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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

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Volume 20 (2014) No. 1

Published 2017

Honnêtes gens, Amateur Musicianship, and the “Easy Air” in France: The Case of Francesco Corbetta’s Royal Guitars

Michael A. Bane*


This essay argues that seventeenth-century French guitarists calibrated their compositions to the requirements of honnêtes gens, amateur musicians who wished to appear at ease during musical performance. The guitarists’ stylistic development, traced in this essay, tended toward the production of easy arrangements of fashionable music. Francesco Corbetta, who published two collections of guitar music in Paris, both titled La guitarre royalle, also participated in this development. The first Guitarre royalle, published in 1671, contains music of greater technical difficulty than the second, published in 1674. The blunted technical demands of the second publication reflect Corbetta’s accommodation of honnêtes gens.

1. Introduction

2. Honnêtes gens and the Easy Air

3. Ease in Guitar Music Published in Seventeenth-Century France

4. Corbetta’s La Guitarre royalle (1674)

5. Conclusions




1. Introduction

1.1 Three years separate the final two collections of guitar music published by the Italian virtuoso Francesco Corbetta (ca. 1615–81). Both contain dances and other short pieces in the French style, written in French lute tablature; both are dedicated to reigning monarchs who were themselves amateur guitarists; and both share the same title, La Guitarre royalle. Despite these similarities, however, the two collections could hardly be more different. The first, published in Paris in 1671 and dedicated to Charles II, is perhaps the most significant guitar publication of the seventeenth century.[1] The complexity of its music is matched by the technical mastery required to perform it, and the work is a testament to Corbetta’s skill as a composer and guitarist. The second Guitarre royalle, published in Paris in 1674 and dedicated to Louis XIV, is a much lighter affair.[2] In place of the long, developed suites of the first publication are a number of duets and solo pieces loosely organized by key.[3] Gone are the rhythmic and contrapuntal complexities of the previous publication. Gone, too, is the delicate interplay of strummed and plucked technique that makes the 1671 book so entrancing to hear and difficult to perform. The music of 1674 is simple in comparison, sometimes markedly so. It seems almost trivial in the long shadow cast by the 1671 publication.

1.2 Two examples, one from each collection, serve to demonstrate the change in Corbetta’s compositional approach between 1671 and 1674. Example 1 shows the first half of a sarabande from the first Guitarre royalle, while Example 2 gives the first half of a sarabande from the second Guitarre royalle.[4] The latter piece is simpler in style and execution in almost every way. Most obviously, it is substantially shorter than the earlier composition. Whereas the first example flirts with a number of key areas before eventually coming to rest in the relative major, the second quickly moves from C major to G major with few digressions or surprises. The 1674 sarabande also relies far more on strummed chords; aside from four plucked eighth notes, the passage reproduced in Example 2 is entirely strummed. Example 1, on the other hand, freely mixes strummed and plucked techniques. In general, strumming on the Baroque guitar, which requires the performer to brush the right-hand fingers through the strings, presents fewer technical challenges than plucking individual or simultaneous notes. Finally, the first sarabande possesses greater rhythmic variety than the second. Indeed, all measures but two of Example 2 conform to the same rhythmic pattern. In contrast, the rhythmic profile of Example 1 is supple and unpredictable, with an increase in rhythmic activity lending a propulsive jolt to the final measures. These two brief examples serve as metonyms for their respective collections: The first Guitarre royalle brims with subtle, difficult, and exciting music, while the second Guitarre royalle presents more modest technical and musical demands.

1.3 The regression in musical complexity of the second Guitarre royalle stands in contrast to Corbetta’s earlier development as a performer and composer. Born in Pavia ca. 1615, he published five surviving books of guitar music before his death in Paris in 1681. Their cities of publication attest to a peripatetic career: the first three, published in Bologna (1639), Milan (1643), and Brussels (1648), demonstrate an increasingly virtuosic grasp of the early seventeenth-century Italian guitar idiom.[5] While his first book contains pieces comprising mostly strummed chords in the style of earlier guitarists such as Girolamo Montesardo and Benedetto Sanseverino, by 1643 Corbetta had fully integrated elements of lute technique into his music, including plucked counterpoint. Written in mixed tablature (so-called because of its combination of alfabeto and Italian lute tablature), these compositions demanded new virtuosity of the performer; with them, Corbetta established a reputation as one of the great instrumental virtuosos of the day. Following sojourns at the French court in the 1650s and the English court in the 1660s,[6] where he enjoyed close relations with both kings, he returned to Paris in 1670 to oversee the publication of the first Guitarre royalle. Its suites represent the culmination of Corbetta’s technical explorations begun over thirty years earlier, the fruits of which he would largely abandon three years later in the second Guitarre royalle.

1.4 The large musical distance separating the two publications has not escaped scholarly notice. Richard Keith speculates that the second collection’s “old-fashioned,” strummed style may have better suited the musical preferences of its dedicatee, Louis XIV.[7] Richard Pinnell, whose pioneering study of Corbetta first brought the composer and his work to the attention of the broader academic community, writes that the second Guitarre royalle may both reflect the regressive tastes of its dedicatee and represent a progressive contribution to musical style in France. He recognizes the important role played by technical difficulty in each of the two Paris publications and suggests that the simpler 1674 book may be a result of “strong aesthetic trends” in the latter half of the seventeenth century toward a “national style.”[8] The exact nature of these aesthetic trends, their animating cultural forces, and their particular musical repercussions, however, remain unexplored.

1.5 In this essay I approach the material from a new perspective by investigating how this music fits into a discourse of ease central to both the instrument and the rarefied court and salons of seventeenth-century France. I focus first on the consumers of the music to better understand how the needs of fashionable amateurs circumscribed the music published for their amusement. Adopting a term employed by several authors contemporaneous with Corbetta, I argue that honnêtes gens, who constituted a large portion of amateur guitar players in seventeenth-century France, cloaked their engagement with music in an “easy air” (air aisé). For these musicians, music that required practice, persistence, and concentration to perform seems to have proven antithetical to pleasure or social distinction. Indeed, difficult music was as likely to arouse contempt as admiration. During the 1670s and ’80s, when most seventeenth-century French guitar music was published, guitarists continually calibrated their compositions to the requirements of their audience. This process of stylistic development, which I trace in this essay, tended toward the production of easy arrangements of fashionable music for amateur consumption. Finally, I return to Corbetta’s two Paris publications and argue that the 1674 Guitarre royalle, in both its prefatory material and compositional choices, demonstrates an increased awareness of honnêtes gens and amateur music making. The easy air sought by amateur guitarists thus offers a new interpretation of Corbetta’s final publication as well as of the social forces animating much of this important repertoire.

