The Quest to Finding a Modern Day Analogue to Versailles

When you dedicate your life to studying and performing on a musical instrument that essentially went extinct at the end of the 18th century, nostalgia plays a certain unavoidable role in your daily routine. I don't mean fetishistic historicism - I'm very happy with plumbing and penicillin, thank you - but my job as a viola da gamba player is to try and absorb information about my ancient instrument and its historical repertoire in a sort of empathetic way. I try to understand how it works on both technical and emotional levels, so that I can perform beautiful and obscure old music for modern listeners in a way that feels genuine, expressive, and moving.

And of course, when you spend as much time thinking about the past as I do, you start to wish some things about it could be brought back. It's very easy, for example, to get very wistful about the Palace of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV: an architectural wonder of its age that was also a hotbed of cultural creativity and political intrigue. The thing that most excites me about the idea of Versailles is the food; I can't stop thinking what that rabbit terrine must have tasted like... but the second most exciting thing for me is of course the music-making. There were loads of brilliant permanently employed musicians at court, in addition to frequent visiting artists, and they had almost nothing to do with their days except play and write music. It must have been like permanently living in an artist residency programme, and was clearly incredible fruitful. We have so much wonderful repertoire from this period, and that's only the stuff that was actually written down and survived.


I am especially interested in the way musical practice at Versailles and other historical courts was a kind of ongoing way of life, not just something limited to concert performances (although the king did require his nightly Sarabandes), but something that was almost constantly happening in some beautifully fluid way across a range of spaces throughout the palace, which you can just imagine dipping in and out of at luxurious whim.

My nostalgic fantasies of Versailles are not so much about powdered wigs and whale bone corsets, but about how exquisite it must have been to make and listen to music in such a rich environment. So when I consider re-creating this particular past, for me it's not about building a model of the Hall of Mirrors, or wearing historical costume, or even poaching a duck in red wine and oysters. It's about finding ourselves a modern context that creates an analogous cultural experience for the musicians and listeners involved, where we can live something like the artistic luxury of Versailles, but whilst wearing practical clothing and smelling good.


Author: Liam Byrne