Hélène de Montgeroult (b. Lyon, 1764; d. Florence, 1836) was a composer, pianist and teacher, a contemporary of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven whose life spanned the French Revolution. She experienced life under arrest and her first husband was killed as a consequence of their aristocratic status but it is the denial of this status that allowed her to publish her compositions and pursue a teaching career. Alongside political and social upheavals, Montgeroult experienced the transition of keyboard manufacture from harpsichord to fortepiano. She commissioned an early fortepiano from Erard that, through the application of multiple pedals, allowed for the exploration and expression of a range of timbres. She was the first Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire when it opened in 1795. The faint biographical trace she has left through history tells us that she was a student of Jan Ladislav Dussek, Nicolas Joseph Hüllmandel, Clementi and Reicha; that she had pieces dedicated to her by Julie Candeille, Johann Baptist Cramer, Dussek, Louis Emmanuel Jadi and Phillip Libon. She was an admired duo partner of the virtuoso violinist Viotti with whom she collaborated as an accompanist, improviser and arranger (Gautier). By these few accounts we can establish that she was a remarkable person.
Her published compositions suggest a keen musical intelligence that could assimilate a wide range of styles but which was also uniquely creative and capable of ‘avant garde’ explorations. Jérôme Dorival, who has done much to bring her music back into circulation, describes her as ‘the pre-cursor of Romanticism’. Her output includes canons and fugues in the Baroque style; she reportedly introduced Bach to the Conservatoire syllabus and is known to have visited Leipzig. And she professed a strong admiration for the work of Handel completing an extensive set of variations on themes by Handel. She wrote at least nine Sonatas, a set of 6 Nocturnes for voice and piano, and devised a rich and varied, three volume teaching method: Cours complet pour l’enseignement du Forté Paino conduisant progressivement des premiere éléments aus plus grandes difficultés. This magnum opus contains 972 exercises and 114 Studies. Many of the Studies are beautifully balanced, intensely expressive works which bear the characteristics of what we now recognize as the hallmarks of Romanticism. Montgeroult’s oeuvre is a portfolio of musical negotiations between Classical and Romantic aesthetic preferences. Three of the Studies from the third volume of the Cours complet are analysed briefly below to illustrate the historical fluidity and personal characteristics of Montgeroult’s compositional approach.
Etude no. 106 ‘Aria’
Performance by Marcia Hadjimarkos below:
Score available at
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7d/IMSLP468173-PMLP760279-montgeroult_cours3_bnf.pdf pp. 165-9
This Study or Aria in B major triple time shows Montgeroult’s command of the bel canto style but with the melody and outline harmonic bass perpetually accompanied by a semi-quaver ‘walking’ line. The Study is in tertiary or a written out Da Capo form with the central section in E minor. The less than obvious modulation to the sub-dominant minor can be explained in Neo-Reimannian terms as a nebenverwandt relationship (successive RLP transformations), a modulatory gambit that is commonly found in Schubert, Chopin, Brahms and Liszt. So despite the archaic texture the tonality is distinctly adventurous, even Romantic.
The melody is reminiscent of Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Xerxes with two extended, descending phrases cadencing with dotted rhythms. As with Handel, Montgeroult creates an opening three bar phrase but her extension is through prolongation of the tonic in bars 2-3 rather than Handel’s anticipatory bar. Montgeroult’s consequent phrase is five bars long. This passes briefly through a cycle of 5ths in bar 5-6 with a hint of a hemiola that again foreshadows Brahms and his penchant for similar, syncopated harmonic sequences.
Another notable feature of this Study is the means by which Montgeroult brings it to a close. If we invest imagination in the printed sub-title ‘Aria’ then the ‘vocal’ part ends on a low A#3-B3 authentic cadence but the semi-quaver ‘walking’ part proceeds to make a connective ascent into a six bar codetta. This wistful codetta elaborates a tonic pedal, not unlike Schubert’s near contemporaneous setting of Wiegenlied D.498, and Montgeroult introduces a fourth line to the texture, a ‘tenor’ part which dramatically ascends a diatonic octave B major scale in quavers only to descend chromatically, echoed by the melodic ‘soprano’ line. The two ‘vocal’ lines then settle, in the final three bars, to a series of neighbour note decorations of the tonic triad in parallel sixths. This short postlude reinforces the Study’s titular designation of ‘Aria’, suggesting the sort of multiple, poetic personae that were to be developed in the new genre of lieder of the period.
Commercial recordings by Robilliard (Hortus) and Stern (Orchid) – see Resources
Score available at
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7d/IMSLP468173-PMLP760279-montgeroult_cours3_bnf.pdf pp. 170-173
In a review of Edna Stern’s recording of Montgeroult’s Etude 107 the Orchid label, Emma Jeal writes, ‘Chopin’s C minor Etude sounds less Revolutionary after you’ve heard de Montgeroult’s swirling Etude No 107, which anticipates it by 20-odd years.’ Indeed, the resemblance is audible in that both open with a similar, four note dotted rhythmic figure in the right hand accompanied by rapid semi-quaver figurations for the left hand.