2. Honnêtes gens and the Easy Air

2.1 Publications for guitar in seventeenth-century France often linked the instrument to a particular segment of society. In the first such work, the Método mui facilíssimo para aprender a tañer la guitarra a lo español (Paris, 1626) by Luis Briçeño, an introductory poem states that Briçeño’s students included “principes y titulares.”[9] According to the dedication, “kings, princes, and gentlemen” (“Reyes prinçipes y cavalleros”) abandoned other instruments to take up the newly fashionable guitar.[10] Indeed, both Louis XIII and Louis XIV played the instrument, and Corbetta’s two publications in the 1670s cemented the guitar’s royal status. The audience for guitar music extended beyond a handful of kings and courtiers, however; Briçeño reckoned the number of guitar players to be in the thousands.[11] In his book of guitar music published in 1676, Rémy Médard addressed this wider public with a specific term: les honestes gens.[12] The term encompassed not only the “principes y titulares” taught by Briçeño but also the men and women of the urban salon who increasingly shaped matters of style and taste in France. These honnêtes gens shared an influential aesthetic sensibility—propounded in conduct manuals, novels, and treatises—that touched the production and reception of many artistic media, including guitar music, at various moments throughout the seventeenth century.

2.2 The term honnêtes gens referred to collections of honnêtes hommes and honnêtes femmes, that is, “honest” men and women. The translation of honnête as honest, while accurate in a strict sense, fails to convey the broader connotations this word had accumulated by the seventeenth century. Derived from the Latin honestus and the works of Cicero and Quintilian, honnête denoted one who was not only upright and virtuous but charming, pleasant, and well mannered. Furetière defined the adjective honneste as “that which merits esteem, praise, because it is reasonable, according to good mores,”[13] while the Chevalier de Méré wrote that “in order to become and win the reputation of an honnête homme, it seems to me that the most important point is to perceive in all matters the best means of captivating [de plaire] others and to be able to put them [those means] into practice.”[14] The tools of captivation included la bienséance (the graceful calibration of action and speech) and les agréments (the social graces, including conversation, dance, and music). In sum, honnêtes gens conformed to honnêteté, a concept defined by Furetière simply as “purity of habits” (Pureté de mœurs) but which encompassed all elegant or pleasing actions.[15]

2.3 Honnêteté shared in the broader developments of seventeenth-century civility. The early modern civilizing process described by Norbert Elias gradually reformed the terms of social interaction, emphasizing adherence to sophisticated rules of decorous, polite behavior.[16] As refined conduct became the primary marker of “nobility” broadly defined, the traditionally martial class struggled to maintain its monopoly over social distinction.[17] Donna Bohanan provides a useful précis situating honnêteté within this changing social landscape:

By the early seventeenth century, nobles had access to a large and growing etiquette and honnêteté literature which included the prototype, Castiglione’s Courtier, as well as Nicolas Faret’s widely read The Honnête Homme, or, The Art of Pleasing at Court. Provincial nobles, as well as the court aristocracy, found this literature indispensable when they instructed their children in the decorum that brought honor and esteem to their families. As generations were reared to seek distinction through education and civility, the culture of nobility evolved as one of sophistication and cultivation, which replaced to some extent the culture of valor.[18]

Although French nobles suffered the reputation of boors in the sixteenth century,[19] they refined themselves considerably by the end of seventeenth in part through the consumption of honnêteté. Indeed, many of its early works spoke directly to the concerns of a rural nobility drawn to a newly centralized court. It was this very literature that encouraged the cultivation of artistic talents such as music.

2.4 At its heart, honnêteté represented a noble aesthetic propagated outward from the court and salon to the wider city and distant provinces. However, honnêtes gens were by no means confined to the nobility. The Chevalier de Méré, whose given name was Antoine Gombaud, belonged to the Third Estate, not the Second. It is important to note that the term honnêteté, and thus the designation honnêtes gens, lacked objective qualification in the seventeenth century. Unlike class, a matter of position within an economic system, or nobility, a matter of ritual conferment and bureaucratic registration, there were no official criteria of honnêteté or notarized accounts of honnêtes gens. Each was free to claim, bestow, or revoke the titles of honnête homme and honnête femme as he or she saw fit; only public assent could stabilize a reputation as unimpeachable. Since honnêteté did not hinge on noble birth, people of all social categories could in theory claim it as their own. In practice, the leisured men and women of the city and court, who could dedicate the necessary time and resources to self-refinement, were best positioned to play the part of honnêtes gens.[20]

2.5 Dozens of published treatises aimed to guide honnêtes gens through the finer points of correct behavior. These works found a welcoming readership, for successfully navigating the byzantine regulations of court and salon life required enormous self-awareness and great sensitivity to custom. According to Méré, “We [honnêtes gens] must be masters of our speech, tone of voice, gestures, actions, all things. There are some who are in control of one thing and not another. It is necessary to control everything.”[21] Such restraint affected all aspects of life, but bodily comportment registered its influence most obviously. As Domna Stanton has shown, highborn men and women in France aestheticized their corporeal forms to unprecedented levels. Their bodies were—indeed, had to be—carefully crafted works of art unspoiled by imperfections. Social distinction depended upon it.[22]

2.6 Bodily ease served an important function in the performance of social distinction.[23] Pierre Bourdieu has argued that ease is one of the primary means of both individual and class formation.[24] It demonstrates distance from necessity, perhaps the most powerful claim to distinction available to social elites. In the seventeenth century, the appearance of ease manifested ample reserves of cultural capital, whether one was conversing with peers or performing a musical composition. It was the embodiment of a privileged and leisured upbringing and the physical expression of the attendant cultural legitimacy. Those unable to acculturate to dominant behavioral modes because of economic or social deficits lacked the self-certainty and insouciant confidence conferred by an aristocratic upbringing. While these early deficits could theoretically be overcome, the studied application of alien points of decorum often undermined the appearance of ease itself. As with Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, arrogating the noble mien without the necessary store of cultural capital produced a toxic combination of ineptitude and pedantry. In the strictly regulated world of early modern France, where minute gradations of behavior correlated with similarly minute gradations of social distinction, ease was a powerful marker of superiority.

