Danican Philidor started his musical career as a boy chorister
in the Chapelle Royal at Versailles. Taught by Campra, his first
motet was performed there in 1738. At the same time as he was
building his career in music, Philidor acquired considerable
ability as a chess player, and in the 1740s he could regularly
be found playing opponents such as Voltaire and Rousseau in
the Café de la Régence.
travels in Europe and England, Philidor returned to France in
1754. Theatre was the court fashion of the time, and the composer
ensured considerable success with works such as the comic opera
Le maréchal ferrant (The Blacksmith), the overture for
which is in the Italianate form of a three movement Sinfonia.
These overtures, which also include Le sorcier, and Tom
Jones, which was of course based on Fielding’s famous novel,
are typically fresh and lively, setting the scene of the drama
to follow and introducing some of the musical themes in the
opera. Listeners wondering how to classify Philidor’s style
should think very much in terms of Mozartean or Haydnesque high
classical, with all traces of twiddly French baroque ornamentation
having long ago gone by the wayside. Collectors wondering about
the conductor Christian Benda might also be interested to know
that he is indeed descended from the Czech Benda dynasty of
the 18th century.
main work on this double CD is Philidor’s Carmen Sæculare.
This is an oratorio, setting poems by Horace, some of which
are associated with the Roman centennial celebrations of 17
B.C. Philidor was by 1788 once again in England, and the work
came about on the instigation of an Italian scholar called Giuseppe
Baretti, a well known intellectual figure in London. By all
accounts a colourful figure in his own right, Baretti had once
been charged with murder after stabbing a man in self defence
in the Haymarket. He was acquitted, with no less than Dr. Johnson,
Edmund Burke and David Garrick appearing as character witnesses.
Baretti chose the Latin texts for the Carmen Sæculare,
and sought a man ‘fertile in ideas and expedients and able to
temper alternately the solemnity of Church-music with the brilliancy
of the theatrical’.
succeeded admirably in this task, and the piece is full of gorgeous
moments. There are of course hints at what went before in the
mighty oratorio tradition of Handel, and with a little imagination
one can sense the immenence of Haydn’s The Creation.
Philidor never quite gives us a blockbuster number which would
have us on our feet, but considering the complexity of the texts
this might be less of a surprise. Fortunately for us, Keith
Anderson’s comprehensive booklet notes allow us to follow the
content by track number, while the full texts are available
on the Naxos website. The first parts invocate Apollo, and deal
with various aspects of Achilles and the Trojan war, the foundation
of Rome, praise for Diana and prayers that the plague should
be averted from Caesar and his people, descending instead on
the Persians and Britons.
fourth part deals with the Carmen Sæculare proper, with
Sapphic stanzas which include further prayers to the gods, and
recollections of their interaction with mortals such as Aeneas.
Philidor’s music is suitably responsive to the texts, and at
times descriptive, with the rising of Apollo as the god of the
sun clearly depicted.
Recording and performance
are generally excellent in all of the works on these discs, and
while the orchestra is a little more distant in the Carmen
Sæculare when compared to the overtures this is only to be
expected. The balance with soloists and choir is very good indeed,
the former being not too forward, the latter being well rounded
and articulating the latin texts with aplomb. This is not music
which will shake your world to its foundations, but if the fascinating
sensitivities of pre-French-revolutionary artistic and intellectual
life attract then this is an artefact which will bring great pleasure.