The French harpsichordist discusses his new album, Melancholy Grace, covering renaissance and early Baroque keyboard works from Italy to England.
French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau's new album explores the idea of melancholy in 16th- and 17th-century keyboard music from across Europe. He talks to IDAGIO about the album and the ideas behind it.
"Melancholy Grace" features music by a variety of composers, some well-known and some less well known. How did you go about choosing the programme?
There were many different points of reference and ideas at the base of the album, many different questions at the beginning – not least the idea of recording on these historical instruments, a harpsichord and a virginal. There's also, of course, the theme of the album, "melancholy", and I really wanted to record music reflecting that theme from a number of composers from the 16th and 17th centuries. The repertoire is so large, and I chose very different sorts of music and a lot of different pieces before having it to reduce it down to fit on the album. And that choice is always based on musical form, too: here the idea was to build the programme in order to tell a story about a certain form of melancholy, as well as other concepts I speak about in the booklet.
Of course, it's always a very moving process to make that choice. I don't record pieces I don't love and don't want to spend time with. I sometimes decide a bit last-minute, based on the acoustic or the atmosphere during the recording process. When I do some kind of album concept like this, I also record more music than what is left on the final album, and I decide then how to put all the pieces all together, like a puzzle. But I take a lot of pleasure in doing it!
Did your preparation for the album involve having to return to historical sources?
Yes, because different modern editions can leave question marks about different notes or different types of writing. I always prefer to look at the manuscript if there is a manuscript, or a facsimile of it – to be a kind of "searcher" myself. I like to be able to raise some questions myself and not just to let the modern editors decide what we should do when we're confronted with a question mark. There were various editions for some pieces [on the album], but also just one for some of the pieces; some music I recorded was really easily findable, and some others not. It's always interesting connecting the score with this music, transcribing the musical text into sound.
As the album shows, the idea of melancholy was taken up by composers all across Europe. How did they approach it differently?
That's something I try to describe in my booklet essay: how an affect could be transposable across different countries and different times, and how a small piece of music could express this affect, letting us navigate through time and space. It's a bit like when you translate a text from one language to another: you don't use the same words, and you cannot always translate the genius of a very important point, but you always keep something of the original. So in many ways this album was for me a game to address those ways of approaching translation and communication of affect.
Another "translation" process that needs to happen is arguably that of translating this 16th- and 17th-century idea of melancholy into our own time…
Yes, actually, I think we need to have a kind of double position on that. There's the authentic approach with the historical background and context, which is fascinating and also necessary for our practical work as musicians playing music from the past, to make it live once again. But it's also very important to have proper just intonation – as opposed to equal temperament – to understand how and why we're diving into a musical text, and to help transpose and translate it into the context of contemporary living.
Can you say a few more words about the instruments you play on?
The harpsichord is described as a model of and 18th-century instrument, but for me – and the maker, Philippe Humeau, too – it's more a recreation of the approach of the 16th- or 17th-century harpsichord maker; he's trying to perpetuate that tradition of creation and invention, so it's not at all a facsimile or a reproduction. And for me this instrument was the perfect fit for this music. It's also an instrument that I particularly love, and one of the best instruments of the Italian style that I've ever played. The other instrument is from the 16th century, an original, which I "met" – and fell in love with – through a friend who has a small collection in Switzerland. He was really generous and said I could record on it if I wanted.
I really liked the idea of making a dialogue between the instruments, which have very different sounds, although it's very difficult to describe. I then chose the pieces and it was really evident which pieces to record on which instrument – even if it was sometimes only instinctively during the recording that I finally decided.
Melancholy Grace is out now on IDAGIO
The IDAGIO app has been downloaded over 1.5 million times and has subscribers in over 190 countries. Why?