In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French air was considered a popular genre, intended for immediate consumption. Highly regarded composers such as Jean-Baptiste Lully and François Couperin, along with their amateur contemporaries, wrote airs exploring the full gamut of human emotions. Whether expressing unrequited love, coyness, lust, drunkenness, sorrow or despair, the air was employed as an emotive vehicle much like the pop tunes of today. French airs are of particular interest to the modern listener because they represent urban music that was separate from the sophisticated taste and etiquette associated with lofty court entertainment.
The publisher Ballard’s Recueil d’airs sérieux et à boire (Collection of serious and drinking songs) was the leading periodical publication of songs in France, eagerly awaited by Parisians of the time. It was first published quarterly, then monthly, and was renamed chansons choisies (selected songs) in 1724. Starting around 1690, some women composers found voice in this fashionable practice of publishing airs, including the noted composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, amateur composers from among the nobility, and women who disguised their identities by using asterisks in place of their names. The melodies of these airs are elegantly simple, easy to remember, and some are exquisite miniatures. We include in our program songs from two otherwise unknown women, Mlle Herault and Mlle ***, who paved the way for our featured composer, Julie Pinel.
Pinel published her own collection of songs, Nouveau recueil d’airs sérieux et à boire, in 1737, by which time women composers as well as performers were gaining far more acceptance in contemporary society than ever before. Female roles at court were finally granted to female singers (diminishing the necessity for Italian castrati!). Gradually, professional female instrumentalists earned recognition as well, arising first within musical families such as the Couperins. Women also started taking on direct and indirect familial roles as publishers (for instance, the Ballard family as well as Boivin’s widow, sisters, and daughters). The Parisian salons, a female parallel to the male academies of the 16th and early 17th centuries, served as unique gathering places where artists and intellectuals met to perform and discuss sacred and secular music, as well as literature and fine arts. Throughout the 17th century, women not only performed airs during salon gatherings but also wrote lyric poetry set to music by important composers such as Michel Lambert. It is not surprising, therefore, that Pinel wrote the texts for many of her own songs, identifying herself as poet in the score. Evidence of the success women composers enjoyed was the wide-spread fame of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, whose music had already been published, and who was recognized by a contemporary as belonging among the “great musicians.” A child prodigy from a family of musicians, Jacquet de la Guerre wrote both vocal music and the largest body of instrumental music by a French Baroque woman composer. She was also the first woman in France to compose an opera.
All that we know with certainty about Julie Pinel stems from the dedication of her collection of songs to the Prince of Soubize, whom she described as Lieutenant Captain of the Royal Guard. It was common practice to seek the patronage of an influential individual, in order to ensure public acceptance and, to a certain extent, the success of the publication. The Prince in question must have been Charles de Rohan, whose family occupied important military and government positions. Charles moved to Paris in 1700 and was a devoted friend of Mme Pompadour. In her dedication, Pinel states that “it has been the good fortune of my family, for more than fifty-five years, to be associated with your illustrious household, in which I, so to speak, received enlightenment (an education), and that is what seems to permit me the liberty I am taking to offer you my first published work.”
Pinel must have come from a branch of the Pinel family of musicians. As Jean-Marc Warszawski informs us, Germain Pinel (1600–1661) was Louis XIV’s lute teacher, as well as court lutenist and theorbo player; in fact, one of the highest paid musicians in the service of the king. Germain’s younger brother François and his son Séraphin in turn succeeded him as court lutenists. Julie Pinel may well have been the composer of the air by “Pinet la fille” in the Recueil d’airs sérieux et à boire published in 1710, and another air by “Melle. P.” in the collection from 1720.
Julie Anne Sadie’s research on Julie Pinel’s music first appeared in 1986, and was included in an article in the book Women Making Music, ed. Judith Tick and Jane Bowers, so it is rather surprising that her music has not been recorded until now. Despite appearing ‘uncomplicated’ on paper, the quality of Pinel’s music should by no means be underestimated.
A note on our performance choices: in order to bring out Pinel’s mastery and show the variety of sound and texture that the music of this period can achieve, we aim to present the music in several different combinations of voices and accompaniment. Such flexibility in performing forces would have been a common and desirable practice during the period, as the choice of voice type(s) and instrument(s) would have depended upon availability for any given performance. For instance, Pinel’s Rossignols is scored with an obbligato part for flutes; the score provides an indication for more than one flute, but we have chosen to use a single flute. We have also replaced the soprano voice with that of a tenor. In Boccages the viola da gamba employs strumming and pizzicato technique in the popular style as part of the accompaniment. We have also transposed this piece down a tone. Pourquoy is transposed down a fourth, and the instrumental sections are intabulations of the song for the harpsichord. All instrumental introductions and additions have been added in accordance with the performance practice of the period. We have also employed the use of period ornamentation, especially on repeats.
The lives of Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Antonia Bembo exhibit both parallels and contrasts. Both composers enjoyed the patronage of Louis XIV. Jacquet de la Guerre was a child prodigy who performed the harpsichord for him at a young age; Bembo came under his patronage as an adult. Jacquet de la Guerre was granted honors as a musician and placed on the same plane as the great Jean-Baptiste Lully; her music was handsomely and accurately engraved. Bembo, however, never received any such recognition, and we have only rather hard-to-read manuscripts of her music.
In Jacquet de la Guerre’s Trio Sonata in D, the speed of the harmonic rhythm and the major tonality of the first movement suggest an Italian andante rather than a slow French overture-like movement, followed by a presto rather than an allegro. The subsequent movement bears the only tempo indication in Brossard’s manuscript, allegro. The last full movement, a rondo, does resemble a French dance and at times briefly features the viola da gamba as soloist. Most striking are the slower sections before and in the middle of the allegro, which sound so much like recitatives that one wonders whether there was a story line behind the music. At the very least, these sections suggest that we should view the piece as a multi-sectional Italian sonata with a French influence—a delightful example of Les goûts réunis (mixed French and Italian styles). Our program also includes Jacquet de la Guerre’s playful violin sonata in D major.
In Les sept Pseaumes de David, the magnificent creativity of Bembo comes together with that of the writer, musician, and painter Elisabeth Chéron, who had the rare honor of being elected to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. According to accepted religious history, the psalms were written by the biblical King David. In the sixth century, the monk Cassiodorus labeled those psalms that acknowledge King David’s sins and his hope for God’s forgiveness “The Seven Penitential Psalms.” Chéron’s paraphrase of these psalms, which she titled Pseaumes de la penitence, served as Bembo’s text. Tonight we will perform Psalm XXXVII, in which the vocal and continuo parts are more reminiscent of opera than of a sacred piece. Throughout, Bembo reuses a phrase from the first ritournelle to great effect. It is initially presented by the violins and appears immediately thereafter in the vocal part, sung to the text “I suffer pain.” It appears again, in part, at the beginning of verse 8, and is fully developed in the last section, preparing the listener for the final sincere and moving plea for salvation.
We finish our performance with the charming air Aux plus heureux, in which the sweetness of life resides in the pleasure of love and drink, helping to bring our program to a celebratory close.