REGISTER NOW AND GET
• 5 FREE tracks! • 101 tracks for $9.99
ClassicsOnline Home » PHILIDOR, F-A.D.: Carmen saeculare / Overtures
François-André Danican Philidor pursued successful parallel careers as the composer of over 21 operas
and as a chess virtuoso, known not least for his skill in simultaneous blindfold games. His oratorio,
Carmen sæculare, is a setting of poems by Horace associated with the Roman centennial celebrations of
17 B.C. Written at the instigation of the Italian scholar Giuseppe Baretti, who chose the Latin texts and
sought ‘a man able to temper alternately the solemnity of church-music with the brilliancy of the
theatrical’, this majestic, and at times operatic work is coupled with overtures to three of Philidor’s
popular and brilliant comic operas.
By David Denton
Sometimes I approach Baroque music without a great deal of
enthusiasm, but here I have enjoyed every minute, and fervently commend this
release from a famous composer little known today. Francois-Andre Danican Philidor
was born in France in 1726 and into a family of musicians who had worked for
the royal family since 1650, his father both a distinguished orchestral musician
and composer. Somewhere in the distant past his roots were in Scotland, and
it was in England that Francois-Andre spent much of his life. He too was to
serve in the field of royal musicians and would have enjoyed a highly distinguished
career had it not been for the fact that he was also a master chess player of
such eminence that even today his name is still known among chess enthusiasts.
As a composer he enjoyed mixed fortunes until in his early thirties when he
turned his attention to Opera Comique, and it was in this genre that he largely
created his reputation in France. It was in London that Philidor was approached
to write a work on poems by Horace published under the title Carmen saeculare.
The result was a fusion of oratorio and opera. The story - very much a non-event
- is set in Roman times and associated with the centennial celebrations of 17
BC. Whatever the weakness of the story, it drew extremely pleasing music set
as a series of arias, ensembles and choruses with an orchestrated backdrop that
makes Bach - who was living at the same time - sound distinctly old-fashioned.
As a coupling we have the spirited overtures to three of the composer's comic
operas. The performance of Carmen saeculare comes from the Italian
Swiss Radio, and though it employs a modern instrument orchestra, it is in the
highly experienced hands of Jean-Claude Malgoire. The singing is excellent,
the voices falling pleasantly on the ear, and when we move to Prague for the
overtures we are also meet with playing of the highest quality. Maybe I expected
the overtures to be more light-hearted, but they are quite serious and could
well have been written by Mozart - though he had only just been born. Sound
quality is impeccable.
François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795)
The name Philidor, by which members of the family became known, stemmed from the great-grandfather of François-André Danican Philidor, Michel Danican, an oboist in the service of King Louis XIII, who compared his skill in playing to that of the famous contemporary Italian oboist Filidori. The name 'Danican' was a French version of the Scottish ' Duncan ', an indication of the earlier origins of the family. Michel Danican's son Jean, the grandfather of François-André, enjoyed a career as an oboist and composer, serving in the first capacity in the Royal Musketeers and then as a player of the crumhorn and tromba marina in the Grande Ecurie. From 1659 he was oboiste et fifre de chambre in the same royal establishment. His son André, father of François-André, also served as a player of the crumhorn and tromba marina in the Grande Ecurie, and from 1667 to 1677 was an oboist in the Royal Musketeers. He played in the first performance of Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme in 1670, and through Lully became a member of the Académie royale de musique. He served in other capacities in the Grande Ecurie and is listed as playing the flute and bass crumhorn in the Chapel Royal. In 1683 he was appointed garde de la bibliothèque du roi and played an important part in the establishment of the royal music library and the collections of other members of the royal family and aristocracy. From 1690 to 1716 he served as a player of the crumhorn and the oboe in the Petits violons de la chambre du roi.
Born at Dreux in 1726, his elderly father's first son by his young second wife, François-André Danican was, as a boy, a chorister in the Chapelle Royale at Versailles, where he was taught by Campra, the maître de chapelle. It was here that his first motet was performed in 1738. After his voice broke he left the choir, earning a living, now his father was dead, by teaching and serving as a copyist. Another work was heard in 1743 at the Concerts spirituels established by one of his half-brothers. During this period of his life Philidor began to pay more attention to the game of chess, a pastime among older musicians at Versailles. At this he acquired considerable ability, instructed by M. de Kermur, Sire de Légal, a leading player of the time in France, whom he was eventually able to defeat. His chess opponents included Voltaire and Rousseau, and he came to know other leading figures of the French intellectual establishment, with frequent meetings at the Café de la Régence. A concert tour to The Netherlands in 1745 with Geminiani and Lanza was interrupted by the death of the latter's young daughter, a harpsichordist, leaving Philidor stranded there for a time, keeping himself as best he could by playing and teaching chess. This was followed by a visit to England, arranged through English officers of his acquaintance. In 1747 he began to play at Slaughter's coffee-house in London, defeating some of England 's principal players. The following year he was back again in The Netherlands, and while staying at Aachen wrote his L'analyse des échecs, later revised as L'analyse du jeu des échecs. An English version was published in London in 1749, with a distinguished list of subscribers, including the Duke of Cumberland. Philidor was now established as the leading player of his time.
