About this Recording
8.554295 - BOISMORTIER: Ballets de Village

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 he, 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.

Rediscovered a century later and republished in editions that now appear dated, with their romantic realisations of the basso continuo and adaptation to modem instruments, the music of Boismortier is now treated with the modem respect for authenticity and with due regard to the once despised rustic instruments, the musette and the hurdy-gurdy. The continuous bagpipe drone of the musette and difficulties of articulation and accent seemed to disqualify these instruments from serious consideration. Strangely, however, commentators of the period never mention these deficiencies, generally happy to agree with popular contemporary taste. Composers such as Lully, Marais, Campra, Mouret, Rameau and Leclair had used the musette in their operas, as well as the hurdy-gurdy in an instrumental repertoire that included duos, sonatas, concerts and concertos. It seems that modem critics may lack proper knowledge of the eighteenth century musette and hurdy-gurdy, wrongly identifying them with the folk instruments still in use. In fact the form of the baroque musette is quite different: elaborated for over a century by dynasties of instrument-makers including Hotteterre and the Chédevilles, it was designed to provide a full chromatic range of almost two octaves, to phrase, articulate and embellish in the same way as the flute, the violin and the harpsichord and finally to blend with all the other instruments. The hurdy-gurdy, generally retaining its original form, acquires possibilities of precision, a range of two chromatic octaves, speed, accuracy and a smoother sound. Handsomely decorated, the hurdy-­gurdy and the musette of the baroque period further accentuate the division between educated society and the people at large. Yet their technological sophistication has never managed completely to erase their popular origins, with a repertoire that remains generally cheerful or pastoral in character, while the presence of the drone is still very effective.

The four Ballets de village represent one of the major pieces of the repertoire for musette and vielle and are perhaps among Boismortier's most successful three­-part compositions for these instruments. The composer was an expert in their treatment and makes considerable use of them in a variety of works, responding to the demands of a contemporary public that was technically limited but passionately interested in music. By comparison with more accessible works for the instruments, the Ballets de village belong to a group of more ambitious compositions, although the pastoral aspect remains. In certain collections of sonatas or suites, with continuo, Boismortier exploits the virtuosity of the musette as in the two Divertissemens de campagne, Opus 49, or of the vielle, as in the six Sonatas, Opus 72. He envisages music that makes use of musettes, vielles, recorders, violins, oboes and flutes, with the bass provided by the harpsichord, the theorbo supported by the cello, bass viol or bassoon. The possible use of these instruments seems clearly implied by the nature of the melody instrument specified by the composer. The potentially varied instrumentation does not necessarily classify the Ballets de village as among Boismortier's ambitious works. Other printed works of the period also envisage varying ensembles, supported by a simple bass, with occasional short trios breaking the simplicity of the composition. This first type of music was mainly used as an opening to a suite, a symphony, or an Italian style concerto, sometimes with great success. The continuous three-part writing of the Ballets and the unusual lay-out of the movements are the first sign of a break with usual practice.

The use of the terms seul (solo) and tous (tutti) impart a French element to the Italian concerto grosso, while the forms used are well known: rondeau, chaconne, fugue, varied or two-part slow movement. Yet the use of these forms in such a context is unusual, in a work that shows originality in its technical command and continuity, while still retaining the cheerful and entertaining element suggested in the title. In fact there is something paradoxical about this music: although the term ballet is used, there are no references to specific dances, even if the pesamment of the second ballet suggests the rigaudon and if the concluding chacanne 'gaiement' recalls initially the rhythm of a gigue.

The title of the Sérénade ou Simphonie françoise, Opus 39, suggests something more serious, yet the movements themselves refer to popular music, with a gavotte, entrée rustique, villageoise and so on, curiously complemented by the Ouverture or the strange Chœur imaginaire. There is no sign here of the musette or the hurdy-gurdy, but only of serious instruments, flutes, violins and oboes. This mingling of town and country, of the upper classes with the peasantry, of a simple form of music with technical skill in composition might reflect the advice of Boileau:

Prenez mieux votre ton
Soyez simple avec art,
Sublime sans orgueil,
Agréable sans fard.

(Cultivate a better tone,
Be simple with skill,
Noble without pride,
Pleasant without pretension)

Simplicity with skill characterizes the music of the Ballets de village and the Sérénade and the Symphonie Françoise. Written at a time when French and Italian music met, these works deliberately choose a pleasing style without pretension, a perfect synthesis of the tastes of the period.

Jean-Christophe Maillard

Close the window