Gaspard Le RouxGaspard Le RouxGaspard Le RouxGaspard Le Roux

A Note on Performance

By David Ledbetter

A Note on Performance

David Ledbetter


The fundamental performance question in dealing with French music around 1700 is how much the composer concerned was influenced by Italian style. If one imagines a spectrum, with Charles Dieupart (1701) at the French end, Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s second book (1707) in the middle, and François Couperin in his most Italianate moments at the Italian end, Le Roux would fall slightly to the French side of Jacquet. Distinctively French are the unmeasured preludes, and the references to D’Anglebert in the ornament table and the Sarabande with variations (VII), closely related to D’Anglebert’s Variations sur les Folies d’Espagne (1689). The fashion from the 1690s for Italian sonata style is reflected in Le Roux’s variations from couplet 5 onwards, perhaps with reference to Corelli’s Follia (1700). Le Roux is nonetheless mainly in the sophisticated French harpsichord tradition, with a pleasing individuality, richness and sometimes power of his own. The performance style is therefore fundamentally French, though with sensitivity to the sophistication of the music.

The essence of French style is that it is based on verbal enunciation in lyric verse or song. Le Roux tells us that players might sing the pieces to their own accompaniment before playing them. There are strong and weak syllables, and phrases flow and ebb like verse lines, with breathing points and points for rhetorical emphasis. There is a hierarchy of punctuation marks, with a perfect cadence for a full stop, and the common coulé de tierce for a comma or semi-colon (for the coulé de tierce see Gavotte (III) bar 2 beat 1, with the way to play it fully notated in bar 14 beat 1). Allemandes and courantes are grand types, similar to the alexandrine line of Racine (twelve syllables with a caesura (slight pause) after the sixth). In Allemande la Vauvert (I) there is a caesura after the first beat of bar 2, then two bars for the rest of the phrase and a perfect cadence into bar 4. The sophistication of Le Roux’s treatment is in this asymmetry, and in the way the next phrase then grows seamlessly to the climactic highest note, emphasised by an expressively dissonant major 7th, and subsides into the cadence of the strain. The effect of this is what in poetic terms is known as enjambement (the sense that one line flows over the end of the line into the next) in which the D minor chord at the beginning of bar 4 is both the end of one phrase and the beginning of the next. The player’s art is to convey these shapes in a manner akin to poetic declamation.

Sarabandes, menuets, gavottes, passepieds and character pieces are like small lyric verse forms with four-line stanzas. Phrases are generally of four bars, with on-beat and off-beat phrase endings often working like a rhyme scheme. Within this general pattern there is then scope for sophisticated manipulation and expressive emphasis.


These have been discussed in the introduction. As the notation suggests, they are meant to sound free and improvised. The main problem is how to interpret the numerous lines. In the original print these are sometimes curved and sometimes wavy, and it would be tempting to see a distinction between wavy lines for tenues (a term from lute music, in English ‘holds’), showing how long a note is to be held, and curved lines for liaisons, as explained by Saint Lambert (Chapter VII). There may be an element of this, but there is no systematic distinction and wavy lines have not been imitated in the Fuller or Tilney editions or here. The very first system of the first prelude shows the problem.[1] The RH trait (tirata, rapid scale) at the opening, with a curved line, is imitated shortly afterwards in the LH, but with a wavy line, whose starting note (d1 or c1) is ambiguous.

Generally, wavy lines denote tenues for single notes (each note of the final chord of this prelude has one). Curved lines have several possible meanings and the first line of the first prelude demonstrates most of them. One is to show a trait as at the beginning. According to Saint Lambert the first note under the line should be held, in this case as long as is convenient to do so. Otherwise curved lines apply mainly to groups of two or three notes. With two disjunct notes (RH notes 8–9, harmony notes) the first is held until the second is released. With conjunct notes they may indicate a part movement (notes 9–11, 12–13), or a tie (notes 13–15). This cluster of parts shows how elegantly and lucidly this notation can indicate flexible part movements, avoiding the stiff appearance of complex ties and rests. Curved lines may also indicate ornaments, as with the ports-de-voix at RH notes 22–23, 25–26, 28–29, which may have an element of over-holding. Thereafter Le Roux (or his engraver) is unsystematic, with wavy lines to indicate the prefix (line 2 RH notes 1–4) to the trill (note 5) and its termination (notes 6–8), and so on. Suggested interpretations are best indicated graphically, as in Appendix 1, rather than by verbal commentary.

