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Cantatas of Love and War from the Sun King’s Fadeout


Zachary Wilder, tenor

As is their wont, Les Bostonades tunes to its French Baroque channel on Friday at Gordon Chapel of Old South Church. Two cantata modern premieres are up: Gervais’s Telemaque and Renier’s L’Indifference Puni (US premiere). Zachary Wilder, onetime Boston-based tenor who has gone on to make a name for himself across Europe and more recently in Japan, returns for this performance. (Audiences will recognize Wilder from numerous Boston Early Music Festival productions.)

BMInt wanted to get the scoop and enlisted Bostonades violinist Sarah Darling to both interview and join in with Wilder.

SD: Les Bostonades has a long tradition of promoting French Baroque music in Boston. What’s the je ne sais quoi about this rep?

ZW: French Baroque music’s appeal really comes from its intense link to language, dance, and harmony, which were highly valued by these composers at the time. Even the instrumental music, with its swung rhythms, takes on the lilt of the French language. The resulting music is full of surprising jazzy harmonies and an irresistible groove. At least that’s why I love it. We spent a lot of time looking through repertoire in the archives at the Bibliothèque National de France. At the end of the day we were really looking for repertoire that is excellent and musically compelling; otherwise it’s uninteresting to bother digging it out just for the sake of a modern premiere. When we came upon the Renier and the Gervais cantatas, we were immediately struck by the skillful and exciting compositional styles.

Additionally these cantatas were written at a very tumultuous period in French history, during the final years of Louis XIV’s reign, when he was embroiled in the Spanish Succession War. The Gervais, with its choice of subject matter of Télémaque et Mentor (from Francois Fénélon) and Montéclair’s supplication for peace can be seen as very topical and politically risky! It’s a reminder that even under autocratic monarchies, composers still felt they had a civic duty to try to influence the powers that be.

In taking these manuscripts and making modern editions to bring these works back to life 300 years later, I was struck at how immediate they are, and how they unfortunately resonate with today’s political climate. It’s a stark reminder of history’s pendulum, but also that as artists we are inherently political animals.

SD: Charles-Hubert Gervais’s Telemaque opens the program. This colorful cantata features a wild storm scene at the top, which sets up the moral dilemma that must follow. Telemachus is forced to choose between the peaceful refuge that emerges, a lovely, gracious spot that would protect him from the storm, or continuing on, along the difficult path that creates strength and honor in its wake. In the central aria, we wrestle with the idea that sometimes the greatest danger to the self is to be found along the “easy path.”

ZW: The history surrounding it is intriguing. The two characters in the text are Telemachus and Mentor during a tumultuous storm, where suddenly they see a beautiful paradise with shepherdesses and nymphs. But Mentor (who is really Athena disguised as an older man) says to Telemachus, you have a duty to uphold your glory—let us leave this place. Love is a trap! I’m intrigued, because it seems to be a reference to the novel by Fenelon, Les Aventures de Télémaque. The novel was banned and Fenelon exiled from Versailles because it was a thinly veiled criticism of the warmongering and autocratic nature of Louis XIV. However once Louis died, five-year-old Louis XV became known as Telemachus, and his regent, Philippe II, became known as his Mentor. This cantata was written for Philippe II in 1712, the year where all of Louis XV’s potential rivals to the throne had died, about three years before he became king and Philippe II became Regent.

SW: Nicolas Renier, primarily a vocal composer, lived and worked in Paris during the first quarter of the 18th century, dying in 1731. His L’Indifference Puni is a typical story of unrequited love, with a divine moral element. Cupid (dressed as a shepherd) offers a solution to the languishing Daphnis, a pastoral figure: love another one instead of the one you desire. Predictably, in that moment, the one you desire will miraculously recognize what has been lost and begin to love you. The cantata features virtuoso airs for both the flute and the viola da gamba.

ZW: This cantata is a lot more tongue in cheek than the others. Not at all political, it provides a (perhaps unintentionally) humorous take on the unrequited-love cliché. Francois Couperin’s famous Le Tombeau de Lully is a wild ride through Mount Parnassus, as Lully, freshly deified, concertizes with the other shades, shakes off the gripes of his lesser contemporaries, meets and greets Apollo, and comes face to face with an issue that was much on the minds of 18th-century French artists: those pesky Italians. When Lully arrives at the top of Parnassus, he finds himself in the company of Corelli and the other Italian muses, and they welcome him with a combination of sweetness and bitterness, marked “entre doux et agard” in the descriptive titles that precede each movement. The two violinists, representing Lully and Corelli, duel and also befriend each other as they play. In true gouts-reunis style, Apollo then brings all the Muses, French and Italian, together and convinces them that if they would simply join their styles, they would create a truly perfect music.

SD: I love this piece because it is simultaneously one of the most subtly elegant pieces of music I know and also a total comedy. In our performance, Zach will narrate the descriptive text at the beginning of each movement in his beautiful French, and I’ll then translate into colloquial English. There are often chuckles as people become aware of the very dry jokes, and as the way they’re represented in the music that follows becomes clear. Couperin is truly one of the greats when it comes to creating music that is absolutely gorgeously precise, calibrated to one subtle feeling at a time. Music like that can only be written (or played) by someone who is paying very close attention.

Michel Pignolet de Monteclair’s Le Retour de la Paix closes out the program. This fiery, descriptive cantata alternates between martial depictions and plaintive calls for peace. In the first movements, the violins are almost brutal in their simplistic writing that evokes drums and trumpets—at one point, the vocalist begs them to “Arretez, inhumains!” As the cantata continues, the goddess of peace descends, restoring reason to its rightful place. In the final aria, the trumpets of war are transformed and mingle between pastoral musettes, played by shepherds.

This cantata seems to be a direct response to the very violent (and economically draining) War of Spanish Succession. The text speaks of the senseless violence as young men rush off only to be killed. What I find to be the most remarkable is the continuo aria in the middle, where the narrator tries to reason with their fellow man:

Why advance the irrevocable chisel of inflexible fate? Mortals, proceed, if you can, more slowly to the grave. In vain you make trivial glory the object of your wishes; rather seek victory over your impetuous desires.

Grappling with philosophical and ethical questions to the sublime strains of the French Baroque seems to be the name of the game for this set of musical works. If we do our job, the audience should leave feeling simultaneously delighted and enlightened.

 Sarah Darling, a violist with A Far Cry, pops up anywhere and everywhere around town in early, classical, and contemporary circles.

Les Bostonades (OSC) (617-304-8843) presents

Tickets here


Charles-Hubert Gervais: Cantata Télémaque from Premier livre de Cantates Françoises

François Couperin:
La Superbe ou La Forqueray
Les Petits Moulins à Vent

from Dix-septième ordre, Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin

Nicolas Renier:
Cantata L’Indifférence punie from Premier livre de Cantates Françoises (1728)

François Couperin: L’Apothéose de Lully

Michel Pignolet de Montéclair:
Cantata Le Retour de la Paix from Premier livre de Cantates Françoises (1709)

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