is the ultimate winner. Le Triomphe de la Paix, written to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the grueling and disastrous War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, comes from Clérambault's second book of Cantates françoises. He dedicated the volume to Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria. Maximilian was particularly interested in establishing peace, as his support of the French cause had led to his exile. While resident in France between 1706 and 1715, the Elector supported the work of many important musicians, including Clérambault and Jacquet de La Guerre. The anonymous text of Le Triomphe de la Paix depicts Flora, Vertumnus, and Pomona in a pastoral fantasy, delivering the reassuring message that Louis XIV and Queen Anne are at peace and love can take the place of war. The principal parts of the Treaty of Utrecht were ratified on 11 April 1713; thus, it is only fitting that the deities of spring and growth should feature in this cantata. The cantata's stature as a celebratory work is confirmed by the trio of voices-rare in a cantata-and the presence of the "simphonie" of flute, violin, and basso continuo.