Music at Versailles:
when past becomes present
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
which displays far greater generosity to researchers.
interim, enquiries in the principal European languages can be sent to
the CMBV by E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Recommended Discography of French Baroque