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Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE (1665 - 1729): "The Violin Sonatas of 1707"

Dana Maiben, violin; Sarah Cunningham, viola da gamba; Lisa Goode Crawford, harpsichord

rec: July 7 - 10, 2017, Oberlin, OH, Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Clonick Hall)
Centaur - CRC 3988 (© 2022) (71'38")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata I in D minor/major; Sonata II in D; Sonata III in F; Sonata IV in G major/minor; Sonata V in A minor/major; Sonata VI in A major/minor

Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre was a remarkable woman, and it doesn't suprise that she has attracted the attention of modern performers. The very fact that she was a woman and a celebrated musician and composer at the same time is remarkable in itself. Even more so the fact that she enjoyed the protection of Louis XIV. This must have made it much easier for her to make her mark in the French music scene of the early 18th century.

She was born into a family which was heavily involved in music - consisting of musicians and instrument-makers - and married someone with the same background. Marin de La Guerre was an organist like her father, and he also was from a family of musicians. Elisabeth acted as keyboard teacher and also regularly gave concerts in Paris. In 1687 she published her first compositions, a book with pieces for the harpsichord. In 1694 her only opera, Céphale et Procris, was performed by the Académie Royale de Musique in 1694. A ballet from 1691 has been lost. The sonatas for violin and basso continuo which are the subject of this disc, were printed in 1707 but written at a much earlier date. Sébastien de Brossard, a French composer with great interest in the Italian style, was also an avid collector of music and copied some of her sonatas as early as 1695. From this one may conclude that Jacquet de la Guerre was one of the first French composers who wrote chamber music in the goût réuni, mixing French and Italian styles.

She presented the sonatas for violin and basso continuo at the court. The Mercure Galant reported: "Dinner being over, His Majesty spoke to Mlle de la Guerre in a most gracious manner; after having praised her sonatas extensively, he said to her that they could not be compared to any other such works. Mlle de la Guerre could not have received higher praise, for these words revealed that the King had not only found her music to be most fine, but also to be original - a quality that today is extremely rare". This shows that Louis XIV wasn't as dismissive towards the Italian style as he sometimes is portrayed.

The Sun King was right by saying that they "could not be compared to any other such works". They are indeed remarkable in various ways. They don't strictly follow the pattern of the Corellian sonata da chiesa as the number of movements varies from four (Sonata II) to six (Sonata I). Several movements are divided into contrasting sections, some fast movements end with a slow section which is a kind of transition to the next fast movement. Most movements have Italian titles, but there are also dances such as courante (Sonata V) and allemande (Sonata VI). The harmonic language is often surprising, with many daring harmonic progressions.

The title page says Sonates pour le Viollon et pour le Clavecin, but this does not indicate a concertante role of the harpsichord. The bass line is figured, and should be interpreted as a basso continuo. Interestingly various movements contain episodes in which the bass line has some additional notes at the top of the stave. This seems to indicate the participation of a string bass, most likely a viola da gamba. That isn't mentioned in the score, but it is difficult to see another option, in particular as in some of those episodes the violin and the viola da gamba are developing a dialogue which includes imitation of motifs. In such passages these solo sonatas get the texture of a trio sonata.

There is no lack of recordings of these six sonatas. Over the years I have heard several of them, and I was mostly happy with the performances. I like these performances as well, but I don't think they are going to be at the top of my list. The performers are all top-class artists who play a major role in the early music scene in North America. That clearly comes off here, as the playing is excellent. My main reservation is that Dana Maiben uses a bit too much vibrato in the slow movements, which is more than just an ornament. That may be partly a matter of taste; others may not be bothered by it. A positive feature is the recording: it has the intimacy of a salon in Paris, where these sonatas may have been played in Jacquet de La Guerre's own time, maybe even by herself.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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