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  • Writer's pictureJohannes Pramsohler

"In French society, solo concertos had explosive potential"

Updated: Sep 3, 2022

Johannes Pramsohler explores the cultural context of the first French violin concertos

Johannes Pramsohler © Edouard Brane

France was traditionally the scene of major controversies in music. France? No, Paris! Although it brought forth only a very few great musicians itself (most of them came from the provinces!), the French capital had always seen itself as the evaluative and decision-making instance as far as stylistic questions were concerned. With the public and the music critics in the role of the canvassers, aesthetic discussions were conducted like election campaigns. Somewhat more restrained than the large debates about opera, in which even the illustrious encyclopaedists (Diderot, D’Alembert, Rousseau) particpated, the form of the concerto was also the stimulus for theoretical deliberations.

As an Italian import – like the sonata and the opera buffa – the concerto triggered the question of whether and how and to what degree the French style should mix with the Italian, a discussion that preoccupied France for nearly an entire century. A significantly large camp considered the Italian solo concerto in the first half of the eighteenth century to be antithetical to the nature of French music, in as much as it represented the most extreme, most innovative, and most dramatic expression of the new musical rhetoric coming from Italy. In France, the suite was the national art form in instrumental music – intimate, uncomplicated, and always with an eye toward elegant expression. The arrival of the first sonatas (see our ”Paris Album”) at the end of the seventeeenth century was already met with mixed feelings, and while elsewhere one accepted them much more quickly, adopted them to local fashions, and idealized the Italian models, they did not fall on very fertile soil in France.

The prevailing sentiment in France was self-confidently anti-Italian. In the eyes of the French, Italian music stood dangerously close to chaos. As regards content, it was above all the tension built up and protracted over long stretches and the subsequent discharge in orgastic moments that caused dismay. Outwardly, it was the form which granted a single soloist an incredibly large amount of space. If one sees the solo concerto as an art form reflecting a sociocultural model, it stands in great contrast to the French absolutism that allowed the individual relatively little place. In French society, in which the area of tension between the dynamic individual and the rigid community became constantly greater, solo concertos – in which subjective expressive power and social harmony form a symbiotic relationship – have a nearly explosive potential. “Concertare”: work together, but also quarrel – the virtuoso exhibitionist destabilizes: he asks, he attacks, and the crowd (the orchestra) answers, defends itself, and attempts to regulate.

However, a much more tangible reason for the initial rejection of the form was certainly the still insufficient interest in the violin, which, emanating from Italy, had meanwhile made its triumphant advance through Europe. French instrumental music (apart from specific solo repertoires for lute and harpsichord) was for the amateur, the courtly dilettante, the competent pupil, but not for the professional concert artist, and remained technically so underdeveloped that as late as 1741 Rameau composed his Pièces de clavecin en concerts for violin or flute, viola da gamba or second violin. A pattern is obvious: as long as the needs of the amateur remained the priority, progress was made only with great difficulty.

Ensemble Diderot recording French violin concertos in Toblach's Gustav Mahler Auditorium © Ulrike Rehmann

The problem was the technical demands that the Italian violin concerto made on the soloist. An attempt to explain this away was – so Jacques Aubert – that one “loses the elegance, the clarity, and the beautiful simplicity of the French style” when one concentrates too much on the training of virtuosity. In contrast to Italy, where virtuoso requirements were demanded of instrumentalists in the church and in the opera, in France there was practically no opportunity to distinguish oneself as a solo violinist. Although Jean-Baptiste Anet (1676–1755) returned to Paris already in 1696 as the presumably first French violinist trained in Italy (under Corelli!), the violin only very haltingly gained a foothold. Unfortunately, in spite of enthusiastic reports by Corrette and in the Mercure de France, his own surviving music is not enough proof for us that he really had exceptional virtuoso skills.

But they did exist, the places in which Italian music was cultivated. Above all the Duke of Orléans and later regent Philippe II was interested in the transalpine sounds, and after Anet’s introduction at court, Philippe engaged in 1703 a native Italian, namely the Genoese Giovanni Antonio Guido. Castratos were summoned, and also at the exile court of the Stewarts in Saint Germain cantatas by Carissimi and Stradella had been performed years earlier.

However, the violin concerto found its breeding ground in France not at the court and also not, as already mentioned above, in the church, but rather at first in public concerts. In 1725, the inception of the Concerts spirituels ushered in a new era. The concerts in the Tuileries Palace, given on days on which the opera and the theater did not perform (the organizers had to pay dearly for this privilege), could present neither opera arias nor French texts. Therefore, one concentrated above all on the Grands motets in Latin. However, one immediately heard that the huge Salle des Cent Suisses provided clear advantages to a family of instruments. Hubert Le Blanc, who incessantly bemoaned the demise of the viola da gamba, had to admit that “this room is as if made for the violin – through the distance to the audience it can caress the people, and its sharp sounds are dampened by the large number of garments.” The Christmas Concerto by Corelli was played already at the first concert (18 March 1725), and lively a concert activity evolved. Especially Vivaldi’s Four Seasons became a perennial favorite.

In 1725 yet another Italian came to France, Jean-Pierre Guignon (Giovanni Pietro Ghignone), and competed already in the fifth concert against Anet. It is quite possible that he had already written his own violin concertos (three are still extant today) before his arrival (they have nothing French about them) – he surely also had them in his baggage (two are found in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), but he then probably packed them up rather than unpack them, and certainly did not publish them. When we read what Aubert wrote in a preface some five years after Guignon’s arrival, we also understand why: “Even though the Italian concertos have been able to chalk up a number of successes for several years now in France, where one did justice to that which Corelli, Vivaldi, and a number of other excellent composers attained in this genre, one has however noted that this kind of music, in spite of the skills of a number of some who performed them, does not suit everybody’s taste, above all not that of the ladies whose judgement has always determined the nation’s pleasures.”

And so it came to pass that Aubert finally brought himself to publish his first collection of violin concertos only toward the end of the 1730s. The Mercure announced the publication already in November 1734: “Cet ouvrage sera le premier en ce genre qui soit sorti de la plume d’un François.” They were thus not the first concertos in France (Guido had probably already published his Scherzi armonici sopra le quattro stagioni in 1728 in Versailles), but the first by a French composer. Like Guido, Aubert certainly knew Antonio Vivaldi’s concertos. Above all L’Estro armonico – the groundbreaking collection, op. 3 (1711), with which Vivaldi became famous throughout Europe – seems to have served as the model. Concertos for four violins by Albinoni, Mossi, and Valentini were also in circulation.

Frontispiece of Aubert's second book of violin concertos (1739)

Also composers like Jean Baptiste Quentin “le jeune”, Michel Corrette and André-Joseph Exaudet composed concertos with virtuosic violin parts. However, it was only Jean-Marie Leclair who managed to adapt the Corellian sonata and the Vivaldian concerto for the French taste in such a way that one even found pleasure in his music at the court. To this day, violinists are captivated by the fascination which emanates from his twelve concertos. Leclair’s versatility in counterpoint, the always controlled virtuosity that nevertheless takes the violinist to his/her limits, and his formal clarity made him the founder of the tradition-rich French violin school and of a development that ultimately made France the hotbed of the violin. It is interesting that the training of its later main representatives (Baillot, Rode, Cartier, Kreutzer) was likewise rooted in Italy (in some way, they all had something to do with Giovanni Battista Viotti, who was in turn a pupil of Somi’s) and can thus be traced back to the one who rang in the violin century: Arcangelo Corelli. Once again proof that success can only lie in synthesis.


Listen/Stream/Download/Buy the album here.

Listen/Stream/Download/Buy the album here.

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