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Saturday morning quotes 5.39: Airs de cour

February 13, 2016

The term, airs de cour, describes four- or five-part polyphonic songs extracted from extravagant spectacles of music and dance staged at the French royal court, known as ballets de cour.

Not unlike more modern songs drawn from popular musicals by Gershwin or Kern and published with piano accompaniment, evocative French airs were arranged and published for domestic use in the then standard performance format of solo voice and lute, enabling the less illustrious members of the public to indulge in the latest hit tunes whistled by those in the royal court. While the genre reached its peak of popularity around 1620, Adrian LeRoy’s, Livre d’air de cours miz sur le luth par Adrian Le Roy (Paris, 1571) is acknowledged as the first publication of airs for voice and lute.  LeRoy’s settings favored the poetry of Ronsard and his polyphonic accompaniments for the lute were creatively rhythmic and demonstrated an early example of the arpeggiated style, much later designated style brisé by 20th-century musicologists. 

“Although the word brise was used in the seventeenth century to distinguish a type of ornament, the term style brise was apparently coined in the twentieth century. After an exhaustive search through dictionaries, lexicons, theoretical treatises, practical sources, and contemporary accounts, I am unable to find a single example of the term style brise used in any previous century.”

“If there is no historical precedent for the use of this term, why do so many authors use it in a way that suggests one? While some authors may have believed that the term had historical usage, others may have used the term to point to the French origin of the style itself. But using a foreign-language term in this manner runs the risk of misleading the reader into assuming a use of the term in the period being discussed.”

– David J. Buch,Style brisé, Style luthé, and the Choses luthées, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 1 (1985), pp. 52-67

While many intabulated lute accompaniments exhibit the movement of independent voice lines, melodies of airs de cour were composed to closely follow word accents, and were conceived within the syllabic constraints of Musique mesurée à l’antique.  Of course, there were also examples of elaborate vocal ornamentation, as can be found in Marin Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle (1637) among other sources.  This ornamented style lived on later in the 17th century through the much simpler airs with sparsely figured basses by composers Sébastien de Brossard and Michel Lambert.

Of particular interest is the selection of airs published by Jean-Baptiste Bésard (1603), including “C’est malheur” and “Quelle divinité”, which appeared a bit earlier than the better-known series of publications edited by Gabriel Bataille and printed by Ballard.  While Bésard’s publication keeps the modern editor quite busy just sorting out the multitude of errors, the extensive series of airs published by Ballard between circa 1607-1640—approximately 800 airs collectively—includes many examples of interest that clearly exhibit important interpretive information such as mensural changes in time and tempo, as well as many signs and symbols in the lute accompaniment that give very specific performance indications.

As can be heard on our 2006 recording, Divine Amarillis, we particularly appreciate the pairing of the lute instrumental “Campanæ Parisiensis” (Bells of Paris, attributed to Jacques Gaultier) with the air, “Divine Amarillis”.  These two familiar pieces appear in an orchestrated form mid-way through Ottorino Respighi’s second Ancient Airs and Dances suite (1917).

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