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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6 (2000) No. 2

Sébastien Le Camus. Airs à deux et trois parties. Edited by Robert A. Green. Recent Researches in the Music of the Baroque Era, 89. Madison: A-R Editions, 1998. [xxi, 55 pp. ISBN 0-89579-407-1. $34.95.]

Reviewed by Sally Sanford*

1. Overview

2. The Edition

3. Why Make Editions?


1. Overview

1.1 This is a welcome addition to A–R’s series. The airs of Le Camus include some of the most beautiful, elegant, and touching French vocal chamber music of the seventeenth century, and they are not as well-known today as they should be. These pieces represent the late seventeenth-century air de cour at its best, and the collection is the last publication of serious airs in France. Robert A Green follows closely the posthumous collection which was prepared by the composer’s son, Charles, and published in 1678 by Robert Ballard. Green observes that the collection represented “a sampling” of what Charles considered to be his father’s best work. Charles’s collection includes 32 songs. According to Green, there are about 80 extant airs by Le Camus. It is to be hoped that a facsimile publication of the rest of these airs will be forthcoming.

1.2 The title might be misleading, as the vast majority of the songs in this collection are for solo voice and continuo (the “deux parties”). The bass lines are as carefully crafted as the vocal lines. There are only three duets (nos. 9, 18, and 32 in the edition), which divide the collection more or less into thirds. Le Camus was noted as a theorbist, so it is not surprising that most of the airs are in keys extremely well suited to the theorbo,1 and they work well accompanied by theorbo alone (Bacilly’s preferred instrument for song accompaniment).

2. The Edition

2.1 The Introduction to the edition includes a brief survey of the development of the air de cour in the seventeenth century (which some may find has perhaps too much of an Italian bias), a biographical sketch of Le Camus and the circumstances leading to the 1678 publication, and a cursory discussion of the music and performance issues. The texts are given in modernized French with rather literal English translations which will nevertheless be most helpful to singers not fluent in French who want to understand word by word what they are singing. The only poet identified is Henriette de Coligny, Contesse de la Suze, the author of five song texts in the collection.

2.2 The Critical Report includes a useful table of sources, a description of editorial methods, and a very short list of variants. The latter demonstrates how beautifully prepared the 1678 edition was.

2.3 Perhaps the most interesting aspects of this publication, aside from the music itself, are Plates 2 and 3, which enable the reader to compare the song “Quand l’amour veut finir” in the 1678 edition by Charles Le Camus with the 1671 version published in Airs de différents autheurs. Though the editor does not discuss this, the 1671 version is for a basse à chanter, while the 1678 version presents a simplification (and in some places an alteration) of the bass line, presumably for instrumental performance. It provides an excellent model of the types of modifications a theorbo player might make to a texted bass line, such as when doing a premier with a sung bass (with or without instrumental doubling) and a double with an elaborately ornamented vocal line and a purely instrumental bass line.

2.4 The edition itself raises important questions as to what type of reader/user it serves and what is lost or gained in modernizing the notation. As the facsimile in Plate 2 demonstrates, the 1678 publication is extremely legible, though not perhaps as beautiful as later turn-of-the-century cantata engravings. Nevertheless, it has a certain character and visual aesthetic evocative of its time. The experienced performer will find the 1678 publication relatively easy to play or sing from. It requires a small investment of time to learn soprano clef and to become familiar with French conventions in figured bass. It requires a greater investment of time to become fluent in the French style. The original notation provides the modern performer with a visual representation of the music that engages specialized musical sensibilities. The performer is pulled into an aesthetic and drawn into a cultural world by the appearance of the page. This is easily lost in the translation to modern notational conventions standardized long after these pieces were first published. This translation process, while attempting to provide a rendering of the original in modern notation, is a distancing one. This type of edition, where the clefs, figures, text, and visual appearance have been modernized, makes achieving a stylistically appropriate performance itself a process of re-translation. The editor has only minimally involved himself in assisting that process, a plus for some and a minus for others.

