It has been a good year for the revival of the music of French Baroque composer Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. Earlier in the year, she was featured in BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week, and this weekend at the inaugural London Festival of Baroque Music (successor to the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music), which highlighted women in Baroque music, The Bach Players and harpsichordist Béatrice Martin jointly gave a concert consisting exclusively of the composer’s works.

Béatrice Martin © Géraldine Aresteanu
Béatrice Martin
© Géraldine Aresteanu

So who was Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, and why has she been neglected in music history? Born in 1865 in Paris, she was taught music by her father, a church organist, and soon her musical talents were recognized by King Louis XIV who took her into court, supported her and gave her permission to publish music. She was a near contemporary of François Couperin (1668-1773), and in her time, she was compared with composers such as Delalande and Marais. Perhaps it was because she didn’t compose a lot of music in the public sphere (i.e. opera and church music) that she was forgotten. Fortunately, a certain amount of her published and unpublished works have come down to us, and a selection of these works were performed at this afternoon concert in the splendid but intimate atmosphere of the Long Gallery in the Wallace Collection.

The Bach Players, consisting on this occasion of Nicolette Moonen, Oliver Webber (violins), Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba) and Silas Wollston (harpsichord), and French harpsichordist Béatrice Martin took it in turns to explore Jacquet de La Guerre’s chamber music and solo harpsichord works respectively. Moonen has been an advocate of this composer for some while and has performed and recorded her music. For this concert she chose two trio sonatas and a violin sonata.

The two trio sonatas date from 1695 although they were not published during the composer’s lifetime. They are significant as early examples of Corelli-type trio sonatas in France, and Jacquet de La Guerre skillfully brings together Italian form and French taste in these works. The Bach Players displayed fluent command of her musical language, showing delicacy in the handling of the transitions of the slow and fast sections/movements. Jacquet de La Guerre’s French character is most apparent in the Aria movements (the equivalent to the French “Air”). In the Aria affetuoso movement in the D major trio sonata, the gamba is given a solo role and engages in a dialogue with the first violin. The F major violin sonata, published in 1707, shows a more mature and individual style. Here the composer plays with motivic development – for example, the first movement is constructed of ascending and descending scales in various guises and forms. Furthermore, the theme in the Aria movement is developed and embellished by the violin and the gamba, and Moonen and Ichise created a wonderfully intimate atmosphere.

The harpsichord suites, on the other hand, are composed in a typically French style. Béatrice Martin selected two minor-key suites from Jacquet de La Guerre’s Pièces de Clavessin, her first publication from her early twenties. It is said that she was a phenomenal improviser on the keyboard, and this is certainly evident from the invention and fluency of these pieces. Martin played with panache, crispness and clarity of texture. She chose four movements from the D minor suite, concluding with a grand Chaconne with alternating couplets and refrains. The A minor suite was played in full and she brought out the solemn sentiment of the Sarabande, as well as rhythmic brilliance in the faster movements such as the Gigue and Gavotte.

One should note that most of the music performed was refined but not necessarily virtuosic, as these works would have been intended for the domestic sphere rather than the public stage. This was especially the case with the encore performed by Moonen and Martin – a movement from Jacquet de La Guerre’s Pièces de Clavecin with optional accompaniment on the violin, in which the violin doubles the melodic line of the harpsichord. Such practice seems strange to us now, but their performance gave an illuminating insight into the domestic music-making scene in the Baroque era.

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