Urged by his friend Diderot, in 1754 Philidor returned to France and to music, although a motet proved unacceptable to the court. This failure induced him, on the advice of Rameau, to turn his attention to the theatre, winning his first significant success with the comic opera Blaise le savetier (Blaise the Cobbler) in 1759. This was the start of a career that for many years brought considerable success, while he was, at the same time, able to continue his parallel career as a chess virtuoso, known not least for his skill in simultaneous blindfold games. It was chess that took him on occasions to London, where he found himself in 1792. Although he had initially been a supporter of the Revolution, his name was included among those proscribed as émigrés, while his wife, the singer Angélique Richer, and his children remained in Paris. He died in London in 1795.
The comic opera Le maréchal ferrant (The Blacksmith) was first staged at the Foire St Laurent in 1761. Based on an episode in the Decameron, it won considerable success. The overture is in the form of a three-movement Italian Sinfonia. The present recording also includes overtures to Le sorcier (The Sorcerer) first mounted at the Comédie-Italienne in 1764 and an immediate success, and to Tom Jones, based on Fielding's novel and first staged by the same company in 1765, gradually winning similar popularity.
Philidor's Carmen saeculare, a setting of the poem by Horace of that name, together with other poems by the same writer, was written at the instigation of the Italian scholar Giuseppe Baretti, a well known figure in London intellectual circles, who chose the Latin texts and sought, as a composer, 'a man of sense, a man of taste, a man of enthusiasm, fertile in ideas and expedients and able to temper alternately the solemnity of church-music with the brilliancy of the theatrical'. This paragon he found in Philidor. In 1760 Baretti had published an Italian dictionary in London and in 1769 had been charged with murder after stabbing a man in the Haymarket in self-defence. He was acquitted, with Dr Johnson, Edmund Burke and David Garrick appearing in his defence as character witnesses, an indication of the circles in which he moved. Boswell, in March 1779, recounts an instance of remarkable forbearance on the part of Dr Johnson: "My arrival interrupted for a little while the important business … upon its being resumed, I found that the subject under immediate consideration was a translation, yet in manuscript, of the Carmen Seculare of Horace, which had this year been set to musick, and performed as a publick entertainment in London, for the joint benefit of monsieur Philidor and Signor Baretti. When Johnson had done reading, the author asked him bluntly, 'If upon the whole it was a good translation?' Johnson, whose regard for truth was uncommonly strict, seemed to be puzzled for a moment, what answer to make; as he certainly could not commend the performance: with exquisite address he evaded the question thus, 'Sir, I do not say that it may not be made a very good translation.' Here nothing whatever in favour of the performance was affirmed, and yet the writer was not shocked." In his published introduction to Carmen saeculare Baretti defends his enterprise: 'I see no reason why literature and pleasure should not contribute to each other, and why the odes of Horace should not find their way from the school and college to gayer scenes'. He speculates on the neglect of Horace, while composers have been happy to set other Latin texts, and continues 'it appears from many passages in those odes that they were intended for music; nay, that they were sung in the very act of their existence. Horace has said repeatedly that he composed them at the sound of the barbiton and the cithara'.
The poem by Horace was written in 17 B.C. at the command of Augustus to be sung at the celebration of the Secular Games, supposed to be performed at intervals of a century, by 27 boys and 27 girls whose parents were still living (thrice nine being particularly auspicious). In Sapphic stanzas the poem calls on the various Roman gods, whose help is sought in propitiatory blessing of the state. Baretti drew partially on a re-ordering of the odes by the Abbé Sanadon, who suggested that other verses seemed to have been part of the original work. Thus Baretti's text starts with four lines from Horace's Carmina III.1, followed by lines from Carmina IV.6.l.29-44. The second part sets the first lines, 1-28, of the same poem. For the third part Baretti turned to Carmina Book I.21 and it was only with the fourth part that he came to the text of what has been generally known as the Carmen saeculare. The Abbé Sanadon had suggested the same lines from the same poems, with the IV.6.1-4 as the Prologue, the first part as IV.6.1-28, the second as I.21, the third as the Carmen saeculare, and the Epilogue as IV.6.29-44.
