The Revolutionary Violin – A salon/talk with music RESOURCE PAGE – in preparation

Posted on August 17th, 2022 by


The Revolutionary Violin – A salon/talk with music
Minneapolis Institute of Art
18th October 2022 11am/2pm

Admission Free

Peter Sheppard Skaerved talking about ‘Revolution a la mode’ with its curator,  Nicole LaBouff at MIA 8 8 22

Grammy-nominated violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved recorded and produced the French Revolutionary Songs which can be heard in MIA’s ‘Revolution a la Mode’ Exhibition. He returns to the gallery for a two salon-style events,  introducing music composed and played by the Paris-based composers and string players of the era, including Marie-Antoinette’s private violinist, Giovanni Battista Viotti, and the most popular thinker (and composer of the age), Jean-Jacques Rousseau. With words from some of the great salonistes of Revolutionary Paris, including the peerless portrait-painter, Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun.

Plus: a new work, inspired by Napoleon’s violinist, Pierre Rode, by the Nashville-based composer Michael Alec Rose

The Duke of Wellington attends the Paris Opéra. After the battle of Waterloo, the triumphant ‘Iron’ Duke watches Spontini’s piece about another conqueror, Fernand Cortes

 

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun-self portrait with her daughter

Viotti: the great lost portrait by his dear ‘amica’ Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

Peter Sheppard Skærved – Blog Post for MIA

August 2022, Brussels

 

The Revolutionary Salon music for ‘Révolution à la Mode’ at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

 

The Minneapolis Institute of Art is one of my favourite museums on either side of the Atlantic. I live in London, which is not short of galleries, but if MIA were there, I would visit regularly. I have come to know and love the museum, over many years visiting my Midwestern relatives. A few years ago, I was honoured to present an evening celebrating the arrival at MIA of a tapestry by Norway’s greatest abstract artist, Jan Groth. This began a conversation with the wonderful team at the museum, and most particularly with Nicole LaBouff (Associate Curator of Textiles). At the beginning of 2020 Nicole and I began to discuss the possibility of working with a collection of French songs printed in a Parisian fashion magazine ‘le Journal de la Mode et du Goût, ou amusements du salon et de la toilette’ in 1790-1791. A spark was struck.

The music and culture of the years of revolution has always been important to me. As a violinist, I revere the Italian-born violin virtuoso Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824), who dominated French music-making in the years following his 1780 Paris debut. Soon after his arrival, Viotti became Queen Marie Antoinette’s private violinist. His work founded the school of violin teaching that dominates to this day: by way of illustration – Viotti taught Pierre Baillot, who taught Jean-Pierre Maurin, who taught Lucien Capet, who taught Louis Krasner … who taught me. Mozart admired him so much that he arranged one of his concertos. The Royal Academy of Music, in London, where I am the Viotti Lecturer, proudly exhibits his 1709 Stradivari violin in its museum.

In January 1789, Viotti and Léonard-Alexis Autié (Marie-Antoinette’s hairdresser) established a new opera company in ‘La salle des Machines’, the 17th century theatre in the Tuileries Palace. King Louis XVI awarded them the ‘privilege’ to play French and Italian comic opera. Their troupe was named the ‘Théâtre de Monsieur’, after its patron, the ‘Monsieur’ (the King’s brother), later crowned Louis XVIII after the fall of Napoleon. Today this theatre company is the famed ‘Feydau’. Many of the songs published in the ‘Journal de la Mode et du Goût’ were salon-versions of arias concurrently on the stage of the ‘Théâtre de Monsieur’, where many were directed by Viotti himself.

My fascination with the music and culture of this Revolutionary Age has always gravitated towards to the idea of the salon. After the spark of rebellion flamed up in July 1789, successive waves of emigrés, initially nobles, arrived in London, joined in 1790, Viotti himself, whose association with the Queen had become too dangerous. This flood of exiles ensured that the increasingly francophone salons of new-built London suburbs, such as Marylebone, mirrored those back in Paris. These milieux were dominated by extraordinary women, such as the painter-composer Elizabeth Vigée-le Brun, the harpist-pedagogue Madame de Genlis, and most famously, Madame de Staël, the intellectual giant of the age.

