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ClassicsOnline Home » BOISMORTIER: Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse (Don Quixote at the Duchess')
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689 - 1755)
Don Quixote at the Duchess'
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier was born at Thionville on 23rd December 1689 and
died at Roissy-en-Brie on 28th October 1755. He holds an exceptional position in
the history of music in more than one respect. Born into the modest family of a
retired soldier, who had settled in Thionville as the owner of a sweet-shop, he
moved to Metz in 1700 and left Lorraine in 1713 to establish himself in the city
of Perpignan as a clerk for the Royal Board of Tobaccos, a position remote
enough from the world of music. There is no trace, indeed, of any musical
activity of his during the ten years he spent in the city. It seems, however,
that he did receive some musical instruction during this period from Joseph
Valette de Montigny and in 1720 Boismortier married a niece of his, a member of
a family of rich jewellers, subsequently, acting on the advice of highly placed
friends, he proceeded to liquidate his business and settled with his wife and
daughter at the court of the Duchess of Maine, at Sceaux and later in Paris,
where he was first granted the privilege of printing his own compositions on
29th February 1724, allowing him now to publish his duets for transverse flute
and the French cantatas that he had written in Perpignan.
In his Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne of 1780, the
distinguished scholar Jean- Benjamin de La Borde painted a charming and
realistic picture of the composer:
Boismortier appeared at a time when only simple and easy music was in
fashion. This competent musician took all too much advantage of this tendency
and shaped, for the many, airs and duets in great number which were performed on
the flute, the violins, oboes, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies . ..He so
abused the ingenuousness of his numerous buyers that in the end the following
was said of him:
Happy is he, Boismortier, whose fertile quill
Conceives each month, without travail, of airs his fill.
(Bienheureux Boismortier, dont la fertile plume
Peut tous les mois sans peine enfanter un volume.)
Boismortier's answer to such pleasantries, remained simple enough and to the
point: I am earning money. His output was remarkable, with some 102
pieces, to which may be added airs, other scores, grand motets and a dictionary
of harmony. He also published practical manuals for the flute and the treble
Vocal music by Boismortier includes serious songs, drinking songs, French
cantatas, small motets, motets for large choirs, small cantatas and, naturally,
opera-ballets, these last Les voyages de l'Amour (The Travels of Love) in
1736, Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse (Don Quixote at the Duchess') in
1743, the pastoral Daphnis et Chloé in 1747, the lyric tragedy Daphné
in 1748 and, in 1752, Les quatre parties du monde (The Four Parts of
Victim, among others of the conflict between Italian and French musical
traditions, the so-called querelle des bouffons, he withdrew from the
musical scene in 1753. He was the owner of a small property, La Gâtinellerie,
at Roissy-en-Brie, and here, at the age of sixty-six, he died, shortly after
requesting permission to be buried in the nave of the parish church there.
The three-act ballet Don Quichotte was the result of a collaboration
with Charles-Simon Favart and was to involve material derived from Boismortier's
own encounters in the salons of Paris. There, according to De La Borde, he was
to be seen decked out in his finest golden costume, speaking eloquently,
flirting with women, impressing everyone with his verses. This would have
earned him the friendship of Favart, who raised vaudeville to new heights and
participated in the birth of the French opéra-comique. The writer had won
particular popularity in 1741 with La chercheuse d'esprit (The
Seeker after Wit) at the Foire St-Germain. In 1743 he was engaged as stage
manager and répétiteur by the Paris Opéra-Comique and in the same year
Boismortier became assistant conductor for the orchestra of the Foire St-
Laurent, with which Favart was allowed to work after the closure of the
Opéra-Comique, an event that took place as a result of the jealousy of the
Performed at the Royal Academy of Music on 12th February 1743, in a double
bill with a revival of Jean-Joseph Mouret's Ragonde ou la soirée de village (Ragonde
or the Village Evening), Boismortier's ballet was staged before Le pouvoirde
l'Amour (The Power of Love), by Pancrace Royer, which had its first
performance on 23rd April. Boismortier had, in consequence, competition from the
most distinguished of his contemporaries. The tragic moral themes of Cervantes,
however, became, under Favart, a true comédie-lyrique, with a plot that mingles
the comic and the sad, much as had Le carnaval et lafolie (Carnival and
