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Concerts at Versailles (Part 1 of 2)

The Automne Musical is a series of concerts organized by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. The colloquium on which I have been reporting (L'air de cour au temps d'Henry IV et de Louis XIII) was meant to introduce the theme of this year's concerts for the Grandes Journées in the Château de Versailles, on the them of Louis XIII musicien et les musiciens de Louis XIII. You can purchase the book-size program of the concert series (Louis XIII musicien et les musiciens de Louis XIII, edited by Georgie Durosoir and Thomas Leconte, with contributions from a team of excellent scholars) for 10 euros. Through the generosity of the scholars of the CMBV (M. Pierre Pellerin, in particular), I was able to attend the first two concerts on the evening of October 11.

The first concert featured The Parley of Instruments, an English group directed by Peter Holman, playing a program of dance music composed for Louis XIII's instrumental group, the Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roy. This concert took place in the Opéra royal du château de Versailles, which is an unusual choice, historically, but practical. The connection betweem the music of Louis XIII's court and Versailles is tenuous, joined only by the fact that it was Louis XIII who first had the hunting lodge at Versailles enlarged to be a suitable dwelling place. Along with music and dance, this king's greatest passion was hunting, and Versailles's location gave him comfortable proximity to his game. Technically, any location in the Château would have been artificial, so the golden Baroque neoclassical surroundings of the opera theater (not even constructed until the time of Louis XV in 1770) were as appropriate as any. (The unusual ceiling space is filled with this illusionistic painting.) The theater was in its stage formation (the floor can be mechanically raised to join with the stage to create a great hall), and we were seated in the amphitheatre area, the large balcony where the king and queen were normally seated, in full view of the entire house. In a sense the spectacle of royal life was just as important as the staged spectacle.

There was a slight change in the program, because it began with an air de cour composed by Louis XIII ("Tu crois ô beau Soleil"), with an accompaniment in épinette tablature by de la Barre, which was published in Marin Mersenne's book Harmonie universelle (1636). This tune was already in our ears, since Sophie Landy had sung it unaccompanied on the radio program Cordes Sensibles earlier in the afternoon (see post on October 13), but Holman's group played an arrangement in four parts. At the end of the concert, Louis XIII's air de cour was played again as an encore. The program featured dance pieces by Pierre-Francisque Caroubel, Michael Praetorius, Jehan Henry "Le Jeune," and Étienne Nau, but the central focus of the concert was the performance of the complete suite of dance music for the Ballet de la Merlaison (1635), the composition of which is also attributed to Louis XIII.

The Ballet de la Merlaison was danced by Louis XIII and his court gentlemen on March 15, 1635, at the Château de Chantilly, and again on March 17, at the Abbey of Royaumont. An extraordinaire [supplementary report], published in the Gazette on March 22, states:

Everything about the ballet was admired, but especially the rapidity with which the King spent hardly a few hours, instead of the days normally required, to compose a Ballet (whose subject was the blackbird hunt, which His Majesty greatly enjoys in the winter), and to create the choreography, songs, and the costume designs, because all was the work of His Majesty.
The Gazette also describes each of the dances, who performed them and what they represented, which in the program from the CMBV have been connected to the piece of music in the Philidor manuscript. (A fictionalized version of this event appears in Chapter 22 of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers.)

One of the highlights of the evening for the mostly French audience was the short presentation given, in French, by one of the English players. Contrary to the perception some have of French attitudes, I think it is generally true that the typical French person is quite forgiving of a foreigner's accent and mistakes of grammar. The laughter that was heard seemed to imply both amusement and the sense of charm that you can feel when a foreigner makes a worthy attempt to speak your language. The surroundings for this concert were magnificent, but I found the style of playing to be somewhat monochromatic. Perhaps this is the fault of the repertory, because the style of music was intentionally simple, with a melody worked out typically on a tiny hand violin by a dancing master with the steps in mind and then filled out by an apprentice composer. It may be that the element of excitement that seemed to be missing from the performance was the movement of magnificently costumed dancers, playing out the actions of Flemish cage-carriers, farmers, and pistol-hunters, with the King dancing the role of a net-seller's wife, as the Gazette put it, "for the pleasure of mingling with his subjects in this nice entertainment shows that the most august Majesties can be quite comfortable in something other than supercilious severity."

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