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Jacques Champion de Chambonnières

1601 - May 1672
composed during the Baroque period
Jacques Champion de Chambonières was the first in a line of Baroque harpsichordists and composers who established a distinct French style on the instrument.

His family was a line of court musicians with the family name of Champion. His father had inherited the title Sieur de La Chapelle; the name "Sieur de Chambonières" belonged to Jacques' maternal grandfather and referred to a small manor 30 miles east of Paris. Other details of his birth and early life are vague, confusing, or nonexistent. It is known that young Jacques advanced so rapidly in his early musical training that when he was ten, the royal court confirmed that on his father's death, Jacques would inherit the elder's musical job. It is known that as he matured, he began to gather awed acclaim at his keyboard skills. At some point, he married a woman named Marie LeClerc. The French court in the seventeenth century was mad about ballet and accordingly, Chambonières learned to dance exceptionally well. He first appeared dancing before the King and Queen in 1635. He even appeared in 1653 dancing alongside the young King Louis XIV and the composer Lully.

In 1641, Chambonières helped organize a concert series called Assemblee des Honnestes Curieux (Assembly of the Truly Inquisitive). This was a two-times a week series of about ten regular players and guest artists. Chambonières' father died in 1642, so he inherited his position with the royal court, which was "Spinet player to the King." The job only lasted a short while because Louis XIII died in 1643 and the musicians were not needed by the Dowager Queen, who ruled as regent, because she had her own establishment. Nevertheless, by now Chambonières was famous for his playing and he did well. The Queen even had him, not her own harpsichord player, select the new harpsichord she wanted bought for her son, the seven-year-old King Louis XIV, and selected him as his harpsichord teacher.

Around 1650, on his name day, Chambonières was surprised to hear a serenade being played in his honor. It was played by Louis, Charles, and François Couperin, then young musicians. Chambonières repaid the honor by helping them launch their careers in Paris. On December 16, 1652, he married Marguerite Ferret, daughter of a law court usher. (It is not known when his first wife died). But at about the same time his fortunes took a downward turn. War had struck the Brie region, which was where Chambonières had his landholdings. An effort in 1656 to get a job attached to the Swedish court fell through. And in 1657, King Louis, now a teenager, asserted himself and fired Chambonières as his keyboard teacher. Marital problems also turned to financial ones when his wife obtained a separation decree and gained the right to control all the property she brought to the marriage.

There seems to have been a clique against him at court, probably due to his pompous personality. There was a plot to get him fired as King Louis' official harpsichord player (which had been reinstated) and replaced by Louis Couperin. But out of respect for the aid Chambonières had given him, Couperin refused to take part. But in 1662, the clique managed to get Chambonières' court pension cut off and he was forced to sell his position for ready cash. It was likely that he would have been sacked anyway, for he had not bothered to learn the art of improvising a harpsichord continuo part from figured bass, a skill that by this point in the Baroque era was an essential part of the performance of orchestral and chamber music. (It is likely that Chambonières realized this would have effectively demoted him from being a solo artist to an accompanist.) When he died in 1672, his estate, aside from the presence of four harpsichords, was fairly minimal, consisting of the furniture and other goods that would be possessed by a landowner who had seen better days. Chambonières was a great teacher, judging from the achievements of his pupils, including the loyal Louis Couperin. The brilliant style of his harpsichord writing was very influential, especially on the future development of French keyboard music, but also on foreign music. His keyboard pieces are arranged into suites of dance forms, setting a pattern for French suites of the Baroque era. ~ Joseph Stevenson, Rovi
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