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An American in Paris: Thomas Jefferson’s Musical Adventures

It is well documented that Thomas Jefferson was both a great lover of music and an accomplished performer. 

Monticello

Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, Monticello.

It is well documented that Thomas Jefferson was both a great lover of music and an accomplished performer.  He spent hours practicing the violin as a young man, and apparently wooed his wife Martha by playing violin and harpsichord duets with her.

The contents of his music library have been much studied and include works of Corelli, Haydn, and Handel.  Thanks to Jefferson’s own notes, we also know a great deal about the music he heard during his five years in Paris, starting in 1784.  This hour on Harmonia, we’ll explore the music Jefferson heard on his musical adventures in Paris.

Our featured release is The People’s Purcell, a 2017 album by La Nef and Michael Slattery.


You’ve just heard Michael Slattery and La Nef in their own chamber ensemble arrangement of Henry Purcell’s King Arthur Suite.  This track comes from their 2017 recording The People’s Purcell, which is our featured release this hour.


Jefferson in Paris

In 1784, Thomas Jefferson was sent by Congress to Paris as a trade representative, along with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.  During his five years there, he attended numerous public and private concerts, hearing everything from the symphonies of Haydn to the latest operas.

On September 2, 1784, shortly after arriving in Paris, Jefferson attended a concert featuring two comic operas by André Grétry.  We’ll hear the aria “Il va venir!” from one of the operas heard that night, Silvain, performed here by Christiane Karg and Arcangelo.

From the album Amoretti, that was “Il va venir!” from the comic opera Silvain by André Grétry.  The orchestra was Arcangelo, led by Jonathan Cohen with soprano soloist Christiane Karg.

In June of 1786, Thomas Jefferson attended one of the famous Concerts Spirituel, hearing two symphonies of Haydn, a Sacchini oratorio, and various works for harp.  Also on that concert was a curious symphonie concertante by Jean-Baptiste Davaux, a highly regarded Parisian violinist and composer.  This work, scored for two solo violins and orchestra, is punctuated by a number of patriotic French songs, including very loud, abrupt declarations of the French national anthem’s opening bars.

Here’s Concerto Köln performing the first movement of Davaux’s Sinfonie concertante melee d’airs patriotiques in G Major.

That was Concerto Köln performing the first movement of a patriotic symphonie concertante by Jean-Baptiste Davaux with violin soloists Ehrhardt Werner and Andrea Keller.


Maddalena Sirmen

Female composers and performers were fairly well represented in the concerts Thomas Jefferson attended in Paris.  Among the extraordinary women featured in these concerts was Italian composer and violinist Maddalena Sirmen, a student of Giuseppe Tartini.  Though she grew up in an orphanage, Sirmen established herself as one of Tartini’s star pupils.  She composed six virtuosic violin concerti, plus a number of duos, trios and string quartets.

We’ll now hear the opening allegro movement of Sirmen’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in A MajorStefano Montanari is the soloist, performing with the Arion Baroque Orchestra.

You’ve just heard the first movement of Maddalena Sirmen’s Violin Concerto No. 3 performed by Stefano Montanari and the Arion Baroque Orchestra from their recording Hidden Treasures of Italy.  Thomas Jefferson likely heard one of these concertos at a Concert Spirituel on May 5, 1785.


Haydn & More

We now return to the delightful comic opera world of André Grétry.  Thomas Jefferson heard at least ten of Grétry’s operas during his time in Paris, representing just a fraction of the fifty-some operas Grétry composed.  Grétry’s Zémire et Azor takes its libretto from the traditional French fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, a story we know best today in its Disney adaption.  From Act 3, we’ll hear “La fauvette avec ses petits” performed by Trondeim Barokk and soprano Berit Norbakken Solset.

That was “La fauvette avec ses petits” from André Grétry’s comic opera Zémire et Azor.  The performers were soprano Berit Norbakken Solset and Trondeim Barokk from their recording Le roman des lumieres.

We now turn to the symphonic music of Franz Joseph Haydn, seemingly one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite composers.  Various works by Haydn can be found in the Monticello music collection, and a Haydn symphony or two was programmed on nearly every orchestral concert he attended while in Paris. Of course, this is no surprise – Haydn was at the peak of his popularity in France!

We’ll hear the final Presto movement from his Symphony No. 50 in C Major.  This is the Academy of Ancient Music, led by Christopher Hogwood.

That was Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music performing Haydn’s Symphony No. 50 in C Major from their complete collection of Haydn symphonies.


The People’s Purcell

Our featured release this hour is The People’s Purcell, an album of stripped down chamber versions of Henry Purcell’s music.  La Nef and Michael Slattery have ably arranged sixteen works in accessible, folksy versions that keep the harmonic intrigue but strip away much of the counterpoint.  First, we’ll hear “If love’s a sweet passion” from Act III of The Fairy Queen.

That was “If love’s a sweet passion” from Henry Purcell’s opera The Fairy Queen.  The performers were Michael Slattery and La Nef from their 2017 release The People’s Purcell.

Up next, we’ll hear two more tracks from The People’s Purcell, “Come all ye songsters of the sky” from The Fairy Queen and “Now that the sun hath veiled his light.”  The performers are La Nef and Michael Slattery.

That was “Come all ye songsters of the sky” from The Fairy Queen and “Now that the sun hath veiled his light” from La Nef’s 2017 album The People’s Purcell, featuring tenor Michael Slattery.


Break and theme music

:30, The People’s Purcell, La Nef and Michael Slattery, Naxos 2017, Track 5 The Fairy Queen, Z. 629: Prelude

:60, The People’s Purcell, La Nef and Michael Slattery, Naxos 2017, Track 7 The Fairy Queen, Z. 629: Hornpipe  

:30, The People’s Purcell, La Nef and Michael Slattery, Naxos 2017, Track 10 Abdelazer, Z. 570: IX. Jig

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writer for this edition of Harmonia was David McCormick.

Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at http://www.harmoniaearlymusic.org.

Music Heard On This Episode

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David McCormick

David McCormick performs regularly on both violin and vielle (medieval fiddle) and is in demand as an educator and arts leader. He began writing for Harmonia in May 2016.

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