Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre

Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre


French composer. Born in Paris in March 1665 to a family of musicians settled on l'Île Saint-Louis. Her father, Claude, was a "master instrument maker" and the organist at Saint-Louis-en-l'Île. Her mother, Anne de Le Touche, had ties to the Daquin family, and Élisabeth would become the godmother of Louis-Claude in 1694. A child prodigy, she was quickly singled out by Louis XIV at concerts where she sang and played the harpsichord. Having thus been the object of royal attention since her youth, Élisabeth would never cease to point this out to her admirers by dedicating all but one of her publications to the Roi-Soleil.

The first in a series of invaluable articles about the composer in the Mercure galant dates from this period. In July 1677, the journal states: "this is a prodigy who has been appearing here for the last four years. She sings the most difficult music on sight. She accompanies herself, and others who wish to sing, at the harpsichord, which she plays in an inimitable manner. She composes pieces and plays them in any key that we ask. I have told you that for four years now, she has been appearing with such extraordinary qualities, and is still only ten years old." This gossip-writer lowered Élisabeth's age, perhaps to make the prodigy even more remarkable. A year later, the same contributor writes that Miss Jacquet is presenting "a small opera of sorts" at the home of Louis de Mollier, where this "marvel of our century plays the harpsichord." To gain such praise at a time when many good musicians were vying for public attention, the young Élisabeth must have shown exceptional aptitude.

Soon after, her education was supervised by Madame la Marquise de Montespan, and she often met with the future Madame de Maintenon, governess of the children Louis XIV had by the Marchioness, his official mistress at the time. Élisabeth left the court in 1680 and married Marin de La Guerre four years later. La Guerre was then the organist at Saint-Séverin and, starting in 1698, at the Sainte-Chapelle. He was the son of Michel de La Guerre, also an organist and a man of the theatre who, along with Perrin and Cambert, made the first attempts in the domain of French opera before Lully. Élisabeth's marriage to Marin soon produced a son, but the boy died only ten years later.

Around 1680 Élisabeth started composing seriously, but her first works have been lost. In 1685, she presented a pastorale before the King in the Dauphin's apartments. The Mercure galant informs us that the heir apparent received this work "with his characteristic obliging air" and that he declared "that there was no doubt [it] was perfectly beautiful," demanding several encores in the following days. Two years later, Élisabeth published her first book of four suites of harpsichord pieces. In 1691, in celebration of the capture of Mons, she composed the ballet Les Jeux de l'honneur de la victoire. Three years after that, she staged her tragedy set to music, Céphale et Procris, at the Académie Royale. The creation of such a major work would firmly establish her reputation. The work was composed on a libretto by Duché de Vancy, secretary to the Duke of Noailles and professor at Saint-Cyr, thus an intimate acquaintance of Madame de Maintenon.

The opera was first performed in Paris, then in 1698 in Strasbourg. The presence in this city of Sébastien de Brossard, an admirer of de la Guerre, perhaps had something to do with this event. Brossard was an ardent supporter of Italian music and at about this stage, Élisabeth was starting to compose in a form that was new at least to France, the sonata. In fact, in 1695, she had sent him four trio sonatas and two sonatas for violin and bass, which were never published. Written with a viol part that was different in places from the bass part of the harpsichord, and consisting of from five to nine movements, they were "delightful," according to their recipient.

After having lost her son, Élisabeth's father died at the dawn of the new century, and her husband, in 1704. Widowhood inspired her to redouble her efforts. In addition to frequent appearances at court, she gave semi-public concerts at her rue Regrattière home on l'ile Saint-Louis, where she played her own compositions and improvised at the harpsichord. In 1707, there appeared a second book of pieces for the harpsichord-grouped into two suites, they have the distinction that they "can [also] be played on the violin"--and a collection of six sonatas for violin and bass. Their publication was announced in the Mercure galant, which added that these pieces had been performed at court and that the King had complimented Mademoiselle de Le Guerre on their originality.

In 1708 and 1711, Élisabeth published two books, each containing six Cantates françaises sur des sujets tirés de l'écriture. A copy of each volume was sent forthwith "to the Seminary of Foreign Missions at Québec," as attests a hand-written note on the title page. These cantatas were the only ones in France at the time that put biblical subjects to music. Like Racine's plays Esther and Athalie, written for the young ladies of SaintCyr, they were surely created due to the pious Madame de Maintenon's influence or at her instigation. Written on texts by Houdar de la Motte, they put "the greatest events in Holy Scripture" into action, while the music strove to "capture its spirit and sustain its grandeur." Three other cantatas would appear around 1715: three secular works also "accompanied by symphonies." They are dedicated to Max Emmanuel, Elector of Bavaria, a great music lover and an amateur viol player. He lived in France at this time, his army having been defeated by the troops of Prince Eugène during Spain's war of succession. Elisabeth also composed for collective anthologies of serious airs and drinking songs published by the Ballard family, as well as for the théâtre de la Foire. For example, the duet Le Raccomodement comique de Pierrot et de Nicole was inserted in a play by Alain René Lesage entitled La Ceinture de Vénus, and published with the cantatas of 1715.

Mademoiselle de La Guerre, as she was still called, retired in 1717, apparently ceasing her musical activities, except for the composition of a Te Deum performed in the chapel of the Louvre in 1721 at the occasion of young Louis XV's recovery from smallpox. This motet for large choir, like so many occasional pieces that are played only once, is lost today, and so much the worse as it was her only religious work in Latin. Around the same time, she moved to rue de Provaires in Saint-Eustache parish and spent the rest of her life in considerable comfort, judging by the detailed will she wrote in 1726. She passed away three years later, still admired at court and in the city.

In the year of her death, a medallion was stamped with her portrait; on the back was the inscription: "Aux grands musiciens, j'ai disputé le Prix" [I contended with the greatest of musicians). This medallion appears as an engraving in Le Parnasse français by Titan du Tillet, along with an interesting biographical note. Her glory soon crossed borders, as evidenced by the Musikalisches Lexicon published by Johann Gottfried Walther in 1732, which accords her a more significant entry than either Delalande or Couperin. Much later, John Hawkins, in his General History of the Science and Practice of Music of 1776, considered her one of the greatest musicians France had ever produced. He describes her qualities as follows: "So rich and exquisite a flow of harmony has captivated all that heard her."

A Partial Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre Discography | IVD: Chamber and Keyboard Music up to Rameau  |  The Research Periods