If you've ever doubted that it is indeed good to be the king, consider Louis XIV of France, whose job perks included a staff of 30 to 100 musicians who followed him everywhere he went in the course of a day. And I do mean everywhere: Louis's arising, dressing, promenading and doing of other kingly stuff, dining, relaxing, and going to sleep were all accompanied by a royal soundtrack, played live.
All that music (and we're not counting opera and ballet performances and church music, which were also plentiful) had a motive beyond entertainment. Louis was determined to show that France's supremacy and superiority were reflected in its art, and to impress visiting dignitaries with the money he was willing to spend on music and musicians, even when the country was at war.
Louis's roster of composers was an impressive one, with Jean-Baptiste Lully absolutely at the top of the tree, whose branches included such great 17th-century French names as Nicolas Clérambault, Michel Delalande, Francois Couperin, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and Marin Marais. They are heard today, but they're mostly remembered for one or two "Baroque Greatest Hits" favorites, which represent the very tip of a huge iceberg.
Even with its political inferences gone, this music still makes absolutely delicious listening, as Pegasus Early Music demonstrated on Sunday afternoon in its latest concert, "The Sun King." The selections followed a typical day for the Sun King, from sunup to sunset.
Louis XIV received that nickname, by the way, because of his performance as Apollo in a royal court ballet. He was an enthusiastic and accomplished dancer, so besides the many ballets and dances made to entertain him, dance rhythms -- minuets, bourées, and so on -- frequently occur in the chamber and vocal music written for him. In this concert, we even got a graceful sample of baroque dancing from historical dancer Peggy Murray, which fit in perfectly.
This music calls for a particular kind of refinement -- a calmness and imperturbability, a sense of perfectly balanced sound, a relaxed charm, which we like to think of as "French."In this case the sound was enhanced by the gentle glow of period instruments, particularly the wooden transverse flute -- less brilliant than a modern instrument, but in the hands of a flutist like Steven Zohn, it is uniquely appealing. Add the soft-grained but still penetrating sounds of gut-stringed instruments (violinist Vita Wallace and viola da gamba player Lisa Terry), plus harpsichord (Michael Beattie), theorbo, and guitar (Pegasus artistic director Deborah Fox), and you have a small but versatile ensemble with a myriad of beguiling tone colors.
Wallace gave an engaging account of a substantial violin sonata by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (a favorite of Louis's), and Terry and Fox were an ideal duet in three "Pieces de Viole" by Marais (actually a trio, with dancing by Peggy Murray). The full group was displayed in a suite by Michel de la Barre, and even more in Francois Couperin's second "Concert Royal," a magnificent piece of chamber music, even if it was written as background music.
And when you add Laura Heimes, the Pegasus "house soprano," you have something pretty heavenly. French baroque vocal music is very much "about the words" and seldom calls for vocal virtuosity in the trills-and-thrills sense, unlike Handel or Vivaldi. But it would be hard to imagine a purer or more appropriate sound than Heimes's for this repertory. She delivered several dance-like, almost pop songs with great intimacy and charm, and provided the requisite drama and grandeur for Clérambault's cantata "Orphée." This lovely work, almost a mini-opera, takes its departure from the Orpheus myth, or most of it -- doubtless mindful of Louis's desire to keep things sunny, the composer ignores the problematic part after Orpheus and Eurydice leave Hades together, in favor of a happy ending. No matter, when the music is so beautiful.
With such a huge output of music for the court of Louis XIV, probably most of it is not all that interesting, but the best works by all of these composers (and there are plenty) are gems, and Pegasus chose an enchanting selection for its program. Now, if next time they could only recreate one of Louis's famed outdoor equestrian ballets ...