Baroque music – also in France

by Anja Weinberger

The transverse flute from the workshops of e.g. Hotteterres, which was modern in our neighboring country France at that time – i.e. in the middle of the 17th century – had a fuller sound than its Renaissance predecessors. And the local composers of the time quickly recognized new possibilities in this. Marin Marais and Jean-Baptiste Lully were the first to allow the flute to play in the larger group as well as in chamber music.

Not only was there something new in the music itself, but there was also a change in the way of life. The flute player became the symbol of the new age. He could not be missing from any concert champêtre of salon painting, as a statue he was placed in parks and gardens, and as a centerpiece he told of a noble lifestyle.

In the well-known oil painting Réunion de musicien by Robert Levrac, which today hangs in the National Gallery in London, Michel de la Barre, Jean and Jaques Hotteterre, the three highly paid court musicians of King Louis XIV, are most likely depicted.


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The musical taste of these years was significantly shaped by the royal court. Versailles and Paris were the all-embracing sites of the highest culture. Opera, ballet, pantomime, dance performances, and the visual arts – all were pursued at great expense and with a clear turn toward humanism.

French national culture had found its models in antiquity and brought them into the present through Descartes (1596-1650), Corneille (1606-1684), Molière (1622-1673) and Montesquieu (1689-1755).

Jean Baptiste Lully and his numerous contemporaries translated this into music. In this way, they demonstrated the gallant French court art.

An insertion:

Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence in 1632. (This is not without a certain humor, considering the ongoing dispute about the quality of the French versus the Italian style). The family had achieved a modest prosperity through hard work, and so the boy was able to receive a good education. But how did this boy come to be a musician at the French court?

Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans wanted a conversation partner for her Italian language exercises. Roger de Lorraine, Chevalier de Guise, went looking for her in Florence, where the purest Italian was spoken.

The 13-year-old Giovanni Battista caught his eye during the 1646 carnival with his comedic interludes and cheerful violin playing. And so Lully was soon living in the Tuileries, playing both guitar and violin for La Grande Mademoiselle, and learning harpsichord and composition along the way. Highly gifted as he was, everything came easily to him.

Soon we find him at the royal court, where he quickly aroused the interest of Louis XIV, mainly in comic roles. The latter himself took part in numerous masquerades and ballets. Lully’s great influence on the French dance style begins to develop, he appears as a composer and director of the Petits Violons.

Jean Baptiste composed numerous ballet scores, intermedia for works by others and, from 1660, church music, including his famous Miserere for Holy Week. It was not until 1661 that he was officially naturalized, married the daughter of his colleague Lambert, and thus also escaped the danger of prosecution for homosexual tendencies. Meanwhile, he was known far beyond the city – and even country – borders.

Lully’s collaboration with Molière began in 1664, and between 1664 and 1671 the extraordinary team created a series of musically increasingly demanding comédie-ballets for the court and especially for the great festivities at Versailles, with which they were extremely successful. The occasion for these festivities, which were admired and imitated in other European countries, were usually military or political successes of the king.

Comedy played a particularly important role in the Comédies-ballets; everyday scenes were often depicted in all their intricacies. Initially, the then 31-year-old Louis XIV still performed as a dancer, but after a serious illness he no longer underwent the exertions of performing and only professionals were hired.

This was soon followed by Lully’s break with Molière, who then died in 1673 – a story in itself!

The new genre Tragédie en musique now emerged, and Lully and his librettist Quinaults thus tied in with classical French tragedy. Lully created a rich variety of forms of recitatives and airs, with chorus, without chorus, with dance choruses, ensembles in various instrumentations, couplets and soloistic forms. This grand, new musical architecture would reverberate into Gluck’s time; and it would influence many composers outside France, including Johann Sebastian Bach.

In 1677, for the christening of Lully’s son, his Te Deum was sounded; the boy was sponsored by the king. They liked each other. However, the king withdrew favor from his music director when he seduced a page.

When Lully conducted his much-acclaimed Te Deum one more time to celebrate the king’s recovery from an illness, he injured his foot with the pointed conductor’s baton. He died of the unstoppable infection three months later in March 1687.

Many of his works were arranged into orchestral or trio suites or transcribed for harpsichord, lute or organ. In this way, Lully had a great influence on the development of Baroque music throughout Europe. His style had become a model character.

Chamber music was also made in small, private circles, e.g. at Madame de Maintenon’s house. These evenings developed into exaggerated events, highly praised from all throats, everyone wanted to be there.

So new literature had to be written to avoid boredom. The first to flood the enthusiastic public with large quantities of new publications in flute music were de la Barre and Hotteterre.


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The dominant genre of these years in our neighboring country France was the suite. In it, the dance movements Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet and Gigue are strung together. Sometimes other dance movements are added, which may then be called Rigaudon, Bourrée, Gavotte, Canarie, Passepied, Musette or Tambourin. Very often the suite is opened by an overture, more rarely by a prelude. This can become a very lengthy affair, but within it composers pour out a cornucopia of grace, ingenuity and beauty.

And: the flute was discovered to be an ideal partner for the human voice – the first nightingale arias were created.

These early years were saturated with the main point of contention: “Italian versus French style”.

