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French Music from the 17th and Early 18th Centuries


engraving of Quebec in 1759

Quebec, the Capital of New-France, 1759. Line engraving by Thomas Johnston, born Boston ca. 1708; died Boston, 1767. Courtesy of Historic Deerfield.

The principal buildings depicted on this topographical view of the Quebec cityscape include the Citadel, the Palace, the Ursuline Convent, Jesuit College, Cathedral of Our Lady, the Seminary, the Hotel Dieu, and the Common Hospital that, by 1704, had on site a new mechanical-action pipe organ.

Music at the French Court

In recent years a number of scholars in Canada (including Jean-Pierre Pinson, Élisabeth Gallat-Morin and Erich Schwandt) have investigated the riches of sacred and secular music in French Canada. It is now apparent that the nobility and others within the hierarchy of French Canadian society heard works by the leading composers associated with Louis the XIV's Chapel Royal and Court Chambers at Versailles. For example, François Mion, the grand-nephew of the famous composer Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726), emigrated to New France in 1722, where he eventually became a scribe to the King's shipyard at Quebec. Born at Versailles in 1704, Mion possessed an inventory of music that reflects the prevailing musical taste at the French court.


Listen to an example of French Court music:

La Forlana (duration: 1:30 minutes)
by André Campra (1660 - 1744)
as arranged by Louis-Guillaume Pécour (ca. 1651-1729)

MP3 format (file size 1.9MB)

The "forlana" is generally considered a lively pastoral and perhaps even rustic dance. The melody is taken from André Campra's opera-ballet L'Europe Galante (1697), and is identical to the music incorporated in the manual published in Paris in 1700 by the celebrated dancing master, Louis Pécour. Such volumes were well known to dancing masters active in New France.

During the course of his life, André Campra held many important sacred and secular appointments—most notably, organist at Notre-Dame in Paris and at the Royal Academy of Music. He was equally at ease writing for church and theater productions, which were justifiably well-received. Many examples of Campra's sacred repertory were known in New France, as evidenced in the Ursuline Convent archives in Quebec City. Secular airs and other pieces, including works of Campra, can be found listed in the inventory (before 1750) of Charles Berthelot, merchant and captain of the militia, and member of the City Council of Quebec.


engraving of Palace of the Intendant of Quebec

Palace of the Intendant of Quebec, 1759-1761. Hand-colored engraving by William Elliot (1727-1766), after a painting by Richard Short (flourished 1750). Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, (C360.)

The Palace of the Intendant of Quebec, with its grand stairs and commodious terrace, flanks the common, or parade ground. The open space functioned as a meeting place, to accommodate military maneuvers and as a venue for civic and state occasions. Invited guests would alight from carriages and enter the palace through the elegant doorframe surmounted by a palladian window.

Palace Music

Civil authority in Quebec City, the capital of New France, was vested in the position of Royal Governor, or Intendant, appointed by the King of France. The Intendant's palace served as the nerve center for all official government business, policies, and protocols carried out in the sovereign name. In addition to the day to day affairs of state, the Palace was also the setting for lavish entertainments of all sorts. These soirees were presented to both provide elite and select citizenry with opportunities for social refinement and advancement, and to signal to those in attendance that the proceedings—concerts, theatre pieces, or suppers—reflected the lustre and prestige of the office of the King's representative.

Since a number of Royal Governors had serious musical interest and background, guests once inside the Palace would be treated to a variety of musicians playing upon recorders, flutes, oboes, violins, lutes, chamber organ, and harpsichord. The music performed at any given entertainment, based on extant 17th and 18th century inventories from New France, might include arrangements of opera airs by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) and André Campra (1660-1744), or instrumental pieces such as those by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749).


Listen to examples of Palace music:

Air de Musette (duration: 2:03 minutes)
by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749)

MP3 format (file size 2.6MB)

The "musette" is a piece that in 17th and 18th century France evoked the pastoral, or country world of shepherd and shepherdess. The name was also given to a sort of miniature bag-pipe, much favored by the French court. Clérambault was a very highly respected composer of cantatas, which were regarded by connoisseurs as the finest form of sung poetry and dramatic text. The Intendant, Claude-Thomas Dupuy, owned several books of Clérambault's sacred cantatas. The Air de Musette and the air by Lully that follows, are representative of music heard at the Intendant's Palace in Quebec.


Air de Galatée (duration: 2:23 minutes)
by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687)

MP3 format (file size 3.0MB)

This famous piece is taken from the harpsichord vocal score of Lully's opera Acis et Galatée (1686). A copy of the harpsichord vocal score is listed in the music inventory of the Intendant of Quebec, Claude-Thomas Dupuy, who occupied this post from 1725 to 1728. Lully, of Florentine birth, would eventually become the dominant figure in French musical life during the second half of the 17th century. He is perhaps best known for his extraordinary theatrical productions that incorporated lavish ballet sequences. In addition he composed tragic operas and on many occasions co-produced comedy-ballets with Molière.


title page engraving from Cambonnieres 'Les Pieces de Clavessin'

Engraved frontispiece of Les Pièces de Clavessin, by Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (ca. 1602-ca. 1672). Published in Paris, in the year 1670. Courtesy of Broude Brothers Limited.

