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Conference on the Air de Cour at Versailles (Part 3 of 4)

We continue today with a report on the second day of an international colloquium on the air de cour of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (L'air de cour au temps d'Henry IV et de Louis XIII), hosted by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. (Here are Part 1 and Part 2.)

Claude Vignon, Young Singer, c. 1623There were two morning sessions today, the first on the manuscript sources of the air de cour. Presided over by M. Gérard Geay of the CMBV, the two papers dealt with how the air de cour filtered throughout French society in other forms. François-Pierre Goy spoke about the transcriptions and arrangements of the air de cour for lute and mandolin. Laurent Guillo presented his findings concerning illustrated collections of airs de cour which were copied by hand. The second morning session was titled "Théorie que me veux-tu?" [What do you want from me, Theory?] and was presided over by the organizer of the colloquium, Mme. Georgie Durosoir. In this session, Gérard Geay spoke about counterpoint and its role in the air de cour, and Marie Demeilliez did the same for the theoretical concept of the basse continue (or figured bass) and how it was adapted to this genre. Théodora Psychoyou also presented a summary of how the air de cour was discussed in contemporary theory treatises.

The afternoon session was the most interesting for me, because it dealt with the presence of the air de cour in other social areas. Thomas Leconte of the CMBV spoke about the unusual play known as the Comédie des Chansons, from 1640. This play in five acts has no music published with its text, but the entire text is apparently taken verbatim from pre-existing airs de cour and other types of songs. If the play was indeed sung with the tunes of the corresponding source songs, which M. Leconte was not at all willing to admit was certain, the Comédie des Chansons would be the first complete French play to be put to music and sung throughout. M. Leconte has accomplished the Herculean task of identifying a large portion of the source songs, which he shared with us this afternoon. He hopes to identify all the lines of the play and thereby to confirm whether every line is indeed taken from a pre-existing song. As for why the Comédie des Chansons was created or who created it, M. Leconte would offer only theories. Although Charles de Bey has been considered as the possible author, M. Leconte states that there is no real evidence to support that claim. That it may be associated with the opera parodies of the foires or the Italian Comedians may be more plausible, since one of the characters is named Jodelet, the stage name of an actor with one of those troupes.

Barbara Nestola of the CMBV next presented her findings on airs de cour with Italian texts and the literary sources from which they were taken. One of the most fascinating social trends in 17th- and 18th-century France was the spiritual parody, the subject of Marc Desmet's paper on the collection known as La pieuse alouette. Catholic leaders, especially among the Jesuits, favored the coopting of air de cour melodies, as long as they were published with new sacred texts. The lamento model of the air de cour, in these spiritual parodies, transformed the sighs of the abandoned or unhappy lover into the cries of woe of St. Sebastian pierced with arrows, for example; the ecstasy of the lover whose love is returned into the joy of the penitent delivered from the devil; and the lustful longing of the unsatisfied lover into the yearning of the soul for union with God. This harnessed some of the power of the air de cour as social theater to create, as Desmet put it, "une machine à convertir" [a proselytization machine]. John Powell (University of Tulsa) spoke about some examples of songs that were performed as part of Latin plays presented by students in Jesuit schools in the 17th century. Prof. Powell presented them as airs de cour because of the tone of their texts, although music has not survived for most of them. Jean Duron, director of the CMBV, disagreed in no uncertain terms, and this provoked a very lively discussion to end the scholarly part of the day.

The day officially ended with an unusual performance of a play by Pierre-Alain Clerc and Lisandro Abadie, given in the same room in the Bibliothèque municipale de Versailles. It is called L'Impromptu de l'Evêché: Dialogue pour un chanteur et son claveciniste, and it cleverly weaves together scenes and songs from works by La Fontaine, Molière and Lully, Chabanceau de la Barre, and Lambert. The play tells the story of two actors who learn that the rest of their troupe will not arrive in time to present a play to their patron, an archbishop. At the last minute, they throw together scenes that the two of them along can perform.