French Baroque — It’s French to Me!

Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh … This is tough! I vividly recall my frustration this past February when I took the plunge into French Baroque music after having studied only German and Italian Baroque. At my first lesson with my recorder teacher, he had instructed me not to touch any French Baroque pieces and stick to Italian/German-style pieces, since both styles are “totally different.” I heeded his advice for a year and a half, and then when my voice teacher — who also coaches me on recorder — announced that I had become quite familiar with the Italian/German Baroque style, I decided to make the move to try some French Baroque. When my voice teacher approved at my asking, I proceeded to order some Hotteterre Suites to play as well as the composer’s treatise on wind-playing, assuming that I was fully equipped to play such music. After all, I thought that Vivaldi was as bad as I could get with regards to recorder repertoire difficulty.

I could have not been more wrong. Soon I was confronted with a frustrating mess of quirky ornaments, a different tonguing system, dance rhythms, and many more oddities that I never dreamed that I would encounter. Day after day, I would struggle through just the first of seven movements in the fourth D Minor Suite, frequently going back to browse at the ornamentation chart at the end of my Amadeus edition, only to forget the meaning of an ornamental symbol a few minutes later. I just could not seem to fully memorize the meaning of the ornamental symbols, and by the end of the week, all that I had prepared for my sonata session after my voice lesson was a shaky rendition of the first movement. No way was this the “Baroque” music I had been accustomed to ……

Although I had learned whole sonatas in one week like my voice teacher urged, I just could not do so to this one; the ornamentation was too much. My voice teacher immediately understood and proceeded to play my line with me as he accompanied me for the first three weeks of playing the piece together. All along, I continued to struggle, yet he was very patient with me, going over the ornaments with me and tweaking my phrasing with positive encouragement. Then, on week four, he decided to see if I could play my line on my own. I was still uneasy about doing so, but at his gentle bidding, I proceeded with his plans — and did very well! From then on, I fell in love with both French Baroque and the piece, patiently working on it and cleaning it up to the point that I performed it with my voice teacher for a prelude at his church one Sunday. Yes, it was his idea since he loved the piece, and although I initially thought to myself Why do you have to pick this piece out of all the ones we’ve done thus far? due to my insecurity, I soon found out that it had been the perfect choice!

Just before the performance at my voice teacher’s service, I related the story above to my recorder teacher. After I had finished telling the story, he chuckled warmly and responded that my struggle with French Baroque was not at all abnormal: “We all struggle when we begin learning French Baroque.” He proceeded to explain that this is because French Baroque is radically different from the Italian/German Baroque music that most people today are accustomed to; in fact, it is a totally different musical culture. My teacher proceeded to elaborate on this by explaining how this musical-cultural contrast radically mirrors the contrast between the French people and the English-speaking world of today. As an example, he cited an African-American friend who works on relations between France and the English-speaking world. No matter how much his friend maintained that she was an American and could prove her ancestry, the French always insisted that she was from some African country. Highly amusing …..

Yes, in the same line, French Baroque is radically different from the “Baroque” music that most people know today. As other recorder players have concurred with me, this truth is very hard to place in words; one literally has to literally immerse himself in playing, singing, and listening to it to gain the “feel” for its distinction. Still, some aspects can be put into words. In my early musicological readings, I learned that while the French prefer to “caress the ear” and keep it simple by writing out all of their ornaments, the Italians prefer to show off, leaving all ornaments to the performer’s improvisation. Take the two following primary source quotations from page 4 of Donnington’s Baroque Music: Style and Performance:

“Marin Mersenne, Paris, 1636-1637: The Italians ‘represent as much as they can the passions and the affects of the soul and spirit’ whereas ‘our Frenchmen are content to caress the ear, and use nothing but perpetual sweetness.'”

“Frrancios Reguenet, Paris, 1720: ‘The French, in their airs, aim at the soft, the easy, the flowing and the coherent’, whereas ‘the Italians venture at everything that is harsh and out of the way ….'”

Indeed, as I learned in my initial exposure and immersion, French Baroque is more tender and suave than its Italian/German counterparts, fully capturing the passions of the pieces with grace. As my voice teacher once told me during a rehearsal for his church service while playing the Allemande, under which was the word “Gracieument”: “Now, let’s try to make this graciously as we can ……”

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