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ClassicsOnline Home » BOISMORTIER: Serenades Francaises / Fragments Melodiques
Joseph Bodin de
Joseph Bodin de Boismortier was born at Thionville on 23rd December 1689
and died at Roissy-en-Brie on 28th October 1755. Natives of the borders of the
region of Berry, the Bodin family had settled in Thionville where the
composer's father, a former soldier, became a confectioner. Around 1691, the
family moved to Metz, where Boismortier was to have his musical education,
apparently under Joseph Valette de Montigny, an accomplished composer of motets.
In 1713 he followed his teacher to Perpignan, as tax collector for the Royal
Tobacco Company, an occupation remote from music. Seven years later he married
Marie Valette, a relation of his teacher, the daughter of a wealthy goldsmith.
He remained in Perpignan for some ten years, a period that brought some musical
activity, witnessed by two of his airs à boire (drinking-songs),
published in Paris by Ballard in 1721 and 1724.
On the recommendation of influential friends, Boismortier abandoned 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 to print his compositions on 29th February 1724. This allowed him to
publish his transverse flute duets and French cantatas, composed in Perpignan,
marking the start of a successful and controversial career in the capital.
In his Essay on Ancient and Modern Music of 1780 the celebrated
theoretician Jean-Benjamin de La Borde gave a realistic portrait of the composer:
"Boismortier appeared at a time when only simple and easy music was
in fashion. This competent musician took only too much advantage of this
tendency and devised, for the many, airs and duets in great numbers 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 hes Boismortier, whose fertile quill
Each month, without pain, conceives a new air at will.”
Boismortier, for lack of a better answer to his critics, would always
answer: 'I am earning money'".
Boismortier's achievement, however, is impressive, with 102 pieces, to
which one must add airs and grand motets, as well as a dictionary of harmony.
He also published practical manuals for the flute and the treble viol, while
composing for a wide variety of instruments and experimenting with varied
instrumentation. His sonatas for pardessus (descant viol) have recently
been rediscovered and published, in addition to works for musette and
hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue), two fashionable pastoral instruments of the
period. The greater part of his compositions, however, were for the flute,
which, with the harpsichord, held an important place at the beginning of the
eighteenth century. At the same time he wrote a quantity of vocal music,
including drinking songs, French cantatas, little motets, motets for large
choirs, small cantatas and, naturally, opera-ballets, notably Les Voyages de
l'Amour (‘The Travels of Love’) in 1736, Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse (‘Don
Quixote at the Duchess’) in 1743, Daphnis et Chloé in 1747, Daphné in
1748 and Les quatre parties du monde (‘The Four Parts of the World’) in
1752. In 1753 he withdrew from the musical scene, as a result of the Querelle
des bouffons, the dispute between proponents in France of French and
Italian musical traditions. He retired to a small property, La Gâtinellerie, at
Roissy-en-Brie, where he died in 1755.
The impression given
by some of his contemporaries was that Boismortier wrote too much, a criticism
heard both when he was at the height of his powers and after his death. This
means, at least, that he was talked about, provoking argument and possible
jealousy, as in the case of Lully. Yet Boismortier's apparent unconcern, his
taste for the provocative and his excessive demonstrations of affection show a
complex character, no doubt hated by his enemies for his caustic wit but a good
friend to others.
No portrait of
Boismortier survives, but there are some written indications of the two sides
of his character, cynical and insolent to his detractors, dismissing those who
reproach him for excessive facility with the words 'I make money' and showing
apparent indifference to criticism. No doubt he had a clear idea of his own
worth, but was unwilling to waste time on what had already been written.
Around the year 1740
he addressed the musicians of the Concert Spirituel in the following words:
'Gentlemen, here is my score, do what you can with it; as far as I am concerned
I know no more of the matter than a little choir-boy.' His seeming modesty here
verges on impertinence.
Hervé Niquet and the
musicians of the present Concert Spirituel have remembered Boismortier's words.
As in his lifetime, he has left them his music, giving them freedom to do their
best with it. The ensemble has, therefore, decided, over the course of several
years, to make a series of thematic recordings, motets, the comic ballet Don
Qnichotte chez la Duchesse, the concertos for five flutes and finally
various pastoral pieces, the Ballets de Village, a Gentillesse and
one of the two Sérénades.