2.7 Honnêtes hommes and honnêtes femmes expended considerable energy in the cultivation of ease. The many French translations and adaptations of Castiglione’s Il cortegiano introduced the concept of sprezzatura to France,[25] where it denoted the effortlessness with which the ideal courtier performed his role, no matter how difficult or unpleasant the task.[26] French texts often employed the words négligence or grâce to indicate the same idea. In his treatise L’Honeste-homme ou, l’art de plaire à la cour, Nicolas Faret writes that the honnête homme must avoid all importune Affectation in his behavior and instead make use of “a certain negligence that hides artifice and shows that nothing is done with forethought or any kind of effort.”[27] In turn, Méré describes an “easy air” (air aisé) derived from fortunate birth and attentive training proper to honnêtes gens.[28] “He who takes up something,” he writes, “although it be very difficult, must nevertheless adopt so casual a manner that one would imagine the matter cost him nothing.”[29]

2.8 This “easy air,” like sprezzatura, seems to have functioned as a kind of meta-agrément, ennobling the common actions of everyday life with a patina of nonchalance. In his treatise on pleasing conversation, first published in 1688, Pierre d’Ortigue de Vaumorière writes:

To make oneself agreeable in conversation, one must no longer say only subtle or elevated things. It is not necessary to show a great depth of knowledge or a vast extent of genius. It suffices to speak with an easy air (air aisé), and that in what one says nothing smacks of affectation or constraint, as I have recommended to you more than once.[30]

Like Méré, Vaumorière contrasts the air aisé with affectation, constraint, and obvious demonstrations of effort; those possessing the air behave with an easy openness, a relaxed self-assurance unspoiled by immodest striving. François Couperin uses the term in a similar sense in his harpsichord treatise: “The player must have an easy air at his harpsichord, without fixing his gaze too much on some object or having one too vague. Finally, he must regard his audience, if there is any, as though he were not occupied elsewhere.”[31] To stare intently as if possessed, or to glance here and there as if confused, destroyed the image of a performer at ease. The harpsichordist, to use the words of Faret, must play as if it “cost him nothing.”

2.9 As the passage from Couperin’s treatise suggests, behavioral strictures governed musical performance as they did other social events. Margot Martin and Buford Norman have both explored the correspondence between the social graces prescribed by honnêteté and the ornamentation (les agréments) prescribed by seventeenth-century composers.[32] Don Fader notes, however, that notions of honnêteté “in fact lay much deeper in the 17th- and early 18th-century French musical consciousness,” forming the very basis upon which an entire group engaged with music.[33] Ease being a central component of bienséance and honnêteté, it naturally assumed exegetical importance for honnêtes gens when assessing aesthetic phenomena. As Fader writes, “The particular mixture of the social and the aesthetic inherent in mondain principles contributed to a suspicion of compositions that were too ‘difficult’ and hence drew attention to themselves by their very complexity.”[34] Such compositions celebrated a style at odds with the elegant air of ease and repelled honnêtes gens weaned on court aesthetics and noble etiquette.

2.10 Amateur musicians were particularly sensitive to impressions of difficulty, for their participation in music exposed them to the same reproaches leveled against the compositions they performed. Too skillful or labored a performance smacked of the pedant or, worse yet, the working professional. Jean-Baptiste Morvan de Bellegard, for instance, claimed that it was beneath the dignity of noble rank to seriously apply oneself to music, while Antoine de Courtin, author of the most popular French conduct manual of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, counseled honnêtes gens to keep their musical abilities secret lest their enthusiasm for the art betray an unworthy motivation.[35] Musical performance was a moment of self-display like any other, and honnêtes gens could not forget it. An article on French and Italian music published by the Mercure in the early eighteenth century reveals how easily musical performance and the performance of social distinction melded together in the minds of the socially conscious. The author, a “Mr. L. T.,” defends Lully’s limited use of transposition as a worthy deference to aesthetic simplicity, but adds in support of his claim the overriding need for ease in amateur musical displays by honnêtes gens:

Lully clearly perceived that a melody was not more beautiful for being transposed a half step higher or lower, and that difficult or overly complex music, although lovely, does not prevent it having a flaw which is that it is rarely well performed because the number of savants in vocal and instrumental music is quite rare. Good music, however, is even better when it is simple, being more receptive to execution which should be regarded as the soul of music. It invites itself to be sung, being more useful in good society and more suited to the abilities of the honnêtes gens who perform it, which must be its aim and reward. Difficult music, however, frightens and disgusts, and is only good for professional musicians.[36]

For this author, performance is the soul of music, and music’s aim should be to please those who perform it.[37] It was through performance that honnêtes gens distinguished themselves from other social groups, in this case “professional musicians.” Difficult music prevented the amateur from maintaining the casual deportment required by honnêteté, for its performance demanded a level of ambition and exertion incompatible with the noble mien. Only music composed with the amateur in mind permitted the musical demonstration of equanimity and relaxed self-assurance fundamental to the easy air.

2.11 Neither sprezzatura nor the easy air banished difficult music per se. Faret wrote only of “hiding” artifice, not of avoiding artifice all together. For his part, Méré had no problem with difficult tasks—so long as they were performed as though they were easy. The impression of ease, in other words, counted for more than ease itself, and accounts exist of noble amateur musicians performing at high levels. According to the Comte de Gramont, Lady Chesterfield’s brother, the Earl of Arran, played the guitar almost as well as Corbetta himself;[38] Elisabeth-Charlotte d’Orléans wrote that, in his youth, Louis XIV played the guitar better than some professionals.[39] But such talented amateurs were no doubt exceptions. The abilities of most honnêtes gens would have been modest, and, in order to maintain an easy air in performance, they would have required music of commensurate accessibility. Indeed, this is the argument of L. T., who praised “simple” music because it “invites itself to be sung, being more useful in good society and more suited to the abilities of the honnêtes gens who perform it.” As I will argue below, this demand for easily performable repertoire strongly influenced music composed and published for the guitar, an instrument whose popularity in seventeenth-century France largely coincided with the increasing influence of honnêteté and honnêtes gens.

3. Ease in Guitar Music Published in Seventeenth-Century France

3.1 In 1630, Nicolas Faret recommended two instruments to the honnête homme because “our masters and mistresses take pleasure in their performance”: the lute and the guitar.[40] While the lute had long been a favorite of the French nobility, Faret’s selection of the guitar signaled a relatively new development. The marriage of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria in 1615 sparked interest for Spanish culture in France, with Parisian audiences eager to adopt the Spanish guitar—among other Iberian artifacts—as their own. Luis Briçeño, who moved to Paris from Spain around this time to teach and perform,[41] brought out his aforementioned Método in 1626; Étienne Moulinié published thirteen airs de cour with guitar accompaniment three years later.[42] The guitar’s quick rise in popularity, however, hinged on more than a passing fascination with a new queen. Rather, the instrument and its music engaged with the same issues of ease and simplicity that preoccupied honnêtes gens. Over the course of the seventeenth century, and in contrast to the lute, the guitar came to symbolize accessible, painless music making, a development with important consequences for the reception of Corbetta’s first Guitarre royalle in 1671.

