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Airs de Cour


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The Air de Cour

Courtly Song, which dominated secular vocal music in France in the early 17th century, lived up to its name. It was music written largely to conform with the manners and conventions cultivated at the courts of Kings Henri IV (r. 1589-1610) and especially Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643) where the King's favour became the ultimate mark of success and source of power. Both the over-ripe texts of these songs, of extreme and often unrequited love, in which the beloved's eyes are typically altars (or suns) before which her suitor languishes in distress, and their suave and rhythmically evasive melodies, reflect a society rich in excess, intrigue and dissembling, all the more fascinating for being so distant, no less impressive for being so introverted.

Many of these anonymous texts, and some melodies, were written by members of the nobility themselves, but most airs that survive in print were the work of senior musicians (singer-composers) in the service of the King or other members of the royal family. The earliest of these was Pierre Guédron, highly esteemed as Superintendant of the King's music from 1613 till his death around 1620. He was succeeded a few years later by his equally celebrated son-in-law Anthoine Boesset (d. 1643). Such musical dynasties were commonplace in a system where offices could be inherited as well as sold or granted by royal favour, and these composers knew and learned from each other, promoting great stylistic conformity as time went on. Boesset himself passed on some of his offices to his son, Jean-Baptiste, who may be the composer of O dieux je ne sçais pas, one of the latest airs recorded here and the only one found in a manuscript source.

The only other composer seriously to rival the success of Guédron and Boesset was Etienne Moulinié (d. after 1669) who worked not for the King but for his treacherous and somewhat dissolute younger brother, Gaston d'Orléans, from 1628 till Gaston's death in 1660. Two other musicians are also strongly connected with the repertoire recorded here, however. Jean-Baptiste Besard and Gabriel Bataille were the first musicians to arrange and publish airs with lute accompaniments, working either from the composers' original melody-bass outlines, or from more elaborate part-songs for four or five voices. In 1608 Gabriel Bataille arranged airs like Guédron's Si le parler in this way, in the first of a lengthy and hugely successful series of Parisian prints which are now among the principal sources for the lute-air. But this was anticipated by Besard, who similarly arranged Guédron's Adieu bergére and Si jamais mon âme among others for his ‘Thesaurus Harmonicus’ (Cologne, 1603), adding what are probably his own ornaments. Exceptionally, Besard also arranged a part-song air for solo lute (Vous me juries - known as the 'King's courante' in other sources), and adapted the old, popular melody of 'Une jeune fillette' to lute-song form with the text Ma belle si ton âme, replacing the conventional repeat of the last line with a delightful solo lute reprise.

Most of these songs belong to the most common category of courtly air, that of the air sérieux: suave, elegant songs, often in a free rhythm (that is, without regularly recurring accents) on the usual themes of what we might call the '3 L's' - lauding, loving and languishing. But the air de cour incorporated several sub-genres. One was the récit, represented on this disc by Guédron's fine Soupirs meslés d'amour. For most of its life the récit was a dramatic song integrated into the action of a court ballet - a spectacular and varied entertainment which was the main precursor of French opera. But for a brief period the term acquired a purely stylistic connotation where a mixture of expressive figures, speech rhythms and ornamentation in the melody sacrificed suavity to emotional intensity. Guédron was the master of this form, brought to its peak in a small group of airs published at the end of his life, of which Soupirs is one.

Another sub-genre was the Dialogue - a duet for various voice pairings, typically consisting of alternating lines followed by combined voices in the refrain. This form would allow future generations to cut their teeth on a dramatic type of song before delving into opera, but here it most commonly exploits oppositions (life/death in Mourons Tirsis, pleasure/torment in Heureux qui nuit et jour). Moulinié's delightful Objét le plus beau, like the following solo air Je suis ravi, exploits a different theme, however. Both songs head his third collection of airs of 1629, dedicated to 'the lovely Uranie ... whose rarest beauties demand homage'. The identity of Uranie remains a mystery, though Gaston's current mistress, Marie de Gonzague, has been suggested as a candidate. It was in any event common to address a lover or patroness pseudonymously in this way, and 'Uranie' may well have played and sung Moulinié's songs as esteemed in a lady of the French court.

The notation of early music is rarely a very explicit guide to performance, and in this air de cour is no exception. Two issues in particular face an attempt to revive them in contemporary performance. One is the changing nature of pronunciation, which in this recording is sung in the original. The other is ornamentation (or 'diminution'), which would have been added spontaneously to the songs by singers capable of it. Two airs here are significant for having such improvised ornaments written out in surviving sources, however. O dieux je ne sçais pas is an example where an ornamented variant of the melody is included in the manuscript, and in his mighty encyclopedia of music, the ‘Harmonie Universelle’ of 1636, the theorist Marin Mersenne included the diminutions of celebrated singers/composers for Boesset's lovely N'espérez plus mes yeux to exemplify the art. Fine examples by the singer Henri Le Bailly and Etienne Moulinié himself are used here, revealing a further level of riches in these songs.

When Besard and Bataille first published these airs with lute accompaniments they were probably only restoring them to something like their original conception, for the lute was the standard compositional tool for these songwriters much as the piano would be for nineteenth-century composers, or the guitar for popular songwriters today. But they were also exploiting the popularity of the lute which flourished in France even as it declined elsewhere in Europe. The solo lute pieces included on this recording further testify to that popularity. They include popular forms like the Branle de Village, with its drone bass in imitation of rustic instruments such as bagpipes or hurdy gurdy, and the Bergamasco with its many variations over a simple, repeated harmonic formula. More courtly in aesthetic are the Entrée, a simple prelude originally played by many lutes to accompany the entrance of dancers for a court ballet, and the Courante, by far the favoured dance form of the period, with its characteristic upbeat and triple-time cross-rhythms, starting to exploit the discontinuous arpeggios of the extraordinary stile brisé. They make highly suitable complements to the airs, and the lost ideals of the courtly society they reflect.

Jonathan Le Cocq
January 1999


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