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Sophie Westbrooke on Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre

Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) was a French harpsichordist, organist and composer known in the court of Louis XIV. She was born into a family of musicians and is reported in various sources as being somewhat of a child prodigy, being presented to play at court as early as the age of 5. Louis and his musicians were impressed with her talents, and she was invited to live and study at his court for three or four years. In 1684 she left the court, and married composer and organist Marin de la Guerre, combining both her father's name (Jacquet) and her husband's, which allowed her to absorb and exploit in her own career the reputations of both men. Marin and Elisabeth had one son together, who was hailed as much of a genius as his mother, but died age 10.

In Paris, Elisabeth enjoyed considerable renown for her teaching and performances as well as her compositions. Titon du Tillet (1677-1762) wrote of her shortly after her death: 'one can say that never has a person of her sex had such great talents as she did for musical composition and for the admirable manner with which she performed on the harpsichord and organ.' He honoured her among the greatest french composers of the day, just below Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). The unusual situation of her gender in the sphere of professional musicians did not go unnoticed, even by herself. She wrote in the dedication of her opera that it was 'a sort of piece that no one of my sex has yet attempted'. It was staged at the Académie Royale de Musique, and not well received. Catherine Cessac puts this in part down to the fact that the public were unwilling to accept the music of a woman as equal to the assumed genius of a man.

In subsequent generations the male-only rules of the court were broken for talented female members of the famous Couperin family. Francois Couperin (The Great, 1668-1733) arranged for his talented daughter Marguerite-Antoinette (1705-1778) to be the first woman to hold the position of ordinaire de la musique de la chambre du roi pour le clavecin (court musician to the King of France). In addition, his equally talented cousin Marguerite-Louise (1675-1728) was exceptionally allowed to sing in the Chapelle royale, where only falsetti and castrati usually sang higher parts. Without the renown and status of their male relatives in the court, none of these women would have been granted the acceptance they were.

As a woman in a society and field of work that was not just male-dominated, but in which she was an extreme exception, Elisabeth faced a number of obstacles distinct from those of her male contemporaries. At court she was placed under the care of the King's mistress, Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart, marquise de Montespan, who reportedly taught her the harpsichord as part of her womanly education, but was most certainly not the most capable of musical tutors available at the court. The appointment of an available woman to oversee her education, rather than someone of great musical stature, reflects the way women were led to be interested in music as part of their instruction, but only ever as amateurs. Elisabeth, like all women who became successful in music, was lucky to be instructed by her musician father. It was not an option for Elisabeth to obtain a university education as a woman, so this was her only available route to professional musical instruction. No woman had ever secured a position as a court composer, and opportunities for professional performance were limited, although her recitals at her home were highly praised. Her capacity for travel was very limited, and as such her exposure to foreign music and musicians was small, while her contemporary Francois Couperin was intimately familiar with and greatly inspired by the works of Corelli and others.

As such, during her lifetime exceptional female talent was believed in, nurtured and rewarded by certain men in power, including the king, but rules enforced by the state and the clergy still made it near impossible for women to enter the profession. Of the women who succeeded in music under Louis XIV, Elisabeth was the only one who composed a large number of published works, and did not merely play and sing to entertain him. Her success was due to her family connections, the personal and artistic freedom she found in her 25 years as a childless widow, her incredible raw talent and fierce determination in asserting herself as a composer. It is no wonder that few women found themselves at this fortunate intersection of privileges.

Elisabeth made her first publication, Les pièces de clavessin … premier livre, aged just 22; a precocious achievement for any composer. She later published several trio sonatas and sonatas for violin and continuo, a te deum, two collections of chamber cantatas and three secular Cantates françoises. Such a variation of genre across her output distinguishes her greatly from her contemporaries, including Francois Couperin. The cantata we will hear as part of the Cambridge Female Composers Festival this year is contained within this last book, which is the unique among her oeuvre in being dedicated not to Louis XIV but to the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian II Emanuel. The fact that such a vast majority of her works were dedicated to the king suggests a continuing relationship with the royal court after she resigned from her stay there at the end of her teenage years. She expressed more than once in her dedications her immense gratitude to the king for his encouragement of her talent, and appeared to be acutely aware of the need to retain his favour if she were to pursue the career she wanted as a woman.

L'ile de delos is typical of Elisabeth's personal and acutely french style in its rich and varied harmonies and appealing melodies, always underpinning a detailed adherence to the linguistic and semantic features of the text she is setting. Consisting of 12 items, it is the longest of her cantatas, although in her introduction she expresses the hope that the contrast between the items will prevent boredom. Each number describes a different aspect of Arcadian and idyllic world of L'isle de Délos, birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and mythological paragon of pastoral tranquility. In her introduction, Elisabeth writes: 'people up until now have flattered me that my music responds very easily to the words upon which I have composed it. This is what I always aim at, convinced that those Songs which do not express that which is sung, however cultivated that they may be in other respects, cannot but displease genuine connoisseurs, that is to say to those for whom style is in accord with good sense.' Her recitatives follow after the declamatory style of Jean-Baptiste Lully's tragedies en musique, reflecting the contours and rhythm of the french as it would be spoken. Her cantatas in general derive many characteristics from the theatre tradition, and her chosen texts are always particularly narrative or vivid in their descriptions.

The score makes use of continuo, singer, violin, oboe and flute, but in her introduction Elisabeth suggests that instrumentation is flexible, and that if no simphonie (instrumental accompaniment) was available, the harpsichordist might have been expected to perform the solo instrumental line(s) in addition to realising the figured bass. She was the first French composer to employ bass viol both as obbligato and base d'archet in a single movement as in this cantata - a technique also used in Louis-Nicolas Clérambault's (1676-1749) setting of the same text, which contains numerous other similarities indicating a mutual influence.

The greatest injustice to Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was the erasure of her contribution to our musical culture from history. She was a remarkable woman, an exceptional musician and a pioneering composer of the french Grand Siècle, and her music is worthy of inclusion amongst the greatest known composers of her time. It will be an honour to perform her music as part of the Cambridge Female Composers Festival. I can only hope you love it as much as I do.


Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre's L'ile de Delos can be heard at Trinity College Chapel as part of the Trinity Cantata Series on February 13th at 9pm, directed by Anita Montserrat.


Cyr, Mary. “Elisabeth Jacquet De La Guerre: Myth or Marvel? Seeking the Composer's Individuality.” The Musical Times, vol. 149, no. 1905, 2008, pp. 79–87. JSTOR, JSTOR,

A. Rose: ‘Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre and the Secular cantate françoise’,

EMc, 13 (1985)

"Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (accessed 20th December, 2018)

Cessac, Catherine. Elisabeth Jacquet De La Guerre: Une Femme Compositeur Sous Le Règne De Louis Xiv. Paris: Actes Sud, 1995

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