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"La belle vielleuse - The virtuoso hurdy gurdy in 18th century France"

Ensemble Danguy
Dir: Tobie Miller

rec: June 2016, Beuggen (D), Schloßkirche
Ricercar - RIC 382 (© 2017) (76'17")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Charles BÂTON (?-after 1754): Sonate IV in C, op. 3,4 [1]; Michel CORRETTE (1707-1795): La Furstemberg [7]; Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772): Musette en rondeaua [4]; Jean-Baptiste DUPUITS (fl 1741-1757): La Dupuits [6]; Le Bouquet; Sonate VI in g minor, op. 1,6 [5]; Christophe LE MENU DE SAINT-PHILIBERT (fl 1742): La Vièle, cantatille avec simphonie; M[onsieur] RAVET (fl 1750): IIe Duo de Vielle et Violon [op. 2]; IIIe Sonate in g minor, op. 3,3; Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): Musette en rondeaua [3]

Sources: [1] Charles Bâton, 6 Sonates pour la Viele, 4 avec la Basse Continue, et 2 en duo. Quelques une de ces Sonates peuvent se jouer sur la Muzette, op. 3, [n.d.]; [2] M[onsieur] Ravet, Livre Premier, [n.d.]; [3] Jean-Philippe Rameau, Pièces de clavessin, 1724; [4] Louis-Claude Daquin, Premier livre de pièces de clavecin, 1735; Jean-Baptiste Dupuits, [5] Principes pour toucher de la vièle avec 6 sonates, 1741?; [6] Pièces de caractères, op. 5, 1742?; [7] Michel Corrette, La belle vielleuse, méthode pour apprendre facilement à jouer du vielle, contenant des leçons où les doits sont marqués, pour les commençans, avec des jolis airs et ariettes en duo, deux suites avec la basse et des chansons, 1783

Monica Mauch, soprano; Tobie Miller, hurdy-gurdy; Ellie Nimerosky, violin; Caroline Ritchie, viola da gamba, cello; Esteban La Rotta, theorbo; Marc Meisel, harpsichord (soloa)

It seems unlikely that many young people who are interested in classical music, have a deep wish to learn to play the hurdy-gurdy. It has a respectable place in the performance of medieval music, but in later music its role was limited to the playing of simple music of a pastoral character. As Tobie Miller writes in her liner-notes to the present disc: "By the 14th and 15th centuries, the rise of polyphonic art music led to the socio-musical decline of drone instruments such as the hurdy gurdy, which fell from more privileged circles of church and court, to those of beggars (often blind) and peasants. It remained in such circles for the next three centuries, enjoying an association primarily with the lower classes, until it was revived by the French aristocracy in the 18th century." This disc is a demonstration of the latter development.

As the hurdy-gurdy plays a marginal role in modern performance practice, it seems useful to quote Miller's description of the instrument and the way it is played. "The most defining feature of the hurdy gurdy is its wheel (essentially a circular bow), which is described in all of the 18th century methods as being to the hurdy gurdy what the bow is to the violin. The player can articulate both with the left hand (keys), and with the right hand using a combination of bowing technique (starting and stopping the wheel) and the buzzing bridge (or trompette) which is so characteristic of the instrument. The coup de poignet (literally 'wrist stroke') is the hurdy gurdy's articulation par excellence, just as the coup d'archet (bowing) is to other bowed stringed instruments, or the coup de langue (tonguing) is to wind instruments. This articulation is created by the mobile trompette bridge, and is controlled by movements of the player's right hand. The use of the trompette was dictated by the rules of le bon goût (good taste) which govern the music of the time: to articulate important notes and rhythms, as well as for dynamic and expressive purposes." (italics added)

It is not that surprising that the hurdy-gurdy became very popular among the higher echelons of society in the mid-18th century. It was the time in which rural life was idealised and imitated; in the chamber and keyboard music of the time we find many references to life on the countryside. The present disc includes two specimens for harpsichord. It resulted in an emancipation of those instruments, which were previously exclusively associated with the music of peasants and the countryside, such as the hurdy-gurdy and the musette.

The programme opens with a cantata by Christophe Le Menu de Saint-Philibert, who was mainly active as a music publisher. La Vièle is a cantatille avec simphonie in praise of the hurdy-gurdy. The first aria opens with the line: "What wonderful sounds now reach our ears! It is the lyre of the sun god". The second begins with the exclamation: "Delightful hurdy-gurdy, reign forever, charm both mortals and immortals". Between the two arias is a recitative which mentions one of the main hurdy-gurdy virtuosos of the time, known as "l'illustre Dangui" (apparently his Christian name is unknown). Jean-Christophe Naudot dedicted his concertos op. 17 to him. This, and the fact that he mentioned instruments as recorder, transverse flute and oboe as alternatives, testify to the fact that the hurdy-gurdy was taken seriously and treated on equal footing with established instruments in art music. It seems that either he did not compose any music or none of his compositions have been preserved. Otherwise I am sure something of it would have been included. He is at least given the honour of the ensemble's bearing his name.