The present release
follows a different plan, that of the anthology. The task is a daring one, in
view of the vast range of Boismortier's musical forms and instrumentation. The
present collection is an eclectic reflection of a varied body of work,
including nearly all the instruments for which Boismortier wrote, the
transverse flute, hurdy-gurdy, musette, recorder, violin, cello, bass viol,
oboe, bassoon and harpsichord. The only liberty taken has been to add a double
bass, the usual reinforcement of the bass line at the lower octave, and in the
concerto for bassoon to add a guitar, which gives its own touch to the
continuo. There should be no regret at the absence of the pardessus de viole
and the hunting-horn. Boismortier's compositions for these instruments are
either lost or only recently rediscovered. It would be difficult to give an
exhaustive picture of all that he wrote. His works include 101 opus numbers,
with twenty unnumbered collections, various motets in manuscript, many of these
compositions now lost.
The present collection
includes examples of all the musical styles in fashion in France between 1720
and 1740. Even if Boismortier was not systematic in his attempt to make money,
at least he produced music capable of pleasing both amateurs and professional
players. A further striking fact is that he made full use of the possible
resources of each instrument, although it is certain that he did not play them
all, as was sometimes the case with other composers, such as the Prussian
flautist Quantz, for example, who played some fourteen instruments, but
Boismortier clearly wanted the sound of each to be heard.
Boismortier was one of
the first French composers to write concertos, together with his contemporary
Michel Corrette. It is a curious fact that, although the model for the form was
the Italian violin concerto, both immediately favoured specifically French
instruments, the flute, oboe, musette and bassoon.
While the two examples
here included are in fine French style, they still show signs of traditional
writing. The bassoon coocerto alternates tutti and solo sections, except in the
central movement, a bassoon melody accompanied by sustained strings, and the
concerto for zampogna (the Italian bagpipe) has dialogue between the oboe and
musette, unison tutti passages and solo sections for the two leading
instruments. Although written at an interval of several months, between 1728
and 1730, the two concertos are quite different. The first was not written only
for the bassoon, but seems to sound better on that instrument than on the
cello, for which it was first intended. Boismortier shows his awareness of this
in his introduction, in which he admits that he does not play the cello well
enough to judge the work himself. In the second concerto he tries to give the
musette a new repertoire to dispel its image as an instrument for shepherds.
His example was followed by Corrette, Nicolas Chédeville and some others. The
musette, however, here disguised under an Italian name that deceives nobody, is
coupled with another essentially pastoral instrument, the oboe. The result is a
work that is midway between a double and a solo concerto, a hybrid form .
thoroughly familiar with the form of the French dance suite, a varied
collection of pieces. The present anthology includes two forms that he favoured
in particular, the suite for pastoral instruments, the hurdy-gurdy and the
musette, and the suite for flutes, oboes and violins. In fact the pieces
included in the Fragments Mélodiques and the second Sérénade ou
Simphonie Françoise could be interchanged, if the keys allowed.
It is perhaps here
that the intrinsic genius of Boismortier is best seen, his facility in the
production of an apparently infinite series of innocent-seeming little pieces,
each, however, with its own particular character Boismortier had a gift for
melody, and it was this innate facility, coupled with solid technique and an
understanding of instrumental resources, that lay at the base of his art.
On at least three
occasions Boismortier showed himself drawn to the theatre.
Hervé Niquet and the Concert Spirituel have
already recorded Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse, to which are now added
two symphonic extracts from two other stage works by the composer, Les
Voyages de l'Amour (‘The Journeys of Love’) and Daphnis et Chloé. The
finale of the latter is the traditional chaconne, but, unusually, in duple
metre. Boismortier favoured these duple-metre chaconnes, as the chaconne in the
This long and
fantastic movement seems at first to be presented as a lively entrée recalling
the airs written for demons, but leads to a series of character dances, even if
the composer does not so specify. The first air is followed by a caprice, a
loure, a rapid air in duple time, a kind of passacaglia, a cheerful rondeau, a
musette and a gigue. The dances follow each other in rapid succession, without
titles, their character indicated by their figuration. Here Boismortier offers
some minutes of pure symphonic music that seem to recall the example of
Jean-Féry Rebel, whose Les Caractères de la Danse are evident at every
turn of the score and whose Les Eléments have already been evoked in
Stéphan Perreau & Jean-Christophe Maillard
English version: Keith Anderson
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BOISMORTIER: Serenades Francaises / Fragments Melo...