Example 1: de Montgeroult Etude No. 107, bb. 1-5
Example 2: Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 12 in C minor b.1-4
They are both in minor – but not the same – keys (de Mongeroult in D minor, Chopin in C minor), they are both in common time, and both exhibit a tertiary structure. But de Montgeroult’s Study is formally much less expansive that Chopin’s, her modulation is to the relative major whereas Chopin moves to the parallel major, then the dominant of the relative major but mainly to sub-mediant. Interestingly de Montgeroult employs frequent ‘feminine cadences’, often underpinned by vii˚ - I harmonies which give her Study a distinctive, plaintive character. But perhaps it is the revolutionary ‘back stories’ to both pieces that connect these works in the mind more than comparable, revolutionary musical tendencies.
Performance by François-Frédéric Guy below:
Score available at
http://hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/7/7d/IMSLP468173-PMLP760279-montgeroult_cours3_bnf.pdf pp. 189-193
Etude no. 111 is perhaps the best known of de Montgeroult’s works having been used in the soundtrack to the 2012 film A Royal Affair, a Danish historical drama directed by Nikolaj Arcel. De Montgeroult observes that the pedagogic intention of the Study is the combination of expression and speed. This combination seems to have inspired her to produce a work that has immense energy. The duple compound time Etude is built from a simple, four-bar melody that contains two urgently repeated motifs, the second of which has micro-decrescendos, accompanied by a pounding, off-beat accompaniment. Together these features create a sense of breathless intensity, even panic.
Example 3: de Montgeroult Etude no. 111, bb. 1-4
This intensity is ratcheted up through a series of daring modulations. At bar 25 the theme returns in Eb major which, in neo-Reimannian terms, is a Leading Note transformation but two tortuous chromatic sequences in bars 37-44 bring the theme back in the remote key of F minor. Another sequence in bars 63-66 bring the theme round to what appears to be a restatement in the relative major of Ab major but the ‘a’ motif is treated to a rising sequence that leads to the climax of the piece built around a long dominant pedal that expends itself with a surprisingly gentle resolution back into G minor. The energy is not fully spent however and it is only with continued emphasis on the secondary dominant that the piece finally concludes with a widely registered tonic triad rooted on G1. The way that de Montgeroult handles the sequential development of small motives together with suprising chromaticisms and emphasis on secondary dominants, teleological drivers that were common in Bach, is very similar in effect to Robert Schumann’s piano works.
It is unlikely that de Montgeroult ever performed outside of the salon culture of Paris but her prowess as a pianist, teacher and composer are beginning to receive recognition. Montgeroult’s portfolio demonstrates how she was able to draw on a broad knowledge of historical and contemporary musical practices but also experiment creatively with characteristics that are perhaps erroneously recognised as the compositional ‘fingerprints’ of later (male) composers. Performance and study resources more also becoming more widely available and some of these are listed below.
© Dr Helen Thomas
Conservatoire de Paris, 250E Anniversaire Hélène de Montgeroult
Dorival, Jérôme, La Marquise et la Marseillaise (préface par Geneviève Fraisse), Symétrie, Lyon 2006.
Johnson, Calvert, ‘Hélène de Montgeroult: Composer and Piano Pedagogue at the Paris Conservatoire’, Women of Note Quarterly, 1993, pp. 18-30.
Sadie, Julie Anne. "Montgeroult, Hélène-Antoinette-Marie de Nervo de." Grove Music Online.
Van Epenhuysen, Rose, Hélène de Montgeroult and the Art of Singing Well on the Piano, Women & Music, vol. 5, 2001, pp. 99-124.
Hélène de Montgeroult, pianiste, compositrice et pédagogue
Hélène de Montgeroult, artiste visonnaire https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFQI40wKO0Y
Scores available on IMSLP Petrucci Music Library
Cours complet pour l’enseignement du forte piano
Piano Sonata Op. 5 No. 1
Piano Sonata Op. 5 No. 2
Piano Sonata Op. 5 No. 3
Pièce Op. 3
3 Sonatas Op. 1
3 Sonatas Op. 2
Bruno Robilliard, Montgeroult: La Marquise et la Marseillaise, CD Hortus, piano modern, 2006
Nicola Stavy, Montgeroult: La jeunesse du piano romantique, CD Hortus, piano modern, 2009
Edna Stern, Hélène de Montgeroult Orchid Classics, 2017
Forthcoming performance at time of blog publication
11 April 2018, University of Liverpool
Selected Etudes by Hélène de Montgeroult performed by Ian Buckle
Dr Helen Thomas