The two other hurdy-gurdy virtuosos of the time are represented: Charles Bâton and M[onsieur] Ravet. The former was the son of Henri, a luthier and player of the hurdy-gurdy and the musette, who was reponsible for their transformation from folk instruments to art ones. "He thus developed an elegant instrument with an increased range and more subtle balance between melody and drone strings, which was more suited to chamber music", Tobie Miller writes. His son Charles explored these developments in his own playing and composing. A contemporary wrote: "[He] earned himself a reputation which procured for him the honour of instructing several princesses to play that instrument. Mr Bâton, after having for a long time performed with success music written for the musette and for the hurdy-gurdy, was the first to set about composing pieces expressly for the hurdy-gurdy - that is, pieces wrought in accordance with the hand positions and the characters befitting that instrument." His small oeuvre is confined to music for the hurdy-gurdy and the musette, which are treated as alternatives. In 1741 he published his Op. 3, which includes four sonatas for hurdy-hurdy or musette and bc and two for two hurdy-gurdies. The most virtuosic movement is the second, moderement.

Very little is known about Ravet, and that includes his Christian name; he has no entry in New Grove. Two collections of pieces for one or two hurdy-gurdies are extant. The Op. 1 includes three suites for two hurdy-gurdies and three sonatas for hurdy-gurdy and bc. The IIIe Sonate in G ends with a tambourin, which reminds us of the origins of the instrument in music of the countryside. The second piece is taken from his Op. 2; it is a duet for hurdy-gurdy and violin. Here we hear the more intimate side of the hurdy-gurdy; if played at full power it would overpower the violin. It is remarkable how well the two instruments blend in this piece.

The most virtuosic music in the programme is from the pen of Jean-Baptiste Dupuits. He was a composer and a teacher of harpsichord and hurdy-gurdy. He claimed to be a student of André Campra. In 1753 he opened a public school of music which gradually expanded into a supply of courses for every instrument. His first publication was a method for the hurdy-gurdy: Principes pour toucher de la vièle avec 6 sonates, probably printed in 1741. From this treatise the Sonata VI in g minor is taken. In the first movement Dupuits explores the entire range of the hurdy-gurdy, and the last includes rapid arpeggio passages and closes with a cadenza. Hardly less technically demanding is La Dupuits from a collection of Pièces de caractère for hurdy-gurdy and bc, which was published as his Op. 5, probably in 1742. The prélude includes arpeggio passages and broken chords and ends with brilliant passage work over a pedal point. The next four movements all include various technical tours de force.

The disc opened with a cantata; as it is devoted to the hurdy-gurdy it is obvious that the latter had an obbligato part. The same is the case with the cantata Le Bouquet, also from the pen of Dupuits. It has the texture of a cantate avec simphonie; the solo voice is accompanied by one or more instruments and bc. Here the hurdy-gurdy is one of several options; is not mentioned in the text. Its Arcadian subject of a love between a shepherd and a shepherdess is typical of the time and the genre.

Dupuits was not the only one to publish a hurdy-gurdy method. Michel Corrette did the same: in 1783 he published La belle vielleuse, which gave this disc its title. It seems unlikely that he himself played the hurdy-gurdy; he wrote methods for virtually every instrument of his time, including such relatively rare instruments as the mandolin and the double bass. The hurdy-gurdy method is mainly intended for amateurs, and it includes music which is within their grasp, unlike the pieces by Ravet, Bâton and Dupuits. La Furstemberg is an arrangement of a piece from André Campra's L'Europe galante, with variations by Corrette; it is scored for hurdy-gurdy and bc.

At first sight one may be sceptical about a disc with music for hurdy-gurdy. There is really no reason for that - on the contrary. This is a most compelling recording, first of all because of the quality of the music. Not only are almost all pieces technically challenging, they are also musically highly satisfying. Some pieces are even outright exciting. This disc is a real ear opener: it shows what the hurdy-gurdy is capable of, if it is taken seriously, just like the transverse flute or the violin. The composers explore the many features of the instrument to the full. And thanks to Tobie Miller they come off in full glory here. She is a brilliant player of the hurdy-gurdy; her command of the instrument is highly impressive. But she is also a fine musician. This disc is much more than a technical demonstration; this is real music. It is one of the most impressive, most surprising and most entertaining productions which I have heard recently. I should not forget to mention Ms Miller's colleagues, especially Monica Mauch, who delivers wonderful performances of the cantatas. She does so in historical pronunciation - bravo!

This is one of those rare recordings where just everything is right: the music, the performances, the recording and the documentation - Tobie Miller's liner-notes are informative and intelligibly written. In short, this is a disc to treasure and to return to regularly.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Tobie Miller

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