Early Music, Music Feature



The Music of the French Clavecinistes

Antecedent for that of the Great French Pianist-Composers

February 26, 2014 - most recently updated on January 2, 2017, Easthampton, MA:


First of Five Parts

Note to the reader: In the interest of making the text itself easier to read, and in view of the number of composers involved, I have relegated a significant amount of the detailed information about them to the Appendixes, especially A, B, and C, making them an integral and important part of the article rather than supplemental material. On the other hand, I have placed references for quotations in parentheses immediately following them rather than creating a separate footnote section at the end of the text in order to eliminate an additional scrolling operation.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a great admirer of the music of the French clavecinistes and adopted many of their forms in his own works, such as the English and French Suites (Those were not his names.), Partitas, and even in some of the "Goldberg" Variations, all of which were written for the harpsichord. However, because of his emphasis on counterpoint within those forms, those works are more easily transposable to performance on a modern piano, and that is indeed the way we most often hear them today. The focus of the clavecinistes was not on counterpoint, however, but on carefully and delicately nuanced expression that included elaborate ornamentation, and many of their works transpose with difficulty if at all to the piano. We, therefore, do not hear them much in recitals today.

I use the term clavecinistes rather than "harpsichordists" because it is more specific: it implies inherently for those of the Baroque era that these harpsichord players were composers, the word therefore being the equivalent for that instrument of the term pianist-composer for the piano, which the word "harpsichordist" does not imply, and I have never seen the term "harpsichordist-composer" used anywhere; claveciniste is what is used pretty much universally, even if it is not commonly heard in this country. These musicians were all composers, and they generally wrote their pièces for performance by themselves for their employers, who were members of the upper classes, even the royal family. They were never performing music written by someone else under those circumstances, because that is what their patrons and protectors hired or took them on to do, although the pièces could not in any way be characterized as "commissions." They also originated with the performance in mind and not as the result of the mere desire to compose and to publish a work. This was a situation entirely different from that of J.S. Bach, who wrote mostly for the church, or for others to perform in the case of the chamber music, and even of Handel, although some of the latter's works were written under somewhat similar conditions. Hence, while "harpsichordist" is indeed the English equivalent of the word, it does not have all the same meanings as claveciniste.

American classical music aficionados are familiar with the names of François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau even if they have not heard any of their harpsichord music, or do not know any details about it even if they have heard some. Few if any even know the names of most of the other clavecinistes, and some of them, like François d'Agincour, Jean-Henry d'Anglebert, Claude-Bénigne Balbastre, Jacques Champion de Chambonnières, the other Couperins, François Dieupart, Jacques Duphly, Pierre Février, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Nicolas Le Bègue (or Lebègue; his published scores have the first of these forms, so I have used it), Gaspard Le Roux, Louis Marchand, Charles Noblet, and Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer, just to name the more noteworthy, wrote stunningly beautiful pieces, and Jean-Baptiste Antoine Forqueray's transcriptions/ arrangements of his father Antoine's works for viol are likewise gorgeous. (Recent examination of the manuscripts and scores suggests that Jean-Baptiste was being modest concerning his contributions, and that these works are further removed from the originals for bass viol than he is willing to say, perhaps in an effort not to offend his father? See the booklet accompanying the Justin Taylor CD listed in Appendix C. below. December 23, 2016) They might know the name of Louis Marchand in the context of the famous 1717 contest/"duel" between him and J.S. Bach, which he left without completing, but it is more likely to be in the context of the organ than the harpsichord that they think of him, although the contest was to involve both instruments, and only that portion on the harpsichord actually took place. There are hidden gems even among the smaller output of others whose pièces might on the surface be thought to be more run-of-the-mill since we do not hear them or of them.

Nearly all these works were performed by their composers in the presence of their benefactors and protectors, generally members of the nobility or upper bourgeoisie, and often their guests, generally of the same socio-economic classes, invited for the occasion(s), in their residences, in rooms or salons of varying sizes, but generally relatively large rather than intimate, and never in concert halls or large public spaces such as churches, opera houses, or theaters. Their purpose was to entertain and please the listeners, who may well have also been engaging in quiet conversation, or even wandering around and munching on finger food in some instances, but also to impress them with their creativity and ingenuity as well as their beauty, both in terms of the music itself and its delicate, nuanced, refined, and often virtuosic execution. This led to the development of music that is distinctly and intimately connected to the civilization and culture in which it was created and evolved, and totally different from the Viennese or London ones where public performances were more common from an earlier time.

Nearly all the clavecinistes worked under these conditions and in these circumstances, but there are a few exceptions, perhaps most notably Bernard de Bury (1720-1785), who wrote his first and only book of Pièces de clavecin as a teenager in 1736 and dedicated it to his uncle, who was his teacher, hence the only person whom he really needed to please was himself. Consequently, while clearly in the overall general claveciniste tradition, with a mixture of dance rhythm and character/genre pieces, it is a bit more experimental, both in harmonies and rhythms, with an occasional touch of syncopation, even. While the pieces are arranged in four "suites" by key signatures, they also build progressively to a bold climax in the final pièce, a chaconne that in its virtuosity brings to mind J.S. Bach's from his Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, S. 1004, which has been transcribed for piano by several noted composers, including Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) and Joachim Raff (1822-1882), and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) for the left hand alone; both Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann wrote piano accompaniments for it, and Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) transcribed it for guitar, in a sense bringing things full circle, as will be understood later, from a keyboard to a hand-plucked string instrument.