2.5 The experienced continuo player will be grateful that the editor has not attempted to realize the figured bass, but will be somewhat frustrated by the inconsistencies in the editor’s conventionalizing of the figures. Sometimes he retains Le Camus’s figures and at others he presents the figure in a modern version. For example, in “Ah, fuyons ce dangereux séjour” (no. 3), Green keeps Le Camus’s French convention of a flat-5 in measure 15, but at measure 21, he has modernized it to a simple 5. Le Camus’s convention of an x to indicate a major third, as in measures 23 and 24, has also been modernized to a natural sign. Though the editor has mixed original and modern styles of figured bass notation, he has only minimally added extra figures, thankfully indicated by brackets. He could have done a bit more in this area to give the player a “heads up” in several places which would avoid the possibility of a wrong chord being played. For example, in “Pleurez, mes yeux” (no. 19), natural signs at measures 10 and 21 could have been added. This is a minor point, because one would assume that the player would mark them into the music during a second reading of the piece,2 but isn’t part of the reason for doing an edition presumably to fix some of these kinds of details and to make the performer’s task a bit easier?

2.6 The inexperienced performer will find little guidance in this edition. The section on “Performance Issues” does not offer much support. Though the editor has left many matters “up to the performer,” suggestions for tempo and proportional relationships (if any) at changes of meter within a piece would have been helpful. From his discussion of meter and tempo, it would appear that Green does not envision any fast triple meter pieces in the collection, or he might have caught a serious error in his summary of Jean Rousseau’s metrical discussion. Rousseau calls C3 “le signe trinarie, à trois temps lents” and 3 is “le triple simple, à trois temps légers.”3 Green omitted the sign C3 and put its definition with the sign 3. This could certainly lead an inexperienced performer astray. Some editorial suggestions to guide a performer through the metrical changes in a piece such as “Pleurez, mes yeux” would also have been useful. The piece beings in cut-C followed by 3/2 followed by C with a da capo back to cut-C. No editorial suggestions have been made with respect to ornamentation, again a plus for an experienced performer and a minus for an inexperienced one.

2.7 The layout of the edition has been done in such a way as to maximize paper efficiency at the expense of page turns. Many of the pieces are two-page songs. It would have been preferable to include a few more facsimile pages or some period illustrations to fill up the extra white space from the occasional three-page song, than to put a page turn in the middle of a two-page song (nos. 7, 11, 18, 21, 27, and 30). One gain in the edition over the original publication is measure numbers, though this is not crucial in texted music.

3. Why Make Editions?

3.1 Perhaps I am hopelessly biased as a performer, but this edition raises an overarching question for me: why publish an edition of music perfectly accessible to scholars and experienced performers in the original, if not to support musical performance by those less inclined to play from seventeenth-century notation? This edition, welcome as it is for helping Le Camus’s music to be more widely disseminated, points up the need for more discussion between performers, scholars, editors, and publishers as to how the needs of all can best be served.


*Sally Sanford (salsanford@aol.com) has been performing the airs of Le Camus from original notation since 1979, when she was introduced to them at the Aston Magna Academy by René Jacobs. She is a contributor to The Performer’s Guide to Seventeenth Century Music and this Journal. Noted as a specialist in historical vocal styles and techniques, she is a member of the trio Ensemble Chanterelle and teaches voice at Wellesley College. Return to beginning


1. In Ensemble Chanterelle, we transposePleurez, mes yeux” (no. 19) from C minor to D minor, because we feel it suits the theorbo better. Return to text

2. I am grateful to my colleague and theorbo accompanist, Catherine Liddell, for playing through the edition with me and calling these issues regarding continuo notation to my attention. Return to text

3. Jean Rousseau, Méthode claire, certaine et facile, pour apprendre à chanter la musique 4th ed. (Paris, 1691), 36. Return to text

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