About this Recording
8.572034-35 - BALBASTRE, C.-B.: Harpsichord Music - Pieces de clavecin, Book 1 / Livre contenant des pieces de different genre (excerpts) (Farr)
English  French 

Claude-Bénigne Balbastre (1727–1799)
Music for Harpsichord


Claude-Bénigne Balbastre was a celebrated keyboardist and composer during the final years of the French ancien régime. Despite his musical renown and association with the aristocracy, he was able to escape arrest and execution following the French Revolution. He died in poverty ten years after the Revolution had for ever changed the France he knew, the France in which he had thrived and built his reputation.

Balbastre was born in Dijon and received his earliest instruction in music from his father Bénigne, a church organist. He probably also studied with Jean-Philippe Rameau’s brother, Claude, whom he succeeded as organist at the Cathedral of St Etienne in 1743. His large manuscript of 75 pieces in various genres, primarily for harpsichord or organ, comes from this early period and is dated 1749.

In 1750 Balbastre went to Paris to study composition with Jean-Philippe Rameau and organ with Pierre Février. He became organist at St Roch in 1756, and his performances there, as well as those at Notre Dame and the Concert Spirituel (Parisian concert series), were extremely popular and well attended. He was reviewed in the prestigious Mercure de France and described glowingly by the famous music historian Charles Burney in his The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771). Balbastre’s arrangement of movements from Rameau’s opera Pygmalion comes from this period, performed in 1754 at the home of Le Riche de La Pouplinière, Rameau’s music patron.

Balbastre published his Pièces de clavecin in 1759. It contains seventeen pieces loosely ordered by key centres and possessing a variety of styles. It was dedicated to his pupil Madame de Caze, whose husband is identified on the title page as one of the wealthy “farmer-generals” who collected taxes for the crown. Later keyboard works, either published or surviving in manuscript, are for harpsichord, fortepiano, or organ.

Just after his 38th birthday, Balbastre married Marie-Geneviève Hotteterre, daughter of the court musician and composer Jacques-Martin Hotteterre. Their wedding contract was witnessed and signed by many prominent figures, including Jean-Philippe Rameau and some whose names appear in Balbastre’s Pièces de clavecin. Sadly his wife died within a year of the marriage. In 1767 he married Marie-Anne Antoinette Boileau, who bore him two children.

In 1776 Balbastre was appointed organist to the King’s brother, who later became the exiled Louis XVIII following the deaths of Louis XVI and the Dauphin. During this time his harpsichord pupils included royalty and dignitaries of the era, notably Marie-Antoinette, the Duke of Chartres, and the daughters of Thomas Jefferson during their lengthy visit to France. The Prélude (1777) and La d’Esclignac (1787) are both dated within this pre-revolutionary period.

The outbreak of revolution in 1789 brought uncertainty, loss of income, and danger for all associated with the French court, nobility, and churches. Balbastre was spared owing in part to patriotic pieces he composed that ostensibly embraced the ideals of the revolution, the most famous being Marche des Marseillois et l’Air Ça-ira (1792). His daughter married a man associated with the revolutionary government, undoubtedly helping to save their family from prosecution.

Balbastre’s musical legacy is multifaceted: he continued the strong tradition of French harpsichord music of the first half of the eighteenth century, and embraced fashionable new styles stemming from Italian influences (including Scarlatti) and music for the salon. Eventually he used his talents to lend patriotic support to the emerging Republic. Whether perceiving musical depth, beauty, or frivolity in his music, it is always completely charming and tuneful, relying on the beautiful sonorities and sensitivities of his era and imagination.

The sound of Balbastre’s keyboard music is both stunning and beguiling, an experience enhanced on this recording by the use of a large harpsichord with 1x16’, 2x8’, 1x4’, and two buff stops. His book of harpsichord pieces (1759) presents musical portraits of seventeen personalities of his era. The first eight movements have the key centre of C minor/major. The last nine movements comprise three pieces in flat keys—E flat major, G minor, and F major—and six pieces in the key centre of A minor/major. It has been difficult for historians positively to identify the persons portrayed in the volume. While it is interesting to know the title, gender, or profession of the person in question, the music itself affectively reveals the character of each.

The volume is dedicated to Madame de Caze, second wife of Anne Nicolas Robert de Caze. Beyond the information given on the title page, a personal inscription is added by Balbastre to honour his pupil. The first piece, La de Caze, is marked fièrement, marqué, and animé, with notations for changes of keyboard. Whether a portrait of the powerful farmer-general or his wife, patrons and supporters of Balbastre, it is a strong portrait of someone who is going places and demands respect. By contrast, the second piece, La d’Héricourt, is marked noblement, sans lenteur, with a note explaining the unusual double slurs found later in the piece. Although an established noble family, the identity of this particular member is unknown to scholars. The music depicts one who enjoys the ease of being accustomed to wealth, and the sweeping movement of abundant rich fabrics.