This compositional situation of the clavecinistes led to music that was more 'pure' and focused on itself rather than inspired by an external source or fitted to an existing form such as a sonata. The first paragraph of the chapter about the non-operatic works of Jean-Philippe Rameau in a book about the composer puts it thus:

On peut distinguer dans la musique divers genres, selon les moyens qu'elle emploie et les résultants qu'elle produit ; ces genres, bien entendu, se mêlent et se compénètrent et ne sont pas tranchés au couteau. On pourrait distinguer, par exemple, la musique-littérature, à quoi le Romantisme s'est complu, sur laquelle une histoire est toujours à raconter ; il y a la musique-peinture qui exprime la nature, le décor, la couleur du temps ou des flots, dans laquelle Debussy, celui surtout du Faune, des Nocturnes et des Préludes, eut d'étonnantes réussites ; il y a la musique-architecture, qui a l'honneur de compter parmi les siens Beethoven lui-même, habile à construire d'immenses édifices sonores même avec des matériaux de petite dimension, avec des murs de petit appareil ; il y a la musique-théâtre, plus théâtre que musique, où Gluck fit merveille, ce que Debussy ne lui pardonna pas ; il y a la musique-danse, la musique-imitation, la musique-variété, qu'on entend, plus qu'on ne l'écoute, la musique-bruit, sans parler de la « musique d'ameublement » d'Erik Satie ; il y a même ici ou là, la musique-philosophie, du moins certains l'affirment. Or, la musique de Rameau, c'est simplement la musique-musique, celle qui triomphe par les seuls moyens et attributs de la musique : la mélodie, parée de richesse et de variétés, le rythme aux milles ressources et qui se renouvelle sans fin, l'harmonie qui sort toute neuve de ses mains, avec une plénitude dont nous demeurons étonnés, l'assemblage des timbres et les écritures instrumentales ou vocales auxquels le temps n'a fait aucun tort.

One can discern diverse genres in music, according to the means it employs and the results it obtains; these genres, of course, mix together and interpenetrate, and are not sliced apart from each other with a knife. One can discern, for example, music-literature, with which Romanticism was complicit, in which a story is always to be told, and music-painting, which expresses nature, décor, the color of the weather or the waves, in which Debussy, especially the one of the Fawn, the Nocturnes, and the Préludes, had astonishing successes; there is also music-architecture, which has the honor of including among its company Beethoven himself, deft in constructing immense edifices of sound even with small-dimension materials, with walls of little apparatus; there is music-theater, more theater than music, where Gluck worked wonders, for which Debussy never forgave him; there is music-dance, music-imitation, music-variety-show, that one hears more than to which one listens, music-noise, without mentioning the "furniture music" of Erik Satie; there is even here and there music-philosophy, at least some assert it. However, the music of Rameau is simply music-music, that which triumphs by the sole means and attributes of music: melody adorned with riches and variety, rhythm with its resources by the thousands and which is endlessly renewed, harmony that comes fresh and new out of its hands, with a plenitude that continually astonishes us, the assemblage of the timbres and instrumental or vocal writings to which time has done no harm.

 Paul Berthier, Réflexions sur l'Art et la Vie de Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), Paris: A. & J. Picard & Co., 1957, p. 27.

  [Unless otherwise credited, all translations are mine.]

This could in fact be applied to the music of all the clavecinistes. 1640 is regarded as the date for the beginning of French harpsichord music; 1710 is regarded as the date separating the first from the second periods, but the changeover was not that neatly divided. Most clavecinistes lived in Paris and its environs, but some important ones lived outside the capital, particularly in Rouen, Troyes, and Lyon (the most important center of harpsichord building in France outside of Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries), and even as far away as Perpignan, on the Mediterranean coast near the border with Spain, actually the northern end of Catalunya. Those were, not unexpectedly, not quite as au courant, and continued using primarily dance rhythm forms and titles much later after character/genre pièces dominated the genre. See Appendix A: Major French Clavecinistes for information about all of them. This type of music essentially ended with the Revolution in 1789, thus having lasted about 150 years, although some was produced during the Restoration period, 1815-1830, before Romanticism burst into full bloom with Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) during the 1830-1848 Monarchie de Juillet (His Symphonie fantastique dates from the beginning year of that period.), and the pianoforte replaced the harpsichord as the primary keyboard instrument.

The composition of the harpsichord works themselves also developed differently in France from the traditions in the German, Italian, and English worlds, especially after the early years of the 18th century. The early works by Jacques Champion de Chambonnières and Louis Couperin from the 1650s to the 1690s, and even down to Gaspard Le Roux' 1705 sets, were primarily dance rhythm pieces bearing the names of the rhythms as their titles, much like what are found in J.S. Bach's keyboard suites and other chamber music.

