There was never a more promising time than the late 17th century to be a musician in France. King Louis XIV, after all, loved music and dance as much as he loved life, and he did all he could – and more than the royal coffers could afford – to support the careers of performing artists. Lucky for harpsichordist and composer Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729), she started life with a connection to the Sun King’s court, thanks to the harpsichords her father built.
She was educated at court, married an organist, and spent her whole life composing and playing music, revered as a virtuoso by her male colleagues. Yes, that was as rare for a woman at that time as you’d think, even in Paris.
Because harpsichord was her primary instrument, it’s no surprise that her earliest published works (in an era when only a small percentage of compositions were ever immortalized through publication) were her First Book of Pieces for Harpsichord in 1687. You can hear all of them on a new 50-track collection by Francesco Lanfranco, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre: Complete Harpsichord Works on Brilliant Classics. It’s an outstanding recording.
Typical of the early Baroque in general, these pieces are suites of short movements inspired by dances. And typical of the French Baroque in particular, the movements are often not named after the dance rhythms that inspired them, but are given names of the composer’s friends and patrons. We may never know who “Cannaris” was, but Lanfranco offers a satisfyingly wild spin through the movement named for him/her in the D minor suite:
Lanfranco is just as impressive at the other end of the emotional spectrum, with this mournful yet stately Sarabande from the A minor suite:
The first and third suites from that early collection were also recorded by French harpsichordist Marie van Rhijn on an album for the Evidence label called L’Inconstante. Here she plays the Chaconne that gives the album its name. Notice the difference in touch between Rhijn and Lanfranco. Rhijn’s ornamentation is overwhelming, obscuring the rhythmic and harmonic motion. Her playing does not sound grounded.
One of the things that sets Jacquet de la Guerre’s early works apart from her later pieces for solo harpsichord is the presence of a prelude movement to open each one. It’s our good fortune that she bothered with the preludes for a while, since they’re some of her most intricate and compelling compositions. Here’s one from another recent album, Suites pour le clavecin, Livres 1 et 2 (OnClassical). This video captures a brilliant performance by soloist Elisabetta Guglielmin, who wanders breathlessly along the prelude’s surprising turns like she’s finding her way through a magical forest:
The majority of movements, however, follow dance rhythms. Guglielmin’s playing of this Gavotte from the A minor sonata shows keen attention to historically informed practice: While it is notated and structured in strict duple time and four-bar phrases, Guglielmin keeps the phrasing supple, not square.
A harpsichordist at the turn into the 18th century would not have spent most of her time playing solo, but as continuo – the chordal accompaniment for melodic solo instruments. In Paris at the time, the most common melodic instrument for such pieces was the violin. E voi-là, Pan Classics has re-released a recording (previously on the Verso label) called Jacquet de La Guerre: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-6. Lina Tur Bonet is the violinist, with Kenneth Weiss on harpsichord, and Patxi Montero rounding out the continuo on viola da gamba.
Hang onto your hat when you listen to this lickety-split presto from Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor. (Four of the seven movements in this sonata are marked “Presto,” so the players must be truly knackered when they’re done!) Bonet is playing a Baroque violin with enough skill to take advantage of the scraping, echoey sound natural to that instrument, letting it help her shape the quick phrases so they burble and sparkle.
Violin Sonata No. 3 in F Major: III. Adagio
Until recently, scholars thought these violin sonatas were written just before their publication in 1707. But then manuscripts of some of them were found in the collection of Sébastien de Brossard – a theorist and composer and a good friend of Jacquet de la Guerre – dating back to around 1695, which shows they were composed earlier.
The members of the British ensemble The Bach Players are now experts on this after rooting around in Brossard’s library. Their new album, Chamber Music from the Brossard Collection (Coviello Classics), contains several complete and partial pieces by Jacquet de la Guerre – just the sort of thing a composer might hand to her pal to see what he thinks of her works in progress.
These tracks aren’t on YouTube, but you can hear them on Spotify, including this yearning rendition of the Trio Sonata for Two Flutes and Continuo in G Minor. A couple of interesting choices to note: 1) The Bach Players have substituted violins for the solo flutes. No one in Jacquet de la Guerre’s time would have blinked at that; you used whatever instruments and musicians you had available to get the job done. 2) This multi-movement sonata has been recorded as a single track with takes barely a breath between movements. Many experts in performance practice believe works like this would have been performed with one section flowing immediately into the next.
Just for fun and interest, here’s a video of three members of the Bach Players performing a Jacquet de la Guerre sonata live on period instruments in an appropriately Baroque setting. Notice how short that violin bow is! Especially in slow movements, the player has to learn to draw it over the strings at a much slower speed than she would a modern bow, or she’ll run out of real estate.
During her lifetime, Jacquet de la Guerre was as famous for her secular vocal works as for her instrumental music. Sadly, her pieces for singers haven’t been getting much love in the recording industry in the past few years. I’ll keep my ears open and report back.