article 22:   An autograph prélude non mesuré by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre

While discussing a possible publication for Lyrebird of an anthology of inaccessible French préludes non mesurés, the young firm’s founder Jon Baxendale sent me a link on Gallica to one I had completely overlooked. I immediately saw a strong resemblance to preludes by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729). Closer comparison confirmed that the piece could only be by that most distinguished of all female clavecinistes.

The work is found in F-Pn Vm.7 1879bis, sandwiched between a rare 1702 edition of Louis Marchand’s Livre Second / Pièces de Clavecin and a subsequent manuscript copy of the same composer’s first book, which appeared in 1699. The handwriting of the anonymous prelude and the Marchand copy looked identical to me, but a superior authority (Bruce Gustafson 1990) declares them to be different. (His tentative ascription of the piece to Marchand is, however, in my humble opinion a stylistic impossibility.) I also noted that Paul Prévost had edited the piece for his 1987 study.

It is striking that the composer of the prelude, whoever it was, found it advisable to precede Marchand’s splendid metrical prelude by an unmeasured one in the same key of D-minor.

This single source of a short but first-rate unmeasured prelude is flawless – a rare and happy situation indeed for someone who has been engaged for half a century in deciphering the disorder in copies and most prints of such pieces, which are difficult enough to understand without the usual multitude of errors: pitches, tenues, accidentals, and, most especially, chaotic spacing of the notes, which according to le Begue are to be played “one after the other”. (François Couperin’s lament about “l’ignorance et les fautes des copistes” is particularly à propos.)*

To my knowledge the only other source as error-free as this one is the autograph MS of d’Anglebert. I had just started looking for examples of Jacquet’s handwriting, in hopes that Vm.7 1879bis might be a Jacquet autograph, when John Koster suggested that the preludes in her 1687 print could have been engraved from her autograph. It was a common procedure to oil the Stichvorlage, making the text visible from the reverse – a perfect model for an engraver.

The IMSLP furnished the original for Jacquet’s Piéces de Clavessin [sic] / Premier Livre, and unless I am much deceived it provides proof that the Paris source is indeed an autograph — spacing, the use of tenues and every other element all look very much alike. Should this be the case, the prelude would be the only surviving autograph of a claveciniste other than d’Anglebert’s, with the possible exception of the Oldham MS. The prelude's anonymity could be an indication that Jacquet, as possessor of the volume, saw no need to advertise her authorship.

This episode recalled to mind the moment I walked up the stairs in the former Clapham Common home of Alan Rubin and suddenly found myself face to face with Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre. I had no idea that he owned the nearly life-sized seated portrait of her by François de Troy.

January 20, Inauguration Day 2021

*See my edition for Breitkopf and Härtel of the preludes by the brothers Couperin, which attempts to reconstruct what the autographs might have looked liked.

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