The Cosmopolitans rehearsal 4 October 2023.

The Cosmopolitans

Article by Sally Melhuish, October 2023

Louis XIV (1638-1715) personified absolutism during his long reign, exercising control through an elaborate code of etiquette, an extensive bureaucracy, and politicising music and the arts to impress his authority on aristocrats and foreign dignitaries alike.

Equally dictatorial was the King’s composer and enforcer-in-chief, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). He was, ironically, Italian-born, but using his patron’s bestowal of lavish financial and moral support, Lully became the most powerful exponent of French Baroque style. A merciless manipulator, Lully developed a monopoly across the arts, banned compositions not meeting with his approval and decreed that all music must glorify the King and France.

Navigating his way through such a simultaneously creative yet stifling environment was François Couperin (1668-1733), who composed his first sonata around 1692. Given that no sonata was published in France during Lully’s lifetime due to its Italian roots, it is understandable that Couperin did not acknowledge authorship of the work for more than thirty years:

“Charmed by the sonatas of Signor Corelli, whose works I shall love as long as I live, just as I do the French works of Monsieur de Lully, I attempted to compose one myself. … Knowing the keen appetite of the French for foreign novelties above all else, and being unsure of myself, I did myself a very good turn through a little ‘technical’ deceit. I pretended that a relation of mine … had sent me a sonata by a new Italian composer. I rearranged the letters of my name to form an Italian one, Percunio, which I used instead. The sonata was devoured with eagerness, and I need not trouble to defend myself. … I composed others, and my Italianised name brought me, in disguise, considerable applause. My sonatas, fortunately, won enough favour for me not to be in the least embarrassed by the subterfuge.”

Preface to Les Nations: Sonades et suites de simphonies en trio (1726)

Couperin continued to pursue his fascination with both French and Italian styles. In his programmatic piece L’Apothéose composé à la mémoire de l’incomparable Monsieur de Lully from 1725, Couperin imagines a meeting on Mount Parnassus between Lully and Corelli, as representatives of the two styles, titling one of the movements, “Apollo persuades Lully and Corelli that the perfection of music can be achieved by a union of French and Italian styles”. One wonders what Jean-Baptiste Lully, to whom the composition was dedicated, would have made of it.

Change happened slowly post-Lully, with composers scared to be seen as trashing the ‘brand’ too quickly. André Campra (1660-1744) assiduously imitated parts of Lully’s renowned Comédie-ballet, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in his Opéra-ballet L’Europe galante, despite composing it a decade after Lully’s death. Campra also had his own constraint. As a chaplain serving as maître de musique at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, Campra had already been reprimanded by the church for taking part in theatrical performances, so he published L’Europe galante under his brother Joseph’s name. Following further success, Campra left the cathedral to become chief conductor at the Opéra. His 17 operas cemented his position as the most important French opera composer between Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764).

Working during an age of exploration and curiosity in the exotic, Rameau’s compositions drew on distinctive cultures beyond neighbours such as Italy. In his famed Opéra-ballet Les Indes Galantes, Rameau included songs by African slaves, a Turkish dance, an air for the Incas of Peru and a dance inspired by a delegation of Native Americans chiefs who were visiting Louis XV in 1725. As he had no first-hand experience of these mysterious lands, Rameau’s compositions tended to be transcriptions that were closer to European culture rather than music based on traditional sources.

For his Opera Zoroastre (1749), Rameau drew on Persian religion rather than Greek and Rome mythology that had previously inspired many opera composers. Campra viewed Rameau as a worthy successor, declaring of his Opera Hippolyte et Aricie: “There is enough music in this opera to make ten of them; this man will eclipse us all”.

Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) had a profound effect on creating a more cosmopolitan style of music through his widely published compositions and his students and disciples scattering themselves throughout Europe: Pietro Locatelli in Amsterdam, Georg Telemann in Hamburg, Francesco Geminiani in London, Michele Mascitti in Paris and Johan Roman in Stockholm.

Also influenced by Corelli was Georg Muffat (1653-1704), who had previously studied with Jean-Baptiste Lully. In the preface to Florilegium primum (1695), published in four languages, Muffat explained: “I dare not employ only a single style or method, but rather the most skilful mixture of styles I can manage through my experience in various countries”. With conflict then often the backdrop to much of Europe, Muffat added: “As I mix the French manner with the German and Italian, I do not begin a war, but perhaps rather a prelude to the unity, the dear peace, desired by all the peoples.”

The groundwork for les goûts-réunis had been laid by the time the masterful musical chameleon Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) discovered the music of Lully and Corelli. Although he rarely left his environs, at the age of 56 Telemann fulfilled a life-long ambition to travel to Paris. He was fascinated by other cultures, and his ability to absorb their various characteristics earned him a reputation as the best German composer of the time.

With the monoculture demanded by Louis XIV in the distant past, the new cosmopolitan style was embraced by musicians and audience alike, although few composers were as successful in its writing as Telemann. His Suite Les Nations, a French Ouverture with movements including Les Turcs, Les Suisses, Les Moscovites and Les Portugais is a wonderful homage to those who inspired him and the remarkably rich cultural environment of Baroque Europe.

Salut! Baroque presents The Cosmopolitans

Friday 6 October 2023, 7.30pm Albert Hall, Canberra

Sunday 8 October 2023, 3.00pm Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music