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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 8 (2002) No. 1

Harpsichord Music Associated with the Name La Barre. Edited by Bruce Gustafson and R. Peter Wolf.The Art of the Keyboard, 4. New York: The Broude Trust, 1999. [xix, 104 pp. ISBN 08540-7640-X. $30.]

Reviewed by Alexander Silbiger*

1. The La Barre Problem

2. Content of the Volume; the Multiple Versions

3. The Value of the Multiple Versions for the Performer

4. Which La Barre?

5. The Edition

6. The Old "Modern Edition vs. Facsimile" Issue

Appendix: Update on the Source Bibliographies


1. The La Barre Problem

1.1 Harpsichordists should not be put off by the rather odd title of this volume. They would miss out on some charming harpsichord pieces, and, more important, they stand to learn much from the way those pieces are presented. They might even discover—for reasons to be explained shortly—that a study of this edition will affect their approach to the music of the period.

1.2 One can see the quandary that led to the title. A good number of harpsichord pieces carrying the name La Barre are found in manuscripts from across Europe—enough to suggest it belonged to a composer with somewhat of an international reputation. What makes these pieces especially intriguing is that so many appear to stem from the generation preceding that of the great clavecinistes such as Chambonnières, Louis Couperin, and D'Anglebert, a mysterious era for the French harpsichord from which little music survives. But there is a problem: while we know a fair amount about a prominent dynasty of organists and harpsichordists named La Barre, we do not know which member of the family was responsible for these pieces, or whether it even was a member of that family—the name being far from uncommon in France. Only one La Barre piece in the manuscripts provides a first name, Joseph (No. 41 in the edition), and that piece is indeed likely the work of an important member of the dynasty named Joseph de la Barre. But this Joseph was born too late (1633) to be held accountable for much of the La Barre repertory. (A Pierre de la Barre, father of Joseph, is named by Marin Mersenne as the composer of a set of keyboard variations excerpted in his Harmonie universelle [1636]—more about this later.) Thus it would be misleading to have called the volume Keyboard Music of La Barre, or even Keyboard Music of the La Barre Family. Considering the additional complication that several of these pieces appear in other manuscripts under the names of different composers, "Associated with the Name La Barre" probably is all one can safely say about this collection of pieces.

1.3 One of the co-editors, Bruce Gustafson, has written extensively on the "La Barre problem," particularly in his 1979 landmark study of early French harpsichord music.1 The edition makes frequent reference to this study, which, in fact, is indispensable "further reading" for those who become intrigued by the mystery of the apparently popular and yet elusive La Barre(s). The editors' reluctance to rehash the details of this complex issue is understandable; yet in some ways it is too bad that its tangled elements were not brought together in the edition's preface, because in Gustafson's earlier book they are dispersed over different chapters, making for difficult reading and much cross-referencing.

2. Content of the Volume; the Multiple Versions

2.1 One's first impression of the La Barre pieces may well be of a certain sameness. Just about half of them are called "courante," many of those in D minor, and the rest fall almost entirely within the other three standard dance categories: allemande, sarabande, and gigue. However, a closer look reveals differences in both overall style and figurative detail well beyond what ordinarily is encountered within the works of a single composer, differences that, among other things, point to widely separated chronological layers. The editors make a broad division between the first twenty-nine pieces and the last twelve. In terms of styles and sources, the second group clearly forms a distinct body of works of somewhat later provenance, and the editors note further stylistic divisions within each group. The most interesting differences, though, are not those between the different pieces but those between the different versions of the same piece that are included in the edition.

2.2 Some pieces appear in as many as seven different manuscripts, and a few show up more than once in the same manuscript, but their texts are virtually never note-for-note identical. This is of course a common phenomenon whenever a piece of music survives in more than one source. Editors usually respond by publishing the "best" version, meaning the one that is supposed to reflect the composer's original conception most faithfully; differences with the other versions are noted in a critical report. Sometimes "corrections" or improvements based on other versions are added or a new version is synthesized from the best elements of the old ones, although this last method is now somewhat out of vogue. The editors of this volume engage, however, in the seemingly wasteful practice of including most of the surviving versions in their entirety, thus swelling the number of pieces from forty-two to sixty-seven.2

