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Music at Versailles: when past becomes present

By Joseph E.Romero

VERSAILLES, 20 July 1998 For nearly twenty years, foreigners had a love affair with French baroque music. But it took an astonishing mainstream enthusiasm for the hit film Tous les Matins du Monde , fashionable baroque concerts attended by young Parisians dressed in black, and the steady sales of French baroque recordings—put out mostly by their European neighbors to the North—to seal the creation of a national research facility for French baroque music at Versailles.

The 1997 fall concert season, and its participation in the Château's 1998 spring and summer series "Les Nouveaux Plaisirs de Versailles" mark the tenth anniversary of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles (CMBV). The winter series highlighted works by Lully, Campra, Brossard, Rameau and other royal composers and served as a retrospective survey of the CMBV's activities. In one of the many concerts in the Chapelle Royale, Hervé Niquet, harpsichordist, ballet composer, and specialist of the French grand motet, led a born-again Concert Spirituel in organ concerti by Michel Corette and Jean-François Tapray. Although organist Etienne Baillot and the ensemble's performances were uneven, especially Niquet's direction of the evocative rhythms and textures in Tapray's scores, the concert offered insight into eighteenth century French tastes as well as a glimpse of the CMBV's research and reappraisal of Tapray. The summer series which ran until 9 July focused on concerts, court ballet and theatre. The 1998 fall season will open on 25 September with three days devoted to the composer Nicolas Clérambault.

Created by Philippe Beaussant and Vincent Berthier de Lioncourt in 1987 at the request of then Culture Minister François Léotard, the CMBV is a think-tank devoted to the study and elucidation of seventeenth and eighteenth century French music at the Court of Versailles.

Inaugurated with a great deal of pomp and Parisian grandstanding at the time, the data-base equipped CMBV has produced worthwhile documents on French baroque composers, their musical scores, an annual concert season, a choir school, and performance practice seminars. An opera workshop was scratched early on for lack of funding. Recent new agreements with the British record label Virgin Classics for the CMBV's recordings have replaced prior partnerships with Astrée Auvidis and FNAC music, the classical label of France's leading distributor of culture products and services. This should lead to reissues of past CMBV recordings which had become unavailble.

Baroque opera is still for princely purses

The total annual operating budget of the CMBV is approximately sixteen million French Francs ($3.38 million), down from twenty million. Until recently six million ($1.01 million) was generously underwritten by Alcatel Alsthom, builder of fast trains, nuclear plants, and telecom equipment. Support has stopped with a change in management in 1995 with the appointment of a new chairman and a refocusing on its core activities. In the past the Ministry of Culture kicked in an additional seven million French Francs ($1.1 million) and the various municipal and provincial administrations contributed three million (roughly $500,000).

Last year the Château de Versailles was decreed an Etablissement Public, thereby enabling it to retain revenues from museum entrance sales and special events. The CMBV will thus sell its concert series to the Château. In the past, ticket sales and special events at the CMBV brought in the remaining five million ($850,000), but the number of concerts has been reduced to about 30, down from 100 in previous years. The little-known Fondation Dokhan has helped with concert seasons since 1987. Co-productions with Radio France included an organ series at the Royal Chapel.

Still, the CMBV lacks the resources needed to stage full-blown productions of French baroque operas with their extravagant costumes, ballets, décor, and machinery. Indeed, with the exception of a disastrous Purcell staging imported from Canada and financed by the Banque Paribas, opera at the Centre Baroque has been limited to concert versions such as the excellent reading of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie directed by Marc Minkowski and underwritten by J.P. Morgan. Why so little has been done in bringing this challenging repertory to life on stage is a mystery. Is the theatre machinery of the Royal Theatre in such condition that it cannot meet the heavy demands made by French baroque opera? Clearly, the problem lies beyond money and machinery and touches on the hazardous research field of French baroque theatre arts.

The king liked to dance

The powerful literary tradition in France often hides the fact that Louis XIV was a music-loving king. The salons and galleries of Versailles, as well as the private apartments of the king and queen were used for music and theatre. Couperin wrote his Concerts royaux for Louis XIV's bed chambers. Under all the grandeur of Versailles was a monarch who as a boy had been tutored by the brilliant Cardinal Mazarin, and learned music and dance. Well into his thirties he danced in the court opéra-ballet productions. Moreover, Louis had every reason to dance. Coffee, tobacco (and soon sugar), coupled with the West African slave trade to the Americas were beginning to prove highly lucrative. Louis spared no expense: his court technical team and stage managers—known as "Les Menus Plaisirs"—were capable of astonishing productions. Ironically, the offices of the court techies in the nearby Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs would later serve as the meeting hall of the first "Assemblée Nationale" in 1789! The CMBV is now housed in the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs, Avenue de Paris in Versailles.

