Toward the end of April, I attended an unusual concert at Grinnell. Technically speaking, it was a lecture recital, which was not a genre I was familiar with but is basically exactly what it sounds like. The speaker and musician was Dr. Heidi Tsai, a Taiwanese-born keyboardist who lives in France and has taught and performed extensively on both sides of the Pyréneées. (She has a doctorate in historical keyboards–how cool does that sound?) The lecture recital was described thusly on the program: “A Transgenre Tale…from the cross-dressing Abbot François-Timoléon de Choisy (1644-1724) and the celebration of 17th-transcriptions [I think that should say 17th century?] for the harpsichord in France”.
I hadn’t heard of de Choisy before I learned of this event, nor was I familiar with most of the composers on the program (the exceptions were Lully and Couperin). I arrived a bit on the early side, wanting to get a good seat, and at first the audience looked extremely sparse, but the concert hall did fill up. Before Dr. Tsai began her lecture recital, one of Grinnell’s French professors, a specialist in 17th and 18th century French literature, gave an introduction to some of de Choisy’s writings. He focused particularly on Histoire de la marquise-marquis de Banneville, a story about a young marquise who falls in love with a young marquis (and he with her). If I recall correctly, the marquise’s mother has to tell her that her anatomy is actually characteristically male (not sure how the young woman is unaware of this), and at first it appears this might spell the end of her courtship. But affection prevails, the two get married, it turns out the young marquis is also transgender (possibly–I’m not clear on how this is presented in the story). And they have a happy union, enjoying the best of both worlds. So, there’s a lot to unpack there! But I have neither read nor studied this text.
Dr. Tsai then took the stage. The lecture recital consisted of remarks on the life of de Choisy (his upbringing, his relationships with the family of Louis XIV, his female alter egos and cross-dressing adventures), the expectations of 17th century French high society (the harpsichord was the perfect instrument for young women because it didn’t involve contortions of the mouth and face, wild gestures of the arms, or anything placed between the legs!), transpositions of musical works between instruments (e.g. transcriptions for harpsichord), and other background on the composers, instruments, and pieces. I enjoyed the music more than anything else, though the lecture was interesting as well.
Dr. Tsai performed on a double-manual harpsichord that belongs to the college; it was built in the 20th century but modeled on 18th century French instruments. It has a lovely sound! I mean, I love the timbre of the harpsichord. As mentioned above, there were some works by Jean-Baptiste Lully and François Couperin, two French Baroque composers whose music I like very much. Part of the conceit of the concert was that some French composers of the time had written pieces inspired by de Choisy. The theme of crossing over was also realized in the performance of harpsichord transcriptions of music originally composed for different instruments or ensembles. The transcribers were Jean-Henri d’Anglebert, Jean Baptiste Forqueray, and Dr. Tsai herself. Other composers included Jacques-Champion de Chambonnières, René Mesangeau (alternatively Mézangeot?), Louis de Caix d’Hervelois, Jean-Baptiste Barrière, and Antoine Forqueray. Don’t they all sound fancy? (And wasn’t John the Baptist a popular namesake?)
One of the last pieces on the program was Antoine Forqueray’s “Le carillon de Passy” (which for some reason always seems to be paired with “La Latour”? Oh, maybe it’s because they’re part of the same suite in G minor). Dr. Tsai explained that Passy was a tony neighborhood in Paris, and I was thinking to myself, I know, it still is!
The program ended with three pieces by Couperin. The first, “La Régente ou la Minerve,” was familiar, probably because this past year I went through some phases of listening to entire albums of Scott Ross’s recording of the complete harpsichord works of Couperin. The last two pieces were both musettes, that is, works meant to imitate the sound of the small French bagpipe called the musette. And they were certainly imitative! Couperin really leaned into capturing the musette’s drones.