“Les Rhétorique des Dieux”





by Tobias Tietze

“Les Rhétorique des Dieux” 17th century French-German lute music

The lute was a very present and highly valued instrument in musical life. Presumably arrived in Europe during the Moorish occupation of Spain (711 – 1492), it developed its own playing culture, which changed considerably over the centuries.

Already in the Middle Ages, various illustrations prove the active use of the instrument. This was followed by a true heyday in Renaissance Italy. The lute was ideally suited to imitate a polyphonic choral movement or to make an inavulation (the actual transfer of a vocal work for an instrument) sound.

At the beginning of the 17th century, with the advent of what is now known as the baroque era, musical taste changed enormously.

The complex polyphonic movement structures of the 16th century went out of fashion. The music was to develop into a tonal language, following the ancient model. The content of the text should be the focus of attention and the mind of the listener should be moved in the sense of the ancient speaker. Claudio Monteverdi’s “seconda practica” was born, an idea that could not be stopped.


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A little later the foundation stone was laid in France for a new kind of lute art, which was to last into the new century and continue to shape the world of the lute well into the 18th century. Here, too, people moved away from polyphony and towards thinking in terms of the upper voice, harmony and chords. The style brisée (broken style) began to develop.

In addition, the French lutenists began to experiment with the tuning of their instrument. The “Vieux ton”, the old tuning, mostly in G or A, also went out of fashion, and by the middle of the century the “Accord noveaux ordinaire” (an open tuning in D minor) had finally established itself as the standard.

However, the road to this must have been so long that Mersenne, in his “Harmonie universelle”, refrained from listing the various tunings, pointing out that this would probably take more than 100 pages.

On her lutes with new tuning and 11 choirs (pairs of strings tuned equally or in octaves), the art of this instrument flourished anew in France in the second half of the 17th century. Today this instrument is called the “baroque lute”.

Elizabeth Burwell writes in her “Tutor” for the lute (ca. 1670): “Of all musical instruments, the French people like the famous lute best… So it should be easy to see that the French almost own the lute, that it is their instrument…”

Some of the composers for this instrument were D. Gaultier, Mouton and Gallot. They created a music that is inseparably linked to the lute and cannot be reproduced in its idiom on any other instrument.

The “Rhétorique des Dieux” (ca. 1652) is an impressive example of the enormous appreciation of the lute and its music and of the merging of the arts in baroque France. In this work, the music attributed to D. Gaultier is framed by calligraphy, goldsmith’s work, painting and poetry.

In addition to the prints of the works of Mouton (1671 – 1674), Gallot (1684) and their contemporaries, we have preserved numerous manuscripts that testify to the lively circulation of this music.


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For the lute, music was not written down in conventional notation, but in tablature. A tablature is a fingering in which not the notes themselves, but the fingerings, to a certain extent the movement of the player’s fingers, are recorded.

From the manuscripts that have come down to us, it is clear that this notation quickly became independent and a way of writing and playing developed that can hardly be represented in notes.

Moreover, the history of music lore makes it impossible to reconstruct an “original text” in the sense we use today. French lute music did not know anything like an original text. In the words of the researcher-musician A. Schlegel: “French lute music of the 17th century knows no ‘original text’. Instead, a piece is handed down by the lutenists of that time within a ‘scope of formulation’, i.e. that the same musical thought could be formulated and notated in different ways”.

In one of the most famous examples of this music “l’Homicide”, probably written by Denis Gaultier, at least 11 different versions have been handed down from the period from ca. 1652 – ca. 1706, of which not one is identical to the other. However, this is not a flaw, but rather for me an impulse not only to reproduce this music, but to keep it alive through my own ideas.

Entirely in the spirit of Elizabeth Burwell, who wrote about 1670 in her tutor for the lute:

„… the lute being like an ocean that cannot be emptied, but is full of so much riches, that the more we take from it, the more remains to take, and in such sort that all his beauties are different, according to the genius of the lute master that composes our plays, and dives in that spring of science and charms.

Thus, in this style, composition and interpretation merge into one another to a certain extent, and from today’s retrospective point of view, they can hardly be distinguished from one another. It is both the special challenge and the special attraction of this repertoire for the lutenists of the 21st century to familiarize themselves with this style in such a way that they can try this approach themselves.