3. The Value of the Multiple Versions for the Performer

3.1 In fact, we must commend the publisher for permitting this extravagance, for it was the presence of the alternative versions that prompted my earlier remark about the value of this volume for the performer. Those versions demonstrate in the most direct and convincing manner the fluid nature of the seemingly solid texts from which harpsichordists tend to perform.3 By comparing them one gains a good sense of what elements of a piece were considered the prerogative of the player rather than being defined once and for all by the composer and which therefore are likely to differ in versions notated by different musicians. Examples include the fullness and voicing of chords and the patterns of their written-out arpeggiations, especially at the end of strains; the octave register of bass pitches; the moment of entry of notes and the length they are held; and numerous other details of the melodic motion as well as of the underlying accompaniment. The sometimes dramatic differences among versions of a passage could serve as an invitation to performers to exercise their imagination in the realization of pieces of this type even when only a single version survives, particularly with respect to the frequently variable elements of the text. As the editors observe: "The sources . . . indicate that the choice of rhythmic cliché and voicing of a cadence to a strain was not considered an essential ingredient to a composition, and it was therefore subject to variation by the copyist. It is our opinion that the same liberty should extend to the modern performer."

4. Which La Barre?

4.1 Minor textual variations among manuscript copies tend to be the norm rather than the exception in most repertories, unless the text was stabilized by an authoritative printed edition, preferably one issued by the composer. In fact, the circulation of "corrupt" copies was a frequent pretext given by the composer for bringing out his works in print, although it offered no guarantee that henceforth all copyists would respect the authority of its text. However, for the rather extreme range of variation encountered with some of the La Barre pieces, Gustafson has proposed an alternative explanation: we are not dealing here with different versions of a keyboard composition but with different keyboard arrangements of works originally written for lute.4 One would, therefore, expect substantial differences depending on the habits and taste of the arranger and on where and when he worked. Since so many of the early La Barre pieces are found in English manuscripts and hardly any in French ones, Gustafson in his earlier study went a step further and hypothesized that they originated with a lute-playing La Barre who resided in England and who may not even have been related to the French dynasty.5 Keyboard transcriptions of known French lute music were by no means uncommon in this period, but his hypothesis, while solving one problem, introduces another: Why is it that so many of these pieces survive in several (as many as seven) keyboard versions, but just one of them (No. 29) also in a lute setting? In fact, the name La Barre is rarely encountered in the large seventeenth-century lute repertory, appearing with only one other lute composition.6 Furthermore, among the pieces in the later La Barre group (credited by Gustafson to a "Bauyn La Barre," very likely Joseph La Barre [1633–before 1678]7) there are multiple versions with equally striking divergences (compare, for example the two versions of the Prélude, Nos. 31 and 31a); yet their origin as harpsichord pieces is not in question.

4.2 The hypothesis that the early La Barre pieces had their origin in England rather than in France also seems weak, since they appear not just in English sources but also in manuscripts from Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. That none appears in French manuscripts is hardly surprising, or rather, forms part of a much larger mystery: virtually no French sources of harpsichord music have survived from the first half of the seventeenth century. Thus it is just as likely that these little dances did originate quite centrally in France and spread to the rest of Europe, along with other French music of a popular genre; 31 of the 55 European manuscripts reported by Gustafson as containing French harpsichord pieces are not French. Their wide favor may well have been related to the ascendancy of France as a central European power; one thinks of the embracing of American popular culture by much of the world during the later twentieth century.

4.3 The most promising candidate as composer of the widely disseminated early La Barre repertory (Nos. 1–29) is Pierre de la Barre (1592–1656), who was already put forth by Willi Apel,8 although dismissed by Gustafson.9 This Pierre, the third among several generations of prominent musicians by that name, held various posts at the French court, including as organist and joueur d'épinette du roi; thus he lived during the right period and was in the right place. His keyboard artistry was lavishly praised by Mersenne, who illustrated it with a set of variations on a song "composée par le Roy." Pierre de la Barre also had international contacts, corresponding with the Dutch statesman and music aficionado Constantijn Huygens.10 Since he held a central position for keyboard music in France, comparable in a sense to that of Frescobaldi in Rome and Froberger in Vienna—two other European seats of power—it would certainly not be surprising if an interest in his music (or in music believed to be by him) had existed in other parts of Europe. If that music consisted of lilting courantes with catchy melodies, so much the better. True, the variations that Mersenne presents, and that are included in the volume under review (No. 30), are not much like those manuscript dances, but Mersenne's example is clearly of a special nature, intended to show off La Barre's virtuoso diminution technique. The "theme," Louis XIII's song, is provided in its entirety, but only the first couple of measures of each variation are quoted, which show the diminutions progressing all the way to the 64th note level. Perhaps the publication of the incipits in this volume will inspire someone to complete these virtuoso variations. In the meantime, the identity of the manuscript La Barre remains unresolved.