3.2 Throughout much of the early seventeenth century in France, professional musicians derided the guitar for its supposed inadequacies while simultaneously decrying its growing popularity. Particularly offensive to some was the instrument’s easily acquired technique. Compared to the lute, an instrument whose repertoire demanded great skill and subtlety, the guitar seemed little more than a child’s toy. The French lutenist Pierre Trichet expressed a common sentiment in his music treatise written around 1640:

Who does not know that the lute is proper and suitable for the French and that it is the most agreeable of all the musical instruments? Yet some of our nation leave everything behind in order to take up and learn to play the guitar. Is it not because it is much easier [plus aisé] to perfect oneself in this than the lute, which requires long and arduous study before one can acquire some skill and worthy disposition?[43]

To abandon the lute was to neglect a long and proud musical tradition. Worse yet, indolence appeared to motivate the change of fashion. Those unable or unwilling to grapple with the lute’s considerable challenges simply played the guitar instead. For these amateurs, the guitar was a welcomed ersatz. The barriers to its performance were relatively slight, and its repertoire asked little of the performer. For those protective of the lute’s hallowed place in French musical culture, however, these same characteristics tended to discredit the instrument. Trichet clearly belonged to this camp, and he dismissed guitar-playing Parisians as nothing more than “Spaniards’ monkeys” (singes des espagnols).

3.3 Paris received perhaps the ultimate proof of the guitar’s trivial demands when, in the 1630s, a singer named Madame Coinet trained an actual monkey to accompany her upon the instrument. According to Tallemant des Réaux, one of at least three authors to report on Coinet’s pet, the monkey could play a sarabande, although imperfectly.[44] Despite its crude abilities, the monkey aroused considerable interest. Vincent Voiture expressed regret in a 1634 letter to Mademoiselle de Rambouillet that he was forced to be away from Paris and unable to see or hear the monkey play.[45] The animal even earned a mention in Sir Kenelm Digby’s treatise on the nature of man’s soul, published in Paris in 1644. The late date of publication suggests that either the monkey had a long career in music or its memory lingered on in the minds of Parisians. Digby writes, “I have by sundry persons who have seene him, beene told of a baboone, that would play certaine lessons upon a guitarre.”[46] He proceeds to compare the monkey’s arduous musical training to a human’s first lessons upon a lute. He admits, however, that “there is no comparison, between the difficulty of a guitarre and of a lute.”[47] It was the guitar’s inherent easiness, Digby suggests, that permitted the musical training of the monkey; the lute presented technical challenges beyond simian capabilities. The whole affair could not have endeared the instrument to those who valued the physical and mental exertion intrinsic to so-called proper and suitable music.

3.4 Many others found the guitar’s accessible technique perfectly agreeable, however, and the instrument gained as many adherents as adversaries. In 1644, the same year as Digby’s account of the baboon, the novelist Charles Sorel published a fanciful dialogue between a musician and his two instruments, a lute and a guitar. Charmed to life by a fairy, each instrument competes for the attention of its master. The lute plumes himself on his noble lineage, but the guitar seems to carry the day with this retort: “[The lute] often leaves you as he found you, or if he does bring some change to your passion, it is to augment it. It is only I who can boast of relieving the boredom of man. I am always cheerful and pleasant.”[48] Here the guitar is not a sorry substitute for the lute but rather a legitimate alternative, one whose appeal lies in its cheerful and relaxed character. Amateur musicians were drawn to the guitar for this very reason. It did not require “long and arduous study” before one could “acquire some skill,” to recall Trichet’s words. A passable technique was quickly obtained, allowing even the ham-fisted some musical fun to fill otiose hours. Over the course of the seventeenth century, an increasing number of amateurs abandoned the lute for the guitar until, burdened by its difficult reputation, the lute disappeared from French musical life altogether.[49]

3.5 The development of guitar music in France in the middle decades of the seventeenth century is poorly documented. Only one publication of solo music for the instrument appeared between Briceño’s book in 1626 and Corbetta’s first Guitarre royalle in 1671: François Martin’s Pièces de guitairre, à battre et à pinser, published in Paris in 1663.[50] The book contains two suites, one à battre (i.e., strummed) and one à pinser (i.e., plucked). The music is fairly modest, with its division into two distinct techniques suggesting that some players may have been more comfortable using one over the other. Manuscript sources contain all other evidence for guitar playing in France during the middle decades of the century, but these have yet to be systematically studied. Importantly, the dearth of midcentury publications for the instrument does not reflect a slackening of interest in the instrument on the part of the French. Bernard Jourdan, sieur de La Salle, became Louis XIV’s guitar teacher in 1651,[51] and the instrument remained a favorite among amateur musicians at court and in the city for the next three decades.[52]

3.6 By 1671, then, the guitar had had a long association with amateur music making in Paris. It was within this context that Corbetta published the first Guitarre royalle. He had composed much of the collection while living and working in London in the 1660s, and he returned to Paris in 1670 to oversee its engraving.[53] Even before its publication, some had questioned the technical requirements Corbetta demanded of an instrument played mostly by amateur musicians. On August 5, 1667, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary a chance encounter with Corbetta. He writes that Corbetta played the guitar most admirably, “so well that I was mightily troubled that all that pain should have been taken upon so bad an instrument.”[54] Like many, Pepys saw the guitar as a bauble, an instrument for fleeting pleasure but not much more; it was certainly nothing to take pains over. The Comte de Gramont, who also witnessed a performance by Corbetta in the mid-1660s, wrote bluntly: “Nothing could be more difficult than to play as he played.”[55] Originally intended for his own performance, Corbetta’s compositions exceeded the technical limitations previously imposed upon the instrument. The first Guitarre royalle, some of which Corbetta surely performed for Pepys and the Count, exploded these expectations.

3.7 In the preface, Corbetta addressed the issue of technical difficulty:

Because there are always those envious who would be able to say that my manner of playing is too difficult, because part of my compositions approaches the manner of the lute, I will be able to respond to them with truth that I do not know a single chord on that instrument, and that I have never had an inclination for something other than the guitar alone. My manner of playing is so different from that of the lute, that people who have knowledge of the matter immediately recognize as much, and if one finds something difficult in it, it is because it is above the common manner, being the best way of playing and best provided [fournie] to yet appear before the public.[56]

Corbetta wrote with obvious indignation. Evidently, some had complained that he composed for the guitar as if it were a lute. As we have seen, many amateurs played the former precisely to escape the difficulties of the latter. But Corbetta remained unmoved by their plight. His way of playing was “above the common manner,” doubtless a reference to the casual strumming practiced by most players of the instrument. In this passage, the first Guitarre royalle becomes a declaration of the guitar’s potential as a medium for virtuosity. Indeed, the title of the collection may allude to an earlier (and now lost) publication for the lute by Pierre Lespiaud, Le Luth royal.[57] Although Corbetta disavowed any knowledge of the lute, his book nevertheless appropriated its difficulty, perhaps in the hope of claiming a higher and more distinguished position for the guitar in the musical hierarchy. The problem, of course, was that a vast gulf separated the musical abilities of most guitarists from those of Corbetta.[58] The 1671 Guitarre royalle perverted the recreational ease the instrument had traditionally represented and could only have frustrated—or even embarrassed—the average guitarist.

