Exquisite Melodies and The Most Beautiful Touch
Jacques Champion, Sieur de Chambonnières
(1601/02 – before May 4, 1672)
Illustrious Chambonnières, whose peerless hands
Seem to move the soul with such divers tones,
What use could be praise and our verse to you,
Since the whole world wonders at your marvels?
J. Quesnel, Librarian to M. de Thou
Translation by Vincent Giroud
Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, founder of the French classical school of harpsichord playing and composition, was born in Paris most likely in 1602, about a year after his parents’ marriage date. His father, Jacques Champion, sieur de la Chappelle and Knight of the King’s Order and his mother Anne Chartriot, daughter of Robert Chartriot, esquire, sieur de Chambonnières, were married on January 31, 1601. The earliest known record of “Jacques de la Chappelle, filz de Monsieur de la Chappelle” was on June 20, 1608, when he was godfather to a little girl.
Although his family name was Champion, he was known by the title of his maternal grandfather, sieur de Chambonnières. His father’s musical family dates back to the fifteenth century. Chambonnières’ grandfather, Thomas Champion, called Mithou, was organist and harpsichordist of the King’s Chamber. Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), French mathematician, philosopher, music theorist and chronicler of music of his time recorded that Thomas Champion was “a great contrapuntist,” who “broke new ground for the organ and harpsichord improvising canons and fugues.”
As a young boy, Champion de Chambonnières received the reversion of his father’s position at the court of Louis XIII as organist, valet de chambre and joueur d’espinette in September 1611. He first married Marie Leclerc, of whom nothing is known, most likely when he was about 20 years old. Chambonnières’ career began to blossom between 1628 and 1635. During this period Mersenne refered to him as “the younger Chappelle, commonly called Baron de Chambonnière, who is almost without peer in the whole world.” Mersenne later praised him, although no longer calling him baron. “After having heard the harpsichord played by the sieur de Chambonnières, I can express my feelings by saying that one should not hear anything else after him, if one desires either beautiful melodies and harmony perfectly blended, a beautiful rhythmic sense, a lovely touch, or both light and fast fingerwork . . . one can say that this instrument has met its ultimate master.” Mersenne felt that Jacques had surpassed his father and grandfather, although his father thought the grandfather was the better musician.
Not only did Chambonnières play and compose for the court, but he danced as well, dancing for the first time before Louis XIII at the Arsenal on February 25, 1635. In later years he danced with the young Louis XIV and Lully (February 23, 1653). In what may have been the first paying concerts, he established the Assemblée des honnestes curieux on October 17, 1641, engaging ten musicians to appear on Wednesdays and Saturday at noon for a year. All that is known about the music is that both instrumental and vocal works were offered. Two of the musicians were singers, plus a viol player and Chambonnières played harpsichord.
After the death of Louis XIII, Anne of Austria, as regent for Louis XIV, had her own harpsichordist, Charles Henry Chabanceau de la Barre, which left Chambonnières with time on his hands, although he was commissioned to purchase a harpsichord for the seven-year-old Louis XIV costing 600 livres.
Christiaan Huygens, Dutch mathematician, astronomer and physicist visited Paris and got to know Chambonnières, then reported back to his father Constantijn Huygens, secretary to two princes of Orange, lutenist, harpsichordist and composer. Being a great admirer of Chambonnières’ compositions, Constantijn repeatedly asked him to send more of his pieces and spread the word of his fame to anyone who would listen. It was through Huygens that Johann Jacob Froberger about 1649 received some of Chambonnières’ pieces, which led to Froberger’s visit to Paris about 1651 or 1652.
Chambonnières was celebrating his name day, the feast of St. Jacques on July 25, 1650, when he received a surprise visit by three Couperin brothers, who came to serenade him. Titon du Tillet in his 1732 volume, Le Parnasse François writes about the meeting of Chambonnières and the three Couperin brothers that day:
[Louis, François and Charles Couperin] with some friends, also violinists, decided to go to Chambonnières’ château and serenade him. They arrived and took positions at the door of the room where Chambonnières was dining with several guests, persons of intelligence and a taste for music. The master of the house was agreeably surprised, as were all his company, by the fine symphony that they had heard. Chambonnières invited the players in and asked who had composed the airs they had played. They replied it was Louis Couperin. Chambonnières immediately presented his compliments and urged him and his comrades to sit down at the table. He displayed great kindness to him and told him that a man like him should not stay in the provinces, and that he absolutely must come with him to Paris. Louis accepted this offer with pleasure. Chambonnières presented Couperin in Paris and at court, where he was appreciated.
