About this Recording
8.570826 - DORNEL, L.-A.: 6 Suittes en Trio (Musica Barocca)
English  French 

Louis-Antoine Dornel (1680–1765)
Six Suittes en Trio (1709)


The French composer and organist Louis-Antoine Dornel was born in 1680 in Presles near Beaumont-sur-Oise. He died there in 1757 under the care of his youngest brother Jean. In 1706 he was designated organist at the church of Ste Madeleine-en-la-Cité in Paris, a position he held for ten years, and subsequently occupied several posts in Paris as organist and as maître de musique. Little else is known about his professional life.

A number of Dornel’s sacred works, all now lost, were favourably reviewed during his lifetime in the Mercure de France. It is, however, well known that a vast number of musical compositions produced during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque period have not survived to our own day, with even many of J. S. Bach’s cantatas among works that have disappeared, because of simple neglect, changes in fashion, fires, and most recently, as a consequence of bombing raids on European monasteries and public and private buildings during the course of two world wars. The modern widespread aspiration to perform and to preserve contemporary and older musical creations for the enjoyment of forthcoming generations, was in the past the preserve of only a handful of highly specialised scholars and a few unusually learned composers, and was practically non-existent among European cultural circles before the latter half of the eighteenth century. Furthermore, the presence on the public platform of the virtuoso solo player championing works by composers other than him or herself (let alone by composers of previous periods) is certainly a nineteenth-century phenomenon.

Four collections of chamber music (1709, 1711, 1713 and 1723), a book containing some very appealing harpsichord pieces published in 1731, a few vocal works in print in 1706 as Airs sérieux, four cantatas and a series of unpublished organ pieces are all that has survived from Dornel’s entire output. He also wrote a short treatise on music theory called Le tour du clavier sur tous les tons (1745). The references in the Mercure de France, the sheer inventiveness of many of his instrumental pieces and the popularity of his Airs (songs) during his lifetime, all reveal a seemingly talented composer who, like so many of his colleagues, was actively writing and publishing music for an enthusiastic public, mainly from the upper échelons of society, only too eager (as suggested above) to try the latest musical fashions.

The musical term ‘symphony’, written with different spellings depending on the country and the historic period, has been used very loosely over the centuries. In Northern Italy, for example, Sinfonia, in the early seventeenth century, at the time of Monteverdi and Cavalli, was a brief instrumental piece played by the orchestra at the beginning of an opera, in a similar manner to an overture two hundred years later. In our time it is generally used to refer to a four-movement composition, originating around the 1740s and 1750s in German-speaking countries and gradually developing in terms of size and complexity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, intended to be performed by a large orchestra in very spacious public halls. We can safely assume that for Dornel and other French composers living and working in Paris approximately between 1685 and 1715, Simphonies would simply mean musical pieces or compositions in general.

By 1709, when Dornel published in Paris his Livre de Simphonies Contenant six suittes (sic) en trio pour les flutes, violins, hautbois, & c. avec une Sonate en Quatuor, the suite (or suitte) was a well established instrumental form consisting of a number of dances all written in the same key and usually expected to be performed as a unit. Although the origins of the suite can be traced back as far as the mid-sixteenth century, partly in Italy but mainly in France, having evolved over time through different combinations of dances, towards the end of the seventeenth century the core of this popular form came to revolve around a four-dance structure, namely Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. As in most artistic endeavours, rules within the universe of musical creativity are not set in stone and function principally as guides or as initial points of departure. Such is the case here, where around those four main – but not obligatory – dances, other optional ones were usually included at the composer’s discretion, as can be confirmed looking through these Dornel Six Suittes of 1709. Half of the suites start with an Ouverture divided into two sections, an initial one, slow and majestic, in duple metre and sprinkled with dotted notes, followed by a fast and light one in ternary rhythm. The other three open with an imposing Prélude, all marked to be played lentement (slowly). These Préludes in particular, demand from the players a great familiarity with the French musical language of the period in order to successfully convey their intense expressive power. Not all these Suittes contain an Allemande, a Sarabande or a Gigue. In fact there is not even a single Courante in the entire set; instead, Dornel included five Rondeaux, one Air en Loure and even a Caprice. The Chaconne, a dance closely related to the passacaglia or passacaille, and very likely originating in New Spain (Mexico) in the sixteenth century, had already a long history in European music when Dornel composed and published the three examples found here. By the end of the seventeenth century this dance had evolved in France into a well-defined, dignified form with clear structural features and substantial length, which allowed for passages of ample musical breadth.

Instrumental works conceived as pièces en trio, that is pieces composed for two solo instruments of similar pitch accompanied by a third part on the bass register, became popular amongst French composers in the 1690s, undoubtedly influenced by the Italian violinist Arcangelo Corelli’s famous trio sonatas published in Rome in 1681, 1685, 1689 and 1694. Celebrated examples were the Pièces en trio pour les flûtes, violon et dessus de viole avec la basse continue (Paris 1692) by Marin Marais, the viola da gamba virtuoso of the period, and the Sonades en trio (note the French adaptation of the original Italian word Sonata) written around 1692–93 by François Couperin and published much later (1726) as part of his grandiose four Concerts, Les Nations. Evidently, Dornel’s 1709 Six Suittes en trio encapsulate the essence of this three-part writing which went on to become one of the favourite forms for many of the late baroque composers.

As clearly stated on the title page of this collection, Dornel offers optional instrumentation with either two flutes, two violins or two oboes. Given the very nature of these pieces, two solo parts moving within the same range, with a bass line, the common practice of the day allowed for the use of whatever instruments were at hand, a far cry from the more precise instrumental specifications for trios of later periods, as with Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. For this recording we decided to use two voice flutes, a type of recorder with d’ as its lowest note, a tone and a half lower than its relative, the treble recorder in F.

The third element of this type of trio writing was the bass line. An essential feature of baroque music, also known as continuo or continuo bass (basse continue in French), it provided harmonic and rhythmical support to the solo parts. For the sake of richness of texture and variety of timbre, more than one instrument was normally used to play it. In the Paris of the early eighteenth century a harpsichord, a viola da gamba and a theorbo in all their possible combinations, would have been a very likely choice to enrich a bass line with abundance of imagination and grace.

The Sonate en Quatuor published by Dornel in 1709 together with his Six Suittes en trio is a composition in the Italian style for three solo instruments and continuo which, for reasons of space, has not been included in the present recording.

Juan Estéve

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