One of the pieces being performed at the upcoming “Bach & Baroque Virtuosity” online concert is Suite No. 2 in G minor by French composer Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729). Byron Schenkman has played her chamber music and some of her individual harpsichord pieces before, but says, “It’s a new piece for me.” They added, “It’s my first time playing one of her whole harpsichord suites.”
During her lifetime, Jacquet de la Guerre built an international reputation as a famed harpsichordist and composer during a time when women were not expected or encouraged to pursue such activities. In July 1677, Mercure Galant, a prominent French newspaper from the time said of Jacquet de la Guerre’s first performance at the royal court that, “She sings at sight the most difficult music. She accompanies herself, and accompanies others who wish to sing, at the harpsichord, which she plays in a manner that cannot be imitated.” Around this time, King Louis XIV brought Jacquet de la Guerre into his court where, although she was not paid, she gained additional education and the King’s patronage.
The harpsichord suite Byron will be performing is part of a collection (Les Pièces de Clavessin) that was published in 1687 when Jacquet de la Guerre was about 22 years old. Part of her dedication from this collection of works to King Louis XIV says, “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.” She was among the earliest French composers to publish any works for the harpsichord and dedicated all but one of her works to Louis XIV. As the King had complete control over any music that was printed in France at that time, this practically guaranteed that her compositions would be published.
In preparation for this concert, Byron spoke about some of the challenges around performing this piece. “I like to play solo music from memory,” they said, “mostly because I think it really helps me to internalize it, and to know it at a really deep level.” As an example, when they were learning a suite by J.S. Bach in 1984, which has been part of their repertory for 35+ years, Byron pointed out that they had a choice of scholarly editions with painstaking notes about Bach’s music available, as well as many books written about the composer and the work itself, and dozens of recordings of the piece by celebrated musicians. In studying this suite by Jacquet de la Guerre, “I’m learning it from a facsimile of the 1687 print,” Byron says.
Byron acknowledges the pressure and responsibility inherent in performing a piece for an audience who may not have ever heard of Jacquet de la Guerre, or known that a woman could have been a composer in France in 1687. They also lament that compared to classical male composers, what is missing from the historical canon for classical female composers is, “generations of people perpetuating that truth universally acknowledged that this is a great piece of music written by a great composer.”
Please join us for the online premiere of “Bach & Baroque Virtuosity” on Sunday, December 27th at 7:00 PM Pacific Time. This concert is presented for free and will also be available to view online after the premiere. If you would like to show your appreciation, consider making a donation to support Byron Schenkman & Friends in our mission of presenting artistically excellent Baroque and Classical chamber music to audiences in Seattle and beyond.