Chaumes-en-Brie, where the Couperins lived, was close to the Chambonnières land. Brie had a rich musical population that included both the Couperins and Forquerays.
Sometime after introducing the Couperins to the Parisian musical world, Chambonnières’ first wife must have died for on December 16, 1652, he married Marguerite Ferret, daughter of a law court usher. About this same time the armies of the Fronde laid waste to the Brie region most likely causing Chambonnières financial difficulties. At any rate, he began to look elsewhere for employment. Constantijn Huygens wrote on his behalf to Queen Christina of Sweden, but before any answer was received, she had moved to Paris in fall of 1655.
From this time, Chambonnières’ fortunes began to decline. A few years later in February 1657, Louis XIV appointed Etienne Richard as his royal harpsichord teacher, dealing a crushing blow to Chambonnières’ self-esteem. In May that same year, land belonging to his mother, brother and sister was sold after an expensive lawsuit. It is not known whether Chambonnières’ manor was included or not. In June his wife obtained an agreement of separate maintenance, forcing him to sell some of his property to settle the dispute. However, they continued to live together, probably out of necessity, until Chambonnières died.
His position at court must have become precarious, because du Tillet reports that there was a plot to have Louis Couperin receive Chambonnières’ position. Out of loyalty to his mentor, Louis refused the position. The king instead created a new position for Couperin.
Throughout his life, Chambonnières was continually concerned with elevating his social position, beginning with taking the name of his maternal grandfather’s estate, then taking the title of baron, and finally referring to himself as a marquis. Taking titles without permission was not looked upon favorably by Louis XIV and may have led to Chambonnières losing his position as joueur d’épinette. Through Constantijn Huygens he tried to gain a post at the electoral court of Brandenburg. In a letter dated August 13, 1662 Huygens said Chambonnières lost his position because of a “low and evil clique at court,” perhaps due to the popularity of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was appointed Surintendant de la musique de la chambre in 1661.
Eventually, even his friends began to turn against him. Christiaan Huygens, his faithful supporter, wrote on December 20, 1660 that Chambonnières “played the harpsichord and sang an air of his own composing, which seemed only mediocre to me.” Then later in 1662 Huygens also wrote:
The situation of the Marquis de Chambonnière would be pitiable if he had not put on such airs . . . He tried to convince me he was no longer playing the harpsichord . . . indeed he would be badly off were he no longer performing.
Chambonnières finally retired from his post on October 23, 1662, selling the reversion to d’Anglebert for 2000 livres. There seem to be two differing opinions as to why Jacques retired. Sieur Demachy wrote that Chambonnières sold his reversion because he was asked to play continuo as accompaniment and he did not want to accompany on the harpsichord and despised it. Jean Rousseau, a viol player at the French court, in answer to his rival Demachy’s essay said “surely everyone knows that M. de Chambonnières did not know how to accompany, and . . . it was for this reason that he was obliged to leave his post in the king’s court and come to an agreement with M. d’Anglebert.”
It is hard to believe that an accomplished composer and player, who performed with his chamber ensemble in his concert series, did not know how to accompany. It seems more plausible that he felt accompanying was beneath his stature as a soloist and composer and was unacceptable for one of his social standing. As Rebecca Cypress states in a recent article, Chambonnières may have objected to the conformity required of musicians in large ensembles, preferring instead the solo role that allowed him greater individuality.
Although retired from court, Chambonnières continued to play in fashionable salons. There is a record of a concert that he gave at the Duchess of Orléans’ salon on November 1, 1665. The exact date of his death is unknown, but a posthumous inventory was drawn up on May 4, 1672. He most likely died sometime in April of 1672.
