En sol - Musique pour le Roi-Soleil
Rebecca Maurer (harpsichord)
rec. 12-14 October 2014, Musée d'art et d'histoire, Neuchâtel, Switzerland. DDD GENUIN GEN15352 [70:30]
This year (2015) marks three hundred years since the death of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King. It has resulted in several discs with music which can be linked to him and his reign. That is not surprising as the arts were important avenues for proclaiming his power. The present disc is something special in that it sheds light on what could be a symbol of the Sun King: the key of g minor.
The French title of this disc has been left untranslated here, because in an English translation it wouldn't make much sense: "in G minor - Music for the Sun King". I quote Rebecca Maurer's liner-notes: "Numerous works composed at the court of the "Sun King" (Roi-Soleil) are in the key of G minor - "en sol mineur". Is this a coincidence? Perhaps not, if you only consider the several meanings of the word "sol". "Sol" is the Latin root for the French "soleil" ("sun"), means "gold" in alchemy and is the customary term for the pitch of G in Romance languages. A play on words for a term with underlying symbolism is not novel by any means. During the reign of Louis XIV it was assumed that a well-educated and informed audience was familiar with and could interpret mythological and allegorical references and allusions. The reference to "sol" and "Roi-Soleil" may thus suggest a subtle programmatic reference that is not immediately apparent."
Louis had succeeded his father as King in 1643 but as he was still a minor (he was born in 1638) Queen Anne acted as regent. In 1654 Louis was declared of age and that year his coronation took place. The year before he had been presented for the first time in connection with the sun. In the so-called Ballet Royal de la Nuit which was set up by the prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, the young Louis participated as a dancer in the role of the Sun god Apollo. Dance treatises of the time described the character of this role as "noble and majestic". This was exactly what suited Louis as his talent as a dancer came especially to the fore in solemn and serious dances which - according to Voltaire - were "commensurate with the rank of His Majesty". Rebecca Maurer observes that the music for Apollo, for instance in the operas of Lully, "is almost always in the key of sol mineur (g minor)". This key was described by contemporary authors as "serious and magnificent". She admits that the question whether the choice of key was "a result of deliberate planning or a happy accident" cannot be answered as yet and needs more investigation. She also refers to the key of D major which was considered to represent royalty. That this key was not used instead could be explained by Louis' "universal claim to 'uniqueness'". Another issue is the question to what extent the audiences of the time would have recognized the use of the key of g minor and its implications.
From that perspective the programme of the present disc is based on an interesting concept rather than on firm facts. The title of this disc can't be taken too literally also in another sense. Most music was not written for the King although some of the pieces may have been played in his presence, especially the prélude in g minor by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre who enjoyed the King's protection. The same goes for some of the pieces by François Couperin who was in the service of the King. Le Vertigo by Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer is certainly not connected to Louis XIV: the composer was born around 1707 and Louis died in 1715.
The programme is ordered in the form of a ballet de cour. In the prologue we hear a prélude in g minor by Jean-Henry d'Anglebert followed by his transcription of the Air d'Apollon from Lully's ballet Le triomphe de l'amour. The prologue is followed by three parts. Part I opens with the third prélude from François Couperin's L'Art de toucher le clavecin which is followed by the first six pieces from his 1er Ordre. Among them we find appropriate titles such as the allemande L'Auguste and the sarabande La Majestueuse. It ends with another of d'Anglebert's Lully transcriptions: the chaconne from Phaeton. Pieces like chaconne and passacaille were a fixed part of any work for the stage by Lully. This explains why they take a prominent position in the programme of this disc.
Part II includes no fewer than three passacailles, one of them the Passacaille in C by Louis Couperin, one of his most famous pieces. Whether his harpsichord pieces were ever played at the court is hard to say. At some year during the 1650s he entered the service of the court, but in the capacity as a player of the treble viol. Also in this section are three more transcriptions by d'Anglebert. The third part includes pieces which date from the latest stages of Louis's reign. Gaspard Le Roux was one of the most prominent organ and harpsichord players and composers of his time, but there is no indication that he was ever connected to the court. Royer played a key role on the Parisian music stage in the second quarter of the 18th century as a player of and composer for the keyboard and as a composer of music for the stage.
The programme ends with an Epilogue which includes just one piece: the 7e prélude by François Couperin. That seems most appropriate as of all the composers represented here he was most closely connected with the court under Louis XIV.
Obviously this recording is to a degree speculative: the starting point is a challenging and very interesting idea which needs more research. Although some pieces in the programme are rather familiar - especially those by the Couperins - the way they are presented here is interesting in that they show their possible connection to the role Louis XIV pretended to play. The transcriptions by d'Anglebert are especially welcome: they are not that often played and recorded and they reflect the strong link between the operas by Lully and the Sun King. The pieces by Le Roux rank among the lesser-known of the time.
Rebecca Maurer delivers fine performances. D'Anglebert's transcriptions come off very well, with good attention to their dramatic origin. Louis Couperin's Passacaille in C is one of the highlights. I also like François Couperin's Les Baricades Mistérieuses, especially because of the way the tempo is treated. She plays a beautiful historical instrument built in 1632 in the Ioannes Ruckers workshop in Antwerp and subject of a grand ravalement in 1745. She uses a low pitch (a=395') and a 1/5 comma meantone temperament. The liner-notes give much insight into the world and aesthetics of the Sun King.
A peculiar and interesting contribution to the commemoration of Louis XIV's death.
Track listing Prologue Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT (1629-1691) Prélude in g minor [1:50] Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687), arr Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT Air d'Apollon du Triomphe de l'Amour [3:37] Part 1 François COUPERIN (1668-1733) 3e Prélude in g minor [0:58] 1er Ordre in g minor (exc) [13:17] Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687), arr Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT Chaconne de Phaeton [4:02] Part 2 Elisabeth-Claude JACQUET DE LA GUERRE (1665-1729) Prélude in g minor [2:08] Louis COUPERIN (c1626-1661) Passacaille in g minor [5:10] Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687), arr Jean-Henry D'ANGLEBERT Gigue de Mr. de Lully [1:27] Passacaille d'Armide [4:40] Sarabande. Dieu des Enfers [1:32] Louis COUPERIN Passacaille in C [5:27] Tombeau de Monsieur de Blancrocher [4:48] François COUPERIN 6e Ordre in B flat:
Les Baricades Mistérieuses [2:38] Part 3 Gaspard LE ROUX (?-c1707) Suite No. 7 in g minor (exc) [10:11] Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace ROYER (c1705-1755) Le Vertigo [5:21] Epilogue François COUPERIN 7e Prélude in B flat [3:17]