One of the most popular genres of the Italian baroque
was the chamber cantata, mostly scored for solo voice. As the Italian
style increased its influence in France in the early decades of the
18th century this began to take root here as well. Several of the best
composers of their time contributed, such as Clérambault and
Campra. The subjects were mostly of a mythological nature, although
they usually ended with a kind of moral. However, cantatas with a spiritual
content were very rare. Only three composers wrote such cantatas: Elisabeth
Jacquet de la Guerre, Sébastien de Brossard and René Drouard
de Bousset. It seems likely that the latter was inspired by the cantatas
by the former two composers. Some of his cantatas have the same subjects
as those by Jacquet de la Guerre and De Brossard. That is the case,
for instance, with Judith
, which has been recorded previously
by Le Tendre Amour (which
I reviewed here
). The same subject was used for a cantata by Jacquet
de la Guerre.
De Bousset is a largely unknown quantity to modern audiences. However,
in his own time he was quite famous, in particular as an organ virtuoso.
He was the son of Jean-Baptiste de Bousset (1662-1725) who acted as
maître de musique
in several académies
a composer he was best known for his airs sérieux et à
. In 1731 René Drouard also published a collection of
. He seems to have regretted this as he later broke
the plates of these pieces. That had everything to do with his development
in religious matters. He became heavily involved with a religious sect,
The name derives from convulsions which
they claimed to perform under divine inspiration. In particular during
the reign of Louis XV they found many followers in aristocratic circles.
According to the 19th-century musicologist François-Joseph Fétis
De Bousset was "one of (the) most ardent convulsionnaires and most zealous
partisans of their miracles".
His strong religious feelings could well explain his choice of subjects
and texts for his cantatas. Two collections were printed. The first
dates from 1739 and includes six cantatas. Three are settings of paraphrases
from Psalms: 83 (84) and 147, both recorded here, and 121 (122). The
above-mentioned cantata Judith
is also in this collection. The
remaining two cantatas are Le Triomphe de la Vertu
of virtue) and Le Naufrage de Pharaon
(The downfall of Pharao).
The subject of the latter cantata is the same as Jacquet de la Guerre
used in Le passage de la mer rouge
which appears at the disc
I mentioned before. The exodus of the people of Israel out of Egypt,
under the guidance of Moses, from the book of Genesis, is treated here
in a dramatic way. De Bousset's cantata begins with an instrumental
the upper part is to be played by violins in
unison, apparently depicting the waves of the Red Sea. The obbligato
viola da gamba repeatedly plays arpeggios, expressing the fear of the
people when they realise that Pharaoh with his armies is after them.
It is followed by a recitative: "Quelle effroyable nuit" (What horrible
night). Here and in the ensuing aria the protagonist urges the people
to ask God for help who will destroy impiety. In the next recitative
and aria God's intervention is described: the waters of the Red Sea
are separated so that the people can pass. When the Egyptian armies
come to catch them, the waters flow back and the Egyptians drown. The
cantata closes with a recitative and aria singing the praise of Israel's
The programme closes with another cantata on a biblical subject: Abraham
who is asked by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac. It comprises three
pairs of recitatives and arias. Unfortunately it is impossible to say
anything about the text and the way de Bousset treats it. This disc
comes without lyrics, and the booklet omits any description of the cantatas'
content. I found the first collection of six cantatas on the internet
but I couldn't find the second collection from which this cantata is
taken. This is a serious shortcoming in a production like this.
The two remaining cantatas are on paraphrases from Psalms. Psalm 83
(84) is about someone longing to be close to God and his temple. It
begins with a recitative which is followed by an aria with the indication
. It has an obbligato part for viola da
gamba. In the second aria the protagonist asks for God's support; it
is described as gravement et gai
. There is much expression here,
but obviously of a different character than in the two dramatic cantatas.
The same goes for the paraphrase on Psalm 147 which begins with a prélude
for two instruments, here performed with transverse flute and violin.
Sion - a name often used in the Book of Psalms for the Jewish people
- is incited to praise God as he is their help and saves them from their
enemies. The first aria includes many dynamic indications: doux
. The following recitative says that the whole creation,
including the winds and the waters, are under his command. Natural phenomena
are vividly illustrated in the vocal part and the basso continuo. The
last aria then again urges the people to thank God for his gifts. It
is due to the depictions in the vocal and instrumental parts that this
cantata has some theatrical traits.
One can only be grateful that Le Tendre Amour has brought the oeuvre
of de Bousset to our attention. These cantatas are very well-written:
the Psalm paraphrases are mostly lyrical and of an uplifting character,
albeit with some sharp edges here and there, whereas the two other cantatas
are quite dramatic. In particular the opening cantata shows impressively
what a good composer can achieve with just a single voice and some instruments.
I am happy to tell you that the performances are in every way outstanding.
Michiko Takahashi has a very fine and clear voice, and shows her full
mastery of the style of the French baroque. Her ornamentation is tasteful
and her diction and pronunciation immaculate. The same goes for Bernhard
Hansky who delivers a truly theatrical interpretation of Le Naufrage
. In his recitatives he is a real storyteller, giving
a vivid description of the events. The instrumentalists also contribute
to these performances resulting in a compelling disc.
I should not forget to mention that the performers make use of a historical
pronunciation of French, known as français restitué
I have only sporadically heard this practice, most recently in a disc
by the Ludovice Ensemble. It is a worthwhile attempt to come closer
to the world in which these cantatas were created.
On the basis of the quality and curiosity of the repertoire I would
like to label this disc Recording of the Month. However, the omission
of lyrics and translations is too serious to be ignored *.
Johan van Veen
* Le Tendre Amour has made the lyrics, with English translations, available
for download at their website