The University of Mississippi

Department of Music and Sarah Isom Center

David Warren Steel, harpsichord

With Jo Ann Lacquet Sims, mezzo soprano,
Robert Riggs, violin,
and Tian-Sheng Li, viola da gamba

The World of Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre


Pièces de clavecin (C major) . . . . . . . . Louis Couperin (1626-1661)
       Allemande la Precieuse

Pièces de clavecin (A minor) E.-Cl. Jacquet de la Guerre (ca.1664-1729)

Pièces de clavecin (A minor) . . . . . Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)

Semelé (Cantate avec Simphonie) . . . . . . E.-Cl. Jacquet de la Guerre
       Récitatif—Jupiter avoit fait un indiscret serment
         Air—Ne peut-on vivre en tes liens
             Récitatif—Mais, quel bruit étonnant
               Air—Quel triomphe, quelle victoire!
                 Récitatif—Ah! quel embrasement
                   Air—Lorsque l’Amour nous enchaisne

Wednesday, November 15, 1989, 8:00 PM
Multipurpose Room, Ole Miss Union

Program Notes

Although there have been women composers in every period of Western music history, their music has largely been neglected until recently. Some were noble or aristocratic women whose works were limited to a small circle of family and friends, but others were members of families of professional musicians, who achieved wide recognition in their time. Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet was one of the latter, descended from a family of Parisian organists and harpsichord-makers. As a child, she caused a sensation with her ability to compose and improvise at the keyboard, and her talents gained the attention of King Louis XIV, who encouraged her creative efforts. In 1687, after her marriage to the organist Marin de La Guerre, she published her first book of harpsichord pieces. After the death of her husband and only child, she began presenting recitals and concerts in her home. In addition to keyboard pieces, she composed sonatas, songs, cantatas, and even an opera, the first by a woman to be performed in Paris. She retired from public life in 1717, but was remembered after her death, when a medal was struck in her honor, with the inscription, “With the great (male) musicians I competed for the prize.”

Louis Couperin, Pièces de clavecin (C major)

Around 1650 Louis Couperin, with his brothers, all natives of the Brie region outside Paris, played their instruments to serenade the local squire, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, himself a musician and harpsichordist who had been knighted by Louis XIV for his accomplishments. Chambonnières soon took Couperin as his protégé and pupil, and introduced him to the Court and the capital. After mastering the graceful dance forms of his master’s pieces, Couperin continued to develop a more daring harmonic language. He contributed at least one original type of keyboard piece: the unmeasured prelude, a kind of searching exploration of a key or tonality, employing several melodic and harmonic changes, but without specified rhythms or note values. He also excelled in the creation of large-scale passacailles and chaconnes en rondeau, contrasting varied couplets (verses) with a repeated refrain characterized by the strummed triple rhythms and dissonant open strings of baroque guitar music. Although he died young and never published his works, they influenced later generations of keyboard composers, notably his nephew François Couperin. The present selection of pieces in C major and C minor, contains one of each of these forms, together with a standard sequence of dances including a stately allemande, an active courante, and a gentle sarabande. The final passacaille is unusual for its final refrain in C minor instead of the expected C major.

La Guerre, Pièces de clavecin

La Guerre, unlike Couperin, was one of the very few French composers to publish keyboard works during the seventeenth century. A single surviving copy of her 1687 book was recently discovered in Italy by musicologist Carol Bates, who prepared the first complete edition of her pieces in 1986. The pieces in the 1687 book show a style midway between the fresh daring of Louis Couperin’s pieces and the mature refinement of eighteenth-century French harpsichord music, including that of her own 1707 collection. La Guerre’s unmeasured preludes represent her famed improvisatory skill. They include some specified note values (in runs and melodic passages), but still leave the rhythmic shape to the performer. The present selection, in A minor, culminates in a lively gigue, followed by a chaconne en rondeau similar to those of Louis Couperin. The repeated refrain rises only to E above middle C, and skilfully exploits the rich lower sonorities of the French harpsichord.

Rameau, Pièces de clavecin

Rameau is recognized as France’s leading composer of the eighteenth century, and as an important music theorist. His great accomplishments in opera and other dramatic music were products of his middle and old age, beginning with Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), while most of his important harpsichord works date from the period 1724-1747. A native of Dijon, his earlier life was spent in relative obscurity in the provinces. In 1706, however, on a brief visit to Paris, the young Rameau published a single suite of keyboard pieces. These early pieces partake much more of the style and tradition of the earlier harpsichord masters than do those of his later books. There is even an unmeasured prelude (one of the last to be published in France), though it quickly shifts to a rapid gigue movement. The first allemande is more expansive than those of Couperin and La Guerre; it is followed by a second allemande in a much faster tempo and a more marked rhythm. All the pieces show a remarkable harmonic assurance and skill, introducing complex and altered chords into a clear and logical overall pattern, as befits the “father of modern harmony.”

