Le Hautbois Français
by Debra Nagy

Inspired by the great French songwriters of the seventeenth century, two families of woodwind makers and players at the court of Louis XIV—the Hotteterres and Philidors—sought to develop an instrument whose sweet, flexible, and singing tone would make it virtually indispensable.

Making its theatrical “debut” in Lully’s L’amour malade in 1657, the oboe quickly established itself as the premiere wind instrument in France prior to 1700, and became an integral member in every ensemble in Louis XIV’s musical establishment. In addition to its traditional role as a band member for outdoor and ceremonial music (in the Grande douze hautbois), oboists performed as regular members of the famous Vingtquatre Violons du Roy, as well for the Petits Violons du Cabinet.

However, tracing the instrument’s solo repertoire can sometimes seem elusive. The reasons for this are twofold. First, despite the ubiquity of the instrument in court entertainments, it failed to catch on with the amateur community (likely due to its difficulty and high-maintenance double reeds). Published music books generally hoped to attract the largest possible market. Thus, if a single printed collection was meant to appeal to various constituencies, a title page might read: Suites pour la flute traversière, la flute à bec, le violon, le dessus de viole, etc, generally listing suitable instruments in descending order of popularity (or propriety) among wealthy amateurs. The oboe or Le Hautbois might appear somewhere far down this list—if it appeared at all.

Secondly, French musical style hewed to an ideal of “naturalness” and (relative) simplicity. Along with the stated preference that music move the soul rather than astonish the intellect, French taste demanded that all instrumentalists strive to achieve the natural beauty and elasticity of the human voice, as well as draw their inspiration from the sensuous lilt of the French language. Because of this common aesthetic ideal, the same French sonatas or suites from before about 1740 were generally considered equally suited to either wind or string instruments. In addition, the sonority of a massed treble sound was common from the time of Lully. This practice of violins, flutes, oboes, and perhaps musette or hurdy gurdy all doubling the same melody line was known as playing en simphonie. Since all these treble players could be found playing the same music simultaneously, it follows that any one could adequately substitute for another in a solo setting. As a result of all these factors, the first sonata published in France specifically for the oboe only appeared in 1723.

Ultimately, reconstructing the solo repertoire for the oboe from its beginnings in 1660s to the dawn of its true golden age in the 1720s becomes an exciting and creative endeavor whose core elements include adaptation as well as improvisation.

Our program begins with François Chauvon’s Sixième Suite. Declaring that he had invented an entirely new genre of pieces for woodwinds, the oboist and keyboard player François Chauvon gave his 1717 collection of suites the unusual title Tibiades. Interestingly, le hautbois is the first instrument listed on his title page. Though the majority of the suites are in flat-keys that are extremely well suited to the oboe, Chauvon also claims that several of the sonatas are intended for the violin (most publications that hope to appeal foremost to flutists tend sharp-wise to D major, B minor, and E minor). To say that his suites represented something entirely “new,” however, was something of an overstatement, though his distinctive, witty voice shines through these works. Perhaps most notable is the range of characters and affects in each suite in the collection. In the Sixième  Suite, these range from a grand overture in the Prélude, to quirky and surprising syncopations in the Fantaisie, to the intimate quasi-recitative Lentement and yearning ascending sequences of the Très lentement, to the rustic final Gigue.

It might initially seem odd to include a short suite of vocal pieces on a concert of instrumental solos until one recalls that all of the tender expression and preciosity of the French baroque idiom, from its short, rhetorical phrases to highly refined ornaments, was inspired by vocal music—and by extension—the sounds and rhythms of the French language. Furthermore, the publication of multiple collections of Airs et Brunettes adapted to wind instruments from the 1720s onwards testifies to a much longer-standing practice of adopting vocal music as a solo genre. Furthermore, two of the most King’s celebrated flutists (who were initially trained as oboists), René Pignon Descoteaux and Jacques Philbert, were said to have played tender vocal airs almost exclusively.

In fact, the popular songs known as brunettes, such as L’autre jour ma Cloris, were ubiquitous. These simple, strophic songs were arranged, updated, and published repeatedly between about 1660 and 1740, appearing with new bass lines, with a second treble line added, or with newly-composed florid ornaments for subsequent verses (known as doubles). Like brunettes, art songs of the period (called airs sérieux), such as Joseph Chabanceau de la Barre’s J’avois juré, or the dance-song Allez bergeres might feature elaborate doubles that were adapted by instrumentalists (particularly wind players) as part of their solo repertoire in the decades before 1700. Simultaneously accessible (due to their simplicity) and extremely difficult (on account their cultivated sophistication), airs and brunettes are the epitome of French style.