5. The Edition

5.1 The edition is in every way exemplary, offering all one could ask for. The prefatory material on the repertory, editorial policy, and performance practice and the edition of musical text itself all betray years of experience with the French repertory as well as an eminently practical sense that comes from having performed it for an equally long time. The Critical Apparatus is unusually comprehensive—well justified in view of the special nature of the edition. The detailed descriptions and bibliographies of the many European sources by themselves will be of great value to students of seventeenth-century keyboard music (for a couple of sources I have provided bibliographic updates in an Appendix.) Physically the volume is a pleasure to behold and to use, laid out with great generosity on Broude's usual rich, creamy paper, with spacious note text and many pages left half empty to avoid page turns.

5.2 If I must come up with something to quibble about, it would be that at the location where one ordinarily sees the name of the composer, on the right above the score, this edition quotes the original caption of the piece, i.e., the title as it appears in the source, sometimes with an attribution (the titles that appear in the customary place, centered above the score, use standardized nomenclature). The danger is that some unsuspecting soul might think that, say, the first piece in the volume, a "Courante," was composed by a certain "Corrent Bear [sic!]." Speaking of standardized titles, "Courante with Interpolated Variation" is about as inelegant as the title of the entire edition; one hopes not to see it as such on concert programs, especially not accompanied by "Associated with the Name La Barre"!

6. The Old "Modern Edition vs. Facsimile" Issue

6.1 Several facsimile pages are included, always a courageous gesture on the part of the editor, since no reviewer worth his/her salt can resist comparing them with the corresponding pages of the edition. A comparison test of the two versions of the prelude referred to earlier (the only free prelude in the volume), Nos. 31 and 31a, is passed with flying colors; all elements of the idiosyncratic "free-prelude" notation of this genre have been faithfully transcribed to modern notation.11 And yet this comparison reminds us once again of the limitations of almost any modern edition. Some aspects of original text, its flow and spacing and certain graphic gestures seem nearly impossible to capture in modern typography, but, nevertheless, may well be significant to an interpreter. In the originals of Nos. 31 and 31a each musical figure seems to have its own sweep and momentum in a manner that is lost in the more evenly placed and wider spaced modern text.12 Groups of three notes within the opening arpeggios of No. 31a in the edition are neatly articulated by slurs, but in the manuscript those slurs are casually drawn diagonal lines whose ends trail off somewhere beyond the three-note group, suggesting a different sound image.

6.2 In a recent review in this journal, Sally Sanford raises the question of the purpose of editions when the notation in the original sources is readable without much effort.13 Since most (although not quite all) of the manuscripts drawn upon for this edition fall in that category, the question seems not inappropriate here. It appears to have been anticipated by the publisher, who in a prefatory note (p. vii) points to the possibility in an edition of drawing attention to variants and even to offer more than one reading. But there is no reason that a facsimile edition could not provide the same. As a case in point, let us take the Allemande, No. 33. The text is based on the manuscript Parville, but in four passages readings from another manuscript, Babell are substituted. (Whether those readings really are preferable is not the issue here.) The entire piece occupies only the left hand page (p. 58); the page on the right provides the original readings of the four passages in Parville. It would have been just as easy to place the facsimile page from Parville on the left (as it happens, it is included elsewhere in the volume, on p. 100), and to show the four passages from Babell that the editors consider preferable on the right.

6.3 I do admit that I am glad to have this tidy modern edition available, but that is the scholar in me, not the performer. (Sanford in fact prefaces her question with "Perhaps I am hopelessly biased as a performer.") For the performer at home with seventeenth-century scores, the idiosyncrasies of the original notation would at worst slow down a first sight reading. However, the scholar engaged in a project that requires looking through a lot of these pieces—for instance, an attempt to distinguish styles of distinct members of the La Barre clan or a study of the development of one of the dance genres—will welcome a rendition in familiar notation, so that much of a piece can be absorbed at a quick glance. The situation is similar to that of lute tablatures, if not as extreme. Lutenists generally prefer the original tablature notation and rightly claim that many aspects of the original are lost in transcription. On the other hand, non-lutenists like myself remain frustrated that for want of transcriptions much of this important repertory remains difficult to access. Thus we witness an ironic reversal from the days before the early music revival, when performers required modern editions and facsimiles were of interest only to scholars. Clearly there is a need for both types of editions, and one hopes that enlightened publishers like the Broude Trust will continue to make them available.

