Re-awakening the decadent music of the French Baroque harpsichordist Jacques Duphly on guitars.

I first encountered and fell in love with the music of the French Baroque though the film “Tout le Matin du Monde.”    Based loosely on true events,  it is about a reclusive master of the viola de gamba named Saint Colombe and his pupil Marin Marais.  Saint Colombe reluctantly guides the immensely gifted young Marais to virtuosity on the instrument, but ends the apprenticeship suddenly, believing the music of his pupil to be without depth or soul. Marin Marais chooses a glamorous life as court musician to the King of France while Saint Colombe sequesters himself in a shed by his home with his instrument, his manuscript book and visions of his deceased wife. Finding court life musically empty, although he has achieved great fame, Marais begins to sneak back to the home of Saint Colombe at night, hiding under the shed and listening for hours, weeping.  After watching this film I was overwhelmed by a desire to play something on my guitar like the music Saint Colombe composed in his shed, (as played in the film by Jordi Savall) music of such sumptuous worldly beauty, suffused with melancholy and a quiet and simple yet direct emotional intensity. I had nothing like this to play.  I couldn’t imagine music written for the viola de gamba translating well to the guitar because the gamba is a bowed string instrument and the swelling notes created by the bowed string, so integral to the expressive power of the music, are not possible on a plucked string.

Years later, that is a few months ago, I began exploring music written for harpsichord by French composers of this period.  I found a lot of music that was huge, extravagant and bombastic and a lot that was small, exquisite, and cute, but again I found little that I felt would translate well to the sonority of the guitar and the Duo Orfeo sound in particular.  Now, I love the harpsichord as much as the next guy, but after listening to hours of recordings over several weeks it begins to wear on you. It was at this point of harpsichord saturation that I was sitting in the studio where I teach guitar lessons waiting for a student to arrive that I put on a CD of solo harpsichord music by Jacques Duphly, played by Katherine Roberts Perl. It was the last thing I expected at that moment to be struck down by and the beauty of what I was hearing,  but that is exactly what happened.  What I heard was music of such crystalline decadence, such delicate elegance. It was all these things, but also honest and un-ironic in tone. It’s sadness that of fairy tale or a nursery rhyme.  It’s longing that of a doo-wop ballad. No great truths are revealed here yet it makes you feel something very deeply. I am reminded of nothing so much as the wonder and mystery of opening a music box as child when listening to the music of Duphly.

When my lessons were over I went to the music library and found the complete works of Jacques Duphly. It was a slim inconspicuous volume with a blue spine with gold lettering, buried in the stacks in a row of identical volumes of music by other forgotten composers. The book had never been checked out.

From this book I eventually chose three pieces to arrange for guitar duo, an Allemande, and two Rondeau–one in D minor entitled Tendre (tender) and one in D major entitled Gracieux (graceful). The two rondeau we have recently recorded to go along with this post. A rondeau, in this case, is a musical form in which a short section of music (the refrain) is introduced and reappears again after sections of new material (the couplets). This form is particularly appealing when the refrains (which are heard four times each in these rondeau) are so irresistible.

The details of the life of Jaques Duphly are of interest considering how I first became attracted to the French Baroque. He spent his early life as a church musician in the country, but later moved to Paris to pursue a career as harpsichordist. That career consisted of entertaining in the elite salons of Paris.  He played and taught for those who lived a life of leisure, the aristocracy and their milieu, yet never attained that status himself, although he certainly lived comfortably. In this rarified atmosphere he composed music  that was all refinement and style, unconcerned, even aloof from the greater world. History passed him by. Duphly died in 1789, the day after Bastille Day, hardly anyone knew he was still alive. He hadn’t written any music for almost 25 years.

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