Beginning in 1707, François Couperin began alternating dance rhythm pièces with character or genre pièces that sought to represent or call to the listener's mind something external to the music itself, in his case people, either personality types or, primarily, specific individuals who could often be readily identified by his listeners. Other clavecinistes increasingly followed this pattern of mixing the two types together in their sets, the character/genre pièces always following the style created by François Couperin when people were involved. A good example of a pièce evoking a personality type is Jean-François Dandrieu's "L'Empressée" (a person in a hurry) in his Premier Livre de Pièces de clavecin of 1724; François d'Agincour also has one in his Premier Livre de Pièces de clavecin of 1733.

Many also added pièces to evoke or imitate birds, such as Rameau's "La Poule" (hen) in his c. 1728 Nouvelles Suites de pièces de clavecin, d'Agincour's "Les Tourterelles"(turtledoves) and his "La Fauvette" (warbler), and Louis Claude Daquin's "L'Hirondelle" (swallow) and "Le Coucou" in his Ier Livre de Pièces de clavecin of 1735, other creatures, like Dandrieu's "Les Papillons" (butterflies), flowers, such as d'Agincour's "Les Violettes fleuries" (violets in bloom), natural phenomena, like his "Les Cascades" (waterfalls), and "Les Tourbillons" (swirling winds) – Rameau has one of the same title in his Pièces de clavecin of the same year, and "Les Zephirs" (gentle breezes), or Michel Corrette's "Les Giboulées de mars" (March wind and rain storms) in his Premier Livre de Pièces de clavecin, Op. 12, of 1734 and Daquin's "Les Vents en courroux" (angry winds), Célestin Harst's 2-part "Le grand orage; le beau temps" (great storm; fair weather) from his 1745 Recueil de différentes pèces de clavevin, and Corrette's "Les Étoiles" (stars), sound-producing objects or instruments, like Dandrieu's "Le Carrilion" and "Les Fifres," Daquin's "La Guitarre," and Nicolas Le Bègue's "Les Cloches" (bells) from 1685.

Some pièces evoked parlor games like d'Agincour's "Le Colin-Maillard" (blindman's bluff), and other activities, like Dandrieu's "La Chasse," (hunt) or Daquin's "Les Plaisirs de la chasse." This latter is a "divertissement" (mini-drama) in several movements – there are other short multi-movement works of this sort by other clavecinistes, like d'Andrieu's "La Mascarade" (a masked ball involving some commedia dell'arte characters) in his Second Livre de Pièces de Clavecin of 1728, and François Couperin's "Les Fastes de la grande et anciene Mxnxstrxndxsx" (= Ménéstrandise, the musicians' guild founded in 1321, obligatory membership in which he was protesting) in his Onzième Ordre and his "Les Folies françoises ou Les Dominos" (French follies or Dominos) in the Treizième Ordre that also features commedia dell'arte characters. Yet other pièces evoked exotica, such as Christophe Moyreau's 1753 (He published 6 Livres of Pièces de clavecin in that year, but actual composition dates are impossible to determine.) "L'Iroquoise," "La Japonaisse," and "La Chinoisse," which were all the rage at the court of Louis XV.

Other genre pièces evoke events, such as Corrette's "La Prise de Jericho" (the capture of…), and situations such as Corrette's "Les Amants enchantés" (enchanted lovers) and his "Les Idées heureuses" (fortuitous ideas; François Couperin also has one of these in his Second Ordre), or even structures such as d'Agincour's "Le Moulin à vent" (windmill). The reader might wonder how a harpsichord can evoke all these things, and many other sorts as well – and might be surprised, enchanted, and pleasantly entertained to hear them performed, if only they were. But since the piano cannot produce the same sounds, and the pièces therefore cannot be satisfactorily played on one, and because the harpsichord seems to have essentially been undeservedly relegated to the dustbin of history, with few keyboard performers ever taking it up these days, the chances of being able to hear them live are unfortunately not improving, especially outside of major metropolitan areas and early music festivals.

Later, in the third decade of the 18th century and after, entire sets of pièces, such as François Couperin's final ones in 1727, were assembled that contained only the character/genre type, a century before Robert Schumann's 1834-35 Carnaval, Op. 9, 1834-37 Kinderscenen, Op. 15, and 1839 Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26, though their rhythms were nearly always those of traditional rhythm pièces, whether so identified/named or mostly not. Such works involving specific people were initially conceived as musical equivalents to the portraits in a famous literary work, Les Charctères by Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696; the name literally means "heather"), published in 1688, ostensibly character types, but in fact often masking/masquerading contemporary individuals amongst the nobility, whose portraits he painted in words.