Appendix: Update on the Source Bibliographies

There has been quite a bit of further research on the manuscript Chigi Q IV 24 since the publications of Gustafson (1979) and myself (1980) listed in the bibliography for that source (pp. 79–80); some of it was summarized in my introduction to the facsimile of the manuscript.14 While most of this research (which included the tentative identification of the scribe as Leonardo Castellani, c. 1610–1667) has little bearing on the La Barre entries, a revision of the manuscript's dates might be of consequence. Étienne Darbellay has proposed a dating between 1627 and 1637, which would make the manuscript among the earliest of the La Barre sources;15 however, a dating after 1637 continues to be regarded as more plausible by both Claudio Annibaldi and myself.16

A valuable study of foreign keyboard music in certain English manuscripts by Candace Bailey, including a detailed discussion of the important La Barre source Ch-Ch 1236, has appeared since the publication of this edition; in fact, her article refers to it.17 Bailey's discussion suggests that the dating of the manuscript should probably be narrowed, with a completion by 1664 at the latest.


*Alexander Silbiger (lexsilb@duke.edu) is Professor Emeritus of Music at Duke University. He is currently working on a revision of his book Keyboard Music Before 1700, to be published by Routledge in fall 2003.


1. Bruce Gustafson, French Harpsichord Music of the 17th Century: a Thematic Catalog of the Sources with Commentary (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979).

2. The some half dozen versions that are not included presumably don't differ substantially from one of the included versions, although the omission of a couple of them, such as the version of the Courante No. 6 in Chigi Q IV 24, is a bit puzzling. [Note: Manuscripts will be called by the short titles used in the edition; for full titles, see the Critical Apparatus, pp. 77–84.]

3. I have discussed this issue at greater length and illustrated it with a La Barre courante (No. 6) in Alexander Silbiger, ed., Keyboard Music Before 1700 (New York: Schirmer Books, 1995), 16–19; see also Gustafson's chapter in the same volume, pp. 121–26, regarding a Chambonnières composition.

4. Gustafson, French Harpsichord Music, 14–18 and 58–61.

5. Gustafson, French Harpsichord Music, 59. This conjectural figure already made his way as "the shadowy 'English' La Barre" into the "La Barre" article of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 2001), 14: 78, but, curiously, he is not mentioned in the edition under review.

6. In a 1617 lute publication; see Gustafson, French Harpsichord Music, 59.

7. Gustafson, French Harpsichord Music, 58, 102.

8. Willi Apel, The History of Keyboard music to 1700 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), 507–508.

9. Gustafson, French Harpsichord Music, 58.

10. "La Barre," New Grove, 77.

11. In No. 31a, four curious repetitions of dissonant appoggiaturas are marked by asterisks, which lead to a note explaining that they were added after the piece had been copied; the last e" on the treble staff of the first system should be marked likewise.

12. I have discussed these issues at greater length in a review-essay on early keyboard editions in Journal of the American Musicological Society 42 (1989): 183–84, and in an article "In Defense of Facsimiles," Historical Performance 7 (1994): 101–104.

13. Sally Sanford, Review of Sebastien Le Camus, Airs à deux et trois parties. Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 6 (2000) <http://www.sscm-jscm.org/v6/no2/sanford.html>, par. 3.1.

14. Alexander Silbiger, ed., Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, MSS Chigi Q.IV.24, 2629, and Q.VIII.205-206 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1989), vii-viii.

15. Étienne Darbellay, "I manoscritti Chigi Q.IV.24 e Q.VIII.205/206 come fonti frescobaldiane: criteri filologici di autenticità," Girolamo Frescobaldi nel IV centenario della nascita: atti del convegno internationale di studi (Ferrara, 9–14 settembre 1983), Sergio Durante and Dinko Fabris, eds. (Florence: Olschki, 1986), 107–124.

16. Claudio Annibaldi, "Musical Autographs of Frescobaldi and his Entourage in Roman Sources," Journal of the American Musicological Society 43 (1990): 393–425; Silbiger, Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, vii-viii.

17. Candace Bailey, "William Ellis and the Transmission of Continental Keyboard Music in Restoration England," Journal of Musicological Research 20 (2001): 211–42.

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