Jon Ciliberto | 06 MAR 2023
Amethyst Baroque Ensemble’s final concerts of the season (one in Atlanta and one in Athens) featured an expansive program of French Baroque music from the edge of the Renaissance and into the Classical period. A wide sampling of forms was presented, although no sacred music. The players were Dr. Alexandra Dunbar (harpsichord), Jody Miller (recorder), Adrin Akins (countertenor), Marcy Jean Brenner (viola da gamba), and guest artist Ute Marks (violin).
European music was largely a fluid system during the Baroque, with influences (most often proceeding from Italy) moving freely about. Still, French Baroque music retained a somewhat distinct character both in terms of its favored instruments and its style: one, particularly in the early years of the era, broadly described as eloquent with restrained expressiveness or introspection (the latter more typical of early baroque), subtle use of ornamentation (often improvised), and unequal rhythmic variation (the notes inégales form).
The inward and restrained quality of early French Baroque music looks back to the Renaissance, and was beautifully represented in the Ensemble’s opener, a courtly song by Antoine Boësset. Boësset was superintendent of music to Louis XIII and met the philosopher Rene Descartes, the polymath Marin Mersenne, and the statesman and humanist Constantijn Huygens. This brief survey of the composer’s extra-musical influences shows how the French Court carried on the Renaissance tradition of the free exploration of ideas and the interplay of thinkers. (Huygens acted as an intermediary in the famous “musical competition that Mersenne staged between Joan Albert Ban and Antoine Boësset in 1640 as part of a series of debates concerning music, the passions, and the proper goals of song.”) 
Countertenor Adrin Akins, accompanied by Dunbar and Brenner, sang Boësset’s song “Objet dont les charmes si doux” with delicacy and understatement. Although relatively constrained in range, the melody includes leaps requiring skill to traverse. Noteworthy to me was the vocal timbre change between very high to very low notes. The lyrics express the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” quality of being in love with an “object whose charms [are] so sweet” such that
My tears bear witness to my anguish.
And when I see your charms again,
An excess of pleasure kills me
Fighting a rearguard action against the Italian musical forms (purportedly, he forbade his students from playing Italian sonatas), and the violin, Marin Marais continued to champion his own instrument, the viol. His “couplets de Folies” from Book II of the Pièces de Violes is a set of variations on the Iberian dance tune La Folia, one which had a long tradition of the form. Marais’ set, played with authority by Brenner, accompanied by Dunbar, displays not a merely technical catalog of possibilities but a true unfolding, often surprising, narrative through exploration of style, mood, and rhythm. The duo brought out well the spoken quality of the music: statement, passive consideration, observation, and objection. Brenner’s command of trills was particularly supple and impressive to me. Akins added tambourine playing, giving the performance an additional Renaissance touch.
Marais’ well-known “Bells of Sainte Genevieve” was powerfully played, grabbing the listener and insisting, like a fast friend who will not be gainsaid a listen. The piece is something of a head-banger with its insistent bass ground motif and virtuosic viol runs.
Anyone who is suspicious of the received ‘canon’ of any art form (this includes me) appreciates filling in the gaps. This expands the aesthetic picture and encourages those living today who perhaps don’t see a place in the present edifice of artistic idiom or opportunity. Finally, it encourages every listener to think for him or herself about the experience of art.
Amethyst Baroque’s performance included both a sonata and a secular cantata by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729), and a Sonata by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, or Joseph Bologne (1745–1799), the French-Creole composer. Bologne, the illegitimate child of a wealthy planter and an enslaved Senegalese woman, made his way in the world through his wits and ability, given entry into French society by his father. A vituouso violinist, he composed widely, including string quartets, sonatas, and symphonies. His Sonata I in B♭ Major gave Amethyst Baroque a foothold in the classical period and presented a quite different musical face to the audience.
Women composers are poorly represented in the Baroque (and Classical, and …). In the case of de La Guerre, her early emergence as a child harpsichord prodigy and her composing and performing abilities led her to various royal patrons at the court of King Louis XIV. She composed across many forms, including sonatas (or cantatas) in the Italian style.
Her Trio Sonata showed the ensemble (harpsichord, recorder, violin, viol) in interweaving dialogues, a gorgeous unfolding of conversation between pairs of instruments, balanced by full group playing. The instruments’ tone seemed especially resonant with the wood-beamed construction of St. Barnabas Anglican Church.
De La Guerre composed cantatas on both biblical and Greek mythological subjects. “Semelé” tells some of the story of Semele, mistress of Zeus and mother of Dionysus. It was an ambitious end to the performance, with all five performers at work.
Extra credit goes to Dr. Dunbar, who performed the entire concert, including an effortlessly dazzling counterpoint excursion, “Passacaille d’Armide” by Jean-Henri D’Anglebert, composer and harpsichordist in the court of King Louis XIV of France. ■
- Amethyst Baroque Ensemble: amethystbaroque.com
- Alexandra Dunbar: ung.edu/music/faculty-staff-bio/alexandra-dunbar.php
- St. Barnabas Anglican Church: stbarnabasatl.org
-  Driehonderd brieven over muziek van, aan en rond Constantijn Huygens (review) | Renaissance Quarterly, Fall 2008
-  D’Anglebert—Life and Works | IU Press