The third piece is a pair of Gavottes, a graceful courtly dance with rural origins. La Ségur could refer to the Marquis of the same name or his first wife, a wealthy Haitian Creole much admired in society. Perhaps the music is a better fit for her, as the first Gavotte in C minor has a graceful, sure-footed quality, and the second in C major the mood of flirtatious glances. It is followed by La Monmartel ou La Brunoys, a movement with the compound-metre figuration of an Italian Giga. The Monmartel family was colourful, and it is likely that this piece depicts Jean-Pâris’ son, who later became the Marquis de Brunoys. He was known to have been something of an eccentric who frequented funerals and other ceremonial rites. The music depicts a person who is quite in earnest and delightfully silly.

The next portrait, La Boullongne, is a double rondeau in which the two are highly contrasted. The most famous Boullongne of this period was the high-level financier, Jean-Nicolas. His son Joseph was famous as a violinist, conductor and composer. Musically it seems more likely that the latter is depicted through the sense of strong violinistic multiple-stop chords and orchestral textures in the first rondeau in C minor, contrasted in the second in C major by the lighter, sweeter figuration of violin playing in a smaller ensemble, although with panache and bravura. The sixth and seventh pieces are much lighter in character. La Castelmore is subtitled Air Champêtre (a description of the affect) and marked louré (a description of the texture). The first Air in C major depicts country life, the pastoral music of shepherds as played on hurdy-gurdy or bagpipes. The second Air in C minor is marked gracieux, tender and loving by comparison. La Courteille is also in the form of two Airs, similar to a pair of minuets in triple meter. The music has a slightly playful quality that seems youthful and unspoiled. The Courteilles who signed one of Balbastre’s marriage contracts included the Marquis, his wife, and young daughter. Several Castelmores also signed the document.

The last of the pieces in the key of C is a brilliant movement that seems, like so much keyboard music of the eighteenth century, to be inspired by the virtuosity of Scarlatti. The technique of hand-crossing is perhaps most obvious, but no less so the exploitation of the ranges of the harpsichord keyboard and the use of repetitive figuration to build sonority and volume. Scholars have surmised that La Bellaud may actually refer to Bellot, a harpsichord-maker employed at Versailles. The music is fluent, efficient, and humming with activity.

La Lamarck is marked Ouverture, vivement, marqué with sections marked to be played loud and soft (changes of keyboard). Scholars believe this to be the portrait of Marie-Anne Françoise de Noailles, the second wife of the Comte de la Marck. The Count was a military man, whose wife enjoyed renown for her harpsichord playing. Whether a tribute to his victorious military exploits or her skills as a virtuoso musician, it is a brilliant piece in a new key (E flat major) with a sparkling, determined affect, entered strategically at the midpoint of the volume. By contrast, the pair of Gavottes in G minor/major entitled La Berville has a more tender or playful affect, slightly smiling and then giddy. Both bear instructions for grand and petit keyboards or the dynamics fort and doux. The title may refer to Éléonore Louise, the young daughter of the Marquis of Berville.

La Lugeac is a brilliant Giga in F major. It speaks with an athletic prowess that courageously defies all limits. The Marquis de Lugeac, Charles-Antoine de Guérin, described by a writer of the period as a captain of the mounted grenadiers, also signed Balbastre’s wedding contract. With the knowledge of this connection, the compound metre seems to point to him by suggesting the proud canter of a horse.

The last six pieces are in the key of A major/minor. La Suzanne, in two sections, may refer to the sculptor Claude-Louis Suzanne. The first in A minor has a monolithic grandeur, and is marked noblement, animé. The second in A major is sweetly rustic, marked gracieusement. The repetitive rippling bass line of the latter is reminiscent of the musette, a small French bagpipe. By contrast La Genty has a much more frivolous quality, marked badine, gaïment. Badine is a suite movement that has no specific identifying characteristics other than being completely light-hearted and playful. This lovely melody with arpeggiated accompaniment cannot be traced with certainty to any person in Balbastre’s acquaintance. Its expression is natural, sunny, and unencumbered.

La Malesherbe is believed by scholars to be the musical portrait of Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes. Trained as a lawyer and active in court politics, he retired to his country estate in the late 1770s to follow his interests as a botanist and writer. In 1792 he came out of retirement to defend the King at trial, and was then subsequently executed. The first section is in rondeau form and is marked Ariette Gracieuse, delightfully fresh and idyllic. The second section is an Air Gay with strong bass-drone accompaniment, somewhat reminiscent of a Turkish march or hurdy-gurdy. The identity of La Berryer ou La Lamoignon may be related to Malesherbes. Marie-Élisabeth Berryer married his cousin, becoming Madame Lamoignon, and along with her daughter may have studied with Balbastre. The piece is a double rondeau. The first, in A major, is dainty and exquisitely beautiful, while the second, in A minor, is slightly more resolute with a touch of longing.

