Ben Dollman will lead Adelaide Baroque in Les Plaisirs: Music of the French Baroque as part of the Adelaide French Festival. We spoke to the violinist about the unique and beautiful music that flourished under the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Ben Dollman, Adelaide BaroqueViolinist Ben Dollman. Photo: supplied

What were the typical features of music during the reign of Louis XIV?

It was quite an extravagant age – the music of the courts of Louis XIV and XV was highly decorative and styled to reflect the dramatic flair, dancing and exuberance of the French court. The ‘Sun King’ as Louis XIV was known, was the centre of artistic, cultural and political life. The music, highly ornamented, reflected his grandeur and with its bold, exact rhythms was grand and audacious but could also be inward and delicately reflective, showing passion and tenderness.

What role did music play in the French court?

Music was used at the Royal Chapel in Versailles, often composed to the words of the Latin Mass, for requiems and for general religious celebrations. The court held many festivities, dramas and grand ceremonial occasions and music was composed to be central to these. The elegant dances of the court, such as the Allemande, Sarabande, Menuet and many others was central both as music for the court balls or entertainment in plays or as glorious music to accompany banquets, processions or outdoor festivities.

Who were the key composers and how will they be represented in Adelaide Baroque’s Les Plaisirs: Music of the French Baroque?

Composers of the French baroque (Lully, Charpentier, Gilles, Couperin, Rameau, Delalande) often also led the life of an instrumentalist in the Court Orchestra and were employed by the King as “Maître de Musique”. Often they played many instruments, usually leading the performances from the violin or the harpsichord or in Lully’s case beating with a baton. Key composers such as Lully, Rebel and Rameau are represented in this concert.

The music from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) is a set of dances (or a ballet de cour) from the Molière play – a five-act comédie-ballet, first performed in 1670 before the court of Louis XIV by Molière’s acting troupe. Lully was also a dancer (notably he danced with the King) and dance and opera composition was central to his role at court.

After an ouverture, the subtle and lively dance movements proceed to represent characters and onlookers in the play, creating a sophisticated and stylish break in the drama of the play.

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666 -1747) was Maître de Musique to Louis XIV in 1716 and was a student of Lully. He was first violinist of the Academie Royale de Musique which was the early opera of Paris. His work in the concert Le Cahors and Les Elemens is exceptional. The complex rhythms of the dances, the Italian-influenced Sonate movements and the clashes of notes and dramatic intensity and changeability of Le Cahors (Chaos) show a composer of incredible inventiveness.

Rebel led “Les Vingt-quatre Violons du Roi” (the Twenty-four Violinists of the King) and was court composer to the King. He also served as Maître de Musique (1734-35 season) at the Concert Spirituel in Paris, a concert series held in the salons of Paris.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) is represented in the concert by the Suite of dances from perhaps Rameau’s finest opera: Hippolyte et Aricie (1733). The wind instruments, developed at the court of Louis XIV, contribute a rich timbre to this suite of dances and airs with the subtle and complex harmonies of Rameau. The opera was first performed in 1734 at the Hôtel de La Pouplinère and then later in the year at the Paris Opéra and at the court in 1734. A great patron of music and musicians, Alexandre Le Riche de La Pouplinière, held concert and ballet performances, inviting singers, musicians and  dancers to banquets at his salon in Passy, a wealthy suburb in the west of Paris.

Are there any lesser-known figures who deserve a bigger spotlight?

Rebel is not so well known as Lully and Rameau but absolutely deserves his place in ‘the sun’ so to speak! The imagination present in Les Élémens is quite extraordinary and sounds contemporary even to our ears. It’s very daring and depictive music, where the instruments take on the sounds of nature and harmonically well ahead of its time.

How did the patronage of Louis XIV influence the way music was written and performed?

The developments in architecture, art, music and fine arts were led by the patron’s fine taste and love of proportion, decoration, whimsy, rhetoric and reflection of nature. Also the music often had a grand structure – for example, the Ouverture, the opening movement of an opera before the acting begins, with its exaggerated dotted rhythms and regal manner was to reflect the grandeur of the king and the court, almost as if the patrons were themselves god-like.

What are the biggest challenges of this music for musicians performing it now?

As performers now, we try to recreate the “language” of the French baroque musical style, and capture this essence of the French court. There were many unwritten “rules” of performance, including nuances such as “inégale” playing where notes may be played in a lilted way even though they appear equal on the manuscript. Some rhythms are exaggerated to create the feel of the French dances or the swagger of the aristocrats! There is also an airy lightness to the playing that’s essential to its spirit and that’s achieved by how one emphasises different notes within a bar. The music is strongly associated with dance steps and the speed of these dances and the performers must have an understanding of these.

What are some of the interpretive decisions that have to be made or guessed at when looking at this music?

The tempo or speed of the piece is “felt” by considering the time signature, the accents in the phrases, the type of piece (is it a dance? what kind?), the types of melodies (with leaps or is the melody rather smooth?). These questions are all considered in a judgment and then the tempo of the piece will be decided, along with its overall character.

What are the pleasures of this music for contemporary audiences?

Hopefully the same as for the performers! There’s a tremendous energy that’s contained in this music – in the vitality of the rhythms and the discipline of the dance. There’s great joy and passion in this. Hopefully it can also bring alive this epoch of culture in people’s minds – the grandeur and the subtlety which sometimes we miss in this day and age.

Ben Dollman directs Adelaide Baroque in Les Plaisirs: Music of the French Baroque at the Adelaide Festival Centre as part of the Adelaide French Festival on January 13