2014 is the 250th anniversary of the death of Rameau, one of the most famous baroque French composers. As a result, we’re hearing a lot of his works in a variety of halls, from all sorts of performers: the homage being paid is extensive, to the point that a website has been created specifically in order to list all the cultural events associated with Rameau. But outside this one-off commemoration, what’s on offer for baroque music in France? How is it positioned against music from the classical and romantic periods? Here’s a sketch of a genre that’s well-defined but little understood in France.

The organ at Notre Dame in Paris © Eric Chan
The organ at Notre Dame in Paris
© Eric Chan
Each year, the major French concert halls and opera houses (Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg etc) offer programmes composed mainly from 19th and 20th century works, with a smattering of classical works (18th century), a few contemporary pieces – and very little from the baroque. And yet, while contemporary music can be considered difficult or inaccessible, baroque music shows off beautiful melodic lines and provides a rich and sculptured sonic palate. The baroque period lasts from the start of th 17th century to somewhere around the middle of the 18th; it spans the renaissance and classical eras, marking the transition between these two styles: use of counterpoint is steadily reinforced by the development of harmony, which turns into a musical language both ardent and architectural, abounding in novelty and structural subtleties.

It’s helpful to split up the baroque genre into three sub-genres: instrumental music, vocal/stage music and religious music. Each of these subgenres can be considered in its own way: each has its own concert halls, its own audience, its own approach to interpretation. Instrumental music, comprising concerti, dance suites, chorales, fugues etc, is played in particular concert halls, usually small halls (since the works generally require modest numbers of musicians) but sometimes in larger capacity halls such as Salle Pleyel. Vocal/stage music, whether musical tragedies, ballets, incidental music or secular cantatas, is most often shown in concert, since the major houses such as the Paris Opera only stage one or two baroque productions every year. Religious music basically happens in churches, some of them in out-of-the-way places, but some of them carrying the prestige conferred by history, such as Notre-Dame de Paris or the Versailles Chapel Royal.

Baroque instruments: Evaristo Bascheris (1617-1677), oil on canvas © Photographie : Art Renewal Center
Baroque instruments: Evaristo Bascheris (1617-1677), oil on canvas
© Photographie : Art Renewal Center

The most famous French ensembles have won their spurs as a result of various attributes. The most common of these is the most important, found in William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants, Marc Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble and Jean-Claude Malgoire’s Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy: the presence of a great leader, who instils a shared vision into his musicians and builds an interpretation for each work which is well documented but also inspired. The use of period instruments and serious study of original documents (scores, libretti, letters) are practices which were started in the 1980s by trained musicologists, instigated by William Christie, resulting in the labelling of this period as “the new baroque”. Many ensembles appeared as a result of the renewal of interest brought to this arena; they have won their place as a result of the excellence of their artistic directors. Without claiming to be exhaustive in any way, one can list Hervé Niquet’s Le Concert Spirituel, Jean-Christophe Spinosi’s Ensemble Matheus, Christophe Rousset’s Les Talens Lyriques, Vincent Dumestre’s Le Poème Harmonique or Raphaël Pichon’s Ensemble Pygmalion.

The high reputation of these most famous baroque ensembles comes as much from their recordings as from their concerts. As a demonstration of how specifically targeted are the recordings of Les Arts Florissants, William Christie has recently set up a record label dedicated solely to them. The recordings of the these specialist ensembles often win prizes such as the Diapason d’or [a recommendation from Diapason, a major French magazine]. This continually shows the quality of baroque orchestras by comparison with the rest of the music scene both within France and across the world. And the same effect occurs in other European countries, whose ensembles seldom perform in France but are known through their best albums. One could mention, amongst others, Diego Fasolis’ I Barrochisti, Ton Koopman’s Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists, Concerto Köln, Philippe Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale Ghent, or Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XXI.