As points of reference, Louis XIV acceded to the throne upon the death of his father Louis XIII in 1643, but because he was only 6, did not take the reins of power until 1661, upon the death of the unofficial Regent, the Cardinal Mazarin, who ruled on behalf of Louis XIII's widow, Anne d'Autriche, who was the official one. Louis XIV died in 1715, having outlived his son and his grandson, so that his successor was his great-grandson, then only 5, and there was another Regency, under the Duc d'Orléans, until he took the reins as Louis XV upon his maturity in 1723, yes, amazingly, at age 13! He lived until 1774 and was succeeded by his grandson, Louis XVI; everyone knows what happened to him 15 years later in 1789, and then 3 years after that in 1792. This literary work thus appeared almost in the exact center of Louis XIV's reign. The dates fit like a glove those of the history of the genre: 1640-1710-1789.

The titles of the character/genre pièces de clavecin were nearly always in the feminine gender, assuming the feminine word "pièce" preceded them, and therefore were grammatically adjectives turned into nouns. Occasionally, they did actually refer to female persons, and the audience would have known when that was so, as with Jacques Duphly's and Jean-Philippe Rameau's Pièce de clavecin en concert: "La Boucon," which refers to renowned harpsichordist Anne-Jeanne Boucon (1708-1780), who married composer Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772; he did not compose any solo harpsichord music, but did write a few Pièces de clavecin en concert.) in 1747. She was not the only accomplished and famous female harpsichordist; Jean-Baptiste-Antoune Forqueray's wife Marie-Rose Dubois was another (See Appendix A).

Otherwise, it was assumed that the feminine gender title was referring to a man. For example, François Couperin's "La Majestueuse, Sarabande," Bk. I/4, represents Sa Majesté [Note that this word is feminine, even though a woman could never have been the ruler of France under primogeniture.] King Louis XIV, and not his wife, and Duphly's of the same title refers to Louis XV, as does Charles Noblet's "La Bien-aimée": Louis XV was known as "Le Bien-aimé," although he was less popular and well-liked after the mid-1740s, long before this piece was composed in 1756, but Noblet was a royal employee (See Appendix A). In later years, a few, like d'Agincour's "Le Précieux" (The Affected One; this may have been deliberate to avoid association with the 1659 one-act play in prose by Molière, Les Précieuses ridicules [The Affected Ladies] that satirized excessive affectation among the women of the court) were masculine to suggest the universal, applicable to both sexes, just as "l'homme" can mean both an individual man and "mankind" as determined by context and to some extent convention and intuition.

Louis XIV may also have been the intended personage represented in François Couperin's "L'Auguste, Allemande," Bk. I/1, as some have suggested, but there are other more logical candidates for it. At this distance in time, it is not always possible to identify virtually every subject with absolute certainty. A good example is Claude-Bénigne Balbastre's first pièce in his 1759 Pièces de clavecin, Livre I, "La de Caze." It may represent either Suzanne Félix (Lescamotier) de Caze, second wife of the "fermier-général" Anne Nicolas Robert de Caze, who was the dedicatee of the publication, the addressee of a printed inscription in it, and also one of Balbastre's pupils (as were the daughters of Thomas Jefferson), or the "fermier-général" himself, whom the music itself seems more likely to suggest (Both were guillotined during the Terror.). Progress is steadily being made as other documents come to light and all documents become more readily available and easier to access thanks to technology, but there are still some mysteries, and there is no one around to ask. See Appendix D: Suggested Further Reading for two books about Couperin that contain detailed catalogues of these attempts for his pièces. Farr's note in the booklet that accompanies her CD of the pièces of Balbastre (See Appendix C: Recommended Recordings below) identifies some for his. Harpsichordists who program these pièces would do well to consult the books and CD booklets, use Google and Wikipedia (American and French), and include the information in spoken or written program notes; it would help their listeners better understand and appreciate the music. For example, Mme de Caze's name was not in the booklet; I teased it out by using the Internet and locating a French genealogy that contained the information.

Key Signature Characteristics

Once the clavecinistes began writing primarily character/genre pièces, their focus turned from the entertainment of their listeners by creative uses of the traditional dance rhythms and innovative melodies fitted to them to music that accurately evoked the personality of the individual portrayed or the traits of the character type. They focused more on the key signature in which the piece was written to set the mood of the personality and portray his general behavior and quirks. A system already existed that suggested correspondences between key signatures and moods, created by Marc-Antoine Charpentier in his Règles de composition par Monsieur Charpentier (Rules of Composiiton), which he wrote around 1690 as a private teaching guide. Two manuscripts, neither an autograph by the composer, remain, both already in existence by 1702 and now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. In 1692, he gave the original, now lost, to one of his pupils, the Duc de Chartres, who later became the Duc d'Orléans, and then the Régent de France (See above) after the death of Louis XIV, whom he was then teaching to compose. Can you imagine Queen Elizabeth or King Juan Carlos or one of their siblings wanting to learn such an art? The owner of one of the two extant copies saw that original, which had been expanded after the text was first written and copied, and added the new material to his copy in its margins, allowing us to see how Charpentier developed and improved the exposition of his advice.

