Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer is one of the lesser-known French
composers who was active in the second quarter of the 18th century.
Today he is almost exclusively known for his compositions for
harpsichord, which were printed as Premier Livre de Pièces
pour Clavecin in 1746. He was also a prominent composer
of operas and ballet music, part of which heritage has been
In 1730 he became maître de musique at the Paris Opera,
and that same year his first opera was performed: Pyrrhus,
a tragedy in a prologue and five acts. In 1734 he was appointed
maître de musique des enfants de France, which meant
that he was responsible for the musical education of the children
of King Louis XV. Several of them were musically gifted, and
the first book of harpsichord pieces was dedicated to them.
This collection bears the traces of Royer's activities in the
musical theatre. La Zaïde and La Marche des Scythes
are arrangements of instrumental pieces from Royer's own opera
Zaïde (1739). Les Matelots, Tambourin I and
the Allemande are based on pieces from Le pouvoir
de l'amour, a ballet héroïque, first performed in 1743.
This was a pretty rare practice: Royer's colleague Jean-Philippe
Rameau was almost the only other composer who transcribed pieces
from his operas for the harpsichord. One has to go back to the
late 17th century to find comparable transcriptions, when Jean-Henri
d'Anglebert (1629-1691) included some transcriptions of works
by Jean-Baptiste Lully in his Pièces de Clavecin of 1689.
The pieces in Royer's collection are grouped by keys: D major
and minor, G major and minor and C minor, but without giving
them the form of a suite. No less than seven are in the form
of a rondeau, which reflects the taste of the time. Nevertheless,
as Royer states in the preface: "The pieces are open to
great variety, passing from the tender to the lively, from the
simple to the tumultuous, often successively within the same
To the tender belongs La Zaïde, which also has the indication
'tendrement'. It is dominated by long trills, and explores the
central and upper part of the keyboard. Les Matelots
reflects its operatic origin. The Tambourin I, with its
drone, belongs to the 'tumultuous'.
L'Incertaine has the indication 'marqué', meaning that
the melody is the focus of the piece. L'Aimable is 'gracieux',
an elegant and quiet piece. Next follows La Bagatelle,
a restless piece with short, pungent chords. La Remouleuse
seems to refer to the knife-grinder, and the repetition of a
single motif probably depicts the continuous turning of the
With Les Tendres Sentiments another rondeau of a tender
character follows, which - like La Zaïde - concentrates
on the middle and upper part of the keyboard. Le Vertigo
means 'the capricious', and that is well expressed in the music,
which contains strong contrasts in tempo and Affekt.
It is also one of the most 'tumultuous' pieces of the collection,
with heavy and frequently repeated chords at high speed.
The allemande is a traditional dance, which was part of virtually
every keyboard suite of the 17th and 18th centuries. But Royer's
Allemande in c minor has little in common with
the allemandes of the past, being much more forceful and theatrical.
La Sensible is, as the title suggests, much more tender
and lyrical in character.
The collection ends with another opera transcription, La
Marche des Scythes, also 'tumultuous', with virtuosic scales
and noisy chords.
Christophe Rousset uses a splendid historical harpsichord. It
was built in the first half of the 18th century by the Parisian
harpsichord maker Jean-Claude Goujon, and was extended in 1784
by Jacques Joachim Swanen. Rousset delivers brilliant performances
in which the features of the various pieces is very well captured.
The tempi are convincing, with the exception of Les Tendres
Sentiments, which seems to me too slow, at the cost of the
musical flow. The sound engineer has done an outstanding job
The programme notes - in French and English - are adequate,
but the English translation is difficult to read as the print
isn't very clear and the letters are grey instead of black.
Even worse are the pages with the information about the harpsichord:
black letters on a pink background. Who comes up with something
like that? It is also regrettable that the track-list omits
to give the keys and the character indications.
Johan van Veen