After the death of the Sun King in 1715, who until then had successfully suppressed Italian influences, two parties quickly formed. On the one hand, Lully’s partisans formed and they demanded the typical French dance elegance and declamatory melodic line. On the other side, a group formed that considered this way of making music superficial and wanted to combine Corelli’s generous and less speaking melodicism with a deeper expressivity. This Italienità prevailed from 1725, and the usual French suites gave way more and more to Italian sonatas and concerti.

As in Germany Telemann, so in France there was one who could dance at all weddings.

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755) was able to successfully satisfy the wishes of his customers for a wide variety of works. He composed both in the “goût ancien”, i.e. in the old style, as the French style was now called, and in the fashionable “goût italien”. He was able to write both beautiful-sounding yet easily playable works for the many aficionados among his clients, as well as complex works for the Concerts spirituel. A fast and tireless composer, he tried his hand with success in all genres, competing with Rameau in ballet opera, with Mondonville in the motet for large choir, with Clérambault in the secular cantata, and allowing himself to be celebrated as the most prolific instrumental composer of his time.

A side note: Boismortier wrote the first French sonata for flute and obbligato harpsichord, printed in 1742.

For me as a flutist, my acquaintance with a work by Marin Marais (1656-1728) was particularly important and fueled my interest in the French Baroque and its stylistics. A composition student of Lully, Marais was the best gambist of his time. He wrote a great deal of beautiful literature for this instrument of his. As was often the case in that era, the composer emphasized in the preface to the first edition that his work could be played on all suitable instruments. And so, with Les Folies d’Espagne, we flutists have this unique collection of typical French courtly art. Trills, flattements, battements, coulements, accents – without precise knowledge of French performance practice, nothing can be done. One must know about inégale playing and about the French understanding of tempi and meters – a science in itself, which is worth exploring, as I now know.


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Johann Joachim Quantz, one of the first great German flutists, flute maker and composer, had lessons at the beginning of his amazing career in 1718 with Pierre Gabriel Buffardin, who was the French solo flutist of the Dresden court orchestra. At that time, it was clear that anyone who wanted to learn to play the flute really well had to take lessons from a Frenchman.

Buffardin, like Michel Blavet, already belonged to the second generation of flutists in France. Only now did they dare to play in the higher registers, up to g3, and make themselves familiar with fast runs and chord breaks. The composers of this time, such as Boismortier (see above), Naudot, Leclair, Blavet, Corrette and especially Rameau, demanded highly precise finger technique and well-trained articulation from the players of the era.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), probably the best known French Baroque composer besides Lully, composed vocal music, clavecin music and stage works. Among them is a peculiar instrumentation, namely a Pièces de clavecin en concerts avec un violon ou une flute. This is a work for harpsichord in which a violin or even a flute can play along, or not – virtually the opposite of “obbligato”.

Rameau, who came from an important musical family in Dijon, was an organist, harpsichord virtuoso, music theorist and composer. His first skills were imparted to him by his father, and early on he earned his own money as an orchestral violinist and organist in various cities in France.

His Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels was widely acclaimed. Following in the footsteps of Kepler, Euler and Descartes, Rameau aimed for a mathematical approach to harmony. The terms tonic, dominant and subdominant go back to him. However, the terminology has changed considerably up to our time.

After all, Rameau lived half a century later than Lully and “his” king was Louis XV, in whose palace the Rameau family was allowed to live. After long years of trying, his opera drama Hippolyte et Aricie, based on Racine’s tragedy Phaedra, was performed in 1733. Rameau earned the highest fame, was named a cabinet composer, and was elevated to the peerage.

He also played a role in the dispute between Italian and French music. In the so-called Buffonist Controversy (1752-54), Rameau represented the French side and was thus opposed to Jean-Jaques Rousseau, who argued for the Italian side.

Only after this dispute finally culminated between Gluckists and Piccinists in 1776 was the time ripe for Gluck’s opera reform. This, too, would be worth lines of its own.

Rameau devoted the last years of his life to the composition of new stage works as well as to the adaptation of his own earlier works. In the meantime, his fame had increased to such an extent that in 1757 Louis XV granted him a new pension of 1500 livres annually from the income of the Opéra in return for exclusive performance rights. Since 1761 he was a member of the Académie of Dijon. In 1764, the king awarded him the Lettres de noblesse and appointed him Chevalier de Saint-Michel.

A few days before his 81st birthday, he succumbed to a febrile illness. A huge crowd flocked to the funeral service in Saint-Eustache.

Rameau was a contemporary of Bach and Handel, so he lived in the period that for us, from a German perspective, embodies the Baroque proper. When opulent courtly splendor was presented with Lully’s music in France half a century earlier, Hammerschmidt, Schütz and Buxtehude were known in Germany.


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By the time of Rameau’s death, the time had long since come for German courts and English musicians to take the reins in the world of flutists. Johann Joachim Quantz, already mentioned above, now became especially important for the development of our instrument.

And with François Devienne, one of the co-founders of the Conservatoire de Paris in 1795, the next great era of French flute playing slowly but surely came into view.

P.S. In the book Kulturgeschichten – nicht nur für Flötisten (Cultural Histories – not only for flutists) I have gone into great detail about the events in flute making and also about the development of literature for the flute. This text is intended to give an overview of the feeling of life and music making of the time. It does not claim to be complete and is only due to my collected experiences in the course of a flutist’s life.

P.P.S. Two films come to mind on this subject, which in their own way have tried to paint a picture of the time:

“The Seventh String” from 1991 and from 2000 “The King Dances”.

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