Folly) by Destouches in 1704, de la Barre's La vénitienne in 1705
or Rameau's Platée in 1745. The production involved some of the best
known performers of the time, with Marie Fel as Altisidore, Bérard and
Cuvillier as Don Quichotte and Sancho, and the dancers Dumoulin, Lany and Dupré,
with Mesdemoiselles Dallemand and Camargo. Voltaire wrote the following lines on
Camargo and her rival Sallé, who danced in Boismortier's Les voyages de
The colourful and brilliant overture is followed by three acts, moving at a
rapid pace, in which Boismortier makes use of some Rameau effects, triplet
crotchets, short rhythmic passages, accompanied recitatives and distinctive
orchestration. Rameau himself was to recall this work when, ten years later, he
wrote his Boréades, in which two of the finest arias bear a striking
resemblance to arias from Don Quichotte. The musical interludes ail have
the pastoral characteristics of the period and, although Boismortier does not
make use of the musette, the French shepherd bagpipe, to enhance them, he makes
full use of the gavottes, bourrées, passepieds and other airs and dances that
he happily reproduces in his compilation of sonatas. Naturally some arias
provide an excuse for moralising on love and war and some instruments have the
finest pages of the score assigned to them, as with the flute solo in Act II,
Scene 3, with Altisidore's Eh, pourquoi mourir de changer and the oboe
part in Act I, Scene 5, with the peasant girl's comic Je n'entends point le
caquet d'un muguet.
Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse prefigures the success of Boismortier's
pastorale Daphnis et Chloé, with a libretto by Laujon, which was first
performed on 28th September 1747, forming the climax of his career, to be
restaged and even parodied in 1752 by the Comédie- Italienne as Les bergers
de qualité (The Shepherds of Quality). Numbered 102, Daphnis et Chloé ends
Boismortier's catalogue of works, one of the most voluminous ever produced by an
eighteenth century French composer.
(Translation by Michael Nafi)
Notes from the Stage Director, Vincent Tavemier
The Characteristics of a New Genre
On the one hand we have Favart, a librettist skilled in the impertinence and
liveliness of the popular Théâtre de la Foire, and on the other Boismortier, a
composer full of ideas of which he is an excellent and daring exponent: the
opera-ballet of earlier times, magnificent and solemn, could not survive such a
conjunction of wit.
The ballet-comique Don Quichotte, ordered by the King for the 1743
carnival, was something new, light and dazzling. Its immediate success brought
abundant support and ensured the participation of great performers, Mademoiselle
Fel and Camargo herself, the greatest and undisputed stars of the time. The
originality of the libretto is striking. There is no mythology, no shepherd
goings-on, no love-story, and no endless display of high- flown sentiments or
silliness either. The story of Don Quichotte was skilfully adapted by
Favart from Volume II of the novel by Cervantes and deals with a cruel
mystification that ends with the unintended apotheosis of the hero. The
story-line is incisive, quick and ironic and there are events where all hell
breaks loose. The whole work gives the impression of a series of unexpected
events, hence the dizzying rhythm, skilfully interrupted by pauses occasioned by
the sudden turn of events.
Boismortier reinforces the general mood delightfully, with an abundance of
varied themes, skilful transitions from one scene to the next and a constant
shifting between brief arias and recitatives, with sudden soaring poetic
moments, as in the final Chaconne. Here Favart is a Feydeau who has read
Clélie and Boismortier is a Rossini who knows the work of Perrault. In short, Don
Quichotte is a very comic and true false ugly fairy-tale.
The Greatness of Don Quichotte
The confrontation of the two separate worlds to which the Duchess and Don
Quichotte belong is a new idea in the context of the dramatic tradition of the
period. Cynisicism is everywhere fashionable in the eighteenth century, turning
grand principles and so-called noble sentiments into mockery. This tierce
division between cynicism and idealism, where those who laugh at the expense of
others are judges and executioners, remains of striking relevance today.
Constantly underlined in the libretto and the score, this conflict gives the
work its genuine tension. In the face of the cruel mockery of the courtiers,
among whom the Duchess and her lady-in-waiting Altisidore are prominent, and, by
contrast, Sancho's self-indulgent awkwardness, Don Quichotte is astonishing in
the relevance and profundity of his remarks. In this way his character is
developed gradually during the course of the plot. At first amusing, he becomes
charming, then turns into a truly admirable character and inspires a complete
change of attitude from his persecutors. By honouring Don Quichotte in the final
scene, they all praise the hero who remains true to his ideals and who alone,
above all, gives reality to his dreams and brings magic to life.