La Laporte may refer to another student of Balbastre, Jeanne Élisabeth de La Porte. She must have been exceptional, as this piece is quite virtuosic and powerful. It has an exuberant vivacious affect. It is marked allegro, animé with additional markings for loud and soft sections. The final piece, La Morisseau, is marked noblement. Set low in the keyboard much of the time, it possesses a rich luxurious quality within a simple texture—vocally inspired melody graced by tasteful ornaments, and lute-like strummed accompaniment. The person being lovingly portrayed in this piece is not known.

From the 75 works contained in Livre contenant des pièces de différent genre d’orgue et de clavecin (1749), catalogued as Versailles manuscript 264, two small groupings of pieces have been selected from the 24 works listed specifically for harpsichord. While the handwriting is quite clear in the manuscript, the notation of accidentals seems puzzling in some cases, often requiring interpretation.

The first group presents pieces 44, 60 and 61. Sonata No. 5 in G major is in binary form, similar to many sonatas composed by Domenico Scarlatti, and has a pastoral, jolly affect. Gavotte Rondeau in G minor makes use of a drone bass in the rondeau theme, sounding very much like a musette. It is played in alternation with two reprise sections, AABACAA. In keeping with its mesmerising contemplative affect, the buff stops have been employed. This group concludes with the buoyant, carefree Sonate in G major.

The second grouping consists of pieces 41, 56, 63, 57 and 45. The group begins with Sonata No. 2 in F major, a dazzling piece that features a bold cadenza-like passage in the second half, and is followed by a pair of sweet Menuets in A major/minor. Sonate coucou in F major exploits a variety of registers and rhythms in which to sing “cuckoo”. A thoroughly charming Badine in A major follows, in the form of a rondeau theme with two alternate sections, AABACAA. The final work is Sonata No. 6 in F major, a brilliant piece with breathless high energy.

Other manuscript works complete this recording. La d’Esclignac is a relatively late work dated 1787. There is no certainty as to the individual honoured, but it is interesting to note that the Duc d’Esclignac, Henri de Preissac, married in that year. In the grand style of the era, contrasting musical material—sweet, silly, or quite grandiose—is presented in a thoroughly entertaining way.

Balbastre’s harpsichord transcriptions of four movements from Rameau’s opera Pygmalion capture the spirit of the originals. The Ouverture is grand and dazzling as befits the spectacle of French opera, the repeated notes of the second section presenting a virtuoso challenge for an instrument that produces sound by plucking. Pantomime is a movement that mimics and teases in a spirit of buffoonery. The Giga is a carefree rollicking dance, while the Contredanse maintains a whirlwind pace.

Balbastre is probably the last French composer to write a Prélude non mesuré (1777). It does not exactly follow the lute style of preludes composed in the seventeenth century, despite its rich harmonic figuration notated without metre or bar lines. Earlier in the eighteenth century Rameau composed a prelude with a brief opening unmeasured section in his Premier Livre of 1706 that likewise is in a style that relies more on bravura and élan than style brisé.

The famous Marche des Marseillois et l’Air Ça-ira was composed by Citizen Balbastre in 1792. It is based on the two most famous patriotic songs of the day. La Marseillaise was written by the composer Rouget de Lisle in 1792 and was quickly adopted as the French national anthem. Ça-ira was first heard around 1790, text by Ladré (a street singer) and music by Bécourt (a violinist). The refrain, Ah! ça ira, ça ira, ça ira (“we will win, we will win, we will win”), is repeatedly interjected.

Balbastre introduces the Marseillaise theme in a bold way, marked fièrement. The first variation is faster, plus vite, with plaintive expressioné and bright animé sections. The second variation, marked très vite, contains a Combat in which the flight of the enemies and the cannon’s roar are depicted. Following the victory air, we have chosen to repeat the triumphant Marseillaise theme.

Elizabeth Farr


The Harpsichord
by Keith Hill

Certain composers of harpsichord music wrote pieces that beg to be played on harpsichords sporting a 16’ stop. Bach and Handel instantly leap to mind because their music often expresses affects that “require” the breadth, depth, power, resonance, and sheer majesty that only a 16’ harpsichord can generate. Claude Balbastre also happens to be just such a composer, which is odd because no French harpsichords with 16’ stops remain from his time. Naturally, not every harpsichord piece demands this particular resource, but when one does ask for it, its value cannot be overestimated. There are only a handful of harpsichords built with a 16’ set of strings still existing from the eighteenth century. As the maker of the 16’ harpsichord used in this recording, I wanted to hear what the acoustic effect would be if a Ruckers type of harpsichord were extended in size by adding a 16’ stop, with its own soundboard in the manner of the Hass family of harpsichord-makers. That is how the harpsichord used in this recording came to be. What motivated its construction was a desire to hear what those pieces would sound like, which invariably feel they need a 16’ sound to augment the 8’, 8’, and 4’ sounds of the typical harpsichord. We are fortunate to have that opportunity in this unique recording.

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