3.8 Markings in the copy of the 1671 Guitarre royalle held by the Library of Congress show how troublesome its music could be to the amateur player. The guitarist to whom this book once belonged evidently had difficulty following the rhythm of Corbetta’s music. In tablature, a rhythmic value, once given, is assumed to hold until a different rhythmic value supersedes it. As a courtesy to players, however, many tablatures from this era reiterate the current rhythmic value at the beginning of every measure, even if the rhythm has not changed. These helpful reminders prevent the fledgling musician from losing his or her place rhythmically. Corbetta eschewed this practice and indicated rhythm only when strictly necessary. Multiple measures often pass without a single rhythmic sign. While this dearth of rhythmic markers likely posed little challenge to the practiced musician, it nevertheless unsettled amateurs of modest ability. Our amateur guitarist found the practice disorienting. Taking the initiative, he or she studiously wrote down in ink (now red from oxidation) the current rhythm at the head of every measure of one sarabande (Example 3). These marks helped to guide the amateur through the otherwise formidable challenges this piece presents.

3.9 And for all that, our amateur still blundered into trouble. The culprit is again the complexity of Corbetta’s notation. When a rhythm necessitates a tie across a bar line, such as a half note on the final beat of a 3/4 measure, it is often more elegant in tablature simply to delete the bar line and create one large measure of six beats. Corbetta often does this in the 1671 book. The practice, although meant to improve the music’s legibility, nevertheless vexed our amateur. In one instance, upon encountering an unusually long space caused by the deletion of two consecutive bar lines, he counted back three beats from the next complete measure and drew in a bar line himself (see the red bar line in Example 4). Then, assuming a misprint or error on Corbetta’s part, he changed two quarter notes to two eighth notes to ensure the proper number of beats in the newly created measure (see the fourth note in Example 4). There is ingenuity to the amateur’s blundering, but it is clear that he, like many others, was unequipped to play Corbetta’s music. This sarabande is the only piece to bear amendments of the amateur, who perhaps gave up in frustration and opted for a less trying diversion.[59]

3.10 Other guitarists working in France better appreciated the amateur’s plight. One was Antoine Carré, sieur de la Grange. Little is known of his life. He probably taught guitar in Paris in the early 1670s, and he resided in the Netherlands sometime between 1678 and 1688, where he taught guitar to the “Princesse D’Orange,” i.e., Princess Mary, the dedicatee of his second guitar book.[60] He may also be the author of five airs published by Ballard in 1673 and attributed to a “De La Grange.”[61] Carré published his first book of guitar music quickly after Corbetta’s first Guitarre royalle and dedicated it to the recently arrived Princess Palatine.[62] Unlike Corbetta’s 1671 publication, Carré’s music is calculated to please the performer. As he explains in the preface, he intends the book for those who teach and those who hope to learn. Any music is possible on the guitar, he claims, provided the composer skillfully sets it. With the amateur in mind, Carré has used only “ordinary tablature,” for it is the easiest to read. Although Carré here likely distinguished his tablature from the specialized alfebeto tablature used for guitar music in Spain and Italy, or perhaps mensural notation, he may also have had Corbetta’s recent publication in mind. In any case, a rhythmic marker appears at the head of every measure as a concession to the amateur. Finally, Carré reassures the student of doubtful ability: “If one finds difficulty in the book, he has only to see the author who will always show him the easy execution.”[63] His music is accessible to all, he implies, charming but easy to play.

3.11 The intentional ease of Carré’s music would have been a welcome relief from the difficulty of Corbetta’s. Carré himself seems to invite the comparison of the two composers’ differing approaches to guitar music, for the second piece of his collection is a simplified version of a chaconne that also appeared in the 1671 Guitarre royalle (see Example 5 and Example 6 for a comparison of the two pieces).[64] Carré’s process of simplification is especially notable beginning at the section marked by an asterisk in both examples (Example 5, mm. 32ff., and Example 6, mm. 52ff.). Here he replaces the most difficult passage of Corbetta’s original, which employs faster rhythms, plucked counterpoint, and higher positions on the guitar, with a simpler strumming variation. The re-composition of this passage likely rendered an otherwise difficult work accessible to the modestly talented amateur. Whether Corbetta was aware of Carré and his first book of guitar music is unknown, although it seems likely considering the small world of guitar publishing in Paris at the time. In any event, many of the pieces in Corbetta’s second Guitarre royalle bear a stronger resemblance to the simplified texture of Carré’s chaconne than to the work collected in the first Guitarre royalle. The opening phrase of the chaconne found on page 22 of the 1674 Guitarre royalle, for instance, parallels the phrase Carré used to replace Corbetta’s difficult passage three years earlier (Example 7).

3.12 Carré made a profitable habit of borrowing from Corbetta. As Richard Pinnell has shown,[65] he drew on half a dozen pieces from Corbetta’s 1671 Guitarre royalle in his second book, composed sometime in the late 1670s or early 1680s.[66] In some works Carré retained the opening measures of Corbetta’s piece before branching off in new directions; in others he copied entire phrases of Corbetta’s music into his own compositions. It is easy to imagine Carré composing with the 1671 Guitarre royalle open on his lap, dipping into the collection when his own inspiration flagged. The result is a music that sounds similar to Corbetta’s but does not require exceptional technique to perform. Carré understood that Corbetta’s music was popular but challenging; by simplifying it, he cunningly addressed a demand in the amateur market. In his two books a new aesthetic for guitar music is discernable, one forged through a process of musical borrowing and technical simplification. Indebted stylistically to Corbetta, this aesthetic nonetheless rejected the advanced technique his music demanded. It instead emphasized the ease of performance expected of the guitar by amateurs.

3.13 The elaboration of this easier style occupied other guitarists in Paris, most notably Rémy Médard. A student of Corbetta’s, Médard published his only book of guitar music in 1676. Of all the seventeenth-century French guitarists, Médard most clearly linked the guitar to the amusements of the nobility. In his preface, addressed to all honestes gens, he writes:

Those most understanding of lovely gallantry know well that the guitar has a cavalier and casual character which is particular to it. This is why the greatest princes of Europe who have wanted to play some instrument have preferred the guitar to all others, and sometimes deign to make of it a sweet amusement.[67]

Médard includes a number of airs from the Académie Royale de la Musique because “there are many people who love them and few who can set them well.”[68] The intabulations contain airs and dances from Lully’s opera Atys, which had premiered only two weeks before the book’s publication. Médard’s remark points to what must have been a common practice among guitarists at court and in the city, although few published examples exist: the casual arrangement of tunes taken from court spectacle.[69]

3.14 Médard’s promotion of popular music accessibly arranged for the amateur was a clear reaction to Corbetta’s difficult compositions. Further in his preface, Médard explained how his own compositions surpassed those of his former teacher: “I claim to have entirely followed the manner of playing of the famous Francisque Corbet, who communicated it to me during several months, with the difference that I have found for my pieces an ease [facilité] that he did not care to search for.”[70] Here we find one more indication of the difficulty of Corbetta’s music as well as an implicit judgment of that difficulty. For Médard, as it had been for Carré, difficulty in guitar music was a defect to be avoided, something Corbetta, it is implied, never fully understood. The natural style for the guitar was one of ease, and this is what Médard claimed to have found: a harmonious coupling of technical facility with musical charm.

