5 Tips on Approaching French Baroque Music

Like its English and Italian cousins, this variety of Baroque music offers rich rewards
by Sarah Freiberg

When you think of Baroque composers, working from 1600–1750, Vivaldi and Bach most often spring to mind. But there’s a rich repertoire for strings to be found in the fantastic—and idiosyncratic—music of Baroque-era France. It has its own specific set of rules, but, not to worry, with these tips, you’ll be playing in style in no time.

Curiously, the most famous and influential French Baroque composer came from Italy. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), born Giovanni Battista Lulli, lived in Florence until the age of 11, studying dance and various instruments, including violin. Brought to Paris as an Italian tutor for a French noblewoman, the talented Lully gained the attention of the young King Louis XIV when they danced together in a ballet. Lully soon became indispensable to Louis, gaining fame for the precision of his string orchestra, and going on to compose numerous ballets and operas filled with dances, and influencing musical style for decades to come.

1. Speak First

Since much of Lully’s music is for opera, it is worth listening to how the music is influenced by the sound of the words. Baroque music in general is based on rhetoric, and French music is no exception.

Modern and Baroque violinist Elizabeth Field, who teaches at George Washington University, often introduces the style in this way: “I have a Lully aria in which I white out all the text and any articulations, so there are no clues as to what the music might be. I ask modern violinists to ‘play it so it sounds like music,’ and invariably it sounds like Schumann.

“It blows their minds when I give them back the text and they have to find the syllables in the music. The great thing is realizing that no matter how similar any of the notations might appear superficially (i.e., three separate quarter notes) every time the articulation will vary according to the text. This makes for rhetorical long lines that are not solely vowels (what I consider to be the real definition of a 19th-century ‘long line’). That leads into the idea of finding the smaller gestures instead of the sustained melody we produce in later music.”


2. Downbeat? Down bow

One of the most far-reaching consequences of Lully’s tenure as conductor of the “24 violins of the King” was his demand that all the players use the same bowings—something all orchestras do today. The shape of the Baroque bow makes for a stronger down bow than up bow, and, according to his contemporary Georg Muffat, “Lullists” played the first note of every measure on a down bow, with less emphasis on the ensuing up bow. This practice was most used in France, but reached to Germany and England as well.

“It’s helpful to try to follow the strict rules of French bowing when playing dances,” says Yale professor and busy Baroque violinist Robert Mealy, “not just in French music, but in French-influenced music like Purcell. To keep the downbeat on a down bow, you can either take another down at the bar line or take two ups within the bar.”

In a slow triple-time piece, try down-up-down within a measure, retaking for a down on the next measure, which the French preferred to play down-up-up.

“They never used successive down bows within the bar,” Mealy says, “but they often did another down bow across bar lines—this produces a wonderful lift and articulation at the bar line.”

You can try out the down-up-down bowing on any minuet in a Bach Partita or Suite.


3. Get a Grip

The French Baroque bow was shorter than its Italian counterpart and made wonderfully clear articulations—perfect for quick dance movements. “Hold your modern bow well away from the frog” to get a feel for the smaller, lighter bow,” Handel and Haydn Society cellist Reinmar Seidler suggests. “Also, the French bow hold was quite unusual—the thumb was placed under that short bow, pressing on the hair at the frog, with the fingers on top. If you try this, it may be difficult but very instructive—you’ll find the only place to lift the bow from the string is at the frog. This fits in with the articulation—there would have been few slurs. Avoid slurs most of time—the dance character requires articulation and incisive rhythm.”

Mealy adds that in French music “the general rules of Baroque music definitely apply: the smaller the interval, the smoother the stroke—for scalar passages (even ones of a few notes) you can be very legato, and then more articulate when intervals get larger. Follow the landscape of the phrase, rising as it rises, falling as it descends.”

4. Strong & Weak Beats

In French Baroque music, the principle of strong and weak beats is carried to an extreme: if you have a series of conjunct notes of similar value, play the strong, down-bow notes slightly longer than the up bows that follow—this is known as notes inégales—which gives the passage, as Mealy puts it “a smooth, swung, flexible jazzy inflection of the rhythm.”

Try that French grip and put a little pressure on the bow hair with your thumb on the down bows, releasing it on the up bows. Mimic that feeling with your regular bow hold by sinking in to the down-bow stroke a bit more than you do for the up bow.


“Think of inégale not as being long-short (which usually ends up with something jerky or dotted) but as being strong-weak,” Mealy says. “This can help with the problem of running out of bow on a long series of swung eighth notes. Remember to choreograph the bow: just as violinists were often dancing masters, you have to think of dancing with your bow on the violin.”

5. Ornaments & Trills

French music is often filled with an array of trills and other ornaments, but don’t let them make you lose sight of the music! Get a sense of the musical line without the ornaments first before putting them in. Dan Stepner, first violinist of the Lydian String Quartet and concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra, emphasizes the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “statement about how ornaments must be felt (i.e. emotionally charged) and not just ‘ornamental.’ ” He also points out that in the Piéces de clavecin en concerts, Rameau “has simultaneous, but different ornaments on a unison line (e.g., harpsichord right hand and violin), which leads me to believe Rameau wanted a smudging effect, and not a precise, super-clear one. Gesture is what is important here, not precision.”

Mealy concurs: “Trills should be expressive. The longer the trill, the slower the beginning of the trill—it should never sound like a doorbell.”

Violinist and Yale professor Robert Mealy suggests exploring these great French Baroque pieces to acquaint you with the style.

  • Look for the DVDs of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s operas with Les Arts Florissants—Une symphonie imaginair (Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre) and Suites from Naïs and Le temple de la gloire (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra). They are all great, with wonderfully unexpected stagings—everything from neo-Baroque to hip-hop.
  • François Couperin’s Les Nations recorded by Hesperion XXI is a set of trio sonatas and dances with the profundity and eloquence of Bach, played by an all-star cast of instrumentalists. Also check out their recording of Couperin’s trio sonatas Les Apotheoses, which imagine both Lully and Corelli ascending to the heavens.
  • Also check out the Boston Early Music Festival recordings of Lully’s operas Psyché and Thésé.
  • For other vocal music, try Les Arts Florissants’ recordings of Charpentier: David et Jonathas, Medé, or Actéon.
  • Mealy says violinists should try Leclair’s violin sonatas, “which get progressively more difficult: his fourth book has some spectacular violin effects. Also his second book of duets for two violins are worth finding: much more difficult and more interesting than the first book.”
  • Cellists might consider playing the sonatas of Joseph Bodin de Boismortier or Jean-Baptiste Barrière.
  • Couperin’s Les concerts royaux and Les goûts-réunis, ou nouveaux concerts provide a lesson in the densely ornamented, eloquent language of high French Baroque.
  • Mealy urges getting this music in facsimile “since French engraving was a high art: the music is beautifully readable, and you avoid having to ignore editorial additions.”
  • Most of this music can be ordered from sheetmusicplus.com (look for Editions Fuzeau—good facsimiles of the originals).