Unheard of: Solo Sonatas by Albert Louis Frédéric Baptiste in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

30.04.2021Unheard of: Solo Sonatas by Albert Louis Frédéric Baptiste in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

In the course of her work as an trainee at the SIM, flautist Antje Becker stumbled upon a set of solo sonatas from the eighteenth century in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. They had been written by a composer who hardly anyone has heard of today: Albert Louis Frédéric Baptiste. Together with her ensemble partner, she set out to explore these pieces that had remained unheard for so long – and brought many exciting details to light

By Antje Becker

Black and white drawing of a city
View of the city of Kassel from the right bank of the Fulda, pencil drawing by Johann Heinrich Tischbein the Elder (1722–1789), printed in "Kassel. Ein Jahrtausend hessischer Stadtkultur" [Kassel. A millennium of Hessian urban culture] by Paul Heidelbach, ed. Karl Kaltwasser, Kassel/Basel 1957, plate 3

Albert Louis Frédéric Baptiste (also written Batiste or Battista) was born in the Bavarian town of Oettingen in July 1700. His father, Johann, came from France, where he had been employed as a dancer and violinist at the Opéra de Paris. Being of the Protestant faith, however, he had fled his native land and sought to make a living elsewhere after the Edict of Nantes, which had granted religious tolerance to the Protestants, was repealed by King Louis XIV in 1685. The court of Prince Albrecht Ernst II in Oettingen offered him a place of work, at least for a while. And he must have shown that he deserved it: his son Albert Louis Frédéric was baptized on August 9 by the court priest, Georg Andreas Steiner, in the presence of the prince and his wife, Sophia Luise, in the palace chapel – a special honor for a member of the court orchestra. A few years later, the family moved to Darmstadt, which was ruled by Landgrave Ernst Ludwig, a brother of Princess Sophia Luise. At the time, Ernst Ludwig, a passionate lute player, was assembling one of the most renowned court orchestras of the eighteenth century in any German-speaking country.

Albert Louis Frédéric thus grew up in the artistically inspiring environment of his father, who taught him to dance and presumably also to play the violin. In 1718, the teenager set out on a journey that would last several years. It took him not just to France, Italy, and England, but also to Spain, Denmark, and Sweden – in short, through "all of the countries in Europe, except for Poland and Russia," as Ernst Ludwig Gerber later wrote in his dictionary of musicians. After eight years abroad, Albert Louis Frédéric Baptiste came home and took up a position as court musician and dancer in Kassel, which he held for the rest of his life. The fact that he was active as a composer, in addition to his duties as a musician and dancer, was normal practice for the time. The sources state that he produced a large number of instrumental works – but only a few of them have survived.

Two sonates
Bottom left: third movement of the Sonata No. 6 in G major in the Berlin autograph; the movement is written in the G minor key. Top right: the same movement in the Copenhagen copy; the movement (notably lacking the expression "alla Francese" from the autograph) is set in the E minor key. From: "VI Sonata da Camera à Flauto Traverso, Ò violin solo, è harpsichord, ò cello" op. 2 by Albert Louis Frédéric Baptiste

The VI Sonate da Camera à Flauto Traverso, Ò Violino solo, è Cembalo, ò Violloncello, dedicated to Count Johann Karl Friedrich von Oettingen-Wallerstein, are therefore an important testimony to his creative output. These six compositions have survived as an autograph in the Staatsbibliothek, which is written remarkably neatly and precisely. Since the person to whom they were dedicated died in 1744, it can be assumed that the sonatas were composed earlier. They are mostly written in keys that are well suited to playing on both the transverse flute and the violin: D major, G major, E minor, A minor; the sonatas in D minor and G minor are certainly among the most beautiful in the volume. The latter, in particular, requires considerable technical skill when performed on the transverse flute. This instrument is pitched in D major, and each note outside the scale has to be produced by more or less demanding cross-fingerings. In G minor these would be, for example, b flat (instead of b), c (instead of c sharp) and f (instead of f sharp); on the other hand, e flat (instead of e) can easily be produced by using a key – the only key on the flute until around the middle of the eighteenth century. When playing fast movements, these fingerings in particular must be well coordinated and the player's fingers well practiced.

Flute by Pierre Naust, around 1700, MIM cat. no. 2667: three-joint (three-section) flutes pitched in D major were common around 1700; they were gradually superseded by four-joint models. The only key, placed on the foot joint of the instrument, served to produce the notes D sharp and E flat. The other notes outside the scale were produced by cross-fingering, as was the case with recorders.

The arrangement and expressions, as well as the often ‘operatic’ dramatic flourishes in the Allegro and Vivace movements, reveal Italian influences upon the compositional technique, but in the "telling moment," in the delicacy of the melodic material of the slow movements, there are frequent glimmers of French influences – a cultural sphere that Baptiste had absorbed as he grew up, in particular through his training as a dancer, and in which he remained rooted for the rest of his life. In Kassel, he was at least familiar with the French Protestant community; both of his wives were Huguenots. Interestingly, the Royal Library in Copenhagen has a copy of Baptiste's op. 2 in which some modifications have been made to the score. These affect not only the indications of tempo, dynamics, or timbre, but also the musical material. One of the movements has even been transposed into a different key, with a far-reaching effect on the mood of the piece: in those days the original key, G minor, was considered to be one of the most 'tragic' keys of all.

Not for nothing was it often used in musical settings of the Passion of Christ. The many cross-fingerings that it necessitates create a somber, tonal impression when played on the flute of the eighteenth century – which is no longer the case when the composition is set in E minor, as in the copy.

By way of combining scholarship, artistic practice, and educational outreach, the sonatas that have been preserved in the Staatsbibliothek will be recorded and issued on CD this summer, which will allow them to be experienced in performance and make them known to a broader audience.

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