Monday 10 May 2021

"Heard a practice mighty good of Grebus" - Samuel Pepys and the tantalising Louis Grabu

The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675
The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675

On 20 February 1666 (1667), Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that the leader of King Charles II's band of violins (which the King had created in emulation of his cousin King Louis XIV's violin band), John Bannister, was "mad that the King hath a Frenchman come to be chief of some part of the King’s musique, at which the Duke of York made great mirth." This is the first of four tantalising references in his diary that Pepys makes to Louis Grabu (whom Pepys would call Grebus). 

Grabu was a Catalan, who trained in Paris, but the entirety of his documented career was in London. He seems to first appear in the mid-1660s, Charles II appointed him as a composer for his own private music in 1665, and with the death of the composer Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666) Grabu became the second person to hold the title Master of the King's Musick. Grabu was both a composer and a violinist and seems to have been brought in to improve standards with the violin band and the spat with Bannister (as reported by Pepys) seems to be related to this, Grabu had Bannister replaced with allegations of impropriety.

There are a few more comments about Grabu in Pepys. In October 1667 Pepys hears a piece by Grabu in Whitehall, "an English song upon Peace. But, God forgive me! I never was so little pleased with a concert of musick in my life. The manner of setting of words and repeating them out of order, and that with a number of voices, makes me sick, the whole design of vocall musick being lost by it." Though even Pepys has to admit that in instrumental music, Grabu's regime of practice with the violin band had paid dividends. 

In November 1667 we find Pepys playing music with the composers Pelham Humfrey (1647-1674) and William Smegergill (fl.1615-1667), whom Pepys calls Mr Caesar. This is the famously disparaging passage about Humphreys, "lately returned from France, and is an absolute Monsieur, as full of form, and confidence, and vanity, and disparages everything, and everybody’s skill but his own", so naturally Humphreys has disparaging things to say about Grabu and about Thomas Blagrave (who was Royal musician for King Charles II). The final Pepys entry is April 1668 when he hears Grabu in a "fiddling concert" and is complimentary about his playing.

Grabu remained in post until 1673 when, as a Roman Catholic, he fell foul of the Test Act. But he remained in London and busied himself with the theatre.

The French composer Robert Cambert (c. 1628–1677) helped found the Académie Royale de Musique in 1669, and his opera Pomone (1671) is regarded as the first French opera. But in 1673, after various machinations, Jean-Baptise Lully (1632-1682), who had become something of a favourite with King Louis XIV, was given total control of Académie Royale de Musique. Furious at the insult, and at the lack of interest in his work shown by the French monarchy, Cambert left France to pursue a career in England.

English music at the time was in a fascinating state of flux. The Restoration of the monarchy had brought a wealth of musical influences and musicians from the Continent. Whilst there were Italian musicians in London, the prevailing style of music at Court was French. King Charles II had spent time, whilst in exile, at his cousin's court in France and had developed a taste for French instrumental music. Hence his founding of the select band of violins at court in emulation of a similar ensemble at the French court. Grabu seems to have been employed specifically because of his skill in this area. We know nothing about Grabu's training, and whilst there is speculation that he studied with Lully, the fact that Grabu would become involved with Robert Cambert's projects in London suggests some sort of link between the two as well.

Cambert seems to have been involved in staging three operas in London. Pomone, which had extra music by Grabu,  Les peines et les plaisirs de l'Amour and Ariane, ou Le mariage de Bacchus. Though there is some disagreement as to whether the first two were actually staged, we know that Ariane was staged in 1674 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. It was said to be an opera by Grabu (the music is unfortunately lost), but Peter Holman (in his article for Grove) comments that this "seems to have been an expanded version of Cambert's Ariane, first given in 1659." The project was not a success. Whilst the court might have enjoyed French-style instrumental music with the King liking to be able to tap his feet to whatever he was listening to, French-style opera never seems to have prospered, and the production of Ariane with its new prologue celebrating the marriage of Duke of York, and Mary of Modena, and printed librettos with the dedication to King Charles II was seen as highly royalist and hence attracted anti-Royalist and anti-Catholic sentiment. By 1677, Cambert had died (in mysterious circumstances) and Grabu was petitioning the King for financial aid.

