Olivier Brault is very much in demand internationally for his deft playing of, and expertise in, period instruments. His embrace of the Baroque era, with special emphasis on 18th-century French music, has given this violinist the credentials to stimulate interest in this repertoire through lectures to younger audiences and his work as a teacher at McGill University. His twin musical concerns now are the use of memory and its transmission, although his own journey was a winding one, beginning with a childhood visit to a great-uncle in Nova Scotia.
A Love Affair with the French Trio Sonata
“My mother was taught to be a singer,” Brault says, “and all of us sang at home, too, at holiday gatherings and whatnot. Once I was allowed to try my great-uncle’s violin, that was it. When the time came to pick up an instrument, my mind was made up.”
In Brault’s view, the ability to sing is a definite asset for anyone who wants to play. From then on, he would find his way into early music. Extensive research in Europe and performances aimed at sharing his discoveries ensued, all of which enabled him to receive his doctorate in music in 2007 from the Université de Montréal. The subject: French music for violin and basso continuo. Around that time, he put together the Sonate 1704, a group that is still active, with Dorothéa Ventura on harpsichord and Mélisande Corriveau on viola da gamba.
“My love affair for the French trio sonata arose when I came across the first written works in this genre,” Brault explains, “a series of pieces composed by François Duval (1672-1728) and first published in 1704, hence the group’s name.” Twelve years down the road and a good hundred sonatas later, this ensemble remains unshakeable in its devotion to this repertoire, much to the delight of the residents of Terrebonne, where it regularly performs.
“We are one of the rare ensembles that narrow down the repertoire,” Brault notes. “In French music next to no one does this. It’s something like a wager for me, to concentrate on that one area. In the process, I have built up followers who fully endorse our way of making the music sound eloquent, moving and alive. Our performances are very honest in their adherence to the scores and execution in the intended spirit.” In May 2018, Sonate 1704 recorded Boismortier’s Opus 20 for the Analekta label. The release is slated for this summer. The trio sonatas this work comprises are so obscure that even specialists ignore their existence. Only three known copies survive.
Teaching Baroque Music: Fact or Fiction?
Brault believes that anyone wanting to perform this music must first address the concept of eloquence. This on its own yields more questions but also a set of answers that are entirely different from those accepted in the classical canon. Baroque music conjures other modalities and temperaments, with its own range of tonal colours and emotional substance, all under the guise of eloquence.
“Composers of that era were well aware of the instruments they had at their disposal,” says Brault. “They wanted to reach their audiences by exploiting both their strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t use such instruments, you cannot really grasp this music.
“When it comes to playing techniques, original instruments are quite revealing, especially the winds, where some notes sound much louder than others on the basis of their fingerings. Stringed instruments, for their part, have to be handled with great sensitivity. An instrumentalist well versed in period practice will confine himself to the lower positions and move around the strings more, thereby achieving other sonic textures and harmonic relationships.”
Brault stresses the importance of studying period literature as part of the learning process, with many valuable hints to be gleaned from the treatises of the time. These, in combination with the playing of a vintage instrument and further knowledge of the other arts (sculpture, architecture, dance, even rhetoric), lead to a more coherent approach when capturing the original musical concept. As all arts are interrelated, Brault’s own search for authenticity led him to the world of dance.
“French music was going to be my specialty, I knew that from the start,” Brault explains, “so I realized that the way for me to get the French flavour into my playing was to be able to dance to it. I took dance lessons for several years, just to get the feeling of it in my body, as any instrumentalist of that era would have done.” Guiding those who want to pursue the baroque tradition is not an easy chore, and expertise can only be achieved over the long run.
Olivier Brault is a busy man these days, with a full slate of concerts running through the spring. In Quebec alone, he is a regular with ensembles like Les Boréades, Caprice and Arion. His reputation extends beyond our borders as well. Stateside, he serves in the Four Nations Ensemble in New York and the Apollo’s Fire orchestra in Cleveland. In Europe, he directs Les Goûts Réunis out of Luxembourg, a leading Baroque ensemble that has to its credit several appearances at the Tanglewood as well as performances at the Boston Early Music Festival and in New York’s Carnegie Hall.