La Guerre, Semelé

During much of the reign of Louis XIV, the ceremonial and dramatic music of the French court was dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687); after Lully’s death, some French composers, working mainly in chamber music, began to experiment with new forms recently developed in Italy, such as the instrumental sonata and the dramatic cantata. Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre was among the pioneers in adapting the new Italian styles: she published sonatas for violin (1707), and three books of cantatas, two (1708 and 1711) based on biblical subjects, the third (1715) on themes derived from Greek mythology.

The story of Semelé, from her 1715 book, was also set as a dramatic oratorio by Handel. Semele, mistress of Zeus and mother of Dionysius, is discontented because her lover always appears to her in mortal form. She extracts one promise from him, that he will reveal himself in his full glory. The god, bound by honor to comply, realizes that this will mean her death. Tonight’s performance includes the tragic climax of the tale. Semele’s astonishment turns to pride and exaltation, and finally to terror as she finds herself consumed by fire and lightning. Realizing that “one wish has brought me to my final doom,” she dies. The instrumental interludes and accompaniment provide a background of thunder, lightning, and cataclysm. A final aria, sung in the character of a narrator or commentator, warns against the dangers of mixing love and ambition.

David Warren Steel

Text and Translation

Jupiter avoit fait un indiscret serment,          Jupiter had made an indiscreet promise
d'accorder tout aux voeux d'une amante            to grant any wish to his faithful mistress.
Semelé doute encor du rang de son amant,          Semele doubted the rank of her lover,
et ce doute fait son tourment.                    and this doubt tormented her--
Elle aspire à le voir dans sa gloire              she wished to see him in his immortal glory,
Mais l'Amour par pitié par elle                   but Love, pitying her, 
d'un plaisir si funeste éloigne le moment!        postponed such a fatal pleasure.
Semelé cependant, gémit, s'impatiente.            Still Semele whined and fretted,
Elle se plaint ainsy d'une trop longue attente.   and thus she complained of waiting too long:

Ne peut-on vivre en tes liens                     Is it possible to live in your bonds
sans souffrir de mortelles peines.                without suffering deadly pains?
Amour, tu promets mille biens,                    Love, you promise a thousand gifts,
qu'on ne trouve point dans tes chaines.           but one cannot find them within your chains.
   Un coeur qui s'est laissé charmer                 A heart that has allowed itself to be charmed
   doit immoler tout à sa flâme.                     must perish in his flames.
   Mon amant s'il sçavoit aimer,                     If my lover really knew how to love,
   préviendroit les voeux de mon âme.                he would already know the desires of my soul.

Mais, quel bruit étonnant se répand               What astonishing noise bursts forth in the air! 
          dans les airs;                      
quel ravage! la foudre gronde,                    What destruction! the thunderbolt roars, 
le ciel s'entr'ouvre, et les éclairs              the sky opens, and the lightning proclaims 
m'annonce le maistre du monde.                    the master of the world.  
Quel apareil pompeux, quel spectacle pour moy;    what a display! what a spectacle!
pardonne, j'avois tort de soupçonner ta foy.      forgive me, I was wrong to doubt 
                                                          your faithfulness.

Quel triomphe, quelle victoire                    What a triumph, what a victory,
flatte mon coeur ambitieux;                       flatters my ambitious heart.
est-il rien d'égal à ma gloire?                   Is anything equal to my glory?
Je vais joûir du sort des dieux.                  I shall enjoy the fate of the gods.
   Je ne veux point que le mistère                  I do not want mystery to hide 
   cache le bonheur de mes fers;                    the happiness of my bonds;
   que l'on sache que j'ay sceu plaire              let everyone know that I was able to please
   au plus grand dieu de l'univers.                 the greatest god of the universe.

Ah! quel embrasement tout à coup m'épouvante;     The sudden conflagration terrifies me;
je vois ce palais s'enflamer;                     I see this palace is catching fire.
ah, ciel! je me sens consumer;                    Heavens, I feel myself consumed.
Jupiter, quel est donc le sort de ton amante?     Jove, what is the fate of your beloved?
Un soûhait me conduit au dernier des malheurs;    One wish has brought me to my final doom;
quel horrible tourment; je sucombe, je meurs.     what horrible torment!  I faint, I die.

Lorsque l'Amour nous enchaisne                    When Love binds us 
de ses plus aimables noeuds,                      in his most pleasant snares,
ne meslons point à ses feux                       let us not mix with his fires
l'ardeur d'une gloire vaine;                      the ardor of vainglory;
ne partageons point ses voeux,                    let us not not divide his will,
lorsque l'Amour nous enchaisne.                   when Love binds us.
   L'éclat, la grandeur suprême,                    Splendor, supreme greatness,
   ne furent jamais un bien;                        were never a blessing;
   c'est dans un tendre lien,                       it is in a tender union
   qu'on trouve un bonheur extrême.                 that we find total happiness.
   Il ne faut compter pour rien,                    Splendor, supreme greatness,
   l'éclat, la grandeur suprême.                    do not amount to anything.

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