Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Deborah Kauffman (University of Northern Colorado, USA)

Violins en basse as musical allegory

The unusual type of orchestration sometimes called violons en basse is encountered in arias by French Baroque composers such as Couperin, Campra, and Rameau. In such pieces, the basse continue line is played by violins notated in the treble clef, with no other instruments heard below them; the solo voice and any additional obbligato instruments remain in the treble register as well. This striking approach has gone practically unnoticed by modern scholars, and was seemingly unremarked upon by writers of the time, despite its striking color and lightness of texture. A study of the texts of the arias in which violons are used en basse suggests that there are identifiable allegorical associations implicit in such pieces, and that they were clear to listeners of the time.

The most important and most frequent reference is to youth and innocence, both directly in the texts (such as Couperinís motet Adoloscentulus sum ego), and through the personages who sing them, such as Cupid (a boy), Diana (depicted in mythology as eternally young), and Hebe (the personification of youth). This association with innocence is shared with the pastoral, which is referenced through the texts and musical settings of a number of the airs, and which can also be linked to the themes of peace and quiet delights present in other texts. By identifying the allegorical use of violons en basse, we are able to add another texture and sonority to the common musical language of topics that was so central to eighteenth-century musical rhetoric.

Last updated on 09 May 2004