In building an interpretation it is worth distinguishing the ingredients and phrase structure. In I Prelude, after the bass octave there is a RH trait, then some decorated part movements, then a LH trait, more part movement, and a trill with prefix and termination forming an imperfect cadence to end the first phrase. As in Allemande la Vauvert, one phrase segues into the next, keeping the impetus from ever touching the ground. There are some striking rhetorical emphasis points, such as the four-note dissonant chord in the last line of III Prelude. Repeated playing, with sensitivity to harmonic tensions, should give a natural instinct for their eloquence.


Le Roux does not explain all his ornament signs in the table of Marques des agréemens but they can be supplemented from D’Anglebert’s table. Unexplained signs concern mainly the arpeggiation of chords, a good example being in the Allemande l’Incomparable (III), bar 7. The first chord has the chute curved bracket over the whole chord rather than just the lower two notes (explained as Autre Chute in the table). The larger bracket implies a passing note between the upper two notes as well. The second chord in bar 7 has the bracket covering a whole RH chord of 6/4 shape. Le Roux’s table has only the Chute sur une Notte, with a chute to the middle note of the chord; he omits D’Anglebert’s Cheute sur 2 notes, which adds a passing note between the upper notes.

Ornaments written as small notes (notes perdus in Le Roux’s terminology) should sound like ornaments, not like fully written-out notes. Some composers, like Le Roux, seem to have used note perdue values intentionally: crotchet in Allemande l’Incomparable (III) bar 18; quaver in bars 21ff; semiquaver in second Allemande (V) bar 1. These are best not regarded as exact values but relative speeds, usually in a rubato relation to the bass; a semiquaver is a quick grace, and so on.

Rhythmic Inrquality (notes inégales)

The most useful description is by Jacques Hotteterre since he gives copious examples from repertoire.[2] In assessing prescriptions for this in old tutors it is important to distinguish practical orchestral dance music, which has very straightforward rules, from sophisticated solo music, which requires le goût, a connoisseur’s feeling for subtleties of style and the expressive moment. The degree of inequality is variable, but ordinarily is best imagined as a compound-time background; so a common rhythm such as

can be imagined against a background of

with the 3/4 quaver coinciding with the sixth 9/8 quaver. This will give the essential lilt.

The degree of dotting can then be gentler or sharper as seems appropriate expressively. In general, triplet inequality gives a relaxed feel, while an approach to equality creates more tension, a useful nuance in projecting the ebb and flow of phrases. Over-dotting can give an effect of grandeur, as in the overture style of Allemande Gaye (IV), or a very lively effect, as in the canarie-type Gigue (IV). Manipulating rhythm is the main way of making the harpsichord expressive.

The basic rules are simple: in C and 4/4 times semiquavers are unequal; in – time and most • times quavers are unequal. Ordinary triplet inequality can work in a simple dance movement, but hardly in sophisticated pieces. Applying it to Allemande la Vauvert, for example, gives a stately effect but breaks the movement up into pairs of notes with little scope for subtle phrase projection. A more fluent tempo, with flexible semiquavers, sometimes more unequal than others, allows the essential rhetorical projection of phrases. François Couperin has a spectrum in allemandes, from stately French with ordinary inequality, to Italian sonata allegro style with long passages of equal semiquavers. Somewhere in the middle is what he describes as ‘not slow’ (sans lenteur), with semiquavers ‘just slightly unequal’ (un tant-soit-peu inégales).[3] Le Roux seems best served by the sans lenteur range.