3.15 Médard was not alone in thinking that his publication represented an important development for the guitar. In March of 1679, the Mercure galant published the following notice: “[Médard] has given to the public an engraved book of his pieces, and the most knowledgeable connoisseurs fall into agreement that he has found the most beautiful character for this instrument.”[71] Before the publication of Médard’s book, the notice implies, the attributes best suited to the guitar and its music had gone unrealized. Corbetta’s music had evidently lacked something that “the most knowledgeable connoisseurs” demanded of the guitar. Only the process of simplification begun by Carré and completed by Médard could realize the style proper to the instrument. As Médard himself explained in his preface, this style was modeled on the music of Corbetta but rooted in ease.

3.16 Médard’s music amply demonstrates the look and sound of this “beautiful character.” Example 8 and Example 9 contain excerpts of two courantes, the first by Médard’s teacher, Corbetta, and the other by Médard himself. The two examples share certain features; after all, Médard claimed to have adopted Corbetta’s manner of playing, if not its difficulty. Both composers employed a mixture of strummed and plucked technique, and both excerpts begin with a strummed eighth-note pickup chord leading to a strummed dotted-quarter-note chord on the downbeat. However, whereas Médard’s courante consists mostly of strummed chords with the occasional plucked note, Corbetta opted for a more contrapuntal texture, which generally requires greater skill on the part of the performer to render accurately. The increased rhythmic activity of Corbetta’s music further taxes the performer, who has less time between notes to prepare for what follows. The upshot is that, while the two pieces unfold within the same stylistic framework, Médard’s courante is far easier to play that Corbetta’s.

3.17 In the decade following Médard’s publication, audience expectations continued to shape guitar music in France. Ease remained a potent desideratum. Two publications by Robert de Visée in the 1680s vividly illustrate the musical ramifications of popular perceptions of difficulty. De Visée was the most important guitarist to work in France during the last quarter of the century; according to a recent evaluation, he “dominated all his contemporaries” and elevated the French guitar school to Europe’s highest rank.[72] He was probably born between 1655 and 1662 and died in 1732 or shortly thereafter. Little is known of his musical education; Fétis claimed he studied guitar with Corbetta, but no corroborating documentation exists.[73] He found success at court performing on guitar, theorbo, and viol. It was as a guitarist, however, that he best pleased Louis XIV. In the journal of the marquis de Dangeau, we learn that “In the evening His Majesty takes a long walk in his gardens; he always goes to bed at eight o’clock and dines in his bed at ten; he usually has de Visée come at nine to play the guitar.”[74] In 1695, de Visée became Louis XIV’s guitar instructor; in 1719, official guitarist to the court.

3.18 De Visée published two collections of guitar music: Livre de guittarre (Paris, 1682) and Livre de pièces pour la guittarre (Paris, 1686). Both are dedicated to Louis XIV, and both contain suites of French dances. In the dedicatory preface to the 1682 publication, de Visée referred to the bedside concerts he gave for the king:

I almost dare not question [my compositions’] happy success, when I think that several times they have had the glory of amusing Your Majesty in hours of precious leisure, when they relaxed his august travails and his grand occupations which rule today the destiny of all of Europe.[75]

However relaxing the compositions of this first collection may have been for Louis XIV, many of those who purchased and attempted to perform the music encountered irksome technical difficulties. In his second collection of guitar music, published four years later, de Visée acknowledged as much. In the preface he writes, “I believe it good to advise that the pieces of this second book are of a much easier technical execution than the first, whose difficulties may have repelled [rebuté] many people.”[76] De Visée here seems to suggest that the music of this collection, unlike the first, is relaxing to both hear and play.

3.19 A comparison of the opening pieces of each collection demonstrates de Visée’s approach to “easier technical execution.” The prelude to the first suite from 1682 begins with a series of sixteenth-note arpeggios (Example 10). While the chords formed by the left hand in this example are not particularly difficult, the plucked cross-string arpeggios in the right hand demand a high level of accuracy and digital agility. The thumb in particular must leap quickly between the fifth, fourth, and third courses. In the final measures, meanwhile, de Visée’s voice leading requires the player to fret multiple strings with the left-hand index finger to sustain notes their proper length (see Example 11, where the player must bar all five courses at the second fret to sustain the B on the second beat of the first measure; see also the E on the downbeat of the second measure, when the player must fret the first four courses at the second fret). Fretting the fingerboard is among the most difficult techniques for guitarists to master, especially those with small hands and fingers, who often struggle to fret multiple strings with one finger. While exquisitely constructed, this prelude is anything but easy for the average player to perform, and it is these difficulties that probably “repelled” many of de Visée’s contemporaries.

3.20 In his second collection of guitar music, de Visée recalibrated his compositions to better reflect the limitations of most players. The opening prelude, reproduced in full in Example 12, is a model of clarity and ease compared to the earlier prelude. Aside from a few strummed chords, the texture never exceeds two simultaneous voices and requires no right-hand gymnastics comparable to the opening arpeggios of the 1682 prelude. The prelude is also almost devoid of difficult fretting (the chord at the end of measure 4 is an exception; the A chord in the penultimate measure could be fretted with a single finger but need not be). The other compositions contained in the 1686 collection are, in general, cut from the same cloth. They are far more forgiving to the modestly talented amateur than the works of de Visée’s first publication. While an admittedly rough metric of reception, it is yet noteworthy that the commonplace book of Princess (and later Queen) Anne, an amateur guitarist who spent some of her childhood at the French court, contains transcriptions of six pieces from de Visée’s second, easier collection and only one from his first.[77]

3.21 The evolution in style from de Visée’s first book to his second offers a useful model for understanding Corbetta’s own two publications from the previous decade. Like Corbetta, de Visée was the most prominent guitarist of his generation; and like Corbetta, de Visée published two collections of guitar music in Paris in close succession, the second exhibiting fewer technical difficulties than the first. De Visée also helpfully spelled out his intentions: he hoped that the relative easiness of the second publication would appease those who were unable to cope with the difficulties of the first. In other words, the performative needs of the audience—amateur guitarists of the city and court—set the technical boundaries of the second collection. These new boundaries account for many of the musical features characteristic of this collection, including streamlined textures, preponderance of strummed chords, and simplified counterpoint. Although de Visée and Corbetta shared little in the way of musical background, they nevertheless composed for the same Parisian audience. De Visée’s second guitar book suggests the influence of this audience on guitar music as well as some of the ways composers accommodated amateur sensibilities in their compositions.

