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Conference on the Air de Cour at Versailles (Part 1 of 4)

Bibliothèque municipale de VersaillesI am here in France because I was invited to observe 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. This conference was officially opened yesterday by its organizer, Mme. Georgie Durosoir. The setting was magnificent, the stacks area of the ancien fonds of the Bibliothèque municipale de Versailles, an institution created in 1803 by the revolutionaries to house the great numbers of old and valuable books seized from the collections of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, Madame du Barry, and others. The building, on what is now the Rue de l'Indépendance américaine, was constructed by Jean-Baptiste Berthier under Louis XV in 1762, as the Hôtel des Affaires Etrangères (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Other rooms have been redesigned in this library for readers and the public, but normally only the librarians go into the rooms where we were, to retrieve books. It is a series of large rooms connected by archways (see photo above at right), with shelves of beautiful old books from floor to ceiling, at a height of 15 feet or so. The decoration is typically Baroque, with gold and white trim and large paintings of Louis XV and other prominent court figures.

We heard 30-minute papers (interventions or communications in French) from panels of three or four speakers each session, one each morning before enjoying a delicious and convivial lunch together. (As there were only about 40 people in attendence, this was possible.) Then there were two sessions in the afternoon, with a break for coffee, and a concert in the evening, either before or after dinner.

The air de cour (court aria or song) is a type of French song that was developed in the late Renaissance and reached its apogee in the first half of the 17th century. With the rise of French opera under Jean-Baptiste Lully in the later 17th century, the air de cour declined and eventually disappeared. (The decline of the air de cour is documented through the career of Michel Lambert in the biography by Catherine Massip, L'art de bien chanter: Michel Lambert (1610-1696), which I reviewed in Music & Letters 83 [2002]: 449-453.) The air de cour is typically sung by a solo voice to the accompaniment of a lute, that most quintessential of French court instruments. However, as it was also used in the ballet de cour, which is my area of interest, airs de cour may also be found with multiple vocal parts that could be sung by a small ensemble or a large chorus, with or without the accompaniment of lutes or other instruments. Since this is music for the royal court or for private homes, the poetry is usually secular, often about love either desired or experienced, and with the general desire to be witty and charming, even when sad. The music of the best airs de cour meets the same criteria, generally preferring grace of line and clarity of declamation to the vocal pyrotechnics more typical of Italian music of the same period. This is not to say that the singers of airs de cour were not as skilled as their Italian counterparts, because they had their own tradition of ornamentation. When used in the context of a ballet de cour, where the king and queen and their noble friends shared the stage with professional dancers, professional singers and composers had the chance to perform and compose more dramatic examples of the air de cour, at dramatic moments in the ballet's action.

At the first session, historian Jean-François Dubost presented his findings about the musical patronage of Marie de Médicis and her entourage. She had no great taste for music but kept a modest group of instrumentalists and singers in her employ, to provide music for herself at meals, Mass, and occasions like births. Interestingly, although she could have brought some musicians with her from Italy, she chose not to do so. In any given year, the queen's annual music expenditures comprised, at maximum, 2% of her annual budget. The singers were both adults and boys (known as pages), trained and educated in the royal household, a model of schooling now being imitated by the École Maîtrisienne de Versailles, associated with the CMBV. Marie did have instructors for her son, the future Louis XIII, who enjoyed playing both the lute and the épinette, an early type of keyboard instrument, for his mother in her apartments. Louis became not only an important patron of music, much greater than his parents, but also a composer.

Françoise Bayard, a historian of economics, gave a paper on the lives of financiers in the early 17th century. As men who lent on credit to just about everyone in this period, their own personal wealth meant that they could live in the style of nobility. Using information from archival documents known as inventaires après décès, inventories of a house's entire contents made room by room after the death of the head of family, Mme. Bayard gave some idea of the role music had and sometimes did not have in the lives of these men and their families. Most had several instruments, especially lutes and épinettes, in prominent rooms. If they were noted in closets, you may draw your own conclusions. Giuliano Ferretti gave an interesting paper on the use of political airs de cour against the interests of Richelieu. He played a recording of some of these songs, which I believe may soon be released on CD. The cardinal spent even less on music than Marie de Médicis, preferring to support literary work instead. It is most fitting that the political air de cour, simple enough for servants and other common workers to sing them, should be used so effectively against him.

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