Saturday, 23 July 2016


“Nothing comes ahead of its time, and nothing ever happened that didn’t need to happen.” - Byron Katie

Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (25 December 1711 [baptized] – 8 October 1772), also known as Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville, was a French violinist and composer. He was a younger contemporary of Jean-Philippe Rameau and enjoyed great success in his day. Pierre-Louis Daquin (son of the composer Louis-Claude Daquin) claimed: “If I couldn't be Rameau, there's no one I would rather be than Mondonville”.

Mondonville was born in Narbonne in Southwest France to an aristocratic family, which had fallen on hard times. In 1733 he moved to Paris where he gained the patronage of the king’s mistress Madame de Pompadour and won several musical posts, including violinist for the Concert Spirituel. His first opus was a volume of violin sonatas, published in 1733. He became a violinist of the Chapelle Royale and chamber and performed in some 100 concerts; some of his grands motets were also performed that year receiving considerable acclaim.

He was appointed sous-maître in 1740 and then, in 1744, intendant of the Royal Chapel. He produced operas and grands motets for the Opéra and Concert Spirituel respectively, and was associated with the Théatre des Petits-Cabinets, all the while maintaining his career as a violinist throughout the 1740s. In 1755, he became director of the Concert Spirituel on the death of Pancrace Royer. Mondonville died in Belleville near Paris at the age of sixty.

Between 1734 and 1755 Mondonville composed 17 grands motets, of which only nine have survived. The motet "Venite Exultemus Domino", published in 1740, won him the post of Maître de Musique de la Chapelle (Master of Music of the Chapel). Thanks to his mastery of both orchestral and vocal music, Mondonville brought to the grand motet—the dominant genre of music in the repertory of the Chapelle Royale before the French Revolution—an intensity of colour and a dramatic quality hitherto unknown.

Although Mondonville’s first stage work, “Isbé”, was a failure, he enjoyed great success with the lighter forms of French Baroque opera: the opéra-ballet and the pastorale héroïque. His most popular works were “Le carnaval de Parnasse”, “Titon et l’Aurore” and “Daphnis et Alcimadure” (for which Mondonville wrote his own libretto in Languedocien - his native Occitan dialect). “Titon et l’Aurore” played an important role in the Querelle des Bouffons, the controversy between partisans of French and Italian opera which raged in Paris in the early 1750s. Members of the “French party” ensured that Titon’s premiere was a resounding success (their opponents even alleged they had guaranteed this result by packing the Académie Royale de Musique, where the staging took place, with royal soldiers).

Mondonville's one foray into serious French opera - the genre known as tragédie en musique - was a failure however. He took the unusual step of re-using a libretto, “Thésée”, which had originally been set in 1675 by the “father of French opera”, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Mondonville’s bold move to substitute Lully’s much-loved music with his own did not pay off. The premiere at the court in 1765 had a mixed reception and a public performance two years later ended with the audience demanding it be replaced by the original. Yet Mondonville was merely ahead of his time; in the 1770s, it became fashionable to reset Lully’s tragedies with new music, the most famous example being “Armide” by Gluck.

Here are his Opus 3, Six Sonatas performed by Les Musiciens du Louvre directed by Marc Minkowski with Anton Steck (leader & concertino violin).

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