A Pioneering French Composer

March is Women's History Month. This March also marks the 350th birthday of a savvy French Baroque composer, harpsichordist, and singer, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (March 17, 1665-June 27, 1729), whose work I will be performing with several colleagues on April 8. A clever self-promoter, Jacquet de La Guerre augmented her exceptional musical talents with a combination of shrewd risk taking, perceptive opportunism, and persuasive ability. Described by the Mercure Galant, a prominent French newspaper of the time, as a "marvel of our century," Jacquet was born into a musical family, and was highly favored by King Louis XIV. From a young age, she received musical training at his court. She later composed and performed works that spanned several genres, publishing many of them.

An oil painting of Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy (1645-1730)


Jacquet de La Guerre's Les Pièces de Clavessin de Mad.elle de La Guerre (1687), was published when she was only 22. At the time, only two other French composers had published harpsichord works, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (1601-1672) and Nicolas Lebègue (1631-1702); a woman doing so, especially one who was so young, was very unusual. Her political acumen can be seen in the dedication of the piece, in which she managed to highlight both her compositional and political insight, the latter by lavishing praise on her royal patron, Louis XIV:

I am indebted to You for all that my genius has produced up to the present.…The usual exercise of my muse, which continually blesses the peace of this glorious reign, so appropriate for cultivating the fine arts which one sees flowering throughout the entire empire because of the efforts of the grandest monarch in the universe.

In 1694, Jacquet de La Guerre premiered what would be her only opera, Céphale et Procris. Operas were quite costly and financed by the king. Then as now, failure would have been embarrassing and would have tarnished a composer's reputation. Rehearsal observers expected that Céphale et Procris would be a success. It artfully fused the national French style with Italianate passagework, and the music is well written, particularly the instrumental interludes, or divertissements, between the main sections. Alas, it was unsuccessful— it was canceled after only five or six performances, most likely due to the fact that the libretto was overly complex, which made the opera tedious and unfocused. While the full score of the opera is not extant today, we have a reduced score published by the royal publisher, Ballard, and a complete manuscript of the parts for the voices.

Jacquet de La Guerre did not publish any works from 1694 to 1707, a period during which she endured the deaths of her mother, father, husband, and only son. We have four unpublished trio sonatas from this period that were copied by Sébastien de Brossard, a prominent music theorist who collected many of her works. The sonata form had arrived in France fairly late and at that time, it was a continuous piece with a variable number of contrasting sections, each distinguished by tempo, meter, texture, key, and motivic changes. In 1707, Jacquet de La Guerre self-published sonatas for violin and harpsichord, capitalizing on the rising popularity of the sonata in France in the early 18th century.

Her last publications were cantatas, a form that started to come into vogue in France at the beginning of the 18th century. Like the sonata, the cantata had Italian origins in the early 17th century. In 1708 and 1711, Ballard published two collections of her sacred cantatas. The texts, by Antoine Houdar de La Motte (1672-1731), were direct and expressive, and Jacquet de La Guerre set them to music wonderfully, employing effective repetition, shifts between major and minor, and modulation to remote keys for particularly moving moments. She published a collection of secular cantatas in 1715 in which she creatively used singers and instrumentalists to create programmatic effects. She explored far-reaching tonalities throughout her cantatas, and inventively conformed the music to the words.

Many sources affirm the importance of Jacquet de La Guerre and her works. In Paris, she held famous house concerts that attracted influential people from afar. Primary sources such as newspapers and poem dedications referred to her in a positive light. Her place in history was assured by Brossard, who painstakingly collected her works, and Johann Gottfried Walther, who wrote a glowing entry about her in his famous Musicalisches Lexicon oder musicalische Bibliothek (1732). So let's celebrate this exceptional composer whose life and works deserve to be remembered.

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