4. Corbetta’s La Guitarre royalle (1674)

4.1 Corbetta’s first Guitarre royalle, which contained technical challenges exceeding even those of de Visée’s most difficult pieces, likely repelled a sizable portion of amateur guitarists much as de Visée’s first publication did in 1682. Following its publication, however, there is evidence to suggest that Corbetta developed a keener interest in French amateur musicianship, or at least a better understanding of its technical limitations. A rhymed newspaper article in the style of Jean Loret records a performance he gave in February of 1673. The concert took place at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the presence of the king, queen, and “Seigneurs et Dames de la Cour”; that is, the audience for the performance could be described as honnêtes gens. Although the author of the article calls the guitar “the most ungrateful and least charming” of instruments, he writes that, in the hands of Corbetta, it more powerfully affects the listener than the lute, theorbo, or harp. The author also notes that Corbetta performed a number of duets with “La petite Muse Plantier,” Marie-Anne Plantier, a noble amateur guitarist.[78] Their repertoire is not specified, but this performance may well be connected to the duets collected in the 1674 Guitarre royalle. Indeed, the second Guitarre royalle is the first publication in France to include compositions for two guitars. If these duets are in fact the same compositions performed by Corbetta and Plantier in 1673, Corbetta likely composed them with the amateur in mind, anticipating her musical preferences, social requirements, and technical abilities. Their inclusion in the second Guitarre royalle and prominent placement at the opening of the collection may have signaled a new sensitivity to matters of ease and amateur performance. As the opening phrase of the duet shown in Example 13 suggests, these pieces exhibit the same diminished technical demands as the work of Carré, Médard, and de Visée, including an emphasis on strummed technique and a corresponding decrease in plucked melody and counterpoint.

4.2 The collection’s preface would seem to support the view that Corbetta altered his compositional style in the second Guitarre royalle to better meet the needs of an amateur audience. Addressed to the amateurs de la guitarre, the preface reads in part:

To satisfy the inclination I have always had for the guitar, I wanted to travel to several places in Europe to see those who make a profession of it. As they [the professional guitarists] begged me to give to the public some compositions following their manner of playing, I had some published several times to content them. Two years ago I had published a book containing different kinds of playing styles [manières]. There were some for those who play this instrument indifferently [mediocrement] and those who play it well. Today, as the occasion presents itself to publish again some new compositions, I have wanted to conform myself to the manner that best pleases his Majesty, seeing that it is among the others the most chromatic, the most delicate, and the least cumbersome [embarassante]. I hope that this great monarch, who has sometimes honored me with his wishes, will add to my happiness the honor of his approbation and protection.[79]

Corbetta here confirms that his earlier compositions were professional in nature—he composed them to satisfy the curiosity of the professional guitarists he had met during his travels through Europe. This fact explains the relative difficulty of his earlier publications. The first Guitarre royalle must also have belonged to this series of professionally oriented publications, despite Corbetta’s claim that the book contained some pieces intended for those who play only mediocrement. As we have seen, it presented exceptional difficulties to the average player, and, as Corbetta himself admitted in its preface, many complained of the music’s difficulty.

4.3 Corbetta’s description of the style he adopted for the 1674 publication requires further consideration. This style, he writes, is “the most chromatic, the most delicate, and the least cumbersome.” Corbetta was not alone in linking the guitar to pronounced chromaticism. According to Médard, it is the instrument— after the organ—that “can best treat the chromatic [style].” In his book of guitar music, he included an unmeasured prelude “d’accors cromatiques [sic]” with the instruction that each chord be strummed “two or three times.”[80] Aside from its polyphonic capabilities, however, it is not entirely clear what rendered the instrument uniquely qualified to perform chromatic music. Corbetta and Médard may have been referring instead to the piquant, dissonant harmonies characteristic of much seventeenth-century guitar music. These dissonances are often a result of the guitar’s tuning; see, for example, the chord on the second beat of measure 3 in Example 7, where the two different Ds produced by the fourth course form both a major second and a minor seventh with the C. Similar harmonies can be found in many of the examples reproduced earlier in this essay, e.g., the chord on the second beat of measure 13 of Example 1 or the chord in the second measure of Example 5.[81]

4.4 More important than chromaticism, however, are the two subsequent superlatives Corbetta used to describe the new style: la plus délicate and la moins embarassante. The first edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines délicat as “delicious, exquisite, agreeable to taste.”[82] The young Louis XIV had developed a reputation for délicatesse in matters of art and music; Chabanceau de La Barre praised the king’s goust délicat in the dedication to his collection of airs published in 1669,[83] and Anne-Madeleine Goulet has recently outlined the importance of galanterie in forming Louis XIV’s tastes early in life.[84] By describing the style of his second Guitarre royalle as “the most delicate,” Corbetta aligned his music with the predilections of its dedicatee. The description also aligned his music with a far larger audience, les honnêtes gens, for whom délicatesse made up an essential quality. As Méré writes in his essay “De la conversation,” “Delicacy of taste [la délicatesse du goût] is absolutely necessary to know the just worth of things, to choose from them that which one can judge is the most excellent.”[85] While honnêtes gens may have coolly received the first Guitarre royalle on account of its inherent difficulties, Corbetta invited them here to sample the more delicate pleasures of his second collection.

4.5 Embarassante, according to the Academy, simply meant something that caused “l’embarras,” which in turn denoted a difficulty, impediment, obstacle, or confusion.[86] It meant the opposite of délicat, one might say. As we have seen, good taste in music often entailed the avoidance of l’embarras. The second Guitarre royalle, in stark contrast to the first, is “la moins embarassante”; it is easier to play, in other words, devoid of difficulties or impediments, and its reduced technical demands contribute to its newfound délicatesse. Again, although Corbetta writes that this style best pleases Louis XIV, all honnêtes gens would have shared similar aesthetic prejudices. In short, the prefaces to the 1671 and 1674 collections present outlooks as different as their music. While the first vigorously defends difficulty in guitar music, the second celebrates the delicate, unencumbered style best suited to Louis XIV and, by extension, all those of noble bearing. It demonstrates a firsthand familiarity with the concerns of honnêtes gens, those amateurs de la guitarre eager to ape the style and affectations of Louis XIV. Although less explicit than some guitarists, Corbetta nevertheless appears to have been caught up in the same aesthetic trends that shaped the music of Carré, Médard, and de Visée.

