As “early” musicians, we’ve committed our lives to gaining new understandings about old music and instruments that inspire and excite us. Our instruments’ sounds, inherent technical flexibility, and even their limitations can suggest ways to articulate or shape musical phrases that inform or reinforce what we might read in a book or score from the 17th or 18th centuries. It’s also inevitable that we’re left with incomplete information so our work is part reconstructive and part creative leap of faith. Lacunae (missing pieces in our knowledge) can pose some of the greatest challenges while also providing opportunities for experimentation and discovery. They might leave us facing difficult choices, yet they also can free us to think creatively and be inspired by whatever sparse information remains.


Songs without Words was initially motivated by such a gap in our knowledge: while Baroque woodwinds were developed in the 1660s and 70s (and were clearly being played by sophisticated, professional players), no published solo repertoire exists for them prior to 1700. The initial question that Songs without Words sought to answer was: what do you suppose oboists and flutists were playing in those 30+ years?


In fact, the invention of Baroque woodwinds in 1660s and 70s was inspired by developments in French art songs, known as airs sérieux. For one thing, the composers of serious airs and the first generations of wind players were closely linked by time and place (Louis XIV’s court at Versailles) as well as aesthetics (the desire to have an instrument capable of imitating the sweet, flexible quality of the human voice and pronouncing its words). As scholar Bruce Haynes has observed, “As the epitome of the musical instrument, [the voice] served as a model for other single instruments playing alone, ‘speaking’ as individuals.” 1


Several publications from the 1720s also appear to testify to a long-standing practice of instrumental players adapting vocal music as a solo repertory. Although 30 to 60 years removed from the repertoire they contain and the performance practices they illuminate, 18th-century arrangements for woodwinds of airs and brunettes (a nickname for simple, pastoral love songs) deserve to be understood as one of our most important tools in recovering a lost art.


While Songs without Words initially presented an opportunity to discover and re-establish a 17th-century solo repertory for woodwinds, as a 21st-century musician, I became increasingly interested in continuing to expand the repertoire by adapting songs that are still a part of our contemporary world. As Richard Taruskin has noted, “instruments do not play music, people do.”2 Music’s universal expressive potential – combined with a passion for further discovery and experimentation with the flexible “voices” of our period instrument – encouraged us in this journey.


With this in mind, Songs without Words takes the adaptation of 17th-century songs for instruments as its point of departure and brings this concept into the twentieth century with jazz standards and pop tunes arranged for and improvised by the ensemble. Our performances combine written and improvised music in ways that we hope feel authentic and fresh. We’ve been inspired by Bruce Haynes’ observation that “authenticity is not a product of the instrument being played, but of the musician’s sense of style. Style originates, of course, in the player’s head (and/or heart).”3


Several musical elements also suggested the successful pairing of these repertoires. One of the most fascinating and challenging features of 17th-century vocal airs (besides the inherent difficulty in expressing the flow and sentiments of the texts) is the highly ornamented style of the second verse of a song, which was called a double. The rhythmic freedom and virtuosity of some of these doubles was almost impossible to notate. I’ve always been struck by how similar doubles are to jazz solos in how difficult it is for musical notation to truly capture the artist’s performance. Besides this improvisatory style of delivery, I began hearing links between the rich, expressive harmonies of 17th-century French song and the bluesy chords of tunes that belong to the canon of jazz standards.


The French airs on this album are by the greatest songwriters of the 17th century. Michel Lambert (1610-1696) published the first book of airs with basso continuo engraved in France in 1660. Widely recognized as the greatest singing teacher of his time, Lambert’s 330 surviving songs represent only a small fraction of his output. Vos mespris (a rondeau constructed over a 4-note descending ground bass) endures as one of Lambert’s most famous and satisfying songs while D’un feu secret (a secret, burning passion) is a prime example of the composer’s rhetorical sensibilities with its chromatic ascending lines that signal yearning and heightened expectation leading towards climax.


Lambert’s style also exerted a strong influence on French opera, which would later be cultivated by his son-in-law, Jean-Baptiste Lully. Though Lully and Lambert collaborated on early theatrical works, Lully ultimately eschewed the florid double ornamentation. His Récit de la beauté from Le mariage forcé (a 1664 collaboration with the playwright Molière) depicts the chains of love and the languishing lover as its bass line threads steadily down across the span of nearly two octaves. By comparison, Jean-Baptiste de Bousset’s tender and languid airs such as Pourquoi doux rossignol (another ground bass) and De mes soupirs (of my sighs) represent the next generation of song composers. The melodic ornaments for both De mes soupirs and Pourquoi doux rossignol are drawn from flutist Jacques-Martin Hotteterre’s 1721 Airs et Brunettes for woodwinds. Though little-known today, de Bousset (1662-1725) was noted for the “true expression of the words, his noble, natural and pleasing melody, and his variety, astonishing given the size of his output.” Having composed 875 songs over the course of his career, his oeuvre is ripe for rediscovery. We’re also pleased to present the deeply-moving elegy Tristes apprêts from Rameau’s opera Castor et Pollux (1737) in a new arrangement.


Programming jazz standards and torch songs on Baroque instruments might seem risky, but we hope that listeners will find these performances soulful and compelling. Moreover, we think that the interweaving of these tunes with French Baroque airs makes us hear all the music differently. Just as the great viol player Marin Marais warned when advocating the adaptation of his solos to other instruments, picking the “right” tunes is half the battle. We’ve chosen songs by a wide range of artists (from Billy Strayhorn to Edith Piaf and the Beatles) that not only appealed to us but also complemented the love song themes explored in the early French songs.


– Debra Nagy


1 Bruce Haynes, The Eloquent Oboe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 19. 2 Richard Taruskin, Text and Act (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 305. 3 Bruce Haynes, The End of Early Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 153.





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