The second copy was made around 1699, but the text was never published; it circulated, however, amongst the members of the court and the nobility (Both extant copies belonged to such individuals.), many of whom learned to play instruments and/or had their children taught, often by the court musicians such as Charpentier or François Couperin, as their teachers. Many of the pièces themselves also circulated in this manner prior to their publication, and some of the clavecinistes state in their Préfaces that one of their motivations for publishing is to provide a correct copy since many of those circulating were corrupt. They also published their works in order to make them available to educated and talented members of the public outside the court, who were mostly among the middle classes, and to earn thereby some additional income, even though it generally amounted to little more than pocket change in the end. In order to publish, however, an author or composer needed the permission of the king or his agent, who issued a formal document known as a "Privilège," which was always printed in the work, either at the beginning or the end.

Charpentier called these key-mood relationships "Énergies des modes," referring to the ancient and medieval modes:

Marc-Antoine Charpentier: « Énergies des modes » - Key-Mood Relationships. c. 1690

Ut/Do = C

Majeure: Gai et guerrier

Mineure: Obscur et triste

Gay and warlike/militant

Dark and sad/Gloomy and sad

Ré = D

Majeure: Joyeux et très guérrier

Mineure: Grave et dévot

Joyous and very warlike/militant

Grave/Serious and pious

Mi-bémol = Eb

Majeure :Cruel et dur

Mineure: Horrible, affreux

Cruel and harsh/hard

Horrible, frightful

Mi = E

Majeure: Querelleux et criard

Mineure: Efféminé, amoureux et plaintif

Quarrelsome and clamorous

Effeminate, amorous and plaintive

Fa = F

Majeure: Furieux et emporté

Mineure: Obscur et plaintif

Furious and quick-tempered

Dark/Gloomy and plaintive

Sol = G

Majeure: Doucement joyeux

Mineure: Sévère et magnifique

Sweetly joyous/joyful

Serious and magnificent

La = A

Majeure: Joyeux et champêtre

Mineure: Tendre et plaintif

Joyous/Joyful and pastoral

Tender and plaintive

Si bémol = Bb

Majeure: Magnifique et joyeux

Mineure: Obscur et terrible

Magnificent and joyous/joyful

Dark/Gloomy and frightening/terrible

Si = B

Majeure: Dur et plaintif

Mineure: Solitaire et mélancholique

Harsh and plaintive

Solitary/Lonely and melancholy/-ic

It is unclear why majeur and mineur are feminine since "mode" is masculine, but this is not a typo.

Trans. E. Thomas Glasow, in Catherine Cessac, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Portland, OR, Amadeus Press, 1995, pp. 406-07; original: Paris: Fayard, 1988, pp. 456-57. The French original has seen a new edition since the English translation was made. I have changed the order of the keys with major always preceding minor for consistency.

Another source for this information is Rita Steblin, A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (See appendix D for pub. details), pp. 32-34; it is the source for the translations following the '/'es when different. She takes them from:

Lillian M. Ruff, "M.-A. Charpentier's 'Règles de Composition'," The Consort, 24 (1967), pp. 250-51; 233-70 for full article, which incl. a facsimile of 1 of the 2 mss, & uses 'mode' instead of 'key.'

The first statements (ever, anywhere) of key characteristics to appear in print were those of Jean Rousseau (1644-1698?, a virtuoso gamba player and a singing teacher, no relation to Jean-Jacques, whom we will meet later) in his 1691 Méthode claire, certaine et facile pour apprendre à chanter la musique (4th ed., Paris: Christophe Ballard), although this material was likely added to the 1688 3rd ed., which represented a significant revision and enlargement of the original version written in 1678, but of which no copies remain; thus if so, it would have preceded Charpentier's "Énergies…" by 2 years. The subject first arises in the 4th question of an appended FAQ/Q&A section, which concerns b mol and # quarre (formerly dur):

Car quand on dit b mol, c'est comme l'on disoit b doux, parce que le b mol est un Mode propre pour les chants doux, tendres, & languissans ; & quand on dit #, c'est comme si l'on disoit b gay, parce que le # quarre est un Mode propre pour les chants gais. (p. 14)

[…] Le b mol a une figure ronde, & il est certain que toute figure ronde est propre à rouler doucement ; au lieu que le # quarre a une figure quarrée, & l'expérience nous apprend que toute figure quarrée ne peut rouler qu'en sautillant, par bonds, & en faisant quelque bruits. (p. 15)

Because when one says "b mol," it is as if one said "b doux," because "b mol" is a mode suited to soft, tender and languid songs; and when one says "# quarre," it is as if one said "b gay," because the "# quarre" is a mode suited to gay songs.. (trans. Steblin [See Appendix D], p. 31)

[…] "b mol" has a round shape, and it is certain that every round shape is fit to roll softly, whereas "# quarre" has a square shape, and experience teaches us that every square shape only rolls in leaps and bounds, creating noise. (Ibid.)

The more detailed description of key characteristics arises in the answer to the 9th question:

La seconde raison est pour trouver des Tons propres à exprimer les passions differentes [sic, & for all spelling variants from modern French] qui se peuvent rencontrer selon les differens sujets que l'on traite : Car quoique la maniere d'entonner soit la mesme dans les Tons transposez que dans les naturels, cependant la Modulation est bien differente.

The second reason is to find the keys suited to express the different passions which one meets according to the different subjects treated. For although the manner of sounding the music is the same in the transposed keys as in the natural ones, the modulation is nevertheless quite different.

Il y a des Tons propres pour le sérieux, comme sont D la ré mineur, & A mi la mineur, qui sont des Tons naturels

There are keys suited to serious subjects, as are d minor & a minor, which are natural keys.

Il y en a pour les choses gayes & pour celles qui marquent de la grandeur, comme sont C sol ut majeur qui est naturel, & D la ré majeur qui est transposé.

There are those for gay things & for denoting grandeur, as are C major which is natural, & D major which is transposed.

Il y en a pour le triste, comme G ré sol mineur qui est naturel,

There are those for sadness, like g minor which is natural,

& il y en a pour le tendre, comme sont E si mi mineur, & G ré sol majeur qui sont transposez.

& there are those for tenderness, as are e minor & G major, which are transposed.

Pour les plaintes & tous les sujets lamentables, il n'y a point de Tons plus propres que C sol ut mineur, & F ut fa mineur, qui sont transposez,

For complaints and all subjects of lamentation, there are no keys more suitable than c minor & f minor, which are transposed,

& pour les Piéces devotes ou chants d'Eglise, F ut fa majeur qui est naturel, & A mi la majeur qui est transposez y sont très-propres.

& for devotional pieces or church songs, F major which is natural & A major which is transposed are very suitable.

Je ne veux pourtant pas dire que l'on ne puisse exprimer sur d'autres Tons les differentes passions dont je viens de parler, mais il est certain que ceux que j'ay cités y sont plus propres qu'aucun autre. (p. 23-24)

 Yet I do not wish to say that the different passions which have just been mentioned cannot be expressed by other keys; but it is certain that those that I have cited here are more suitable than any others. (Steblin, pp. 31-32; her trans.)

By "natural keys," Rousseau means those that have no accidentals or just one flat; "transposed keys" are all other keys. (Steblin, p. 207, n. 12)

Charles Masson (?-1705?), a church musician, also addressed the subject in his 1697 Nouveau traité des règles de la composition de la musique (New Treatise…; Paris: Jacques Collombat; rpt. Christophe Ballard, 1699, pp. 9-10) in a very succinct and easily understood manner:

Les Anciens se servoient [sic, & for all spelling variants from modern French] du terme Mode, mais la plus grande partie des Modernes ont mis en usage celuy de Ton en la place de celuy de Mode, à cause que les differentes manières des Chants de l'Eglise s'appellent Tons.

Mais afin de faciliter les moyens de parvenir plus promptement à la Composition, je ne montrerai que deux Modes, sçavoir le Mode majeur, & le Mode mineur : dautant que ces deux Modes posez quelquefois plus haut & quelquefois plus bas, renferment tout ce que l'Antiquité a enseigné, & même les huit Tons que l'on chante dans l'Eglise, excepté quelques-uns qui se trouvent irreguliers. (p. 9) […]

De la Nature des Modes

Le Mode majeur en general est propre pour des chants de joye, & le Mode mineur est propre pour des sujets serieux ou tristes : de sorte qu'il n'y a point de passion qu'on ne puisse exprimer par ces deux Modes. (p. 10)

The ancients used the term Mode, but most of the Moderns have begun to use that of Key instead of that of Mode, because of the different ways that Church Chants define Keys.

But in order to facilitate the means of arriving more quickly at the subject of Composition, I will only discuss two Modes, to wit the Major and the Minor: because in addition, these two Modes set sometimes higher & sometimes lower, include all that Antiquity taught, and even the eight Keys that are chanted in the Church, except for some that are irregular. […]

On the Nature of the Modes

The major Mode is in general appropriate for songs of joy, and the minor Mode is appropriate for serious or sad subjects: so that there is not a single passion that cannot be expressed by these two Modes.

The next important statement on the subject, after these three during the final decade of the 17th century, was made by Jean-Philippe Rameau, who devoted a brief chapter of his 1722 Traité de l'harmonie, Livre Second, Chapitre vingt-quatrième (Treatise on Harmony Book !!, Chapt. 24):

De la proprieté [sic, & for all spelling variants from modern French] des Modes & des Tons.

Nous avons déjà dit qu'il n'y avoit que deux Modes, le majeur & le mineur, & chacun de ces Modes pouvant se prendre sur chaque Notte du système chromatique, l'on peut dire qu'il y a vingt-quatre Tons, parce que l'on donne le nom de Ton à la Notte qui sert de Principale à un Mode.

      Le Mode majeur suit la nature de la Tierce majeure, & le Mode mineur suit celle de la Tierce mineure ; mais la differente situation des semi-Tons, qui sont répandus dans l'Octave de chaque Notte, que l'on peut prendre pour principale ou tonique, cause une certaine difference dans la Modulation de ces Octaves, dont il est à propos d'expliquer la proprieté.

      Le Mode majeur pris dans l'Octave des Nottes, Ut, , ou La, convient aux Chants d'allegresse & de rejoüissance ; dans l'Octave des Nottes Fa ou Si [bémol], il convient aux tempestes, aux furies & autres sujets de cette espece. Dans l'Octave des Nottes Sol ou Mi, il convient également aux Chants tendres & gais ; le grand & le magnifique ont encore lieu dans l'Octave des Nottes , La, ou Mi.

      Le Mode mineur pris dans l'Octave des Nottes , Sol, Si, ou Mi, convient à la douceur & à la tendresse ; dans l'Octave des Nottes Ut ou Fa, il convient à la tendresse & aux plaintes ; dans l'Octave des Nottes Fa ou Si [bémol], il convient aux Chants lugubres. Les autres Tons ne sont pas d'un grand usage, & l'experience est le plus sûr moyen d'en connoitre la proprieté. (p. 117)

On the properties of Modes and Keys

      We have already said that there are only two modes, the major and the minor, and each of these modes may be taken on every note of the chromatic system. We may thus say that there are twenty-four keys, because the same tonic is given to the note which is used as the principal note of a mode.

      The major mode follows the nature of the major third, while the minor mode follows that of the minor third. The different arrangement of the semitones found in the octave of each note which can be taken as the principal or tonic note, however, creates certain differences in the modulation of these octaves. It is thus appropriate to explain their properties.

      The major mode taken in the octave of the notes Do, Re, or La is suitable for songs of mirth and rejoicing. In the octave of the notes Fa or Sib, it is suitable for tempests, furies, and other similar subjects. In the octaves of the notes Sol or Mi, it is suitable for both tender and gay songs. Grandeur and magnificence can also be expressed in the octave of the notes Re, La, or Mi.

The minor mode taken in the octave of the notes Re, Sol, Si or Mi is suitable for sweetness and tenderness. In the octave of the notes Fa or Sib, it is suitable for mournful songs. The other keys are not in general use, and experience is the surest means by which to learn their properties.

(trans. Philip Gossett; See Appendix D for pub. details, pp. 193-64.)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) also discussed this subject in several publications, beginning with his 1743 Dissertation sur la musique moderne (Paris: G.F. Quillau), which is an expanded version of a paper he read in 1742 before the Académie des Sciences. His brief associations seem to be based more on personal impressions than on scientific inquiry. (Steblin, pp. 56-57). He discussed them in the entry for "Ton" in his 1768 Dictionnaire de musique (Paris: Veuve [Widow] Duchesne, pp. 502-04, & 516-17), first written c. 1749 for Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783) and Denis Diderot's (1713-1784) Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Paris: Briasson, 1765, v. XVI, pp. 404-05). In the entry for "Ton" (Key) in both publications, he writes this paragraph:

De là naît une source de variétés & de beautés dans la Modulation. De là naît une diversité & une énergie admirable dans l'expression. De là naît enfin la faculté d'exciter des sentimens [sic, & for all spelling variants from modern French] différens avec des accords semblables frappés en différens tons. Faut-il du majestueux, du grave ? L'F ut fa, & les tons majeurs par Bémol l'expriment noblement. Faut-il du gai, du brillant ? Prenez A mi la, D la ré, les tons majeurs par Dièse. Faut-il du touchant, du tendre ? Prenez les tons mineurs par Bémol. C sol ut mineur porte la tendresse dans l'ame ; F ut fa mineur va jusqu'au lugubre & à la douleur. En un mot, chaque ton, chaque Mode a son expression propre qu'il faut savoir connoître, & c'est-là un des moyens qui rendent un habile Compositeur maître, en quelque manière, des affections de ceux qui l'écoutent, quoique fort éloigné de leur variété & de leur énergie. (Dict., p.389)

From this, spring variety and beauty in modulation. From this, spring diversity and an admirable energy in expression. From this springs, finally, the ability to arouse different emotions with similar chords struck in different keys. Do you need the majestic, the serious? F and the major keys with flats express it nobly. Do you need the gay, the bright? Take A, D, the major keys with sharps. Do you need the touching, the tender? Take the minor keys with flats. C minor brings tenderness to the soul; f minor tends even to the lugubrious and to pain or sadness. In a word, each key, each mode has its own expression that one must know and understand, and therein is the means that makes a gifted composer the master, in a sense, of the emotions of his listeners, although distanced from their variety and energy.

Rousseau also wrote the entry for "Tempérament" (Vol. XVI, pp. 56-58). The issue of tempérament égal vs. tempérament inégal (equal vs. unequal temperament), first arose when Pythagoras in Ancient Greece in the 6th century B.C.E., "discovered" the numerical basis for acoustics and described the ratios derived from the tectractys (1,2,3,4), the sequence of numbers that he regarded as the source of all things musical in the universe, the origin of the concept of the music of the spheres. This arithmetical/mathematical basis for harmony and therefore the tuning of instruments became a problem for those whose tuning could not be altered on the spot during performance: think the lute, the harpsichord, and the piano, each of whose strings can produce only a single note, as opposed to the violin family without frets, each of whose strings can be stopped by a finger to produce more than one note depending on the location of the finger. It can also be viewed as natural vs. contrived tuning, since temperament means the tuning is "tempered," i.e., altered from the normal.