The Salon was where music, fashion, gossip, poetry, met: whatever their circumstances, luxurious, or straitened, salonistes created environments where the arts and culture were celebrated, ideas could be discussed, fashion tips swapped, and the popular songs from the new shows played and learned. Vigée-le Brun might be found painting, wearing one of her fabulous hats or turbans, whilst her dearest friend, Viotti played the violin. Her tiny sitting room in London (not far from Tyburn) was so small that George, the Prince Regent had to sit under the harpsichord, while the music was playing, and poetry read. Madame De Genlis published one of the first French-English phrasebooks: it was reflected the conversations in the salons she frequented, as well as important questions for the touring music: ‘Will I be able to take my harp in your carriage?’ is a favourite of mine.

Salon culture was up-to-the minute. This is clear in the editions of ‘le Journal de la Mode et du Goût, ou amusements du salon et de la toilette’ on show in ‘Révolution a la Mode’. As soon as Nicole LaBouff showed me this material, I realised that it offered a window into the salon. Coloured engravings illustrated the latest advice on what to wear, in concert, as it were, with the latest arias and songs from the newest plays and operas, including those heard at ‘Le Monsieur’ Theatre. These were presented in chamber form, their orchestrations reduced to a simple keyboard part, suitable for harpsichord or piano, but often retaining the expressive virtuosity of the operatic vocal material.

But ‘Le Journal’ offered something more, and for me, an exciting new insight: along with what to wear and what to play/sing, the magazine advised on how to wear the latest couture, and how to sing and play the songs. This might sound like a tiny distinction, but I had never thought of this parallel – between, crudely, accessorizing and interpretation.

A year into my conversations and explorations with Nicole, we were joined, thanks to the now-universal magic of Zoom, by the historian and musicologist Rebecca Geoffrey-Schwinden. Her book ‘From Servant to Savant: Musical Privilege, Property, and the French Revolution’ was published in the middle of the preparation for this project, and illuminated my understanding of music and society considerably. What a privilege to have her ideas and deep understanding driving our shared explorations.

But the greatest treat for me, of this whole project has been the excitement and inspiration of the music itself. I was blessed to work with two extraordinary colleagues. The virtuoso harpsichordist and conductor Julian Perkins has been a fellow musical traveller with me for many years. At the heart of our collaboration has always been the idea of improvisation. For most of its history, what we now call ‘classical music’ has been an extemporizing discipline. By the end of the 19th century, this had ossified somewhat – the precise execution (and ‘interpretation’) of what was written on the page became a primary objective of performers. A century earlier, the musicians of the revolutionary age regarded the written notes were just a jumping-off-point. Julian is the perfect collaborator in the creative exploration which can reach back to this practice, and he introduced me to the fantastic young French soprano, Héloise Bernard. Her creativity and insights into the special lyricism of these pieces brought illumination to the collaboration. It is fair to say, that our rehearsals and then the subsequent recording sessions became salons in and of themselves. From the very first notes that we played and sung, we were charmed by the evocative beauty of the songs from the journal, and how they evolved as we rehearsed and talked.

One of the most important questions for us, was the choice of instruments for the recording of the songs. Julian found a wonderful Alan Gotto copy of a 1711 century harpsichord by Pierre Donzelague (1711) – exactly the kind of instrument found in a Parisian salon at the end of the century. The rich colours of this instrument demanded a great violin: I chose a beautiful instrument by Girolamo Amati, made in Cremona in 1629. In 18th century Paris the primacy of the great Cremonese violins was established, in the hands of Viotti and his disciples; so, this was an eminently appropriate choice of instrument. It matches the harpsichord and Heloise Bernard’s voice perfectly.

The recordings took place in a rural setting, Hastoe Village Hall, built at the foot of the Chiltern Hills by the Rothschild family, who have owned much of the land in the area, the Vale of Aylesbury. We recorded on a beautiful early summer day. Skylarks crowded the blue skies outside. The words of ‘Pauvre Jacques’, which we recorded that day, seemed particularly appropriate:

‘T’en souviens-tu tous les jours étaient beaux/Qui nous rendra ce tems prospère’. Do you remember all the beautiful days when we made the time prosper?’

I am so excited to see the exhibition in situ, along with the music, this autumn. On October 18th I will present salon performances in the museum. I will bring music written by the violinists who worked and played in the theatres and salons that ‘‘Révolution à la Mode’’ celebrates. I look forward to seeing you there!