CLAUDE-BÉNIGNE BALBASTRE (1727 - 1799)
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.
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.
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.