As a musician encouraged by an aging father, with every opportunity to advance, Chambonnières must have been a very self-assured individual with an ego that matched his highly respected talents. Stories abound about him; he was ridiculed for his pretensions, but when one considers the excellent musicians that he either promoted or taught, his record is amazing. His protégés include the three Couperin brothers, Hardel, a Gautier, d’Anglebert, Lebègue, Cambert and Nivers. The loyalty he inspired in Louis Couperin who refused to replace him and the elegant tombeau written for him by d’Anglebert are evidence of their respect and regard for him.
Jean Le Gallois (1632-1707) has been identified as the author of a volume published in 1680 titled, Lettre De Mr Le Gallois A Mademoiselle Regnault de Solier, touchant la Musique. In it he describes in detail harpsichord playing in the seventeenth century, and contrasts the highly applauded and differing styles of Jacques Champion de Chambonnières and Louis Couperin. The following excerpts are from his book:
The harpsichord has had as its masters Chambonnières, the Couperins, Hardel, Richard, La Barre, and presently D’Anglebert, Gautier, Buret, Lebègue, Couperin, and others . . .There are different schools of playing the harpsichord that may be reduced to two principal ones . . .
The first is that beautiful and pleasing manner that the late Chambonnières employed . . . This illustrious person excelled others not only because of the pieces he composed but also because he was the originator of a beautiful manner of playing, that was both brilliant and flowing and so well executed and integrated that it would be impossible to do it better. . . He had a delicacy of hand that others did not have, such that when he played a chord, and others tried to imitate him, one would notice a great difference. The reason for this is that he had an approach and a manner of applying his fingers to the keys that was unknown to others. One also knows that he employed natural songs, tender and well-written, in his pieces . . . and every time he played a piece, he brought to it new beauties, with ports de voix, passages, and varied embellishments.
The other method is that of the first deceased of the Couperins (Louis), an excellent composer . . . His playing was admired by connoisseurs because it was full of chords and enriched with beautiful dissonances.
Chambonnières and Couperin, leading performers in their profession, have excelled in their art and understood its rules . . . Their two styles of playing had different characteristics, and it could be said that one touched the heart and the other touched the ear . . . They pleased, but pleased differently, because of the varied beauties of their styles of playing.
The major sources of Chambonnières’ works are his own publication in 1670 of two volumes with 30 pieces in each; the Bauyn Manuscript ca. 1690, one of the most important sources of French keyboard music of the seventeenth century, with 126 pieces; and the manuscript in London owned by Guy Oldham with 22 pieces and 3 doubles. The Oldham Manuscript has 13 pieces that those who have examined the source seem to agree are in the hand of Chambonnières.
There is a unique simplicity and beauty of line to Chambonnieres pieces, and above all he creates incredibly lovely melodies. Of his approximately 150 surviving pieces more than three quarters of them are allemandes, courantes, sarabandes and gigues with the greatest number of pieces being courantes, Louis XIV’s favorite dance that he danced better than anyone else. Four pavanes and several chaconnes survive, plus other small dance pieces. Chambonnières’ style is an amalgam of the courtly airs de cour and the innovative style brisé of the famous French lutenist Denis Gautier, that exhibits a thorough knowledge of counterpoint and imitation. Like Gautier, he does not use the word suite to describe his pieces, but groups them by tonality, sometimes combining major and minor pieces in the same set. His published books mostly follow the conventional allemande-courante-sarabande arrangement with extra dances added, although there is not a consistent pattern throughout the two volumes. No preludes are known to exist, although a set of nine anonymous preludes in the Brussels MS 27220 could possibly be his.
Approximately twenty of Chambonnières’ pieces have titles. In this recording those pieces with titles are: Courante de Madame (written for the wedding of Monsieur [Philippe d’Orléans] in 1661), Allemande la Loureuse (The Bagpiper), Allemande le Moutier (unknown designation), Gigue la Vilageoise (Gigue of the Villager), Allemande dit[e] l’affligée (Allemande Called the Sorrowful – an elegiac work, reminiscent of a tombeau), Pavanne l’entretien des Dieux (Conversation of the Gods) and Allemande la Rare (the opening beautifully crafted piece in his published works). One might assume that this was one of his favorite pieces to command such a place of honor.
In this recording, I have chosen to play some pieces from Chambonnières’ two published volumes, and some that appear in the Bauyn Manuscript. From his known works, I have sculpted sets of pieces in an order that mostly follows that established by Chambonnières.