This week on History Hunt, we’ll be looking at yet another composer who was both famous and highly regarded in her day. In fact, she was a member of King Louis XIV of France’s court!
Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was born in 1665. We don’t have a record of her exact birthdate, but we do know she was baptised on March 17 of that year. She was born into a family of musicians and instrument-makers, which made it easy for her brilliance to be recognised at a very young age. And it wasn’t only her family who realised she had the makings of a great musician, either: Jacquet de la Guerre was just five years old when she performed on the harpsichord for King Louis XIV!
As Jacquet de la Guerre grew up and honed her sklils, she turned more and more people into her fans. She was nicknamed “la petite merveille” (the little wonder) and called “the marvel of our century” by a writer for the Mercure galant (“Gallant Mercury”), a monthly magazine.
When she was about fifteen, she performed for Louis XIV again–and this time found herself with a royal patron. She was accepted into his court and taken under the wing of Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, the marquise of Montespan. The king ensured Jacquet de la Guerre had enough money to compose, and she in turn wrote music and dedicated it to him. It was a popular arrangement for musicians during this period in history, and one that worked well for both patron and musician.
After three or four years (we’re not sure), Jacquet de la Guerre left the court to get married to a fellow musician. She stayed on good terms with the king, though, and continued to dedicate to him nearly every single piece she published for the rest of her life.
When Jacquet de la Guerre was twenty-two, she published Pièces de clavessin (“Harpsichord Pieces”). Harpsichord music was still relatively rare in France, making her one of the harpsichord’s early adopters. She was an unusual composer, willing to try the latest musical techniques and push the boundaries of what was considered “normal” in the music of the time. She wrote not only harpsichord music, but violin sonatas, vocal music, an opera-ballet when she was twenty, and a full-scale opera–the first in France to be written by a woman.
This last, however, was not met with success and closed after five or six performances. And unfortunately, this was a big deal in Jacquet de la Guerre’s time. After all, a poor showing at such a grand musical event was often seen to reflect upon a musician’s patron, and since Jacquet de la Guerre’s patron was the king, it would have been a real blow.
But that wasn’t the end of Jacquet de la Guerre’s career–not at all. She continued to compose, perform, and improvise on the harpsichord in spite of the setback, even if she stopped publishing her music for over a decade. After 1704, she began hosting concerts at her home, which became tremendously popular with the rich and famous. Three years later, she at last published her second and third books, of harpsichord and violin music, and followed it up with three collections of cantatas.
Though Jacquet de la Guerre retired from public performances in 1717, she kept on composing. It seems she still maintained her connection with King Louis XIV–one of the last (or possibly last) of her compositions that we know of was dedicated to him on the occasion of his recovery from a serious illness. Even after her death, Jacquet de la Guerre remained one of the most highly valued French composers of her era, and since the 1990s, there’s been a real effort to once more bring back the fame she knew during her lifetime.
Here’s her Sonata in D Major for violin and continuo from her third book of compositions. It’s not long, so if you can listen to the whole thing, I highly recommend it.
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To Learn More (Sources):
Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre: myth or marvel? seeking the composer’s individuality, by Mary Cyr
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre on Encyclopædia Britannica
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre on Naxos.com
A Pioneering French Composer by Melody Nishinaga
Elizabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre on AllMusic.com
Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet De La Guerre on The Famous People
Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre on Wikipedia.org
Françoise-Athénaïs, marquise de Montespan on Wikipedia.org
Image source: Notes on the Françoise de Troy (1645-1730) Portrait of Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre