Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre ‘Sonata No.2 for Violin and Continuo’: “A Marvel of our Century”

Good afternoon readers, welcome to Day 4 of my Female Fortnight Challenge! For today’s blog we will be travelling way back in time to the 17th Century so we can have a look into French female composer and performer, Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. This is a great chance to have a look into a really fantastic sonata for violin and continuo that was rediscovered in the 1990s. A lot of Jacquet de La Guerre’s work was popular within her lifetime, however a lot of her songs and chamber music manuscripts were lost soon after her death. These have mostly been recovered in the past 40 years, and most of these have now been recorded. She is a wonderful baroque composer so you’re in for a treat today!

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre was born in Paris, 1665. She was born into a family full of musicians and she was deemed a child prodigy when she began learning to play the harpsichord at a very young age. Whilst still a child (age unknown) she performed for King Louis XIV on the harpsichord (which as you can imagine was a very big deal!). When Jacquet de La Guerre was a teenager she was accepted into the French court, where she pursued her musical education. She stayed in the Royal Court until 1684 when she moved to Versailles to marry organist, Marin de La Guerre. From this point, Jacquet de La Guerre composed, gave public and private concerts on the harpsichord both in Versailles and in and around Paris. She was a popular musician and composer in her time and she was one of the few more well-known female composers of her era.

It has been noted that Jacquet de La Guerre was a versatile musician who composed in a wealth of different forms. In the 1690s she composed a ballet called Les Jeux á l’honneur de la victoire. Also in this decade she wrote a popular opera entitled Céphale et Procris and this was the first opera to be composed and premiered by a French female composer. As well as this, Jacquet de La Guerre, alongside her contemporaries, experimented with Italian forms of music such as cantatas and sonatas. In the early 1700s, Jacquet de La Guerre continued to compose extensively for the harpsichord. Her works were published to great acclaim. Her last published work was when she was experimenting with vocal music, most notably cantatas. Jacquet de La Guerre died in 1729 in Paris. As well as very important figure in harpsichord performance, she is also a crucial figure in the history of French composition. Her breakthrough compositions for harpsichord, violin and voice pushed her to the forefront of ‘new music’ within the 17th Century.

For this blog I am looking into her Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Continuo. It is thought that this work was composed c.1707. It is only short, lasting just under 7 minutes in total for the whole sonata. It is has four movements:

I. Presto

II. Adagio

III. Presto 

IV. Presto Finale 

There are no records (that I could find) of why this sonata was composed. It could have been for a commission, or it could just be a stand-alone composition. Either way, this work is quintessentially baroque and is a pleasure to listen to. Each movement is diverse and really emphasises the violin as a versatile instrument. In total, Jacquet de La Guerre composed six sonatas in her lifetime, most of which were published between 1705-1713. All six have been recovered and recorded, but I find the second the most energetic and fun to listen to!

I. Presto

The first section is fast-paced and starts with the violin announcing the first theme. Soon after, the harpsichord enters with a variation of the theme. From here the two work together in musical dialogue to create a range of variations of the first theme. There is a lot of fast scalic work from both parts within this movement. At time the parts are together in unison, which is incredibly effective, however at other times they are both playing completely different lines. This is what makes this movement exciting for me, Jacquet de La Guerre’s use of unison, as she uses it sparingly. The violin also emphasises the use of ornaments and embellishments such as trills and turns, which give the melody more of a flourish in a new variation. This movement ends with a very pleasing resolve.

II. Adagio

The second movement is the slowest of all the movements, but it is certainly the most beautiful. This time the violin takes the solo line, with the harpsichord acting as an accompaniment. The sparse arpeggiated chords from the accompaniment really emphasise the simple melody the violin is playing above. This movement has some sadness within it, but it is extremely expressive, and the resolve at the end of the movement is very touching.

III. Presto

The third movement picks up tempo again, and this section is much more like a dance-based work. The continuo plays a fast-paced accompaniment, whilst the violin comes in with parts of a melody. The theme is based on a dotted rhythm, which makes me think of this movement like a Gavotte. There are some interesting changes in harmony in this movement, where it goes from the chirpy D major to the relative minor of B. The violin soars above the accompaniment within this movement and when they duo resolve at the end, there is definitely a sense of fulfilment.

IV. Presto Finale 

The final movement of this short sonata is definitely the fastest in tempo. The harpsichord starts this movement, with the violin joining in soon with a variation of the first theme. The interaction between the violin and harpsichord within this movement is fantastic as you can sense this close communication and musicality between the instruments. The counter-melodies heard are fast-paced and based on the D major scale. Jacquet de La Guerre uses embellishments once more to create variation and a different timbre. The final movement ends with a strong tonic chord.

This is a fantastic baroque sonata which successfully highlights the musical talents of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. Her complicated harpsichord accompaniments make this sonata even more exciting for the listener and performer. I thoroughly enjoy listening to her sonatas as they’re easy to listen to and very interesting to learn about! Her self-determination to succeed and her shrewd risk taking when it came to composition certainly aided her successful career. She was an exceptional composer of her time and was described as “a marvel of our century.” It is definitely worth noting that Jacquet de La Guerre self-published all of her sonatas, so she could push the new form out into the French classical music world. It is assured that Jacquet de La Guerre was an influential figure of her time, and she was more often than not referred to in newspapers in a positive light.

I hope you have enjoyed this blog today – join me tomorrow for Day 5 of my Female Fortnight Challenge, I’m sure it’s going to be a corker!

Happy Reading!

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