Friday, 6 March 2015


“Women hold up half the sky.” - Mao Zedong

To highlight International Women’s Day (8 March), which is a global day for celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future, I give you music by a wonderful female composer: Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (full name Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre; born Élisabeth Jacquet, 17 March 1665, Paris – 27 June 1729, Paris) was a French musician, harpsichordist and composer.

Élisabeth Jacquet was born into an important family of musicians and masons in the parish of Saint-Louis-en-l’Ile, Paris. A childhood prodigy, she played the harpsichord before King Louis XIV to inaugurate her career as a virtuoso performer at the age of five. At the court of Louis XIV she was noticed by Madame de Montespan, and was kept on in her entourage. She later married the organist Marin de La Guerre, son of the late organist at the Sainte-Chapelle, Michel de La Guerre, in 1684 and left the court. Thereafter she was known as Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre.

After her marriage she taught and gave concerts at home and throughout Paris, and gained much acclaim. A quote from Titon du Tillet speaks of her “marvellous facility for playing preludes and fantasies off the cuff. Sometimes she improvises one or another for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners.” (Le Parnasse Français, 1732).

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre was one of the few well-known women composers of her time. Recently there has been a renewal of interest in her compositions and a number have been recorded. Her first publication was her “Premier livre de pièces de clavecin”, printed in 1687. It was one of the few collections of harpsichord pieces printed in France in the 17th-century, along with those of Chambonnières, Lebègue and d’Anglebert.

On 15 March 1694, the production of her opera “Céphale et Procris” at the Académie Royale de Musique was the first of an opera written by a woman in France. The next year, 1695, she composed a set of trio sonatas which, with those of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, François Couperin, Jean-Féry Rebel and Sébastien de Brossard, are among the earliest French examples of the sonata. The next few years heralded the deaths of almost all of her near relations: Her only son, mother, father, husband and brother Nicolas, and were not productive times.

The year 1707 saw the publication of “Pièces de Clavecin qui peuvent se jouer sur le Violon”, a new set of harpsichord pieces, followed by six “Sonates pour le violon et pour le clavecin”. These works are an early example of the new genre of accompanied harpsichord works, where the instrument is used in an obbligato role with the violin; Rameau’s “Pieces de clavecin en concerts” are somewhat of the same type.

The dedication of the 1707 work speaks of the continuing admiration and patronage of Louis XIV: “Such happiness for me, Sire, if my latest work may receive as glorious a reception from Your Majesty as I have enjoyed almost from the cradle, for, Sire, if I may remind you, you never spurned my youthful offerings. You took pleasure in seeing the birth of the talent that I have devoted to you; and you honoured me even then with your commendations, the value of which I had no understanding at the time. My slender talents have since grown. I have striven even harder, Sire, to deserve your approbation, which has always meant everything to me...”

She returned to vocal composition with the publication of two books of “Cantates françoises sur des sujets tirez de l’Ecriture” in 1708 and 1711. Her last publication, 15 years before her death, was a collection of secular “Cantates françoises” (c. 1715). In the inventory of her possessions after her death, there were three harpsichords: a small instrument with white and black keys, one with black keys, and a large double manual Flemish harpsichord.

Here is her Sonata Nº 1 in D minor for violin, viola da gamba and continuo: Lina Tur Bonet (Baroque Violin); Kenneth Weiss (Keyboards); Patxi Montero (Viola da Gamba).