Le Concert Spirituel © Eric Manas
Le Concert Spirituel
© Eric Manas
In the baroque world, another way to gain recognition is through the choice of repertoire: each ensemble can distinguish itself by choosing a number of composers in a particular vein and to focus on a particular type of work, or adopt a broader approach with a more varied choice of works. The most performed French baroque composers are still Couperin, Lully and, of course, Rameau; they are accompanied by the other great Europeans of the period: Bach and Telemann, Handel and Purcell, Monteverdi and Vivaldi. None the less, as research has progressed, the works of lesser known composers are being studied and performed. Thus Henry du Mont, Marin Marais, Charpentier, Gilles, Campra, Rebel, Mondonville, de Lalande, Michel Corrette (for organ) and Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (for flute) have emerged from the shadows, as well as non-French composers such as Biber, Zelenka ou Sweelinck. In 2011, for example, Ensemble Correspondence released an album dedicated to Antoine Boësset. And Rameau year has seen the recreation of works which have not survived in their entirety and have not been previously been reconstructed (such as Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour), as well as some enticing new finds, especially in chamber music.

The importance of artistic choices determines the result of a concert or piece of theatre – it’s an observation that pertains to any piece of classical music, but perhaps all the more so for a baroque work, where every detail is a factor in the coherence and the beauty of the ensemble work. The tricky question of voice colour arises for every work with vocal parts, be they for choir or solo voices. Instrumentation and the number of musicians are often a choice made by the ensemble director, since the score has nothing to say on the subject; the same is true for nuances, tempi, ornaments and even choreography! In opera-ballets, dance plays a fundamental part in creating the structure of the performance space and the rhythm of the performance. The theatricality required by lyric tragedy, which depicts human passions in fine detail, requires efforts from the director which can reach the point of extravagance. If some directors return triumphant from audacity, such as Laurent Pelly in his production of Platée for the Paris Opera in 2002, a staging which is exhausted or in bad taste can destroy the whole production.

Aside from matters of interpretation, the major difficulty facing baroque ensembles comes from finance. Sadly, public subsidies in France (from regions, départements or localities) are limited so as to prohibit large scale publicity, whence the success in the media of recordings and of festivals. Given the explosion of baroque offerings in France and the rest of Europe, spread amongst more or less specialist ensembles who appear in multiple locations with ever-increasing prominence, festivals give opportunity to all ensembles – the most famous along with the newest want to test themselves and show to best advantage their talents and the repertoire they are promoting. France is fortunate enough to host some of the top baroque festivals: Ambronay, Beaune, La Chaise-Dieu, Pontoise, Sablé-sur-Sarthe, Sinfonia en Périgord, Nantes Art Spring. In Europe, this rich and much loved panorama is completed by festivals at Utrecht, Innsbruck, York, as well as the Leipzig Bach festival.

Les Arts Florissants © Guy Vivien
Les Arts Florissants
© Guy Vivien

So what exactly is the audience for baroque music? [In France], the lovers of this musical style are called “baroqueux,” not without an element of mockery. But while some music lovers have very strict preferences for particular periods or artists, baroque contains such a wide palette of different styles, both in terms of country and date of the composers, that it’s possible to open up this repertoire outside the afficionados. This democratisation of baroque music results from the promotion of great voices, from the increasing acceptance of baroque programmes in concert halls, by broadcast of baroque works in the media (radio, TV and Internet) and by the renewal of debate about music using the audience’s chosen methods (social media, concert videos, filmed interviews, workshops and exchanges). In general, baroque music isn’t ingrained into either the listening habits or the going out habits of French people. Opera orchestras are not trained to play on period instruments, while in the major concert halls, the resident orchestras occupy pole position and leave scant room for baroque ensembles to appear in front of several thousand people. But things are constantly changing, and baroque is continually insinuating itself into the music market. This is attested to by Serge Dorny’s willingness, starting from 2015, to create within Lyon Opera “an orchestra which is baroque at its inception, in a historically informed way”. And that’s not to mention the ever growing number of master classes and academies, of variable size ensembles continually created by young talent and raw ideas, and the constant research carried out by the Versailles Centre for Baroque Music… The baroque revival is still a work in progress.