The audience is invited to follow the same path, to decide whether Don
Quichotte wins at the end or not: when the hero is honoured, the spectator may
choose to see this final scene as yet another scheme set up by the Duchess or as
the mysterious flight of the hero to the land of dreams. An open end of this
kind makes of Don Quichotte a very modern work.
It was the custom for eighteenth century audiences to be given, as they
entered the theatre, a libretto that would summarise the plot, and this
tradition was certainly followed for the ballets-comiques. The following
prologue should fulfil this purpose.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, in the wanderings, happens to pass through the
estate of the Duke and Duchess. The noble couple, enthusiastic readers of
Cervantes, recognise them and plan a hoax at their expense. To this end they
invent a plot in the purest tradition of chivalry, which turns into the grandest
entertainment for themselves, their guests and their household. All this takes
place while the valorous Don Quixote firmly believes that he is taking part in a
true adventure. The sport takes place in the Duchess's theatre, decorated as the
enchanted forest of the wizard Aspharador. The first trial for Don Quixote and
his squire is to deliver from her bondage Altisidora, who is to be devoured by a
monster. The young lady is determined to show that she can replace the famous
Dulcinea of Toboso, Don Quixote's imagined lady (in fact a tavern girl), in the
heart of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, and resolves to achieve this
before the end of the adventure.
The farce begins with the appearance of a monster, in fact two of the
Duchess's valets grotesquely disguised. Don Quixote fights it and manages to
kill it. Altidisora declares her gratitude, but, to her dismay, the Knight, his
duty performed, can think of nothing but continuing his journey. To make him
change his mind, she offers him entertainment in which dwellers in the enchanted
forest, birds, dryads and satyrs appear.
Don Quixote is resolved to leave. Much to everyone's surprise it is Sancho
who, relishing the wine and food offered, devises a solution to the predicament.
He seizes one of the Duchess's maids and declares her to be Dulcinea and when
Don Quixote fails to recognise her, claims that this is the result of
enchantment. The peasant-girl protests vigorously, but Altisidora and all the
guests corroborate Sancho's tale, not without punishing him for making their
life complicated. Indeed, by devising this new scheme, he forces them to
improvise in a way they had not foreseen.
The Duke appears in the guise of Merlin, while the peasant-girl is discreetly
removed. He indicates to Don Quixote that he will find Dulcinea in the cave of a
certain Montesinos, where, as everyone knows, many famous lovers are kept under
the spell of this hateful character. The Duke tells Don Quixote he must leave
for this cave, in spite of all the dangers that may confront him. As for Sancho,
he is condemned to receive a thousand strokes to undo the spell that made
Dulcinea appear as a vulgar peasant-girl.
Having reached the cave, a new scene in the Duchess's theatre, Don Quixote
declares his determination to brave whatever dangers he is about to face.
Altisidora joins him and attempts to dissuade him from pursuing such a purpose,
claiming to be the Queen of Japan, who is madly in love with him. Don Quixote
nobly declines her love and Altisidora goes away disappointed.
Don Quixote now fights successfully with a dwarf and a giant, both of them
puppets. The mysterious cave now lies open before him. Montesinos welcomes him
with a noble air, while the lovers, no longer spell-bound, rise from their long
sleep to celebrate their deliverance in a series of dances.
Dulcinea, of course, is close at hand, still in the guise of a peasant-girl.
Merlin (the Duke) intervenes once more to explains this state of affairs: Sancho
did not submit to the thousand strokes, so he must be beaten in public, a task
undertaken with great delight by twelve devils.
Much to everyone's surprise the beating does not change the appearance of
Dulcinea. Altisidora appears, a sorceress as much as the Queen of Japan, and
claims that she has maintained the spell to punish Don Quixote for rejecting
her. Furthermore, to demonstrate her might and her anger, she orders the devils
to abduct Dulcinea and carry her to the faraway land of Japan, while changing
Don Quixote into a bear and Sancho Panza into a monkey. They alone will still be
able to recognise their true identities.
