Ask the average music lover how many female composers from before 1800 he/she knows and the answer will probably be just one, Hildegard of Bingen. She has become quite famous in the late twentieth century and many discs of her music were released. Only those who have a special interest in the music of the baroque era will mention some other names, such as Barbara Strozzi and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. Both were quite famous in their own time, partly because they were women, but also as performers and composers in their own right.
Jacquet de la Guerre performed before Louis XIV as a five-year old and he was so impressed that she enjoyed his protection until his death. She was from a musical family and in 1684 married the organist Marin de la Guerre. From this marriage a son was born who was just as gifted as his mother, but he died at the age of ten.
Elisabeth acted as keyboard teacher and also regularly gave concerts in Paris. In 1687 she published her first compositions, a book with pieces for the harpsichord. In 1694 her only opera, Céphale et Procris, was performed by the Académie Royale de Musique in 1694. A ballet from 1691 has been lost. The sonatas for violin and bc which are the subject of this disc were printed in 1707 but written at a much earlier date. Sébastien de Brossard, a French composer with great interest in the Italian style, was also an avid collector of music and copied some of her sonatas as early as 1695. From this one may conclude that Jacquet de la Guerre was one of the first French composers who wrote chamber music in the goût réuni, mixing French and Italian styles.
Louis XIV not only expressed his enjoyment of her sonatas, he also said that they "could not be compared to any other such works". They are indeed remarkable in various ways. They don't strictly follow the pattern of the Corellian sonata da chiesa as the number of movements varies from four (Sonata II) to six (Sonata I). Several movements are divided into contrasting sections. Some fast movements end with a slow section which is a kind of transition to the next fast movement. Most movements have Italian titles, but there are also dances such as courante (Sonata V) and allemande (Sonata VI). The harmonic language is often surprising, with many daring harmonic progressions. Last but not least, although these sonatas are for violin and bc, there are various movements with episodes in which the viola da gamba - not mentioned on the title page - acts as a second solo instrument. This way the composer incorporated elements of the trio sonata.
It is no surprise that these sonatas have been recorded several times before. The whole set was done by Les Dominos (Ricercar, 2011) whereas the sonatas 1, 3 and 4 were recorded by La Rêveuse (Mirare, 2010). Both are enjoyable although I found some tempi in Les Dominos' interpretation a bit too slow. These performers have found the right approach to these sonatas and this has resulted in highly satisfying and captivating performances. The contrasts are well realised, but never exaggerated. The same goes for the dynamic shading. This music is clearly influenced by the Italian style but it is still French music - the dramatic aspects are moderated by the then dominant French restraint. That has been well understood by the interpreters.
The booklet includes extended analyses of every single sonata which is very helpful. Please note that movements which are referred to in the text are sometimes allocated to more than one track. For instance, the booklet says that the Sonata I comprises six movements, but on the disc it has seven tracks.
If you want to have these sonatas this disc is a very good proposition. I am sure you will greatly enjoy them and be impressed by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre's creative powers.
Johan van Veen