Antoine Forqueray (c. 1671 - 1745)
Harpsichord Suites Nos. 1, 3 and 5
Antoine Forqueray is said to havecomposed over three hundred works for his instrument, the bass viol. Of these,none has survived in autograph manuscript form. Apart from a handful of piecesin collections dating from his lifetime, only twenty-nine works attributed tohim have come down to us, compiled by his son Jean-Baptiste (1699 -1782), hetoo an excellent viol-player. These pieces, to which are added three otherscomposed by Jean-Baptiste (La Angrave, La Du Vaucel, and La Morangis oula Plissay), are ordered in five Suites and were published in 1747 intwo volumes :Pieces devioleavec la bassecontinue (two viols andharpsichord), and Pieces de viole mises en pieces de clavecin (an arrangementof the former for solo harpsichord).
When considering these collections, oneis faced with two as yet unanswered questions. Are the works really by AntoineForqueray? Is Jean-Baptiste the true author of the harpsichord arrangements, orare they rather the work of his second wife, Marie-Rose Dubois, who wasapparently an accomplished harpsichordist? Be that as it may, the Forquerays'domestic situation was sufficiently afflicted by trial and tribulation as tocast some doubt over Jean- Baptiste's motives for publishing the works.
Born in Paris in 1671 or 1672 under the reignof Louis XIV, Antoine Forqueray soon became one of France's foremost viol-players,as attested to by the Mercure galant of April, 1682: "[AntoineForqueray] having had the honour [...] of playing the Basse de violon beforethe King, pleased His Majesty so, that He ordered that he [Forqueray] should betaught to play the Bass viol. It is a very difficult instrument. Nevertheless,he profited so well from the Lessons that he received, that at present [...]one finds few people who can equal him." At the age of seventeen, he wasappointed Musicien ordinaire de la chambre du Toy.
This stability of employment, however,was not reflected in his character. In Hubert le Blanc's book Defense de la bassede viol contre les entreprises du violon et les pretensions du violoncel,the author describes Antoine as being "crabbed, crotchety, andodd". The first person known to have suffered from his crabbedness was hiswife, Henriette-Angelique Houssu, who succeeded in escaping her husband'scruelty only after ten years of legal wrangling. Their 5On Jean-Baptiste, whoapparently inherited "all his father's talents", must have borne thebrunt of patemal jealousy, for Antoine had him thrown into the Bicetre prisonat the age of twenty-five, and, in 1725, obtained a ruling to have him banishedfrom the kingdom for "indulging in all sorts of debauchery". Onlythrough the influence of his students did Jean-Baptiste manage to have theruling overturned.
Jean-Baptiste having been thus abused, itis surprising to read in the preface to the Pieces de viole that hestill wished to "immortalize" his father through the publication ofthe latter's compositions. While this might be attributable to filial devotion,a certain doubt remains as to the father's presumed authorship, and as towhether the son, in publishing his own works, did not wish to cash in onAntoine's posthumous fame. And yet, it is quite conceivable that AntoineForqueray's works, while they remained unpublished during his lifetime, wouldhave been heard by those who attended his concerts. Certainly, violconnoisseurs would not have been duped by such a ploy, especially sincecontemporary descriptions of Antoine Forqueray's style correspond to that ofthe pieces in the collections. The Mercure de France, August, 1738,says: "[Antoine] Forqueray appeared in society at the time when theItalians aroused in France astonishing emulation, around the year 1698. Hetried to do on the viol everything that they did not on their violins, and hesucceeded in his enterprise. The singular strings and the most striking figuresof the good Composers of Italy were so familiar to him that in all his Pieces,one finds a certain spiciness which does not season even the most elaboratepieces of [Marin] Marais; the latter kept to natural graces while Forqueray hadmore studied ones, although his Art never spoiled the beauty of nature. [...]If there is something to reproach him for, it is for having made his pieces sodifficu1t that only he and his son can perform them with grace." It isunder the guise of a fiery persona that this quintessentially French gracecoupled with Italian vivacity unvei1s music of diabolical force and beauty, ofalmost frightening virtuosity .This music seems to justify the opinion that ifMarin was an angel, then Antoine Forqueray must have been a devil.
The harpsichord arrangements of the violpieces retain all the qualities of the original, whi1e introducing highlyimaginative modifications which make them into some of the most refined andaudacious works of the French harpsichord repertoire. Forqueray maintains thelow range of the pieces "to preserve their Character". This wouldhave allowed the French instruments of the time, which were at their zenith, toresound magnificently. At the same time, he strove to ornament the harpsichordbass part as much as possible, by filling it in with idiomatic virtuosopassages. Hence, what was virtuosic for the viol remains so for the harpsichord,as is exemplified by the last verse of the rondeau titled Jupiter. Here,Forqueray's Jovian bolts spare no one.
As was customary at the time in France,Forqueray's pieces often bore the name of a well-known personality beinghonoured (La Couperin, La Rigente): these are character pieces or musicalportraits, furthermore, some had more exotic titles, such as La Portugaise (inwhich a decisive rhythm attempts to portray certain ethnic qualities) and La
Sylm. The latter, marked tres tendrement, seems to radiate as ashimmering prism, outside of time. In fact, Jean-Baptiste draws theharpsichordist's attention to the notation of the rhythm: "To play thispiece in the way I should like it played, it should be noted how it is written,the right hand being hardly ever quite together with the left".
The variety of the pieces, the daring ofthe musical ideas and the quality of the arrangements combine to make the Piecesde clavecin collection one of the epitomes of the genre, illustrating apropensity for an a1most excessive refinement, and perpetuating the legendaryfire of the Forquerays.