The guests pretend to see Sancho as a clever monkey and they all run away in
horror when they hear the terrible growling of the bear, Don Quixote. Left
alone, the two lament their predicament.
Altisidora, who has still failed to win the Knight's heart, risks a final
attempt. She promises death, if he resolves to reject her. Don Quixote remains
unmoved by her threats. She threatens to kill Dulcinea, but Don Quixote remains
steadfast. Altisidora has lost. Appearing one more time in the guise of Merlin,
the Duke announces the end of the game. Don Quixote has surprised everyone by
his courage and steadfastness.
Caught in their own trap and seized by the emotions stirred by the character
of Don Quixote, all join together to crown him King of Japan and, in a final
divertissement, to see his apotheosis and flight for the land of his dreams.
(English translation by Michael Nafi)
Notes from the Conductor
The history of Le Concert Spirituel is in a sense intimately linked with
Boismortier's Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse. In 1988 the French National
Board of Museums invited me to find musical interludes for an exhibition of
works by Fragonard. I immediately thought of this work by Boismortier.
Fragonard's illustrations for the first French edition of Cervantes' masterpiece
is an example of the perfection of work of this master draughtsman. I brought
together a number of musicians and singers for the performance at the Grand
Palais Museum and this marked the rebirth of Le Concert Spirituel, which takes
its name from one of the most important institutions of eighteenth century
For these performances I used a printed edition of Don Quichotte that
was prepared by Boismortier himself for the general public. As is often the case
with such editions, the only parts included were those of the solo vocal line,
with basso continuo and first violin parts. I needed to find the full orchestral
version written for the orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music, undoubtedly
enriched with flute, oboe and bassoon parts, as well as the full and delightful
combination of the haute-contre, taille and quinte violins, the hallmark of the
French baroque sound. The manuscript was, in fact, lying in the library of the
Paris National Opera. For remounting the work in its original version,
adjustments had to be made to Boismortier's edition.
An eighteenth century critic said of "poor" Boismortier, that he
could not develop a single musical idea. One might well wonder how he could, in
view of the hundred ideas found on every page. He was, moreover, a particularly
skilful theatre composer, and it would be impossible, even for a moment, to be
bored, when each aria, short and brilliant, heralds another even more
Finally I should like to express my affection and admiration for Boismortier,
with a wish that those who hear this recording will no longer think of him as a
minor figure, a composer for the drawing-room.
I should also like to express my thanks to the Regional Council of Lorraine
for its assistance in this adventurous and immensely pleasing project.
(Translation by Michael Nafi)
The distinctive signature of our Lorraine Region
Lorraine saw the birth of Callot, de la Tour and Claude Gellée. She inspired
Barrès. Péguy dedicated to her some of his finest pages and can we forget
Alain-Fournier, who died for her? Whether it is because of the calm mists of
early morning, or the lingering fog of November with its light and shade, the
changing skies brought here by the ocean winds or the heat of July, whatever it
is, Lorraine, with its golden heritage, its squares, the shade of its tall
cathedrals, its valley or the dark groves of its great forests, produced and
still produces some exceptional artistic talent.
The horrors of war ravaged the cities and countryside and had a long-lasting
effect on the people and their land. They also forged a popular imagery long
before the invention of comics; the Images Epinal from a print factory in the
Vosges were sold by pedlars throughout France, to the same places where later,
leaving Phalsbourg, Erckmann and Chatrian were to go. One must stop before
Ligier-Richier and admire The Temptation of St Anthony by Callot or St John
in the Desert by Georges de la Tour, remembering that people used to come
from great distances to attend the funerals of the Dukes of Lorraine.
Now the musical heritage of Lorraine has something new to discover. It is to
meet this demand that the Regional Council of Lorraine and Naxos have
collaborated to produce this release, bringing to life again this musical
history, of which Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse is a significant and
Gérard Longuet, President of the Regional Council of Lorraine
The Grande Salle of l'Arsenal de Metz
The recording of Joseph Bodin de Boismortier's comic ballet, Don Quichotte
chez la Duchesse, by the Concert Spirituel took place in the Grande Salle of
the Metz Arsenal. The Arsenal itself was refurbished in 1989 by Ricardo Bofill,
providing one of the best auditoria in Europe, architecturally and acoustically.