Research facilities

Endowed with an impressive library of some 12,000 volumes, not all of which has been catalogued, the CMBV continues to acquire originals and copies of relevant works found in private libraries in France and abroad. A pedagogical vocation is apparent in the ongoing dialogue between French and foreign scholars, the choir school, and performers.

Jean Lionnet, the affable musicologist at the Atelier d'études and editor of the CMBV's scholarly Cahiers de Musique, has been there since 1990. "We went straight to work researching seventeenth-century sacred music in both Latin and French which is the least known music of this period. We are also extensively studying turn-of-the-century secular and religious music, notably the petit motet, cantata, and chamber music". The CMBV concert season reflects this research. "About half of the concerts are works that have not been performed since the period under study; for example, during the Journées André Campra à Versailles in June 1993, the first modern performance of four grands motets (Dixit Dominus, Laudate pueri Dominum, In convertendo, and Magnificat) for soloists, choir and Baroque chamber orchestra," Monsieur Lionnet says.

New research goals include instrumental chamber music of the eighteenth century (Jean-Marie Leclair, Michel Corette, Jean-François Tapray) and the 1998 fall season will focus on Clérambault, although Lionnet says that finding trained musicans and young scholars for such projects has not been easy. It is hoped that collaboration with baroque music research centers abroad such as the Centro di musica antiqua di Napoli and Jordi Savall's newly-opened center in Barcelona will expand the number of baroque music performers.

Indeed, it took foreigners such as Leonhardt, Koopman, Herreweghe, the Kuijkens, Hogwood, Gardiner, Harnoncourt, the Catalan musician Jordi Savall, or the American William Christie—a musician of remarkable perspicuity—and his "Arts Florissants" to explore the true nature of French baroque music and performance practice. Christie liberated it from the hermetic straitjacket of the dusty and sometimes cranky French musical intelligentsia and finally mounted professional performances of Charpentier, Lully, and Rameau suitable for a contemporary international public. Such pioneering work by foreigners has certainly enabled a younger generation of talented French musicians, e.g. Christophe Rousset, Hervé Niquet, Christophe Coin, and especially Marc Minkowski and their French Baroque bands, to reveal the elusive element in French Baroque music: genre. The French have always been, and always will be, mesmerized by genre whether it is Harrison Ford, mistresses, film noir or the glamour of the court of Louis XIV.

Recommended reading

For those who read French the CMBV provides (free of charge) their yearly research report which outlines topics presented at the CMBV's annual international colloquium, a brief summary of recent critical studies, musical scores under study and an updated international bibliography and CD discography. Essential reading would necessarily include Le Concert des Muses, a collection of articles and essays from the CMBV's past conferences, specially edited for the general public, and Philippe Beaussant's Lully ou Le Musicien du Soleil, published in 1992 by Gallimard in Paris. A short essay, Louis XIV musicien, by the same author and available from the CMBV can serve as a primer for those in a hurry. Scientific documents from the international conference devoted to Liturgy and Chant and Sébastien Brossard are now available.

Readings in English on French baroque music can be found on occasion in Early Music, the excellent British quarterly review, published by the Oxford University Press. For those with access to back copies, the May and August 1993 issues VOL XXI Nos. 2 and 3 were entirely devoted to French baroque music.

CMBV on the net

The CMBV hopes to be on-line towards the end of September 1998 with information concerning its seminar programs, concert season and catalogues. Questions of whether access will be free or not to the data base, aptly named "Philidor", as well as thorny issues of copyright protection have not been resolved, but sections of Philidor should be on-line sometime in late 1998. "We dream of having a filtered access to our data base for interactive dialogue with foreign researchers", said one source close to the centre's Internet project, "but there is some very strange foot dragging in the official French mentality concerning Internet. Despite the obvious demand from French authorities and the public, some senior French civil servants view the Internet as some kind of demon, mostly because they are not sure what Internet means in the long term." Perhaps the French Ministry of Culture might consider taking a look at the Index of Christian Art at Princeton University
http://www.princeton.edu/~ica/database.html which displays far greater generosity to researchers.

In the interim, enquiries in the principal European languages can be sent to the CMBV by E-mail: accueil@cmbv.com

Recommended Discography of French Baroque Music 

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