The French baroque: Louis XIV and rare deep-voiced flutes

Tonight we give the first of two performances exploring French sacred music during the reign of the ‘Sun King’ — a time of extraordinary creative outpouring under the generous patronage under dancer and Arts-fanatic Louis XIV.

Louis XIV as Apollo in Le Ballet Royal de la nuit. Painting by Henri Gissey, 1653.

Louis XIV as Apollo in Le Ballet Royal de la nuit. Painting by Henri Gissey, 1653.

Jean-Baptiste Lully — Italian-born son of a Florentine miller — came to France as a scullion in a minor household before entering royal service as a dancer in 1652. He rapidly became the favourite of Louis. The pair’s shared enthusiasm for dance fostered a close relationship, resulting in Lully’s undeniable monopoly over French musical life.

Believing himself to embody divinely-ordained power, Louis’ great patronage of the arts was all with a view to immortalising his influence — and very successful it was, too. Court musician, viol player and favourite pupil of Lully’s Marin Marais dedicated his Pièces de viol to his teacher with the words

“[Lully’s] music alone was worthy of accompanying his immortal history; the music will be heard by every nation to the glory of [Louis XIV’s] name.”

Tonight’s performance features flutes that are virtually identical to those that would have been played in Louis’ court, as AAM principal Rachel Brown elaborates.

Rachel Broan, AAM principal flute“Co-flautist Guy Williams and I just happen to have virtually identical instruments (the type of flute seen in the foreground below), made by Scottish but Californian-based craftsman, Roderick Cameron. Rod copied an original by the late seventeenth-century French maker Pierre Naust (except of course that La Barre’s in the image below was made of ivory whereas ours are in blackwood). Coincidentally we both bought the instruments around the same time, back in the 1980s, shortly after which I used mine for my first ever solo recording (French Baroque Music/Chandos). They’re very well-matched instruments.”

“Pitch was never standardized but in France a generally low pitch prevailed. These flutes are almost (but not exactly) a whole tone lower than modern concert pitch. Many modern replicas are adapted to A392 (a whole tone lower) to allow easy transposition of the harpsichord keyboard. Consequently we haven’t used these instruments very often. But as this project came up, it dawned on me that Guy and I would be the only two wind players, and the instruments are perfect for the repertoire so the string players have graciously adopted our pitch!

“The flutes have a lovely deep voice. They’re distinctive-looking, too, with beautifully-turned head caps and foot joints — much more decorative to look at than most baroque flutes — as well as a whole centre piece carved from one piece of wood, rather than two, as in later flutes.”

La Barre and Other Musicians, Bouys, c. 1710, oil on canvas

Michel de la Barre (right-hand side, turning the music) was a flautist and composer. The original painting is life-size, measuring 160 x 127cm, and is painted with such accuracy that the score (one of La Barre’s compositions) is legible.

Join us tonight at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, or tomorrow night at London’s Wigmore Hall; download a copy of the concert programme for free here; or if you can’t make it along in person, listen live on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 27 June at 7.30pm.

One comment

  1. Pingback: The French baroque: Louis XIV and rare deep-voiced flutes | ATELIER PHILIDOR – LE BLOG

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