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La mélancolie: a violist's love for the more intimate side of the French baroque

When we asked Nils Mönkemeyer to choose his top French baroque recordings, he spoke about the beauty of musical melancholy.

Photo: Irène Zandel

‘I imagine people probably know Handel, Vivaldi, Bach and maybe Telemann already,’ Nils Mönkemeyer tells me, ‘so I thought it would be nice to talk about French music.’ I’m speaking to the German violist over the phone to talk through a playlist he’s put together for IDAGIO (you can find it here). The theme he’s chosen takes us into the French Baroque, a period that’s reflected on his latest album in works by Robert de Visée and Michel Lambert (the rest of the programme is taken up with Bach). It’s a period that Mönkemeyer clearly not only knows extremely well, but, as he talks ever more eloquently and movingly, one for which he has a deep love: for the music itself, and for the social, cultural and philosophical ideals it represented.

‘What I especially like about French music in the Baroque period is that there are actually two sorts,’ he says. ‘There’s that which maybe reflects what we have as an image of the Baroque: festive, played at court at grand ceremonies with lots of pomp.’ He suggests a work by Lully, the ‘March pour la cérémonie des Turcs’ from Le bourgeois Gentilhomme as representative of this grander public aesthetic. Then he turns to the flipside of the coin: the more intimate repertoire. ‘But there’s also — and this was especially the case in France — something like the birth of chamber music, of “Musique de chambre”. This was music that belonged to small groups, and it’s pieces that mainly have a melancholy character.’

He brings up the composer and Gamba-player Marin Marais (1656–1728), given a posthumous boost when he was played by Gérard Depardieu in Alain Corneau’s 1991 film, Touts les matins du Monde. For the playlist Mönkemeyer includes two works by Marais featured in that film’s soundtrack, and when we talk he ellaborates on the main differences between the Italian and French Baroque when it came to instrumental music. ‘Italian music was often coupled to a personality — someone like Vivaldi, Corelli or, later Paganini, people to whom a piece was more or less tailored, as a showcase for them. With French music it’s as if it’s conceived for a listener’s private moments. That’s why I find it particularly beautiful for us today: everything’s very public and everything happens at such a pace, and it’s as if this music gives us a moment for ourselves.’

• Playlist – Nils Mönkemeyer: my French Baroque top five

This, he goes on to suggest, helps create the music’s very special character, not least that pronounced vein of melancholy that runs through it. But this melancholy, it becomes clear as we talk further, should not be viewed according to the black-and-white categories of today. ‘It’s a sadness, but not a sadness that breaks you. It’s something that can be enjoyed to a certain degree, which carries within it a beauty and a moment of nostalgia. Here it’s an art of lament, but it’s always the lament of a nobleman or noblewoman, reflecting a noble bearing that they never lose. I find this tension between a longing for inner freedom and expression and the [demands of] courtly etiquette very interesting — and it’s a tension, of course, that can result in half-shades of meaning.

Another work he includes in his play list is Télaïre’s ‘Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux’ from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, a work first performed in Paris in 1737, but subsequently much revived and revised.

‘Castor and Pollux are two brothers and there are two women as well,’ explains Mönkemeyer, demonstrating an impressive ability to extract the essence from a knotty opera plot. ‘And Castor, one of the brothers dies. His beloved laments his death and that’s this aria, one of the most moving arias, for me, from the Baroque period.’ It’s also an aria, he goes on, that reflects a fundamental difference between French opera of the time and that being produced in Italy. ‘In France there was never that classic separation, that you said: here’s the recitative and here comes the aria. Jean-Baptiste Lully developed a way of declamation: you sang the way you spoke. And then there was this fluid transition in the text from the song-like passages, so the “aria” part.’

Again, though, Mönkemeyer places the work into a wider context. ‘In France music was quite publically used to help work through suffering,’ he explains. ‘It’s often about separation, or often about someone dying. And that’s what happens in “Pâles flambeux”. So much music in France at the time is about taking leave from someone you love. But the moment we say today that we’re lamenting the death of someone, that’s often actually like a taboo, something that just often doesn’t happen. And when I make a recording, when I record an album, it’s also of course something that I want to sell. When I write, “this is music that laments the dead,” then it’s perhaps not something that everyone wants to buy.’

It’s not exactly box-office, I suggest. Mönkemeyer laughs in agreement. But there’s little doubt that it’s music of breathtaking beauty and the most touching intimacy.

You can find Nils Mönkemeyer’s My Top Five French Baroque playlist here; Listen to his new album, Baroque, here

Hugo Shirley · Published
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