The French conductor discusses unearthing the Sun King’s finest hour and how too many cooks didn’t spoil this particular broth.

Congratulations on winning our Opera Recording of the Year. Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was the famous occasion when the young Louis XIV danced the role of Apollo and became known ever after as the Sun King. How come we’ve never heard the music before and how did your reconstruction come about?

The idea came after I read a score that I had known about for a long time at the French Library. It’s a work of legend, because we know from the history books that this happened in 1653. This event was mentioned many times by historians, but each time I saw the score I was thinking “Oh, what a pity, we have only four vocal lines and we have a lot of music but only maybe five percent [is complete]. Each time I read this book I thought what a pity, until the moment I really read the vocal music and thought “It’s really incredible – I want to try to reconstruct the whole thing!”. It’s a strange thing, because it’s not a sudden discovery. I knew about it for a long time, as I can imagine did many other musicians, because it’s free – you can find it on the website of the French Library! Everyone thinks it is impossible, until the moment you think it’s possible, so you do it.

Sébastien Daucé with Ensemble Correspondances

So how did you locate and reconstruct the original music?

The original music, the score we know, is easy to find. It’s a copy by Philidor, who was the royal librarian at the beginning of the 18th century, and he brought some of this music together. But this score is so incomplete that you have to find many other things. The first thing was to find all of the vocal music and we chanced to find a special source in the library of Cardinal Mazarin [Chief Minister to the King of France from 1642 until his death in 1661]. We found all the vocal music in a wonderful edition.

The second step was to study and study the other models for ballet at this time, just to understand and try to speak the same language before reconstructing. I chose to add music that we know was not in the original ballet but that was present in Paris and played in the same places like the Louvre. Cavalli was invited by Louis XIV and Mazarin to play his Italian operas in Paris, because opera didn’t exist there at this time. I think that Paris was a sort of centre for art – like it was at the beginning of the 20th century. We know that in the middle of the 17th century they had the best musicians for French dance, for French music and for the French air de cour. They also communicated a lot with Italian composers, Italian singers and Italian instrumentalists. That’s why I wanted to add this Italian music, so as to have a sort of complete photograph of the richness of music at this time in Paris.

So how much of the opera and ballet did you actually have to recreate yourself?

Our only copy was compiled 50 years after the show. So, the first question was what is actually from the original and what is already a reconstruction by Philidor 50 years later. My idea was that probably the first line, the violin line, was original. Maybe Philidor made a mistake, we will never know, but I have decided to trust this first line as an original thing. In the score you can see many blank lines. All the orchestra lines are blank. Then, for 12 or 15 of the dances, we have a bass line. My idea was that this bass line had been added by Philidor. So already the reconstruction began with Phildor 50 years after the event. However, I decided to keep it because it’s well done. I’m not sure it’s exactly in the original style, but it’s only 50 years later. So I decided to complete the bass line for the whole thing, and then to rewrite all the orchestral lines, because they definitely don’t exist. 

How many composers were involved in the original?

We don’t know, because the contents of a show then were totally different than a show today or even from the 18th century. We know there was a political decision at the end of 1652. The ‘power’ wanted an impressive show. Even they were so poor – ruined even – they wanted the most beautiful thing ever seen. So let’s imagine it’s the end of November 1652. They ask for a sort of producer for the show, and this man has to organise everything in two or three months. It is so short a time to ask many of the most talented people to work on it, so he asks probably the regular composers who were working at this time at the court. Louis Constantin is one of them. He is the composer of the music “Jeune et Charmante” and he was also the “king of the violins”. Then there was Antoine Boësset, one of the masters of the court and very famous for his vocal music. We are not sure of this, but probably he worked on it. Jean de Cambefort is one of the composers we are sure was involved in this ballet. He was also a composer for the court at this time and we are certain that the five great vocal airs that begin each part of the ballet have been composed by him.

Then probably we have many other composers because one person couldn’t have invented all this music in so little time. And we know, for instance, that composers were involved in the ballet – not necessarily as composers but as dancers. We know that Lully was dancing in this ballet. It was his first official appearance at the court. We know he was very young, but he’s already been three years in France. He’s very esteemed by Louis XIV, so after the performances of the ballet Louis asks Lully to be his composer. He was already known as a composer, so probably he wrote some dances, but we will never know which.

All the dances were danced by different dancers and probably the way they learned them was with a master of music and dance. Generally the master of the dance played the violin and probably invented himself many dances. It’s very, very difficult to find which composer worked on which dance, and probably on even one dance it is very possible that we have many composers – one for the air, one afterwards who could arrange the air and write a bass, and probably another one writing the parts and then another one copying the music. You can say that it’s a team project.

How long did the project take to come to fruition?

With Le Concert Royal de la Nuit I’ve been working on it for five years and for a long time in secret, because if I speak with the professionals too early it’s risky at the beginning, you know. I wanted to work on works that are not operas but that have been invented for stage. So, for French music, the ballet de cour was perfect because we don’t know this kind of music. The theatre in this kind of work is so incredible. It’s just fantastic and inventive. It’s not a rational history or a tragedy in five acts. It’s very representative of the brain of a man in the middle of the 17th century. There are many things, many inventions, many beauties, but not exactly organised in a rational way. And it’s still not finished, because we have the shows to put on with the staging etcetera. For the recording I had only two thirds of the dances, so I have one more third to do!

And are there any other great pieces from musical history that you’d like to see recreated for a recording?

Yes, there is one. I have found something very good, I think. I would like to tell you but I know I mustn’t. I’ve found something else but I just want someone to help me, to give me a lot of money, to invite me in this theatre. I hope staging Le Concert Royal de la Nuit will be a success in one year to help me with this new project.