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8.554457 - BOISMORTIER: Suites for Harpsichord and for Flute
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Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755)
Suites for Harpsichord & Flute

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, large and small scale cantatas and motets, 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.

Although not himself an outstanding keyboard player, Boismortier had a good understanding of the nature of the French keyboard dance suite and combined in his four harpsichord suites the specific elements of the genre, evocative titles and instrumental effects, providing portraits without necessarily any specific identification of those to whom the pieces are dedicated. Titles such as L'Impérieuse (‘The Imperious’), La Flagorneuse (‘The Toady’), La Belliqueuse (‘The Bellicose’), L'Indéterminée (‘The Undecided’), and La Frénétique (‘The Frenetic’) appear, but Boismortier also uses other evocative titles less directly associated with individuals. La Caverneuse (‘The Cavernous’), La Choquanle (The Shocking) and La Veloutée (The Velvety) seem to have titles suggesting only their musical character. La Puce (‘The flea’) and La Navette (‘The Shuttle’) are deliberately descriptive, while La Valétudinaire (‘The Valetudinarian’), in a melancholy C minor, is a depressing sarabande, followed by the quicker La Décharnée (‘The Emaciated’), skeletal in its paucity of harmony, with a melody running from one end of the keyboard to the other and little notes not answering each other in a jagged pattern La Marguillère (‘The Churchwarden’) is a dignified patroness, La Rustique (‘The Rustic’) a merry peasant, while La Brunette (‘The Brunette’) suggests those sentimental little pastoral songs published in such quantity during the period, notably by Boismortier. Other allusive titles include references to Venice, La Transalpine and, very specifically, La Sérénissime.

Boismortier wrote a quantity of music for the flute and an instruction manual for the transverse flute, now lost. The three suites taken from his Opus 35 are in the tradition of the first composers to write for the instrument at the beginning of the century, Jacques Hotteterre le Romain, Michel de la Barre, Pierre Philidor and many others. The fine preludes bear witness to this tradition, while the short expressive melodies and slow rondeaux point to new and deliberately pastoral preoccupations, Ramages (Warbling/Foliage) in the Sixth Suite suggests the rococo, while the following Gaiment demands a virtuosity inherited from the Italian sonata, prefiguring the future work of the great French flautist Michel Blavet.

Stéphan Perreau & Jean-Christophe Maillard
English version: Keith Anderson


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