The early collaboration of flute and viol in the court of Versailles
In one of his marvelous court paintings, André Bouys depicts four prominent composers working on a composition for Baroque flute which first came into fashion in France as part of the arrangement within the elegant ornamentation of the Baroque style.
The flute underwent significant changes in the second half of the 17th century when the so-called Renaissance flute could no longer provide the necessary level of virtuosity for the more complicated music of the Baroque era. The Baroque flute or traverso was made of several sections with conical bore design which gave the new instrument the improved intonation and allowed the increase of volume in the lowest notes. This flute became a completely chromatic device which was more suitable for the role of the solo instrument not only in chamber music but also in large orchestras.
In Bouys' painting, Jacques Hotteterre is shown on the right wearing a brocade jacket and holding an expensive ivory flute. The most famous of the Hotteterre dynasty of woodwind-makers, Jacques earned the nickname “le Romain” as a result of his time spent studying in Rome. Aside from performing on various woodwinds, Jacques Hotteterre designed Baroque flutes and also taught playing technique to wealthy amateurs.
In 1707, Hotteterre made history by publishing the first known essay on flute-playing in his work Principes de la flûte traversière which earned a colossal success throughout Europe while undergoing numerous reprints. As a composer, he issued treatises including directions for improvising woodwind preludes as well as a variety of compositions such as duet suites and trio sonatas. He became a musician of the court Louis XIV in the king's Grande Écurie in 1708.
Listen to Jacques Hotteterre's Prélude performed by Wilbert Hazelzet:
Another flute virtuoso and versatile composer Michel de La Barre is depicted in the same painting as standing and wearing a black wig. His vast output of 18 books of flute music between 1694 and 1725 was a vital factor in the emergence of the instrument as one of the most popular of the 18th century. He also was the first person who ever published solo music specifically for flute.
As a musician, Michel de La Barre played at the Académie Royale de Musique (The Paris Opera) and the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV. The quartet illustrated on this canvas discusses the pieces from de La Barre's Third Book of Trios for the Violins, Flutes, and Oboes mixed with Sonatas for the Transversal Flute which is opened on the chapter of the First Sonata for continuous bass.
Listen to Michel de La Barre's Chaconne from Suite L'Inconnue performed by Robert Stallman:
The third member of the flute group in the painting, dressed in a light blue jerkin with gold braid and holding a boxwood flute, is, most likely, Anne Danican Philidor who was a prominent musician of the renowned family of woodwind players which had been serving at the court since the reign of Louis XIII. Anne is mainly known as the founder of Concert Spirituel—one of the first public concert series in existence.
As a composer, Anne Danican Philidor dedicated his early years to creating several ballets and operas and later, in 1712, published a collection of works for flute.
Listen to Anne Danican Philidor's Sonate pour la flute à bec performed by Frans Brüggen, Anner Bylsma, and Gustav Leonhardt:
One of the most frequently used accompaniments in Baroque music was the bass arpeggio also called figured bass or basso continuo which was performed on keyboards or other bass instruments such as viol, cello, and bassoon. For this purpose, prominent composer Marin Marais, is depicted in the painting with his seven-string bass viol.
Marais, initially known as one of the most talented musicians in France, played in the orchestra of The Paris Opera from 1675. His gift for composition was revealed by the famous maestro Jean-Baptiste Lully who taught Marais musical harmony and counterpoint.
Although he composed four operas and a dozen pieces for flute, Marin Marais is primarily appreciated for his more than 600 works for various combinations of viols. The collections which he began publishing from 1692 consist primarily of dances, fantasies, chaconnes, rondeaux, and pièces de caractère.
By the middle of the 18th century, viol—also called viola da gamba—went out of fashion when its functions in the orchestra were replaced by more progressive cello and double bass. In the 20th century, together with the growing interest in early music, the viol was revived by the efforts of enthusiasts and amateurs who sought to get an authentic performance of the Baroque and Renaissance masterpieces.
Listen to Marin Marais' Sarabande a l'Espagnol performed by Jordi Savall on viola da gamba:
The identity of the fifth person in the painting remains a complete mystery, as well as his role in this ensemble. Standing behind Marin Marais, he gazes at the viewer and holds a wooden object in his right hand which seems to be more of a cane than a musical instrument.
The Composer Michel De La Barre Directing Marin Marais and the Ordinary Flutists of the King's Chamber by André Bouys: