The half century from roughly 1770 to 1820 span an incredible period of change and unrest in Europe. Central to the period is the French Revolution which started in 1789, and which in various ways affected the whole of the rest of Europe. The Napoleonic wars are an obvious and very negative effect, the establishment of the Paris Conservatoire in 1795 and the Prix de Rome in 1803 definitely positive for music and musicians. There was also the steady development of technology and the beginnings of the industrial revolution, whilst Enlightenment thinking from philosophers such as Voltaire, D’Alembert and Diderot did much to encourage the creation of the secular state which France was to become, which in turn influenced rulers and governments across the continent. Musical instruments such as the piano made huge leaps of development, whilst the harpsichord gradually faded from view. In France, the organs of the 18th century where they survived began to be used in different ways by the newer generation of composers and players, and these new musical demands led to changes in the instruments which ultimately led to Cavaillé Coll and César Franck. This programme brings together some of the French keyboard music of this turbulent period, enabling the listener to appreciate the wide range of styles which co-existed and the great changes which took place.
Burney on his visit to Balbastre in 1770 comments on the style of organ playing he heard in church ‘he played likewise between each verse several minuets, fugues, imitations, and every species of music, even to hunting pieces and jigs, without surprising or offending the congregation, as far as I was able to discover’. This comment underlines the fashion in France in the later 18th century for tuneful pieces which were easy to listen to, which in the revolutionary period becomes even more pronounced, with popular tunes and dances being used with revolutionary words to influence people. The Marche of Guillaume Lasceux, which opens this disc, is very much in this mould, and reflects the sound of the military bands of the day. Lasceux was born in Poissy, but studied in Paris and was organist of St-Etienne du Mont there from 1774 – 1819. He published quite a large amount of organ music, and is very detailed and specific with registration. His two Noels later in the programme show a more expressive character, using colours such as the Cromorne, Voix Humaine and Flûte.
Claude Balbastre is another of the Parisian organists who survived through the Revolution, and his keyboard works date from various periods of his life. The earliest are represented by the organ Fugue en Duo, amongst works written before he left Dijon for Paris in the early 1750s. His Noels, published in 1770, were extremely popular in his day, and Où S’en vont Ces gais bergers shows exactly why, with beautifully varied treatments of the tune exploiting many different colours of the organ, and a witty conclusion on the Grands Jeux.
Of the four works for harpsichord, two are individually dated, with the 1777 Prélude being perhaps the last example of an unmeasured piece of this type – it has notated values of notes, but no barlines, and the implication is that the player has considerable freedom within this outline. It was just seven years earlier that Burney had visited Balbastre and recounts hearing him play, describing his fine ‘Rucker’ harpsichord. The final piece of this group from 1787, La d’Esclinac, represents the changeover from harpsichord to fortepiano, and could be played on either equally successfully. I have registered it on the harpsichord using the two manuals to create something of the dynamics which are implied in the music. La Suzanne is in Rondeau form, with two contrasting sections the first of which is repeated making a larger ABA form. Claude-Louis Suzanne was a well-known sculptor, and this piece and La Malesherbe come from somewhat earlier than the two dated works. Lamoignon de Malesherbe was the chief book censor, but also an intelligent and enlightened man; in his capacity as censor he was able to assist the editors of the Encyclopédie by hiding vital manuscripts from the police! The first part of this piece uses the then modern ‘Alberti Bass’ to accompany a simple, pretty tune; the second half, however, is a representation of the hurdy-gurdy, with its drones and trompet – I wonder if Malesherbe played this instrument?
The full subtitle of the Marseillois is: ‘Arrangés pour le Forte Piano Par le Citoyen C Balbastre Aux braves défenseurs de la République Francais l’an 1792 1er de la République’! It is known that at some point he played this work on the organ of the de-consecrated Notre Dame, and it works equally well on the harpsichord; however, here it is played on the instrument for which it was apparently written. The famous canon shot in the final part is achieved (twice) by striking all the bass notes of a C major scale simultaneously! In the later years of the 18th century and into the early 19th , many English pianos were imported into France, so it seems highly appropriate to play these piano works on an English square piano – just the sort of instrument which would have been heard in many domestic situations and smaller salon concerts.