Courantes are a triple-time companion to the allemande and the same points could be made, although in the courante the notionally unequal value is the quaver. Le Roux’s courantes are in the French style so the tempo is moderate. If we take Quantz’s advice and slightly detach the crotchets, and use triplet inequality for the quavers, it is possible to find a tempo that feels natural.[4] This can then be used as a basis for subtle manipulation to bring out the charmingly irregular phrasing of this dance, such as the slightly truncated phrase that often ends the first strain. Sarabandes contrast with courantes in their regular four-bar phrase structure and generally stately movement. Menuets are graceful, best felt as one-in-the bar. They should never plod since it is essential to feel the swaying hemiola effect of the dance steps, and the characteristic trochee and iamb rhythms must keep their bounce. Excellent practice for graceful and flexible quavers are the Menuet doubles (III and V). The running quavers in one hand must be flexible enough for the dotted-crotchet plus quaver rhythms in the other hand to maintain their lilt. Every player has their own policy for fingering, but generally the traditional paired fingerings are helpful in giving a natural grace.

The two large variations sets are obviously intended to show Le Roux’s stylistic range: the French Chacone (V), which seems modelled on D’Anglebert’s G major Chaconne Rondeau of 1689, and the Italianate Sarabande (VII), combining elements from D’Anglebert’s Variations sur les Folies d’Espagne and Corelli’s Follia. For the Chacone, Hotteterre’s instructions are useful, giving examples from the famous Passacaille from Lully’s Armide (1686). Luxuriant inequality is in order at the beginning. From bar 41, when quavers are mixed with semiquavers, the quavers are equal (Le Roux has marked this with dots in Couplet 11 of the Sarabande), though with lapses into luxuriance, as at bars 48-9. From bar 100 it seems best to play the bass exactly as written, giving a pleasing mixture of equal and unequal; equal quavers have their own poise. The Sarabande is full of Italian effects. Couplet 1 has rich, acciaccatura-laden chords recalling Italian harpsichord style. Couplet 2 could contrast, with paired fingerings giving graceful inequality as far as bar 23. Couplet 3 with a running quaver bass may be a continuation of this with LH quavers (as D’Anglebert’s Folies, couplets 5 and 6), or perhaps a Corellian effect explained by Hotteterre: the bass is played as written while the RH keeps its lilt. The rest has many reminiscences of Corelli’s Follia. It seems to have been a custom to end a suite, not with a monumental piece but a small one, like a sorbet after a main course. Le Roux ends this suite with a little Menuet, just as Couperin ends his B minor Ordre (1717), not with the grand Passacaille but with the little La Morinéte.


Over pairs of notes can mean Lombardic rhythm, as explained by François Couperin (1713), although for this Couperin also has a dot over the second note of the pair. Gavotte (III) bars 1–2 would then contrast with the ordinary slightly swung inequality of bar 3. In the second strain, ordinary inequality (with the longer note first) is notated by dotted quavers. An alternative for slurred pairs is pointé-coulé: sticky pairs, where the first note is held through the second and with slight ordinary inequality. A good example of this type is Allemande (VII) bar 2, where the insistent effect is best served by reducing the inequality.

Slurs can also mean to play the group in one handshape rather than with traditional paired fingerings.[5] Thus Courante (II) bar 2 is a whole-hand shape (1–5), so probably less unequal than paired fingers would be. Here and in Courante (I) bar 1 it might also have an element of liaison, holding some or all of the notes under the slur in a super-legato effect.[6] A further whole-group (rather than paired) effect is in the tirata-like runs in Allemande Grave (V) bar 2 and Sarabande (III) bar 9.


[1] A digital version of the Paris 1705 edition (F-Pn Vm7 1858) is available online at Gallica. Full discussions with regard to printed preludes are in Prévost, ‘Deuxième partie’, and Tilney, vol. 3.
[2] Hotteterre (1719), Chapter 11.
[3] Couperin (1713), La Laborieuse.
[4] Quantz 1752, XVII vii §58
[5] Couperin (2/1717), 32–3.
[6] Saint Lambert (1702), Chapter VII