About this Recording
8.553407 - FORQUERAY: Harpsichord Suites Nos. 1, 3 and 5

Antoine Forqueray (c. 1671 - 1745)
Harpsichord Suites Nos. 1, 3 and 5


Antoine Forqueray is said to have composed over three hundred works for his instrument, the bass viol. Of these, none has survived in autograph manuscript form. Apart from a handful of pieces in collections dating from his lifetime, only twenty-nine works attributed to him have come down to us, compiled by his son Jean-Baptiste (1699 -1782), he too an excellent viol-player. These pieces, to which are added three others composed by Jean-Baptiste (La Angrave, La Du Vaucel, and La Morangis ou la Plissay), are ordered in five Suites and were published in 1747 in two volumes :Pieces devioleavec la bassecontinue (two viols and harpsichord), and Pieces de viole mises en pieces de clavecin (an arrangement of the former for solo harpsichord).

When considering these collections, one is faced with two as yet unanswered questions. Are the works really by Antoine Forqueray? Is Jean-Baptiste the true author of the harpsichord arrangements, or are they rather the work of his second wife, Marie-Rose Dubois, who was apparently an accomplished harpsichordist? Be that as it may, the Forquerays' domestic situation was sufficiently afflicted by trial and tribulation as to cast some doubt over Jean- Baptiste's motives for publishing the works.

Born in Paris in 1671 or 1672 under the reign of Louis XIV, Antoine Forqueray soon became one of France's foremost viol-players, as attested to by the Mercure galant of April, 1682: "[Antoine Forqueray] having had the honour [...] of playing the Basse de violon before the King, pleased His Majesty so, that He ordered that he [Forqueray] should be taught to play the Bass viol. It is a very difficult instrument. Nevertheless, he profited so well from the Lessons that he received, that at present [...] one finds few people who can equal him." At the age of seventeen, he was appointed Musicien ordinaire de la chambre du Toy.

This stability of employment, however, was not reflected in his character. In Hubert le Blanc's book Defense de la basse de viol contre les entreprises du violon et les pretensions du violoncel, the author describes Antoine as being "crabbed, crotchety, and odd". The first person known to have suffered from his crabbedness was his wife, Henriette-Angelique Houssu, who succeeded in escaping her husband's cruelty only after ten years of legal wrangling. Their 5On Jean-Baptiste, who apparently inherited "all his father's talents", must have borne the brunt of patemal jealousy, for Antoine had him thrown into the Bicetre prison at the age of twenty-five, and, in 1725, obtained a ruling to have him banished from the kingdom for "indulging in all sorts of debauchery". Only through the influence of his students did Jean-Baptiste manage to have the ruling overturned.

Jean-Baptiste having been thus abused, it is surprising to read in the preface to the Pieces de viole that he still wished to "immortalize" his father through the publication of the latter's compositions. While this might be attributable to filial devotion, a certain doubt remains as to the father's presumed authorship, and as to whether the son, in publishing his own works, did not wish to cash in on Antoine's posthumous fame. And yet, it is quite conceivable that Antoine Forqueray's works, while they remained unpublished during his lifetime, would have been heard by those who attended his concerts. Certainly, viol connoisseurs would not have been duped by such a ploy, especially since contemporary descriptions of Antoine Forqueray's style correspond to that of the pieces in the collections. The Mercure de France, August, 1738, says: "[Antoine] Forqueray appeared in society at the time when the Italians aroused in France astonishing emulation, around the year 1698. He tried to do on the viol everything that they did not on their violins, and he succeeded in his enterprise. The singular strings and the most striking figures of the good Composers of Italy were so familiar to him that in all his Pieces, one finds a certain spiciness which does not season even the most elaborate pieces of [Marin] Marais; the latter kept to natural graces while Forqueray had more studied ones, although his Art never spoiled the beauty of nature. [...] If there is something to reproach him for, it is for having made his pieces so difficu1t that only he and his son can perform them with grace." It is under the guise of a fiery persona that this quintessentially French grace coupled with Italian vivacity unvei1s music of diabolical force and beauty, of almost frightening virtuosity .This music seems to justify the opinion that if Marin was an angel, then Antoine Forqueray must have been a devil.

The harpsichord arrangements of the viol pieces retain all the qualities of the original, whi1e introducing highly imaginative modifications which make them into some of the most refined and audacious works of the French harpsichord repertoire. Forqueray maintains the low range of the pieces "to preserve their Character". This would have allowed the French instruments of the time, which were at their zenith, to resound magnificently. At the same time, he strove to ornament the harpsichord bass part as much as possible, by filling it in with idiomatic virtuoso passages. Hence, what was virtuosic for the viol remains so for the harpsichord, as is exemplified by the last verse of the rondeau titled Jupiter. Here, Forqueray's Jovian bolts spare no one.

As was customary at the time in France, Forqueray's pieces often bore the name of a well-known personality being honoured (La Couperin, La Rigente): these are character pieces or musical portraits, furthermore, some had more exotic titles, such as La Portugaise (in which a decisive rhythm attempts to portray certain ethnic qualities) and La Sylm. The latter, marked tres tendrement, seems to radiate as a shimmering prism, outside of time. In fact, Jean-Baptiste draws the harpsichordist's attention to the notation of the rhythm: "To play this piece in the way I should like it played, it should be noted how it is written, the right hand being hardly ever quite together with the left".

The variety of the pieces, the daring of the musical ideas and the quality of the arrangements combine to make the Pieces de clavecin collection one of the epitomes of the genre, illustrating a propensity for an a1most excessive refinement, and perpetuating the legendary fire of the Forquerays.

Jacques-Andre Houle
Translation: Pierre-louis Houle

Close the window