Marin Marais (1656–1728) is acknowledged as one of the most outstanding composers and performers of the Baroque period. First and foremost an acclaimed performer on the viola da gamba, he also composed chamber music and several successful operas. As heir apparent to the French musical establishment codified and strengthened under the supervision of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marais might be portrayed as a conservative traditionalist. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, Marais possessed a singular talent and an original compositional voice.

As his five books of viol music make clear, Marais was a viol player of the first rank and a composer of great imagination and expressive range. Whether he was writing a simple miniature whose accessible style and lyrical grace would bring pleasure to an amateur player, or a gnarly, finger-twister of a character piece that could only be rendered by an expert, the aesthetic he advanced was one of “grandeur without ostentation, virtuosity without vanity, and sensitivity without exaggeration.”

Marin Marais’ amazing character piece, La Labyrinthe, ends with a noble chaconne, but not before carrying its players and listeners on a fantastic voyage. This theatrical piece for solo viol is unique in scope (only Marais’ chamber work La Gamme is longer or more ambitious). La Labyrinthe is essentially a rondeau whose contrasting phrases (couplets) modulate frequently and wildly far from the home-key of A major. Our gambist Josh Lee sees his path through the Labyrinth as a transformational journey: “The recurring theme represents our hero, each
tableau between sections represents his discoveries within the Labyrinth. And though the rondeau theme returns, it is changed each time—either in terms or key or in a melodic sense—and to me that demonstrates our hero’s transformation.” The reward for having survived our hero’s knuckle-busting trials and tribulations is the beautiful, courtly chaconne—one can almost feel him emerging from the dark confines of the maze to be welcomed into a world of light and order.

The Suite in D that closes our program has been selected from suites in Marais’ second and third book of viol pieces. Though it might seem a bit of a stretch to adapt viol music to the oboe, Marais tells us in the preface to his third book that the more lyrical pieces can be adapted to the violin, flute, oboe, and other instruments, leaving it up to the player to choose wisely among the movements.

In addition to the emulation vocal music and the lilting rhythms of the French language, dance forms and their signature rhythms continued to have a strong influence on all French instrumental music. Like virtually all instrumental suites, Jacques Martin Hotteterre’s Deuxième Suite from his first book of solos for the flute (1707) begins with a Prélude, followed by an Allemande (a dance that fell out of favor by the mid-seventeenth century and only continued to appear in instrumental settings). Besides being the slowest, most stately, and also the
most difficult of the triple-time dances, the gorgeous Sarabande—complete with Hotteterre’s own elaborate ornaments for the repeats—recalls the highly ornamented doubles of the air sérieux. The final Rondeau “Le Baron” features delightfully asymmetrical five-bar phrases.

Just as Marais opened the door to other instruments adapting his Pièces de violes, François Couperin made clear that the instrumentation for the suites (or concerts) collected in his Concerts Nouveaux (also known as Les Goûts-réünis) was flexible. In the preface to his edition, Couperin (organist and harpsichordist to the Louis XIV) wrote that these works could be performed not only on the harpsichord (the pieces are notated on two staves like keyboard music), but also by the violin, flute, oboe, viol, or bassoon. Recalling how the King enjoyed listening to these pieces nearly every Sunday in his declining years, Couperin cited the individual violinists, wind players, and viol players that joined him in performances.

Couperin’s Septième Concert is remarkable for its depth and gravity of feeling. The pensive Prélude in G minor (the oboe’s favorite solo key) gives way to a gnarled but resolute Allemande. The Sarabande is a gut-wrenching tour de force full of expressive melodic intervals and extended plaintive cries. The Fugète, on the other hand, perfectly illustrates Couperin’s personal musical mission to unite the French and Italian styles. Imitative, fugal writing and a penchant for virtuosic display were features more closely associated with Italianate instrumental music. However, this fantastic quasi-fugue’s rhythmic profile is also reminiscent of a Passepied and could appropriately be dubbed Tourbillons in light of its swirling batteries of sixteenth-notes. Following a jaunty Gavotte, the suite concludes with a Siciliène that once again nods to Italian influence while privileging French melodic refinement and grace.

We close our concert with our own improvisation over the ground bass Folie d’espagne. I admit that I had been thinking about adapting Marin Marais’ famous variations for viol as an oboe solo for several years. But each time I returned to Marais’ settings, I found myself frustrated by the degree to which many of the variations were un-idiomatic to my instrument. When I would edit down the variations to those that worked well on the oboe, I felt there was not enough material left to make a sufficiently varied and dramatic whole that could compellingly represent the effect of hearing them on the instrument for which they were conceived. And so, I began to think, if Marais didn’t write folies that were idiomatic to my instrument, perhaps it was time that I did.