Boismortier: Six Concertos for Five Flutes
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Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689 -1755)
Concerti for Five Flutes, Op. 15 (Paris. 1727)
In the history of music, Joseph Bodin deBoismortier, who was born at Thionville on 23rd December 1689 and died atRoissy-en-Brie on 28th October 1755, is exceptional in various ways. He wasborn into a modest family, with a father, a former soldier, who had settled inThionville as a confectioner. In 1713 Boismortier left Lorraine for Perpignanand established himself there as collector for the Royal Tobacco Excise Office,a calling remote enough from any musical employment. He remained nearly tenyears in this position and has left us no trace of any musical activity, or atleast no tangible evidence.
In leafing through the collections ofserious and drinking songs published by Ballard at the beginning of theeighteenth century, we find, in October 1721, a drinking-song by a certain"M. Boismortier from Metz": Lorsque je bois avec Aminthe (WhenI drink with Amintas). The duet Laissons l?á dormir Gregoire (Let ussleep there, Gregoire) is also in the collections, but in 1724 Boismortier'smusical activity in Perpignan was sufficient then for him to have been able topublish some of his works in Paris. Composers do not write without preparation,so that he must have received, like his contemporaries, a solid technicalfoundation. It is now known his teacher in Metz was Joseph Valette de Montigny(1668-1738), an accomplished composer of motets, and not Henry Desmarest(1661-1741 ). Boismortier married Maria Valette in 1721, one of his teacher'snieces, child of a family of well-to-do goldsmiths.
On the recommendation of well placedfriends, Boismortier wound up his current business and left Perpignan toestablish himself, with his wife, at the court of the Duchesse du Maine, atSceaux, then in Paris, where he received his firstpermission to publish on 29th February 1724. He was now finally able to issuehis first books of duos for the transverse flute and his first French cantatas,written in Perpignan. This was the start of a prolific career in thecapital, a career both admired and subject to criticism. Jean-Benjaminde La Borde, the famous theorist, a contemporary of Boismortier, wrote a
charming and realistic portrait of the composer in his Essai sur laMusique Ancienne et Moderne (Essay on Ancient and Modern Music), publishedin 1780:
Boismortier appeared at a time when peopleonly liked music that was simple and very graceful. This clever musicianprofited all too much from this fashionable taste and for the generality wrotenumberless melodies and duets, to play on the flute, violins, oboes, musettes,viols and so on ... This was a very substantial output but unfortunately he wastoo prolific in these light-weight pieces, some of which were particularlymarked by pleasing passages. He so abused the good nature of his numerousbuyers that in the end it was said of him:
Happy Boismortier, whose fertile pen
can monthly, without travail, father avolume.
Boismortier, in reply to these criticisms,said: I make money. This musician was pleasant, ingenious and good company: hemade verses in the style of Scarron and some of these were current in society.
Creatively prolific, Boismortier cannotbut surprise us by the abundance of his compositions, 102 works, to which may beadded songs, individual scores, motets and a musical dictionary. He wasalso a theorist, publishing a method for the flute and another for thepardessus de viole. He did not hesitate, following the custom of his time, andcertainly through a taste for new combinations and experiments, tocompose music for almost every instrument. Nevertheless the greater part of his work is for the transverse flute,which, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, occupied, with theharpsichord, a leading position. He made use of the instrument in all possibleand imaginable combinations.
At the same time Boismortier did notneglect the voice, for which he wrote a quantity of serious and drinking songs,French cantatas, small-scale and grand motets, cantatillas and, ofcourse, opera-ballets, this last including Les Voyages de l'Amour (Love'sJourney) in 1736, Don Ouichotte chez la Duchesse (Don Ouixote atthe Duchess's) in 1743, Daphnis et Chloe (Daphnis and Chloe) in1747, and two others that were not staged, Daphne in 1748 and LesQuatre parties du monde (The Four Parts of the World) in 1752. Victim,among so many others, of the Querelle des bouffons, he retired fromthe musical scene in about 1753. Boismortier had a small property, theG?ótinellerie, at Roissy-en-Brie, where he died at the age of 66, afterhaving asked to be buried in the nave of the parish church.
The Abbe Raynal, in 1747, wrote ofBoismortier in uncomplimentary terms:
This musician, more prolific than learned,bad rather than mediocre, has acquired in his field the same reputation thatthe Abbe Pellegrin had in his. The latter was obliged to make verses for hisliving and died as a poet; the formerhas made a fortune from the large number of works that he has given thepublic. These are bought withoutthought for their value; they only serve beginners on their instruments or somewretched middle-class people in the concerts with which they entertain theirneighbours and fellows.
It is true that the nearly 50,000 crowns resulting from these"harmonic products" could make more than one person jealous.
Bolsmortier developed, then, in a Paristhat was in a turmoil, inundated with Italian music under the influence of itsfirst precursors such as Couperin and characterised by a life devoted to thepleasures that the Regent happily cultivated. During this period the greatsalons were transformed into more intimate apartments and everything conveyedthe pretty rather than the beautiful, endless gracefulness, the search forwhich sometimes came near to affectation. In music the petite mani?¿re becamequeen, and long chaconnes or learned allemandes gave way to movements that hada new technical brilliance. Boismortier was well aware of this change insensibility and gave expression to it in his writing.
In 1727, the date of publication of his SixConcertos pour cinq fl??tes traversi?¿res ou autresinstruments sans basse, oeuvre 15 (Six Concertos for five Transverse Flutesor Other instruments, without Bass, Opus 15) Boismortier had in mind theinnovatory aspect of his collection. Since 1724, he had written duos for theunaccompanied flute (Opp. 1,2,6,8 and 13), solos with basso continuo (Opp. 3and 9), trios with bass (Opp. 4 and 12) and without bass (Op. 7). Opus 7of 1725 must have served as a preparatory exercise for the composer for theconcertos for five flutes, for there was to be no other example in his entireoutput of such an instrumental combination.
As always with Boismortler, theelaboration of a new musical form, adapted to a particular instrument, is notwithout importance. In fact, even if later it was said that Boismortier was thefirst to have introduced the Concerto into France, he must have drawninspiration from contemporary attempts. Thus Michel Blavet, the first, had in1726 offered to the Concert Spiritual his Concerto ?á quatre partiespour fl??te, deux violons et basse non chiffree (Concerto in FourParts for Flute, Two Violins and Unfigured Bass). Much acclaimed, it entruste