Dorset Garden Theatre in 1673
Dorset Gardens Theatre in 1673
He got by, by writing music for the theatre and was eventually recruited by the impresario Thomas Betterton for a new operatic project. John Dryden (appointed England's first Poet Laureate in 1668) was planning an operatic tribute to King Charles II. It ended up being in two parts, the prologue one evening, the main project the next. The prologue became Albion and Albanius which was set by Louis Grabu in the style of a French tragédie en musique. Dryden had written the words in 1680, but didn't manage to get the performance of Albion and Albanius together until 1685. Rehearsals were interrupted by King Charles II's death, and when the production finally took place (after the period of Court mourning) at Dorset Gardens Theatre, it ran for six days before Monmouth's rebellion interrupted things again. The political disturbances of the period meant that anything like full-scale opera had to wait until after 1688's Glorious Revolution. And then, when the second part was finally created, it was as a semi-opera, Purcell's King Arthur. Whilst Albion and Albanius has been generally forgotten, it is in fact the earliest surviving full-length English opera. The only earlier opera that survives is John Blow's Venus and Adonis (from 1683) which is far shorter.

Grabu finally left England in 1693, when he entirely disappears from the record. He is one of those characters who seem to flit across the stage and never make a real impression. You wonder what happened to him and his family (he married a Parisian woman in the Catholic Chapel at St James's Palace in 1673 and his passport from the King allowing him to return to France mentions his wife and children).

His music does not seem to have survived very well, with many pieces in incomplete or poor sources. Where it does survive, then Holman comments that "The orchestral music in Pastoralle (1684) and Albion and Albanius uses the French five-part orchestral scoring, with a single violin part, three violas and bass". One of the weaknesses of Grabu's writing seems to be his difficulty setting English words, hence probably Pepys' disparaging comments about the music for that song for peace. Effectively, Albion and Albanius is a Lullian grand opera with English words, and admit it, even though you know that the setting of Dryden's text is poor and that piece might outstay its welcome, you're rather curious about what it sounds like!

The French style never entirely went away from England in the 17th and early years of the 18th century. But London never adopted the full-scale style of the French grand opera, it was probably too intimately linked with the French Royal court for comfort. When John Eccles (1668-1735) came to write his opera Semele in 1706 [see my article], he was very influenced by early Italian operas. But the French-style, particularly in the instrumental writing would play a significant role in Purcell's music.

If you type Louis Grabu into Amazon you get very little indeed. Occasionally one of his instrumental pieces pops up, but no-one seems to have made a determined effort to explore his music. Perhaps the problem is that we see him as an English composer, whereas he seems to have been employed in England specifically because of his embodiment of the French style.  I will leave the final comment to Peter Holman (whose article for Grove seems to be the largest scale piece of writing about Grabu), "His part-writing is always competent, and if it sounds bland compared to Locke or Purcell, that is because he worked within a tradition that valued elegant melody, used relatively little dissonance, and concentrated most of the musical interest in the outer parts. At his best, as in the remarkable suite he wrote to accompany the dream sequence in Act 3 of Valentinian, he was a highly effective exponent of the French orchestral idiom."

References to Louis Grabu in Samuel Pepys' diary

Wednesday 20 February 1666/67

Here they talk also how the King’s viallin, —[violin]— Bannister [John Bannister, leader of King Charles' band of violins], is mad that the King hath a Frenchman come to be chief of some part of the King’s musique, at which the Duke of York made great mirth.

Tuesday 1 October 1667 

So took coach alone, it now being almost night, to White Hall, and there in the Boarded-gallery did hear the musick with which the King is presented this night by Monsieur Grebus, the master of his musick; both instrumentall — I think twenty-four violins — and vocall; an English song upon Peace. But, God forgive me! I never was so little pleased with a concert of musick in my life. The manner of setting of words and repeating them out of order, and that with a number of voices, makes me sick, the whole design of vocall musick being lost by it. Here was a great press of people; but I did not see many pleased with it, only the instrumental musick he had brought by practice to play very just.

Friday 15 November 1667 

Thence I away home, calling at my mercer’s and tailor’s, and there find, as I expected, Mr. Caesar [William Smegergill, English composer] and little Pelham Humphreys, lately returned from France, and is an absolute Monsieur, as full of form, and confidence, and vanity, and disparages everything, and everybody’s skill but his own. The truth is, every body says he is very able, but to hear how he laughs at all the King’s musick here, as Blagrave [Thomas Blagrave, violinist and composer, Royal musician for both King Charles I & King Charles II] and others, that they cannot keep time nor tune, nor understand anything; and that Grebus, the Frenchman, the King’s master of the musick, how he understands nothing, nor can play on any instrument, and so cannot compose: and that he will give him a lift out of his place; and that he and the King are mighty great! and that he hath already spoke to the King of Grebus would make a man piss. I had a good dinner for them, as a venison pasty and some fowl, and after dinner we did play, he on the theorbo. Mr. Caesar on his French lute, and I on the viol, but made but mean musique, nor do I see that this Frenchman do so much wonders on the theorbo, but without question he is a good musician, but his vanity do offend me.

Wednesday 15 April 1668 

Back [to Whitehall], and to the fiddling concert, and heard a practice mighty good of Grebus

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