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8.554456 - BOISMORTIER: Serenades Francaises / Fragments Melodiques

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689-1755)
Sérénades françaises

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, French cantatas, little motets, motets for large choirs, small cantatas 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.

The impression given by some of his contemporaries was that Boismortier wrote too much, a criticism heard both when he was at the height of his powers and after his death. This means, at least, that he was talked about, provoking argument and possible jealousy, as in the case of Lully. Yet Boismortier's apparent unconcern, his taste for the provocative and his excessive demonstrations of affection show a complex character, no doubt hated by his enemies for his caustic wit but a good friend to others.

No portrait of Boismortier survives, but there are some written indications of the two sides of his character, cynical and insolent to his detractors, dismissing those who reproach him for excessive facility with the words 'I make money' and showing apparent indifference to criticism. No doubt he had a clear idea of his own worth, but was unwilling to waste time on what had already been written.

Around the year 1740 he addressed the musicians of the Concert Spirituel in the following words: 'Gentlemen, here is my score, do what you can with it; as far as I am concerned I know no more of the matter than a little choir-boy.' His seeming modesty here verges on impertinence.

Hervé Niquet and the musicians of the present Concert Spirituel have remembered Boismortier's words. As in his lifetime, he has left them his music, giving them freedom to do their best with it. The ensemble has, therefore, decided, over the course of several years, to make a series of thematic recordings, motets, the comic ballet Don Qnichotte chez la Duchesse, the concertos for five flutes and finally various pastoral pieces, the Ballets de Village, a Gentillesse and one of the two Sérénades.

The present release follows a different plan, that of the anthology. The task is a daring one, in view of the vast range of Boismortier's musical forms and instrumentation. The present collection is an eclectic reflection of a varied body of work, including nearly all the instruments for which Boismortier wrote, the transverse flute, hurdy-gurdy, musette, recorder, violin, cello, bass viol, oboe, bassoon and harpsichord. The only liberty taken has been to add a double bass, the usual reinforcement of the bass line at the lower octave, and in the concerto for bassoon to add a guitar, which gives its own touch to the continuo. There should be no regret at the absence of the pardessus de viole and the hunting-horn. Boismortier's compositions for these instruments are either lost or only recently rediscovered. It would be difficult to give an exhaustive picture of all that he wrote. His works include 101 opus numbers, with twenty unnumbered collections, various motets in manuscript, many of these compositions now lost.

The present collection includes examples of all the musical styles in fashion in France between 1720 and 1740. Even if Boismortier was not systematic in his attempt to make money, at least he produced music capable of pleasing both amateurs and professional players. A further striking fact is that he made full use of the possible resources of each instrument, although it is certain that he did not play them all, as was sometimes the case with other composers, such as the Prussian flautist Quantz, for example, who played some fourteen instruments, but Boismortier clearly wanted the sound of each to be heard.

Boismortier was one of the first French composers to write concertos, together with his contemporary Michel Corrette. It is a curious fact that, although the model for the form was the Italian violin concerto, both immediately favoured specifically French instruments, the flute, oboe, musette and bassoon.

While the two examples here included are in fine French style, they still show signs of traditional writing. The bassoon coocerto alternates tutti and solo sections, except in the central movement, a bassoon melody accompanied by sustained strings, and the concerto for zampogna (the Italian bagpipe) has dialogue between the oboe and musette, unison tutti passages and solo sections for the two leading instruments. Although written at an interval of several months, between 1728 and 1730, the two concertos are quite different. The first was not written only for the bassoon, but seems to sound better on that instrument than on the cello, for which it was first intended. Boismortier shows his awareness of this in his introduction, in which he admits that he does not play the cello well enough to judge the work himself. In the second concerto he tries to give the musette a new repertoire to dispel its image as an instrument for shepherds. His example was followed by Corrette, Nicolas Chédeville and some others. The musette, however, here disguised under an Italian name that deceives nobody, is coupled with another essentially pastoral instrument, the oboe. The result is a work that is midway between a double and a solo concerto, a hybrid form .

Boismortier was thoroughly familiar with the form of the French dance suite, a varied collection of pieces. The present anthology includes two forms that he favoured in particular, the suite for pastoral instruments, the hurdy-gurdy and the musette, and the suite for flutes, oboes and violins. In fact the pieces included in the Fragments Mélodiques and the second Sérénade ou Simphonie Françoise could be interchanged, if the keys allowed.

It is perhaps here that the intrinsic genius of Boismortier is best seen, his facility in the production of an apparently infinite series of innocent-seeming little pieces, each, however, with its own particular character Boismortier had a gift for melody, and it was this innate facility, coupled with solid technique and an understanding of instrumental resources, that lay at the base of his art.

On at least three occasions Boismortier showed himself drawn to the theatre.

Hervé Niquet and the Concert Spirituel have already recorded Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse, to which are now added two symphonic extracts from two other stage works by the composer, Les Voyages de l'Amour (‘The Journeys of Love’) and Daphnis et Chloé. The finale of the latter is the traditional chaconne, but, unusually, in duple metre. Boismortier favoured these duple-metre chaconnes, as the chaconne in the Fragments Mélodiques confirms. More surprising still is the Simphonie for the arrival of the elemental spirits.

This long and fantastic movement seems at first to be presented as a lively entrée recalling the airs written for demons, but leads to a series of character dances, even if the composer does not so specify. The first air is followed by a caprice, a loure, a rapid air in duple time, a kind of passacaglia, a cheerful rondeau, a musette and a gigue. The dances follow each other in rapid succession, without titles, their character indicated by their figuration. Here Boismortier offers some minutes of pure symphonic music that seem to recall the example of Jean-Féry Rebel, whose Les Caractères de la Danse are evident at every turn of the score and whose Les Eléments have already been evoked in Boismorticr's title.

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

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