The superb frontispiece reveals images of instruments both old and new. The be-ribboned musical trophy on the left depicts an old-style recorder, along with shawm (an oboe precursor) and cornetto. Other instruments shown include guitar, lute, viola da gamba, and in the foreground, beneath the putti held canopy, two different forms of harpsichord.

The Harpsichord Music of Jacques Champion de Chambonnières

The existence of fine printed music in New France is well documented. One of the most precious collections of pieces for the harpsichord, published in Paris and recorded in Quebec, is that of Jacques Champion de Chambonnières. As the principal harpsichordist to Louis the XIIIth and well known for his innovative compositional style, based on the much esteemed music of contemporary lutenists, Chambonnierès was also one of the greatest 17th century teachers of the instrument. While his relationship with the new court of Louis XIVth ultimately proved disappointing, the King did grant the composer the "royal privilege" a sort of monopoly on printing that only the King could award, of publishing a volume of harpsichord music. The book is one of the glories of 17th century printing in France.


Listen to an example of the harpsichord music of Jacques Champion de Chambonnières:

L'Entretien des dieux (duration: 3:37 minutes)
by Jacques Champion de Chambonnières (ca. 1602 – ca. 1672)
from Les Pièces de Clavessin, Paris (1670).

MP3 format (file size 4.3MB)

L'Entretien des dieux, or Conversation with the Gods, refers to the lively interest that composers and writers— such as the dramatist Jean Racine and Chancellor of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Charles Le Brun— had for the world of classical antiquity. These minions of the muses and others who flourished during the reign of Louis the XIVth, sustained the King's desire to see all affairs of state and matters cultural modeled on principles of rulership and aesthetics, put in place during the reign of ancient Rome's first emperor Augustus.


View of

The church of Notre-Dame de Montréal, originally built by Sulpician clerics in the French Classical style, characterized by a facade that quotes antique Roman originals, as seen in a pen and ink with watercolor wash drawing, executed in 1829 by James Pattison Cockburn (1779-1847). Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, (C-12531.)

Cockburn's drawing faithfully records the third church of 1683 on the site as it was and bears no relationship to the present and justifiably famous gothic revival edifice. The nearby Sulpician Seminary is now Montréal's oldest building. Built in 1685, it remains home to the Sulpician order and closed to the public. The order, by virtue of its Montréal property holdings, exercised considerable influence socially and politically in New France.

Sacred Music

In 17th and early 18th century France—and thus New France, there was a constancy of debate on issues related to morality and theology. The Catholic Counter-Reformation had a profound and decisive influence on spiritual and ethical behavior. Theological inquiry and religious affairs in New France were channeled through a variety of institutions such as those established over time by religious orders—most notably, Ursuline, Augustinian, Sulpician, and Jesuit. A Jesuit college was built within the precincts of Quebec City in 1635, a year before the founding, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of Harvard College.

Music helped to frame religious observances of all sorts. Convent and seminary libraries and archives bear testimony to the richness of sacred music heard in New France. Antiphons, masses, and motets were regularly heard, composed by musicians such as André Campra, Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, Nicolas Bernier, and Nicolas-Antoine Lebègue—all associated with the court chapel at Versailles, and/or, the principal churches of Paris.

Mechanical action, or "tracker," pipe organs, and volumes of printed organ music were regularly exported to New France, and noteworthy instruments were set up at an early date in Quebec City and Montréal. By 1724, a grand organ was in place in the Church of Notre-Dame (Our Lady) in Montréal; this organ was considered important enough that a French cleric and musician, based on reports from New France, sought to fulfill the position. The cleric, Jean Girard (1696-1765), originally from the provincial city of Bourges and later trained by Sulpicians in Paris, and it is now believed, by Clérambault as well, left for New France and brought along, in addition to his other possessions, printed organ music by Nivers, an organist to the King and of the parish church of St. Sulpice in Paris, and a specially prepared manuscript volume of organ music. This particular volume, thankfully preserved over the intervening centuries, was rediscovered in 1978 by the Canadian musicologist, Élisabeth Gallat-Morin, and is known today as the Livre d'orgue de Montréal. Although no composer names are recorded in the 540-page manuscript, Mme. Gallat-Morin and other scholars have been able to identify works by another of Louis XIVth's principal organists, Lebègue, based on examination of printed music and other manuscript transmissions where the identity of Lebègue is without doubt. The Livre d'orgue de Montréal is one of the treasures in the permanent collection of the Foundation Lionel-Groulx, Montréal, a research center dedicated to the history of French North America.


