Amanda Babington (musette) Claire Babington (cello) David Smith (harpsichord). Music for French Kings, Deux-Elles, 2022. Back

  ‘…l’un des plus charmans & des plus doux instrumens de la Musique’                  

 (Borjon de Scellery, Traité i: 5.)

Amanda Babington’s debut solo album is a welcome addition to the emerging discography of the musette, a small, refined bellows-blown bagpipe that flourished at the French court in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its early organology is uncertain, but by the time of its first detailed description in Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle (1636–7) the instrument had already reached an advanced stage of development. Unlike its mouth-blown counterpart, the musette consistently functioned as a high art instrument, as testified by the costly materials and exquisite craftsmanship applied in its making (for a detailed iconographical study, see Leppert, 1978). It was first played by professional musicians employed by the king, and later by noblemen and ladies who enjoyed the operatic bergeries, ballets and other rustic-themed entertainments popular at court. Between about 1670 and 1760 the vogue for musettes stimulated a huge demand for music suited to it; composers were quick to exploit this commercial opportunity and new repertoire bourgeoned. The music selected for this album – all recorded here for the first time – offers an insight into the musette’s role in chamber music, tracing its evolution from an instrument associated with simple dance pieces through its involvement in more extended, Italianate sonatas with basso continuo.

 

Two works represent the kind of music played on musette in the later seventeenth century. The earliest is the Branle de Normandie from Pierre Borjon de Scellery’s Traité de la musette (1672), the first monograph devoted to the instrument. Borjon provides as practice material a selection of popular airs and rustic dances for unaccompanied musette, which in their notated form appear as deceptively simple melodies, but in performance take on sonic complexity due to the dissonance created by the drones. This characteristic sound becomes even more pungent when the musette is combined with other instruments, as in the suite from Piéces pour la Muzette by Jean Hotteterre (1677–1720). The Hotteterre family served royal music-making for well over a century, having first become prominent as musette and flute makers. Elements of the popular pseudo-countrified style, identified by Robert A. Green (1987) as central to musette literature, are immediately apparent in the opening ‘Marche des Bergers’ which forms an entrée to a suite of fashionable dance types.

 

The eighteenth century saw the musette’s thorough assimilation into mainstream chamber music, by which time the addition of a second chanter (petit chalumeau) and other technical improvements had extended its range and facilitated more advanced techniques. Foremost amongst musette players, makers and composers of this time were the Chédeville brothers Esprit Philippe (1696–1762) and Nicolas (1705–1782), both of whom served the French court as members of the Grands Hautbois and opera orchestra. Nicolas was in demand as a teacher (his students included Princesses Adélaïde and Victoire, daughters of Louis XV), and his Le Deffis, ou L’étude amusante Op. 9 is dedicated to the ‘Illustrious virtuosi’ who were his wealthy pupils. The individual pieces vary in difficulty from relatively simple to advanced techniques such as double stopping; many take the form of miniature tableaux reflecting the French penchant for music depicting a character, scene, or mood. The graceful ‘Les tendres fleurettes’, for example, is a charming piece that exploits both the full range of the instrument and its capacity for dynamic contrast.

 

Nicolas Chédeville’s interest in Italian styles and forms is evidenced by his numerous arrangements of Italian concertos and sonatas for musette. In 1737 he printed and sold a set of sonatas as Vivaldi’s Il pastor fido Op. 13, but which was later revealed to be his own work. This may provide a clue to the most intriguing item on the disc, Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonates pour les clavecins Op. 4 No. 6. Scarlatti is not known to have published an Op. 4, let alone written anything for musette; furthermore, the limited compass of the sonatas, together with other hints in the score, points to their being originally for musette rather than arrangements. If one accepts the plausible suggestion that they were actually compositions by Nicolas (Babington, 2022) then the quality of this four-movement sonata demonstrates his thorough versing in the Italian style. The same accomplishment is also apparent in Esprit Philippe Chédeville’s Sonatille Galantes Op. 6 (1742) (these are tracks 8­–11 on the disc but attributed to Borjon de Scellery). Although written for amateurs and relying on stock instrumental formulae of the time, the sonatilles are amongst the composer’s most sophisticated work (Bowers). They are far from easy to play; the Allemande, for instance, contains exacting passage work and all four movements deploy the petit chalumeau.

 

We have relatively little information concerning the musette virtuoso and teacher Colin Charpentier (fl.1726–1734). His only known publication, the Amusemens des Dames (c.1740), was presumably written with his aristocratic female students in mind; described on the title page as simple and undemanding, the two extracts chosen for the recording are nonetheless redolent with courtly associations. The Loure – a slow, noble dance whose origins may be related to a kind of bagpipe native to Normandy – is here associated with the Ouverture, a French-style entrée which developed from the court ballet into a powerful musical symbol of nobility. Dating from a similar time, Les Amusements de Chambre is a set of anonymous short pieces with titles harking back to earlier, simpler music but whose content reveals the extent of the musette’s capabilities in its fully developed form. Amanda Babington’s secure technique is particularly evident in the virtuosic ‘Tembourin’ and in the final piece on the disc – ‘Pot poury’ – which carries the listener on a whirlwind of unexpected twists and turns.

 

Although the musette is enjoying something of a resurgence, it was a relative latecomer to the early music revival and even today only a handful of players exists across the world. The number of recordings is infinitesimal in comparison to the wealth of music written for it, so this thoughtfully curated album makes a significant contribution. The pieces sit well together as a coherent yet varied whole, enhanced by engaging and informative booklet notes which provide an excellent introduction to the musette’s history and repertoire. The players are an established ensemble that meld as a tight unit while allowing each instrument (modern copies of eighteenth-century models) the space to express its own distinctive personality, aided by Deux-Elles’ clear, well-balanced recording and the intimate acoustic of Charlesworth Independent Chapel in Derbyshire. Numerous academic studies have focused on the musette as a cultural phenomenon, but the time is now ripe to reassess its value from a performance perspective. Its beguiling sonority and blending capabilities inspired composers to develop an idiomatic style that maximised those unique qualities which made the musette, as Borjon claimed, ‘one of the most charming and most sweet instruments of music’.

 

References

Babington, Amanda. (2022) Liner notes for Music for French Kings. Amanda Babington (musette), Claire Babington (cello) and David Smith (harpsichord). Deux-Elles DXL 1188.

Bowers, Jane M., a. “Chédeville, Esprit Philippe.” Grove Music Online.  Oxford University Press. Date of access 11 Dec. 2022, https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-90000369722.  

Green, Robert A. (1987). Eighteenth-century French chamber music for vielle. Early Music, 15(4), 468–479.

Leppert, Richard D. (1978). Arcadia at Versailles: Noble Amateur Musicians and Their Musettes and Hurdy-gurdies at the French Court (c. 1660–1789). Swets & Zietlinger B.V.