Sunday, 20 January 2013

Guédron and the 'air de cour'

Trust the French to be different. 

One of the interesting features of music in the years around 1600 is just how much the influence of the Italians - the Gabrielis, the madrigal composers, Monteverdi - came to be heard in the courts of country after country across Europe (and soon in the Americas too). The French court preferred something different and distinctly French - the air de cour ('court air'). These gradually moved from being ensemble songs with a most important top (soprano) line to being songs as we tend to think of them - solo songs for singer and accompaniment. For a time parallel versions of songs in each form co-existed. 

There are some gems among the air de cour repertoire, none better (in my opinion) than Cessez mortels de soupirer by the most important composer in the rise of the air de cour, Pierre Guédron (c.1570-c.1620), who is the exclusive subject of this post. Guédron's genius brought him fame well beyond the borders of France. His fame ought to be fanning again now. 

This sort of song sounds so unlike the lute songs of England at the time. Indeed, it sounds closer to the airs of Purcell's England and of Baroque French opera. With memorable melodies and winning harmonies, songs like Cessez mortels de soupirer and the contrastingly bright-eyed Aux plaisirs, aux delices bergeres seem to open up a hidden treasure house of late Renaissance/early Baroque tunes. 

For a multi-voiced performance, please try another absolute belter of a piece by Guédron, Quel espoir de guarir. As you can hear, the topmost line bears the burden of the (captivating) melody, though not exclusively.

Aren't these wonderful, surprising songs? We are going badly astray if we underestimate the 'early composers' and their gift for writing memorable, magical music.

Another ensemble performance of Las! que ne suis-je née shows how imaginative colouring adds yet more pleasure to pleasurable airs de cour, perhaps necessary given that - as hopefully you will have already spotted - the form is strophic. 

Interest in singing such pieces is growing. A following has been there for a while. Gerard Souzay was recording Guédron songs some decades ago, albeit in an 'inauthentic' way that may send purists rushing for the smelling salts. Try Cette Anne si belle and see if you agree with me that Souzay's take is delightful - as, of course, is Guédron's air. In a firmly 'authentic' style the much admired counter-tenor Andreas Scholl has also ventured into the territory. You might like to try his rendition of Si le parler et le silence.  

Throughout all three of these pieces you will hear the singers embellishing their melodies in a spontaneous way. This was the French way, and the sound of such embellishments was to echo throughout the French Baroque. 

Further listening

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