Church music, and organs, went through a terrible time during the French Revolution, and Nicolas Séjan is one of a number of players who survived to emerge after the ordeal as a composer and teacher of some significance. He was the last organist of the Chapelle Royale, and in 1795 the first professor of organ at the newly founded Paris Conservatoire. In 1810 in the preface to his Dictionaire Choron deplored the decline of the organ during that time: ‘The organ once found its glory with Couperin, Marchand, Calvière, Daquin, but is now decadent. Today only Séjan is following in their footsteps’. Not a great deal of his music has survived – three fugues and three noels, and a collection of pieces for pianoforte. The Noël Chantons je vous prie seems most likely to be intended for the piano rather than the organ – the textures are perfect for the early piano, whilst problematic for organ. Note the use here in the second and fifth variations of the ‘Grande Pédal’ with the dampers lifted throughout. This gives a wonderful ethereal sound quite impossible to create on a modern piano, but very much part of the sound world of this Revolutionary period. A Minuet and Trio, and an Allegretto in rondeau form complete this section of the programme, and show the typically Rococo style of the time, with perhaps some influence from Haydn, whose music was popular in Paris throughout this period.
Returning to the organ, the Séjan fugue shows a characteristic of the period in having very wide modulations, but so skilfully handled that the listener hardly realises where the music is going. The Noël Suisse is a fine set of variations on this popular theme, with chromaticism which foreshadows later romantic composers, and textures which do not simply follow earlier precedent. As with Lasceux, many of the registrations are indicated, together with tempo changes from variation to variation. These works certainly back up Choron’s comment quoted earlier about the quality of Séjan’s music.
To conclude is an extraordinary work by a composer who sits on the historical divide between the older school of organists and world of César Franck. Boëly was born only just before the Revolution, and must have been one of the first organists to study at the new Conservatoire, probably with Séjan. In his lifetime he was regarded as rather too serious, maybe even a bit dull, but this must be seen against the backdrop of much very lightweight and decadent music then being played in churches. He was an early champion of J S Bach’s music in France, and has left a large corpus of organ music. The Fantasia on Judex Crederis is essentially a fashionable ‘storm’ piece, but with a number of significant differences. It opens with a pastoral section, briefly interrupted by the rumblings of thunder. The thunder (low pitched foundation stops played low down in thick patterns) returns more insistently, and we then hear the cock crow three times. This leads to the last trumpet, and a fiercely agitated section on the full organ which culminates in a rapid scale all the way down to bottom C sharp, following which is probably the first known notated note cluster in music. This builds successively from C sharp, holding D, E flat, E, F, F sharp, G, A, B flat over which is a pause mark – then a final unison dominant tonic resolution marks the end of the world!
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Instruments used on the recording
An acknowledged expert in the field of early keyboard instruments and music, Douglas Hollick was the first Organ Scholar at Hull University, studying with Peter Hurford. He subsequently studied in Paris with Marie-Claire Alain, and in Amsterdam with Gustav Leonhardt.
He has played widely in the UK and abroad, and teaches in Cambridge and at the Birmingham Conservatoire. With an international reputation, and with many accolades from critics and scholars alike, Douglas Hollick was awarded a year 2000 Churchill Fellowship to visit North Germany and Denmark to research the organs and other keyboard instruments from the period of Buxtehude and the young J S Bach. Endlessly curious about the little known music of the 17th and 18th centuries, he has recorded music of the enigmatic French composer Christophe Moyreau (see Riverrun RVRCD 60) and a CD entitled ‘Buxtehude, master and pupil’ (RVRCD 67) which places the great North German master in the context of some of his teachers and pupils.
Douglas Hollick made harpsichords professionally for some fifteen years up to 1990, and has also had some experience in organ building and early piano restoration. It is his 1988 copy of the 1769 harpsichord by the Parisian maker Pascal Taskin which is used on this recording, and his restoration of the 1811 Clementi square piano.
‘The Balbastre Prélude (1777) is a fabulous example of expressive writing … the stops, starts, drama, and passion in the work were arresting … a very effective performance’ Midlands Early Music Forum Newsletter
‘This can certainly be recommended as an exposition of an area of music that would not usually be so accessible in one collection’ The Consort