Festival Primer: Versailles, The Parisian Baroque, and Bach!

The upcoming ABS Festival & Academy, Versailles & The Parisian Baroque, will take place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from August 7-16. While the concerts, lectures, and public colloquium will emphasize the French composers who established a style and tradition all their own during the 17th and 18th Centuries, the great J.S. Bach will also get his due during the two-week festival, namely during the Academy-In-Action concerts (August 10 & 11) and the beloved annual performances of the Mass in B Minor (August 9 & 16).

With only a few weeks left until the Festival begins, it is a great time to begin looking forward. Below are some listening, viewing, and reading recommendations to get you in the spirit before the two-week immersion in the Parisian Baroque begins!


French OperaFrench Opera: A Short History by Vincent Giroud (Yale University Press, 2010). This overview of a fascinating musical tradition explores the characteristics that make French operas so, well … French. Giroud’s summary of the Baroque period composers, namely Lully, Marais, Charpentier, Campra, and Rameau, is excellent and concise. Explanations of the French treatment of recitative and arias, emphasis on dance, and the working lives of musicians in Paris and Versailles reveal key differences with Italian and German opera and the history behind those differences.

GardenerVersaillesThe Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World’s Grandest Garden by Alain Baraton (Rizzoli, 2014). An eccentric and charming memoir by the gardener-in-chief of Versailles who has dedicated his life to the care of the park’s plants, fountains, and history for over 40 years. Whether your interest is in the history of the Chateau and its grounds or the fascinating daily grind of its modern day caretaker, this book is great preparation for the public colloquium at the Festival on August 8, The Culture of Versailles.

Saint SimonMemoirs of Duc de Saint-Simon 1691-1709. These writings of day-to-day life in the court of Louis XIV are available in several editions and can often be found in used books stores or free downloads online. The rules and protocols of courtiers are covered in great detail, as are the scandals and intrigues of ambitious individuals seeking to raise their station and gain more influence with the king.



TousLesMatinsTous les matins du monde (Alain Corneau, 1991). Highly influential and memorable film about the life of Marin Marais and his viola da gamba studies with the legendary Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. The soundtrack, organized by master gambist Jordi Savall, gave tremendous boosts to the rediscovery of Marais, the viola da gamba, and to historically informed performance practice in early music.

Le Roi Danse (Gérard Corbiau, 2000). Rich in period detail, this gorgeous film takes the viewer into the world of Versailles and the court of Louis XIV through its main protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Lully, the most important composer in early French music history (who was actually, by birth, Italian). There are many excellent scenes of musical life and performance, including a ballet du cour featuring Louis XIV as the principal dancer. Read more about the film here and look for it on YouTube.

Moliére (Laruent Tirard, 2007). Fun biopic about the great French playwright and occasional librettist for Lully. The film will be shown at the Alliance Française (1345 Bush Street) on July 21 at 7:00 p.m. as part of ABS’s summer collaboration with the Alliance Française de San Francisco. Read more about the film on the ABS blog.

Ridicule (Patrice Leconte, 1996). Set in France before the Revolution, Ridicule explores the decadent court culture at Versailles during the reign of Louis XVI. The film will be shown on July 28 at 7:00 p.m. as the second film screening of the ABS collaboration with the Alliance Française. Check the ABS blog for more about this film.

Anatomy of a MasterpieceBach’s Mass in B Minor: Anatomy of a Masterwork (ABS, 2015). No ABS Festival & Academy would be complete without the annual performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor by the ABS Festival Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Thomas. No matter if this August will be your first hearing of the work or your 100th, this 30-minute documentary provides insights into Bach’s Mass and offers extended musical selections recorded live at the 2014 Festival. Let Jeffrey Thomas, Elizabeth Blumenstock, John Thiessen, and the other interviewed ABS musicians be your guides through this pinnacle work of artistry, creativity, and expressive achievement. View the film free on our YouTube channel.


Where to start? Since the mid-1990s, lots of great French Baroque music has been recorded by fantastic period-instrument ensembles. Here are just a few:

LesDelices Myths & Allegories (Les Délices, 2012). ABS oboist Debra Nagy’s Cleveland-based chamber group performs music from Jean-Féry Rebel’s 1703 opera Ulysses and music by Thomas-Louis Bourgeois, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and Michel Pignolet de Montéclair. ABS soprano Clara Rottsolk is the featured vocal soloist.

Charpentier: La descent d’Orfée aus Enfers (Boston Early Music Festival, 2014). Outstanding performance that won the GRAMMY for Best Opera Recording earlier this year and features several ABS musicians [read more here].

Cadmus et HermioneLully: Cadmus et Hermione. For those who appreciate attention to period detail, this meticulous presentation from 2009 of one of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s early stage works is a revelation. Using only the stage technology of Lully’s day, including candles for lighting instead of electricity, the performance transports the viewer back to the 1670s. Also, since Cadmus is the mythological father of Semele, this opera by Marais’ esteemed predecessor is ideal preparation for the Festival performances of Sémélé on August 13 & 14. Highly recommended!

Tickets for the 2015 ABS Festival & Academy, full schedule, and other information are available at sfbachfestival.org.