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Archive for February 2016

Composer Biography: Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729)

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Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was a French composer and harpsichordist, considered the first female composer of instrumental music. She certainly had a very long name!

Jacquet de la Guerre’s precocious talent as a musician was first mentioned in 1677 in the Paris newspaper Mercure Gallant, where she was described as a “wonder.” She sight-read difficult music, accompanied herself and other singers on the harpsichord, composed pieces and transposed at the whim of onlookers, and, according to the newspaper, she had already been doing this for four years when she was 10 years old. (My math has her at age 12 in 1677, but it’s still quite an accomplishment.) The next year, the same newspaper declared her “the marvel of the century.” (Mozart wouldn’t appear on the scene to be called such things until the 1750s.)

Her accomplishment is representative of the rise of amateur musicians among the French aristocracy. Previously, noblemen and noblewomen played only for each other’s pleasure, and hired professionals for more formal entertainments. The few women who succeeded as professionals were usually the daughters of prominent musicians, as was Jacquet de la Guerre.

She was the daughter of organ builder Claude Jacquet (dates unknown) and his wife Anne de la Touche (b.1632), also a musician from a musical family. She grew up in the Saint-Louis-en-I’lle, in Paris with three siblings, all of whom received an excellent musical education. It was unusual, at the time, to give daughters the same high-quality musical education as boys, so we are fortunate that her parents had foresight and the intellect to recognize that girls could accomplish as much as boys if given the chance.

Because of her evident talent, Jacquet de la Guerre was singled out for special favor by King Louis XIV (1638-1715), who placed her in the care of his mistress, Francoise Athenais de Rochechouart de Montemart (1640-1707), the marquise de Montespan. She was possibly tutored by Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719), the governess of Madame de Montespan’s children and later the king’s secret wife. She moved into the castle in 1673 and stayed there until she married. Louis XIV encouraged her career, providing audiences and allowing her to dedicate publications to him.

When she married, she stayed true to her family origins. She married organist and harpsichord teacher Marin de la Guerre (d. before 1704) in 1684 and moved back to Paris. Marin was son of Michel de La Guerre (c.1605-1679), who’d been the organist at the Sainte-Chapelle. Once back in Paris, Jacquet de la Guerre maintained her connections with the court without having to live there.

In 1687, she published a book of harpsichord pieces that included several suites of French dances, unmeasured preludes, chaconnes, and toccatas. She united the French and Italian styles, much as her contemporary Francois Couperin (1668-1733) did. In the same year, she published a ballet, Les jeux a l’honneur de la victoire (1685), which is lost.

She later wrote an opera, Cephale et Procris, which was a tragedy in five acts. It was performed in Paris at the Acadamie Royale de Musique in 1694. After its disappointing reception, or perhaps because she didn’t receive further commissions, she limited herself afterward to the cantata form. The opera was revived in 1989 by Jean-Claude Malgoire (b.1940) and Daniel Ogier (dates unavailable) in Saint-Etienne.

Several manuscripts from the 1690s have survived, including solo and trio sonatas. In 1695, she wrote solo and trio violin sonatas within five years of the first of those styles appearing in France. She published more music, including another volume of harpsichord piece and a set of solo violin sonatas (both in 1707).

Both her son (name and dates unknown) and her husband had died by 1704. Her son was thought to be quite talented on the harpsichord too, and made his debut at age eight. He was dead by age ten. After the deaths of her husband and son, Jacquet de la Guerre stayed in Paris giving concerts in her home, and at the Theatre de la Foire, for which she composed a few songs and at least one comic scene. All the great musicians and local music fans went to hear her. She was famous for her gift at improvisation and extemporaneous fantasias.

She found a champion in Sebastien de Brossard (1655-1730), a Paris-loving provincial ecclesiastic who collected and composed music. He performed her opera with the addition of a few of his own compositions at the Strasbourg Academie de la Musique.

Perhaps her most significant accomplishment, she published three volumes of cantatas as part of the first wave of cantata production. The first cantata collection in France appeared in 1706 (published by Jean-Baptiste Morin, 1677-1745, Nicolas Bernier, 1664-1734, and Michel Pignolet de Montéclair, 1667-1737), and Jacquet de la Guerre’s appeared in 1707, 1708, and 1711. Uniquely, her cantatas have texts from the Old Testament, and three of them tell stories of Biblical women (Esther, Susannah and the Elders, and Judith). The third volume of cantatas reflected French tastes and used mythology as its subject. One is written for soloist and symphony (violin or violins in unison and an optional flute in the second aire) in addition to the basso continuo.

She never left France but her music was known in Germany. She performed for Maximilian Emanuel II (1662-1726), Elector of Bavaria in 1712 when he visited Paris and he brought her works home with him. She dedicated her mythological cantatas to him.

She retired from public performance in 1717 and moved a little further out of the center of town. In 1721, she wrote a Te Deum to celebrate the recovery of Louis XV (1710-1774) from smallpox, a commission of real significance. Sadly, the music is lost.

Walther’s German Lexicon of 1732 includes a longer article on her than on François Couperin (1668-1733), her much more famous—at least into our times—contemporary. Although her rediscovery took longer than Francois Couperin’s, today, she is the most likely female composer from the period to be known to modern audiences.

Jacquet de la Guerre’s parents and her brother Nicolas died in the early 1710s. After her own death in 1729, a commemorative medal was struck in her honor. She was also included in the listing by Titon du Tillet (1677-1762) in his Parnasse francais of 1732, one of only seven musicians listed, and the only woman.

Sources:

“The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers,” edited by Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

“Women Making Music, The Western Art Traditions, 11-50-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.

“Women and Music, A History,” edited by Karin Pendle. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001.

“The Pelican History of Music, Book 2: Renaissance and Baroque,” edited by Alec Robertson and Denis Stevens. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1973.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2010.

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