Listen to examples of sacred music organ pieces:

Basse de Trompette (duration: 1:14 minutes)
Nicolas-Antoine Lebègue (ca.1631-1702),
from the Livre d'orgue de Montréal.

MP3 format (file size 1.4MB)

Active in Paris, Lebègue was highly regarded as a composer, harpsichordist, organist, and organ consultant. His expertise in the latter capacity was sought far from Paris by church authorities in the cathedral cities of Chartres, Soissons, and Bourges, coincidentally, the birth-place of Jean Girard, who would become organist of the Church of Notre-Dame of Montréal and, it is now thought, the first professional musician active in the city. The Basse de Trompette is a sprightly dance-like piece and is typical of the French organ repertory of the period.


Plein Jeu (duration: 1:30 minutes)
Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers (ca. 1632 - 1714),
from the Livre d'orgue par le Sieur Nivers, Paris (1667).

MP3 format (file size 1.8MB)

Unlike Lebègue, Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers came from a family of means and was well educated. During the reign of Louis the XIVth, he served as organist at Saint Sulpice in Paris, Master of Music to the Queen, and Director of Music at the Maison Royale de St. Louis, a convent school for young women of noble birth. He also participated as harpsichordist in productions of dramatic works by Racine. The work heard is a setting of a Plein Jeu, in French Classic organ terminology meaning to be played on "full organ without reed stops" and is taken from a publication known to have been brought to New France by Jean Girard in 1724.


Abenaki Motet: Haec dies (duration: 1:24 minutes)
Manuscript of the Abenaki Mission of Saint Francois-de-Sales,
Music French School, (c. 1700-1730).

This very beautiful "motet" is typical of the sort of music heard at various Abenaki missions in New France before the Fall of Quebec in 1759. The music is taken from a variety of known sources including works by André Campra and Henry Du Mont (1610-1684). The sacred text of Haec dies drawn from Psalm 117 and is associated with liturgical rites that celebrate the feast-day of Easter.

The religious orders established in New France fulfilled a significant role in the life of the populace. The institutional church was not only the conduit for spiritual well-being, but also served as a place to convey the protocols and proclamations of the Governor, or Intendant, to those members of the general society who were illiterate. These protocols and proclamations were delivered following parish masses, by and large considered compulsory.

Another practice of the religious orders from the earliest years of French settlement was the conversion of the Native peoples. Music was of significant importance in the rituals and ceremonies of the Native peoples. Accordingly, teaching, or evangelizing, clerics recognized the value of music as a practical and useful medium for conversion. Among the rarest surviving musical documents from New France is the 600-page liturgical manuscript of the Abenaki Mission of Saint Francis de Sales, transcribed by a Jesuit cleric, Joseph Aubéry, (1674-1756) before 1750. The manuscript unites French music, in which the liturgical Latin text has been retained, replaced entirely, or in part, with a text in Abenaki.

MP3 format (file size 1.7MB)

Latin text and English translation of Haec dies



Content and musical selections for Secular French Music of the 17th and early 18th centuries were provided by the Practitioners of Musick, an ensemble founded by Messrs. John Burkhalter and Eugene Roan to survey the musical riches of eighteenth century Great Britain and Ireland, and both the colonial and early Federal period in America. Recent research has focused on musical life in New France from the years 1660 until the Fall of Quebec in 1759.

Eugene Roan is Professor Emeritus and former chair of the Piano, Organ and Harpsichord Department at Westminster Choir College, School of Music, Rider University, where he has taught since 1956.

John Burkhalter is an independent scholar who has composed and prepared music for documentary films, lectured on the ancient musical cultures of the Americas, and served as a musical consultant for the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.

The Instruments heard in these recordings were made by the following masters:
Harpsichord - Willard Martin - Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, after Marin Mersenne (France, circa 1635)
Recorder - Jean-Luc Boudreau - Montréal, P.Q. Canada, after Charles Bizey (Paris, circa 1700)

The instruments are heard at A=392, the pitch known in 17th and early 18th century Paris, and by extention, 17th and early 18th century New France.

Content and musical selections for Sacred French Organ and Vocal Music of the 17th and early 18th centuries were provided by the Practitioners of Musick and Christopher Jackson and Marie-Claude Arpin of The Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal who graciously granted permission to include as part of this section to the website the recording of the Abenaki motet Haec dies. This motet is taken from the following CD Le Chant de la Jérusalem des Terres Froides, (catalogue number K617052) recorded by the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal and produced by K.617 Editions discographiques, Longeville-Les-Metz, France.

Thanks and appreciation are extended to Pastor Fred D. Mueller and Joseph T. Heise, Director of Music, of the Hillsborough Reformed Church, Millstone, New Jersey for kindly permitting Eugene Roan to record the organ works of Lebègue and Nivers. Organ (Mechanical key and stop action) built by Charles M. Ruggles, Berea, Ohio.


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