While Baroque music enjoys good press in North America, its reputation also rests on the exemplary commitment of performers to the genre. Says Brault: “He who provides guidance in Baroque music must be familiar with it to the point of knowing every musical device to make it sound as eloquent as possible.”
Baroque music, like all other languages of the period, was forged on widely understood principles that spoke to audiences of the 17th and 18th century. Yet, our contemporary mindset, which one could qualify as “post-revolutionary romanticism,” is wholly different from its predecessor.
Take a painting by Nicolas Poussin: We are not engaged by it in the same way than the contemporaries of that artist were, at least on an emotional level. Brault pursues this line by arguing that “audiences of the Baroque were more touched by the music itself and how it related to them rather than by the performer’s own emotions. The artist must therefore be a consummate storyteller, an asset to be nurtured by any self-respecting practitioner of early music.
“When I use my knowledge of history in playing the music of that period, I go about it in such a way as to provide both a sensual experience to the listener and some cues to recognize it in a performance. There is nothing better for me than leaving a concert knowing that you got something out of it, and performances with spoken commentary are all the more interesting, too.”
Musical Time Travel Reconsidered
When it comes to folk music, Brault is passionate: “A lot of people revisit their history as if travelling to a foreign country. They see French-Canadian folklore as nothing more than another ethnic tradition, so they apprise their own culture like tourists. This is also very much the case in classical music, which is now put before us like a museum piece.”
Should we not reckon with our past anew by reigniting the fires that have been extinguished for all too long? Is Baroque music so far removed from us than we think? Not for Brault. “The arcane folk laments of the Acadians and Quebec’s traditional songs are steeped in 18th-century French music.” Lest we forget, our ancestors did not just bring violins and guitars to the New World, they brought an artistic world view, which was bequeathed to us, at times painfully. Case in point is the French language itself, spoken here in a way much closer to that of Molière’s time than its current version in France.
Beyond its Gallic connection, Baroque music is yet another manifestation of the universality of the human spirit. “Do you know the emotion that hits you after setting foot in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for the first time?” Brault muses. “Humanity has always produced sublime works made for the ages. Baroque music unearthed sublime nuggets of its own that testify to the human spirit.” Historical music is played now for the very same reason that churches and chapels are built throughout Quebec on neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic designs, as reminders of that universal embrace of the human spirit.
Seeing Olivier Brault on stage is yet another way of proving this point. His every movement, every breath taken, allure us, equally for the rhythmic impetus and harmonic colour he achieves. Each of his concerts is like a journey into the music’s heart and soul, unyielding in its quest for eloquence and striving to evoke all of its inner power, be it a Bach passion or a Mozart opera. With the gradual displacement of audiences into more modestly scaled spaces, concertgoers are not only given an opportunity to hear instrumentalists and music in more intimate settings, but to experience these in a very different way.
For those seeking experiences of that kind in a festive setting, Olivier Brault has two concerts in the offing. The first, on May 5 in L’Acadie, a heritage town in the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu area, will coincide with the rebirth of the May Plantation, an old tradition dating back to the early days of the colony. The violinist shares the bill that day with other Baroque musicians. Second, the town of Saint-Camille in the Eastern Townships will host its Académie de musique baroque, at the behest of a devoted music buff, Jean-PIerre Harel, and the director of Les Boréades, flutist Francis Colpron. The three-day event running from June 14 to 16 will enable both young professionals and students to acquire first-hand knowledge from experts in the field. Workshops and masterclasses take place in congenial settings, culminating in a closing-day public performance. Can one think of a better way of getting acquainted with this music than savouring its riches under idyllic conditions?
Olivier Brault’s Spring Calendar
Apr. 5 -15: American tour as guest soloist of the Apollo’s Fire Orchestra.
19: Montreal performance with Ensemble Caprice.
24-25: New York recording of music by Leclair with the Four Nations Ensemble.
May 5: Concert appearance at the May Plantation event in L’Acadie, Qc.
9: Guest soloist with New York Baroque Incorporated.
11: Performance in Ottawa with the Baroque Consort.
18 and 30: New York performances with the Four Nations Ensemble.
June 14-16: Guest lecturer and performer at the Académie de musique baroque de Saint-Camille.