musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Dancing with the Sun King"

Ensemble Odyssee

rec: March 5 - 7, 2019, Diemen (NL), Schuilkerk De Hoop
Pan Classics - PC 10410 (© 2019) (62'20")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list
Scores Rebel

Michel Pignolet DE MONTÉCLAIR (1667-1737): Sérénade ou Concert, divisé en trois suites ... propres à Danser; Jean-Féry REBEL (1666-1747): Boutade; Caprice; Les Caractères de la Danse

Anna Stegmann, recorder; Georg Fritz, recorder, oboe; Rodrigo López Paz, oboe; Antonio Costenla Martinez, musette, tambour de basque; Eva Saladin, David Alonso Molina, violin; Zdenka Procházková, Helmut Riebl, viola; Israel Castillo Hernandez, viola da gamba; Agnieszka Oszanca, cello; Inga Maria Klaucke, bassoon; Andrea Friggi, harpsichord

Dance has played a key role in European culture from ancient times to the present day. During the renaissance and baroque periods dancing was one of the main skills of royalty and aristocracy. In France it was especially held in high esteem, as the monarchs not only liked to watch ballet, but also participated in it. Part of the repertoire of airs - derived from the air de cour - were airs de ballet, which were sung during ballet performances at court. Louis XIII even composed a ballet himself, and his son Louis XIV was an enthusiastic dancer, who presented himself as Apollo in the Ballet royal de la nuit in 1663. When he recruited the Italian Giovanni Battista Lulli to create a true French opera, as an alternative to Italian opera that conquered most of Europe, ballet became a fixed part of it. Each opera included a number of dances, and in his early years Louis XIV liked to act as a dancer in them. Otherwise dances in opera were performed by professional dancers.

The art of dancing was given so much importance that in 1661 the Académie Royale de Danse was founded. It resulted in a professionalisation of dancing, and the notation of dance steps and arm movements. Whereas at first dancers were all male, from 1681 women also started to participate in opera ballets. The first time a female dancer acted solo in a ballet was in the performance of Les Caractères de la Danse by Jean-Féry Rebel, a pupil of Lully. It is a catalogue of dances which soon developed into a competition piece for dancers. The dances in this piece are very short: the fourteen dances together just take a little under ten minutes. After a prelude we hear such dances as the courante, the bourrée, the menuet and the gavotte, and obviously a chaconne had to be included. The score confines itself to the upper part and the bass; for this recording the missing parts - the middle voices - have been reconstructed. Two other pieces by Rebel are of a comparable nature; they are much shorter, and were probably performed between the acts of an opera.

The main item on the programme is the Sérénade ou Concert by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair. He was born as Michel Pignolet in Andelot in the Haute-Marne, and started his musical career as a choirboy in Langres cathedral. In 1687 he moved to Paris where in a tax register of 1695 he is described as "dancing and instrumental teacher of the third class". Here he added 'Montéclair' to his name, after a Gallo-Roman site on the hill of Montéclair in Andelot-Blancheville. He published various collections of airs for one and two voices and basso continuo. At the end of the century he was in the service of Charles-Henri de Lorraine Vaudémont, Prince of Commercy and Governor of Milan. He probably spent several years in Milan, and this could explain that he introduced the Italian double-bass to the orchestra of the Opéra in which he played the basse de violon from 1699 onwards. As a composer he was quite active: he not only composed chamber music, but also sacred works and music for the theatre, including a tragédie-lyrique on a sacred subject, Jephté. A number of his compositions have been lost. Moreover he was a renowned teacher: among his pupils was François Couperin's daughter Marguerite-Antoinette. Montéclair published various treatises on musical subjects and got involved in a debate with Jean-Philippe Rameau.

The Sérénade seems to provide the music for an entire ball. It consists of three suites of different character and orchestration. It is notable that Montéclair did not leave the choice of instruments to the performers, as was common practice at the time, but gave specific indications of the instruments to be used. The first suite is called airs champetres, which refers to the countryside. It does not surprise that the score indicates the participation of the musette, which was almost exclusively associated with life at the countryside. The first movement is called marche des bergiers and the suite closes with a danse de vilage. In between are two pastourelles and a chalumeau rondeau. The latter does not require a real chalumeau, just like the third suite, called airs de fanfares, does not require trumpets in the two movements, among them the closing one, called trompettes. It is the task of in particular the oboes to imitate the sound of the trumpets. It is probably just as well that Montéclair specified which instruments to use; otherwise performers may be tempted to opt for the easy solution to use trumpets here. This suite opens in the traditional manner of suites, with an ouverture. The second suite is the most intimate one: airs tendres is set for strings, with recorders playing colla parte. Its intimate character is emphasized by several slow sarabandes. The suite opens and closes with a movement called Sommeil. Such pieces also appear in several operas.

Whereas in Rebel's Les caractères de la danse the absent middle parts have been reconstructed, the Sérénade by Montéclair has been performed as it comes, also without inner parts. Andrea Friggi, in his liner-notes, writes that "most of the music is written for one single dessus to be played in unison by all the instruments (tous) occasionally alternating with oboe or violin trios. No inner parts are present. Although unusual to modern ears, this must have been the true sound of French dance music in most of the balls at the time." It need to be added that the composer indicated that "all pieces can be also played with only one instrument and a bass when a second is not available".

Although the booklet does not say so, Montéclair's Sérénade may well appear on disc here for the first time. As Rebel's Les caractères de la danse is often performed and available on several discs, this work by Montéclair seems a worthy alternative. It certainly deserves to be better known and more often performed in concerts. The Ensemble Odyssee shows here how to perform it. It is an excellent ensemble and excels here in the blending of the various instruments and the way the dances and their rhythms are handled.

This is a highly entertaining disc, which sheds light on the importance of dance outside opera. I also could imagine these suites being used for actual dancing by an ensemble specialized in historical ballet.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Odyssee

CD Reviews