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It was extremely popular at that time to combine several pieces of the same key into a so-called suite. They liked to play a short introduction, a prelude, followed by dances. However, there was no dancing to this lute music; the pieces are rather based on dances with which certain character traits are connected. These are described very vividly in Johann Mattheson’s “Der vollkommene Capellmeister” (Hamburg, 1739). Thus he assigns the Allemande the character of a “quiet mind” and the Minuet that of a “moderate merriment”. The Courante’s trait is “hope” and he stresses that it is “the lutenist’s masterpiece, peculiar in France”.

The lutenists were not to be absent from any court orchestra of the time, including, of course, the famous Versailles. Charles Mouton was one of the most important representatives of his guild at this court. Between 1671 and 1674 he published his first two books of lute music in Paris. Further works from his pen were taken from a manuscript which was probably written a little later and presumably contains the music for the planned books three and four, which were never printed.

After Mouton had spent time in Turin in the 1670s, he returned to Paris in 1680, where his students included Philipp Franz le Sage de Richée.

However, we know almost nothing about his life. His trace disappears completely, until suddenly his “Cabinet of Lutes” appears in 1695 in Breslau and with a German foreword in which he refers to his apprenticeship with Mouton. The music of this volume shows very strong French influences, but also points in a certain way to the future.

For in the 18th century, a new style, the “mixed taste”, in which the French and Italian national styles are blended, is emerging in the “German lands”. With this style, Silvius Leopold Weiss, born near Breslau, was to become the most important lutenist of his generation, who received enormous admiration from his contemporaries. The lutenist Ernst Gottlieb Baron, who is known with Weiss, describes the “mixed taste” very simply in his treatise “Historical, Theoretical and Practical Study of the Instrument of the Lute” (Nuremberg, 1727):

“While the Italian style is serieux, the French taste is divertissant, in Germany one has accepted both, because this nation loves change…”

In his “Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere spielen” (1752), the flutist Johann Joachim Quantz becomes very specific about the differentiation of these two styles:

“The Italians are unrestricted in composition, splendid, lively, expressive, profound, sublime in their way of thinking, somewhat bizarre, free, audacious, cheeky, voluptuous, at times careless in metre, but they are also singing, flattering, tender, touching, and rich in invention. They write more for connoisseurs than for lovers. The French are lively, expressive, natural, pleasing to the public and comprehensible in composition, and more correct in metre than those, but they are neither profound nor bold, but rather very limited, slavish, always similar to themselves, low in thought, dry in invention, always warming up the thoughts of their ancestors, and write more for lovers than for connoisseurs.

He continues to advise, in the spirit of blended taste:

“It is therefore advisable that every aspiring instrumentalist begin with the French way of playing. He will not only learn to play the prescribed notes and the small embellishments cleanly and clearly, but also, in time, to mix the French touch with the Italian flattery, and become capable of playing in a much more pleasing manner.


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So even if there was no really own German style, but this one was a mixture of two others, the German lutenists had by now gained a strong self-confidence:

“…also such [the lute playing] has risen to such perfection through German skill that one would almost think it could not be brought any higher. [Baron]

With Weiss, lute practice finally reached a last wonderful marriage in the 18th century. Baron wrote about Weiss:

“In harpeggios, he has such uncommon fullness of voice, he is incomparable in the expression of the affects, he has stupendous skill, an unheard-of delicacy and cantabile grace…”

In Gottsched’s Handlexicon (1760) it says about him

“His touch was very soft; one could hear it, and not know where the notes came from. In fantasy he was incomparable; he had the piano and forte completely under his control. In short, he was master of his instrument, and could do with it everything he wanted… He died in 1750, and the world lost to him the greatest lutenist that Europe had ever heard and admired.

And that statement was to prove tragically true. Baron and his contemporaries experienced the lute in the hands of Weiss and his generation in its last great flowering, which withered rapidly after his death in 1750, so that the instrument and the art associated with it were slowly forgotten.

Throughout its many centuries of history, the lute had been transformed and adapted countless times to meet the fashions and needs of the times and its musicians, and had thus gained great appreciation and recognition. But by the middle of the 18th century a point had been reached where lute instruments simply could no longer meet the aesthetics of the new age. Even though they were still played into the 18th century, from then on they were rather exotic instruments that had to eke out an existence on the fringe of musical life.

It was only in the course of the 20th century, with the “Early Music” movement, that attempts were made to reestablish a practice for these once so self-evident and inimitable instruments.


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After a performance by Weiss in 1728, the sister of Frederick II, Wilhelmine of Bayreuth, noted in her diary, in French of course:

“… the famous Weiss, who is so outstanding on the lute that no one can equal him, and that those who come after him will only have the honour of imitating him.”

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