This subject is too complex to discuss in detail here, resulting from such facts as the octave having 12, not 8 notes, and 9 "commas" separating every pair of whole notes, neither of which situation can be dealt with equally in a base-10 arithmetic system and still preserve natural or normal harmony, and while octave notes sound in unison as you move up the scale and keyboard, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, etc, do not progress thus harmoniously, resulting in "wolf" notes. This was also the subject of a major 18th century discussion, with Rousseau (also actually a composer), not surprisingly, on the inégal side (emphasis on the natural and feeling) and Rameau on the égal (emphasis on the logic and practicality) side; their dispute lasted for over 25 years, during which time equal temperament became known as "Rameau's tuning."

Disagreement continued on into the 19th century among/between others (Steblin, pp. 54-61), and it has continued to this day with two recent books taking opposing sides: Stuart Isacoff, Temperament: The Idea that Solved Music's Greatest Riddle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) and Ross W. Duffin, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care), (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), who, curiously, makes no mention of Rousseau, although Isacoff does. The two books are as diametrically opposed as could be possible, both in content and presentation. Duffin's is very focused, detailed, and specific, carefully documented with citations and references, but Isacoff's is more like a sweeping and wide-ranging fantasia on the history of Western musical development set in the context of its culture, written as a creative original rhapsody on temperament with nary a reference for quoted material in sight, interesting, enjoyable, and entertaining reading, but not very helpful, scholarly, or useful.

The best description/evaluation of "equal temperament" that I have seen is this comment by Henry Ward Poole: "Equal temperament has this great advantage over all others – its twelve keys can all be used, they are all tempered alike. The ear, too, is better satisfied when all the chords are equally out of tune than when it listens to constant transition from a better to a worse chord." (emphasis in original; "On Perfect Musical Intonation, and the fundamental Laws of Music on which it depends, with remarks showing the practicability of attaining this Perfect Intonation in the Organ" in The American Journal of Science and Arts, ser. 2, vol. IX, p. 204; full article: pp. 68-83, 199-216). Thus, tuning other than equal temperament can work fine with instruments playing by themselves, but when playing with others, equal temperament can be a more pleasing compromise solution, and modern pianos are almost always tuned this way. Harpsichords (and organs) in 17th and 18th century France were not tuned in 12-tone equal temperament, but rather in (¼-comma) mean-tone temperament, with some notes tempered and others not, perhaps as a consequence of organist and harpsichord builder Jean Denis' (1600-1672) Traité de l'accord de l'espinette… (See appendix D for details), which was the first book ever written dealing with the tuning of keyboard instruemnts; he was admittedly opposed to equal temperament. Some of the clavecinistes exploited the tuning's inherent dissonances for effects.

The last descriptions of key affects/characteristics above more closely resemble the sort of division and associations from the Romantic era with which we are familiar, that may have developed from the base of Rameau's work that was relatively widely circulated, but likely mostly because of Rousseau's entries in the Encyclopédie…. Following this, but still during the period of the clavecinistes, albeit as the pianoforte was challenging the harpsichord for dominance, opera composer and writer-on-music Jean-Benjamin de Laborde (1734-1794; he was guillotined) developed a very complex and expanded "Tableau des Modes de la Musique des Grecs comparés avec les Tons de la Musique Moderne" in his 1780 Essai sur la musique ancienne et moderne (Paris: Eugène Onfroy, insert, vol. 2, between pp. 28 & 29). He takes the five Greek Modes: Dorian, Ionian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Lydian, and surrounds them with five lower with the prefix "Hypo-" and five higher with the prefix "Hyper-." (reproduced in Steblin, pp. 66-69) In 1797, opéra-comique composer André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) also weighed in in his Mémoires, ou Essais sur la musique (Paris: Imprimerie de la République, vol. 2, pp. 356-58), listing the affective qualities of 18 keys, and moving us closer to the 19th century. (Steblin, pp. 99-103) This culminated in France with Hector Berlioz' (1803-1869) table for affects of violins in his Grand traité d'instrumentation et d'orchestration modernes (Paris: Schonenberger, [1843], p. 33 – note that it is exactly 100 years after Rousseau's Dissertation…; A Treatise on Modern Instrumentation and Orchestration, trans. Mary Cowden Clarke, London: Novello, 1856, p. 24; Hugh MacDonald, Berlioz' Orchestration Treatise; A Translation and Commentary, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002, pp. 32-33; See also Steblin, pp. 136-138). There were similar trajectories in both Italy and Germany that began somewhat later.

Separately from and in addition to all of this, "Fa dièse mineur" (f sharp minor) was the "ton de la chèvre," the "key of the goat," for the lute/lutenists, i. e., an awkward, unpleasant key, that was not assigned an énergie by Charpentier, but was used in a few pièces de clavecin, notably a famous pavane by Louis Couperin, and entire sets by François Couperin (Order XXVI, that includes L'Épineuse [The Thorny One]) and Gaspard Le Roux (sixth).

For part two (of five parts), click here.