4.6 Despite his late acknowledgement of amateur sensibility, Corbetta’s reputation remained that of the consummate virtuoso. Even after the publication of the second Guitarre royalle, Médard could claim that Corbetta had not bothered to search for ease in his music. Corbetta’s obituary, meanwhile, published in the Mercure galant in April of 1681, mourns the passing of an incomparable performer who had achieved “such things as before him had been believed impossible on the guitar.”[87] This, after all, was the image Corbetta himself presented to the public, at least before 1674. As he claimed in the preface to the 1671 Guitarre royalle, his manner of playing was unprecedented, above the common manner, la meilleure. It could not have been easy for the Italian virtuoso to conform to the expectations or technical limitations of honnêtes gens and other French amateur musicians. He seems to have struggled to compose music that would please both the market and himself, and even his easiest pieces are rarely as simple as those of his contemporaries. But he nevertheless did attempt to conform to the stylistic parameters peculiar to his French audience; the second Guitarre royalle, as I have argued, represents the search for ease that Médard claimed he had neglected to undertake. That Corbetta would have made such an effort speaks to the personal and professional relations he had developed with his adopted homeland. According to his obituary, after spending the final years of his life traveling Europe, “He finally returned to France, to signalize by his death the regret he felt at not having spent all his life there.”[88] Though Corbetta was neither born nor raised in France, the “delicate” and “unencumbered” style of his second Guitarre royalle bears the traces of the amateur guitarists who were.

5. Conclusions

5.1 In the decades following Corbetta’s death, fewer publications for guitar appeared in France. New musical fads drew the attention of court amateurs,[89] and de Visée’s 1686 publication was to be the last of the seventeenth century.[90] The guitar nevertheless remained a potent symbol of ease in the French imagination well into the eighteenth century. Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose fêtes galantes celebrate the languorous pleasures of an idle French elite, often deployed the guitar as a signifier of ease and musical relaxation. While other musical instruments appear in Watteau’s paintings, he seems to have found the guitar particularly suggestive of aristocratic idleness. Whether lounging on a grassy knoll or strolling through a garden, Watteau’s honnêtes gens frequently cradle a guitar in hand, often in poses that physically preclude the performance of technically exacting compositions. His painting Le Printemps offers a particularly striking example of the artist’s deliberate exploitation of the instrument and its associations. One of his four Saisons, it is based on an earlier drawing of the same name by his older contemporary Antoine Dieu (see Figure 1).[91] When adapting Dieu’s drawing for his own work, Watteau purposefully replaced the original instrument, a lute, with a guitar (see Figure 2). The lute, whose reputation for difficulty had all but expelled it from musical life in eighteenth-century France, likely clashed with the atmosphere of leisure and pleasure conjured by Watteau. The guitar, on the other hand, lent the strong impression of musical ease and relaxation consistent with the amusing affairs of honnêtes gens in springtime. As Charles Sorel had written sixty years earlier (see par. 3.4), only the guitar “can boast of relieving the boredom of man. [It is] always cheerful and pleasant.”

5.2 A discourse of ease, then, engaged both guitarists and the amateur players for whom they composed. Mondain performers required ease in their music as in all things, and many were drawn to the guitar for this very reason: it epitomized musical ease in the popular imagination. While Corbetta’s first Paris publication thrust unprecedented challenges upon the average player, other guitarists, including Carré, Médard, and de Visée, calibrated their compositions to the needs of an amateur demographic. The resulting music, marked by its accessibility and technical simplicity, conformed to the requirements of honnêtes gens who wished to project an easy air during public performances. As I have argued, the same cultural forces shaped the 1674 Guitarre royalle, whose blunted technical demands signaled an unexpected departure for Corbetta from his earlier explorations of guitar virtuosity. Some seventeenth-century amateurs were excellent musicians, and not all French guitar music coddled the musical novice. But I believe that the cultural conditions I have outlined here can at least help to explain the otherwise surprising disparity of musical difficulty evident in Corbetta’s competing visions for the royal guitar.

5.3 Ease in early modern French music extended far beyond the modest confines of the guitar, of course. Although this instrument seems to have engaged with issues of ease at a fundamental level, many genres, instruments, and composers grappled with the limits of technical difficulty. Ease was a defining characteristic of the premier French vocal genre of the seventeenth century, for instance. In the very first publication to use the genre designation air de cour, Adrian Le Roy distinguished the light and recreational quality of the air from the “difficult and arduous” chansons of Orlando di Lasso.[92] Jean Henry D’Anglebert attached a number of vaudevilles to his 1689 publication for harpsichord because “they have a noble simplicity that has always pleased everyone.”[93] At the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, Marin Marais returned again and again to matters of technical ease in his publications for solo viol. In each book Marais employed a new scheme for juggling the competing demands of professionals and amateurs, teachers and students. Finally, in book five, Marais furnished a simplified version of one of his difficult compositions much in the same way as Antoine Carré had published a simplified chaconne by Corbetta.[94] Consumers of seventeenth-century music were highly sensitive to a composition’s perceived difficulty, perhaps more so than is generally recognized. Their particular modes of consumption could not help but guide the production and marketing of music by composers and publishers.[95] The varied signs of musical ease may yet have much to tell us of the development of certain repertoires and their social functions in the early modern period.[96]


Example 1. Francesco Corbetta, La Guitarre royalle (Paris, 1671), p. 4, Sarabande, mm. 1–18

Example 2. Francesco Corbetta, La Guitarre royalle (Paris, 1674), p. 29, Sarabande, mm. 1–8

Example 3. Francesco Corbetta, La Guitarre royalle (Paris, 1671), p. 21, Sarabande, mm. 16–27

Example 4. Francesco Corbetta, La Guitarre royalle (Paris, 1671), p. 21, Sarabande, mm. 4–5

Example 5. Francesco Corbetta, La Guitarre royalle (Paris, 1671), p. 75, Chacone [sic], mm. 12–40

Example 6. Antoine Carré, Sieur de la Grange, Livre de guitarre contenant plusieurs pièces (Paris, ca. 1671), pp. 4–5, Chacone [sic], mm. 37–59

Example 7. Francesco Corbetta, La Guitarre royalle (Paris, 1674), p. 22, Chacone [sic], mm. 1–4

Example 8. Francesco Corbetta, La Guitarre royalle (Paris, 1671), pp. 23–24, Courante, mm. 15–29

Example 9. Rémy Médard, Pièces de guitarre (Paris, 1676), p. 18, Courante, mm. 13–24

Example 10. Robert de Visée, Livre de guittarre (Paris, 1682), p. 8, Prélude, mm. 1–4

Example 11. Robert de Visée, Livre de guittarre (Paris, 1682), p. 8, Prélude, mm. 24–27

Example 12. Robert de Visée, Livre de pièces pour la guittarre (Paris, 1686), p. 5, Prélude

Example 13. Francesco Corbetta, La Guitarre royalle (Paris, 1674), p. 14, Sarabande, mm. 1–4


Figure 1. Attributed to Antoine Dieu, Le Printemps, pen and china ink wash, late 17th / early 18th century

Figure 2. Jean-Antoine Watteau, Le Printemps, des Saisons Julienne, oil on canvas, ca. 1706–10

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