Tuesday 22 November 2022

Music for French Kings; Amanda Babington introduces us to the fascinating sound-world of the musette in French Baroque music

Music for French Kings; Amanda Babington, Claire Babington, David Smith; Deux Elles
Music for French Kings; Amanda Babington, Claire Babington, David Smith; Deux Elles
Reviewed 22 November 2022 (★★★★)

A delightful disc that opens a window onto the fascinating sound-world of the musette; originally a folk instrument but here domesticated and introduced to French aristocratic salons

The musette's closest relatives are both in the small pipes family, Northumbrian pipes and Uilleann pipes, but whereas these instruments have stayed firmly in the folk and popular traditions, the musette came into the salon and there is a significant French Baroque repertoire for the instrument.

On this new disc, Music for French Kings on the Deux Elles label, Amanda Babington (musette), Claire Babington (cello) and David Smith (harpsichord) play a selection of French Baroque works for musette and continuo, with music by Nicolas Chédeville, Borjon de Scellery, Esprit-Philippe Chédeville, Jean Hotteterre, Colin Charpentier and Domenico Scarlatti.

The musette started out as a pastoral instrument, probably mouth-blown, but by the 17th century a bellows-blown one had developed and had been adopted by the aristocracy, which meant of course that French composers wrote for the instrument! The first known treatise on the instrument dates from 1672, written by Borjon de Scellery whose music features on the disc as does that by Jean Hottettere from a family of court-based wind players who seem to have turned their attention to the instrument.

It helped that there was the aristocratic fashion for playing at being peasants, playing the pastoral.

This was well before Marie Antoinette and her dairy. King Louis XIV held 'peasant' soirées where he would dress in costume (made of silk, of course) and the music played would include the musette. It began to be featured in other repertoires including ballets. In her fascinating introductory history of the instrument in the CD booklet, Amanda Babington warns against being too definitive, it simply is not possible to be sure quite which type of musette was being used, mouth-blown or bellows-blown. 

From the early 1700s, the popularity of the work with amateur players, thanks to the King's espousal of it, led to the creation of repertoire aimed specifically at this amateur market, but there were virtuosos too. The disc includes music by Nicolas Chédeville and Colin Charpentier who were virtuoso musette players who performed at the Concerts Spirituel. 

The decline in interest would probably have happened anyway, but its links to the aristocracy meant that the instrument was almost totally eradicated during the Revolution. But the idea that a piece of music with a drone accompaniment persisted and the musette occurs as a marking in music by Handel, Brahms, Grieg and Bartok and many more.

For this disc, Amanda Babington has chosen music from a selection of composers writing for the French monarch, music that has not been featured on disc before. 

In Nicolas Chédeville’s suite (published between 1739 and 1750), Les Deffis; ou l’étude d’amusement (The Challenges; or the study of fun) each movement has a title and is dedicated to a patron (or perhaps future patron). There are 30 movements in all, though this is not really a dance suite instead each movement portrays a character or emotion, so each one has a distinct character. Babington gives us a selection, 'L'Italiene', 'Les Plaisirs Militaire', 'Menuet', 'Les Tendres Fleurettes', 'Le Chinois' and 'Les Tourbillons' with music moving between the gracious, the angular pseudo-Oriental (and no, it doesn't sound Oriental at all) to the flurries of the windmills in the last movement. The music is vivid and strongly coloured, whilst clearly anchored in the period.

The Branle was a traditional peasant dance, and these feature in Borjon de Scellery's treatise of 1672 as examples of the sort of repertoire the instrument played. Far more folk in style, and performed by Amanda Babington alone, it is a lovely demonstration of the original style of the instrument.

Esprit-Philippe Chédeville was Nicolas' brother, and his compositions mix French dance forms with Italian influences. Published by 1742, his Op. 6 Sonatilles Galantes are his most Italianate compositions, consisting of four movements that follow the usual pattern (slow-fast-slow-fast) associated with Italian sonatas, and are written for serious and competent players. There is something seductive about the sound-world of this music, the mix of French and Italian styles with the musette itself as an added thread.

By contrast to the Chédevilles' modernism, Jean Hotteterre’s Pièces pour la Muzette (published posthumously in 1722) are more old-fashioned, this is a dance-suite proper mixing dance movements with Entrées in the manner of a ballet. Hotteterre was linked to the court, so these may well be pieces written originally for King Louis XIV. Babington suggests that given the simplicity and directness of the music, the pieces may well originally date from the late 17th century and have been played at the more intimate occasions at court. We hear seven movements from the opening 'Marche des Bergers' through a variety of dances to the final 'Rondeau Champetre'.

Colin Charpentier was a virtuoso musette player, though little is known about him. His Amusemens was published in the 1740s and its audience seems to have been his female students. We hear two movements, the overture and a gavotte.

There is a significant amount of anonymous repertoire for the instrument. Les Amusements de Chambre dates from around 1730 but little more is known about the work. The title page describes it as 'Songs for musettes and hurdy-gurdies/distributed in six Suites/three duos, and three solos/with a pot-pourri at the end)' and Babington gives us the fourth suite which seems geared up to the musette. The movements are all short, with titles describing the dance or the mood and Babington suggests the music is again earlier than the publication date. The sound-world is very civilised, the musette being domesticated into the salon

The French publication of Domenico Scarlatti's Opus 4 keyboard sonatas is mysterious. So far as is known Scarlatti never published an Opus 4, and at least some of them are indicated as being for the musette, an instrument that Scarlatti never composed for. Instead, the sonatas are thought to be by Nicolas Chédeville, and he is known to have published a set of sonatas in 1737 as being by Antonio Vivaldi! These are charming pieces, and no they don't sound anything like Domenico Scarlatti but what the hell.

We end with another movement from Les Amusements de Chambre, a delightfully crazy pot-pourri that seems to hark back to the instrument's origins and is here performed solo.

The musette has a very distinctive sound with its buzzing tone and constant drones. In a way, it is surprising to find the instrument in such exalted company; the music on this disc gives us a lovely picture of the way French royalty and aristocracy were playing Arcadian games just as much as the Italian Arcadian academies associated with Handel's Italian period. 

This is a very particular sound-world and perhaps it will not appeal to everyone, but this charming disc opens a very distinct window onto the French 17th and 18th century musical landscape. The idea that these fragrant aristocrats listened to these civilised dances played by an instrument that remained a pungent reminder of its pastoral past.

Music for French Kings
Nicolas Chédeville (1705-1782) – Suite from Les Deffis, ou l’étude d’amusement
Borjon de Scellery (1633-1691) – Branle de Normandie
Esprit-Philippe Chédeville (1696-1698) - Sonatille Galant No. 6
Jean Hotteterre(1677-1720) – Suite from Pièces pour la Muzette
Colin Charpentier – from Premier Amusement
Anon – Suite No. 4 from Les Amusements de Chambre
Domenico Scarlatti (probably Nicolas Chédeville) – Sonates pour les clavecins Op. 4, No. 6
Anon – from Les Amusements de Chambre
Amanda Babington (musette)
Claire Babington (cello)
Recorded in Charlesworth Independent Chapel, Derbyshire
DEUX-ELLES DXL188 1CD [57:03]

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