Philidor's work starts with an Overture [CD 1 / Track 4] that includes a ceremonial march, a suitable opening of the rite. [1/5] The Prologue has the tenor, as the priest presiding over the ceremony, sing the placatory words Odi profanum vulgus, the opening of a poem in Alcaic metre. [1/6] The tenor embarks on Part I of the work with an invocation to Apollo [1/7] and, after a brief recitative, to those in the care of Diana, the goddess who with her bow kills the lynx and the deer, urging them to observe the Lesbian metre of Horace's Sapphic stanzas. [1/8] He tells the girls, when they marry, to remember their participation in the festival.
[1/9] The chorus starts Part II, offering a further invocation of Apollo, who punished Niobe's boasted superiority to his mother Leto by killing her seven sons and seven daughters and with his sister Diana killed the giant Tityus and the Greek hero Achilles. [1/10] The bass soloist describes something of the prowess of Achilles, son of Thetis and warrior against Troy, in an accompanied recitative, [1/11] continuing, in an aria with the chorus, to tell how he was felled like an axed pine-tree or a cypress uprooted by the east wind; he was not a man to hide in the wooden horse that deceived the Trojans and the joyful dances of Priam's court, but rather burned to death the children of Troy, born and unborn. The verse allows the chorus expressions of horror. [1/12] The soprano soloist goes on to recall the decision of the father of the gods, persuaded by Apollo and by Venus, to allow the Trojan Aeneas to found a new city, Rome. [1/13] The chorus brings the second part to an end with praise of Apollo as a lyre-player, teacher of the Muse Thalia, and now the defender of the Roman Muse.
[1/14] Part III urges the girls to sing in praise of Diana and the boys in praise of Apollo, and in honour of their mother, Latona (Leto), loved by Jove, their father, in a duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano. [1/15] The tenor and chorus continue in praise of Diana, goddess of hunting, an attribute that the music makes clear, and of Delos, where Apollo and Diana were born, the former known for his prowess with the bow and with the lyre. [1/16] Soloists and chorus join in a final plaintive prayer that the god avert plague from the people and Caesar and let it fall on the Persians and the Britons.
[2/1] Part IV introduces the setting of what is generally known as the Carmen saeculare with its Sapphic stanzas. In the first eight lines of the poem soprano and mezzo-soprano with the chorus seek a propitious answer to their prayers to the god and goddess, in accordance with the instruction of the Sybilline Books of prophecy, sung by chosen maidens and chaste boys. [2/2] The bass soloist, with the chorus, sings to Apollo as god of the sun, bringing day and night, that he may visit nothing greater than the city of Rome. [2/3] The soprano soloist continues with next stanza, addressing Diana, goddess of the moon, under her various titles, and seeking blessing on mothers and on the traditional bonds of marriage, the source of further generations. [2/4] The chorus, in a fugal movement, sings of the games and three days of celebration, that it may be kept each century. [2/5] The bass soloist addresses the Fates, praying that good fortune, as once predicted, may continue. [2/6] Soprano and mezzo-soprano with the chorus turn to the fruitful Earth, who crowns the goddess Ceres with crops, watered by the rain of Jupiter. [2/7] The four soloists join the chorus in a solemn hymn, calling on gentle Apollo to listen to the prayers of the boys and on Diana, two-horned goddess of the moon, to hear the girls. [2/8] In an accompanied recitative the tenor recalls the legendary foundation of Rome by Trojan exiles, led by the hero Aeneas, who made his way through the flames of burning Troy to found a greater city than he had left. [2/9] In the following aria he asks the gods to teach virtue to the young, to grant peace to the old, and wealth, children and every honour to Rome. [2/10] The bass soloist, with the chorus, adds a plea that the sacrifice of white oxen by Rome 's founder Aeneas, son of Venus and Anchises may have its due reward, better than the enemy at his feet, treated mercifully. [2/11] The tenor, in recitative, tells of the submission of the Medes, Scythians and once proud Indians, [2/12] and in the following aria celebrates the return of Faith, Peace, Honour and Modesty and of ancient Virtue, together with Plenty. [2/13] There follows a mezzo-soprano aria addressing Phoebus Apollo, god of healing, praying for his propitious regard for the Palatine citadel, the state of Rome and Latium in a prosperous new lustrum. [2/14] The four soloists join in prayer to Diana that she may hear the prayers of the fifteen magistrates and of the boys. [2/15] The chorus, trained to sing the praise of Phoebus and Diana, expresses final certainty that Jupiter and all the gods will respond to these prayers, sentiments expressed in a fitting final fugal movement.
Sung texts can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/557593.htm
Last Albums Viewed
PHILIDOR, F-A.D.: Carmen saeculare / Overtures