The Grande Salle itself holds an audience of 1350, with seats surrounding the
stage. The acoustic properties of the hall are helped by pediments, pilasters,
wooden columns and panels of white beech and sycamore, carved and gold inlaid.
The Arsenal provides a venue suitable for many types of performance, including
all forms of dance, and allows the most diverse audiences to see and hear some
of the greatest artists in the world.
Stephan Van Dyck
The tenor Stephan Van Dyck began his musical career as a boy treble at the
age of six, going on to study classical guitar, piano and singing. This last he
continued at the Brussels Conservatoire, while graduating in musicology at the
Brussels Université Libre. He pursued his interest in baroque music further in
Paris at the Studio Versailles Opera with René Jacobs and Rachel Yakar and at
the Paris Conservatoire, where he won a first prize for baroque vocal
performance in the class of William Christie. His career has brought
collaboration with ensembles such as the Chapelle Royale, the Concert Spirituel,
the Organum Ensemble, the Huelgas Ensemble, the Gilles Binchois Ensemble, the
Talens Lyriques and Les Arts Florissants. In addition to concert and opera
performance, Stephan Van Dyck has participated in a wide range of recordings of
vocal music, ranging from the medieval to the classical. He teaches at the
Académie de Nivelles, serves as a specialist in baroque vocal technique and
performance at the Brussels Académie and is a lecturer at the Liège
The baritone Richard Biren began his training in drama at the Nice
Conservatoire, pursuing this, together with his study of music, at the Paris
Conservatoire. After a year of study at the Choral school of the Centre de
Musique Baroque at Versailles, where he sang with such groups as Les Musiciens
du Louvre, La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roi, he became a regular member of
a number of choral ensembles and more recently joined the Théâtre Baroque de
France, working under the guidance of Marie-Geneviève Masse, Philippe Lenzel
and Ferrucio Soleri, training with this last in the techniques of the Commedia
dell'Arte. His career has brought participation in a number of important
festivals and parallel activity as an actor.
The Canadian soprano Meredith Hall was sole winner of the 1993 Sir Ernest
MacMillan Memorial Foundation Award and after study at the University of Toronto
with Mary Morrison, was given Canada Council funding for further study in London
with Laura Sarti, Martin Isepp, Nigel Rogers, Evelyn Tubb and Emma Kirkby and
with Rachel Yakar in Paris. Her career has brought performances and recordings
in North America, in England and in France, in collaboration with groups of
distinction, including The Musicians of the Globe Theatre, the Musiciens du
Louvre, the Tafelmusik Baroque soloists, and recordings on both sides of the
Atlantic, with a series of rôles ranging from Vita Mondana and Beata Anima in
Il representatione di anima e di corpo to Cupid in Purcell's King Arthur and
Papagena in Die Zauberflöte.
While studying literature at the Sorbonne, the baritone Paul Gay began to
sing with the Ensemble Bach in Paris and in 1991 entered the class of Robert
Dume at the Paris Conservatoire, also studying with Kurt Mon at the Cologne
Musikhochschule, as wen as with Paul von Schillawsky, Waltraud Meier and Sena
Jurinac. Ris operatic rôles have included Colas in Mozart's Bastien et
Bastienne, Bartolo in Le nozze di Figaro at the Théâtre du
Châtelet, Achisin Marc-Antoine Charpentier's David et Jonathas under
William Christie at the Festival d'Ambronnay, Figaro in the Opéra Voix
Nouvenesin Lyon and the title rôle in Don Giovanni with the same company. He
has an active concert career in music ranging from Bach to Berio.
Le Concert Spirituel Hervé Niquet, conductor
Le Concert Spirituel was established in 1725 by Anne Danican Philidor and was
the first concert organization in France, specialising in the performance of
French Grands Motets by composers such as Gilles, Campra, Mondonville and
Rameau. The concerts were given in the Salle des Cent Suisses in the Palace of
the Tuileries in Paris, but came to an end with the French Revolution in 1791.
In 1988 Hervé Niquet, one of the leading specialists in France in baroque
music, decided to revive the Concert Spirituel in order to explore again the
repertoire of music originally composed for this purpose in the eighteenth
century. Since then the Concert Spirituel has given performances in the
principal cities and festivals of Europe and has issued a number of recordings
that have received critical acclaim in the international press.
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