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Ut Orpheus Edizioni (distributed by Universal Edition) have recently published a new urtext edition of Dussek’s catchily-titled The Sufferings of the Queen of France (for piano of harpsichord), subtitled in the original:
“A Musical Composition, Expressing the feelings of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette, During her Imprisonment, Trial, etc. The Music, adapted for the Piano-Forte or Harpsichord Composed by J.L. Dussek.”
Ripping stuff! Let’s take a look…
The Unfortunate Marie Antoinette…
“I was a queen, and you took away my crown;
a wife, and you killed my husband;
a mother, and you deprived me of my children.
My blood alone remains:
take it, but do not make me suffer long,”
Marie Antoinette, at her trial for treason in August 1793
Born an Archduchess of Austria in 1755, Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna was the youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor.
Aged 14, Maria was married to Louis-Auguste, heir apparent to the French throne, solidifying a shared destiny between the Catholic powers of France and Austria. And when, five years later in 1774, her husband ascended the throne as Louis XVI, she took the title Queen of France and Navarre.
As Queen, Marie Antoinette took a growing interest in the politics of her time, but was increasingly disliked for her interference, and was widely accused of being profligate, promiscuous, and sympathising with foreign powers, in particular her native Austria (then the centre of the enormous and powerful Habsburg Empire).
In August 1792, with the Revolution in full swing, the royal family were confined in the Temple Prison and the following month the monarchy was abolished. That December, Louis XVI was put on trial and sentenced to death; he went to the guillotine in January 1793.
Marie Antoinette, now deep in mourning, her physical health declining, remained imprisoned in inhumane conditions for a further nine months before being put on trial on 14th October 1793. After two gruelling days she was found guilty of treason and condemned to immediate execution by guillotine.
As the execution of Marie Antoinette sent shock waves around Europe, Czech composer Jan Ladislav Dussek, who made a career habit of portraying the news of the day in vividly pictorial music, wasted no time in setting these events to music.
With what may appear unseemly haste to modern readers, Dussek had not only composed his 10-movement tableau within weeks, but saw it published in both Edinburgh and Leipzig before the year was out.
The ten short movements (which combined take around 12 minutes in performance) paint an engaging picture as follows:
- The Queen’s Imprisonment
- She Reflects On Her Former Greatness
- They Separate Her From Her Children
- They Pronounce The Sentence Of Death
- Her Resignation To Her Fate
- The Situation and Reflections the Night Before Her Execution
- The Savage Tumult Of The Rabble
- The Queen’s Invocation To The Almighty Just Before Her Death
- The Apotheosis
Had we doubted that this would be a piece with overt political dimensions, the list of movement titles leaves little doubt as to Dussek’s loyalties. While the French may have caricatured Marie Antoinette as Madame Déficit on account of her fiscal irresponsibility, here she is near-deified.
Her “Former Greatness” is splendid indeed in the second movement, while Dussek’s imagining of her farewell to her children is as emotionally poignant as it is musically elegant. In her (historically accurate) Invocation to the Almighty she appears saintly, while the final Apotheosis leaves no doubt as to her eternal destination in glory.
The Revolutionary French meanwhile are the clear villains of the piece, Dussek’s portrayal devoid of interest or sympathy, perhaps a signal to the composer’s core audiences across Europe that when a nation departs from the established order, chaos will descend and barbarity ensue. The Savage Tumult of the Rabble, indeed.
Dussek’s musical style is adventurous for its time; indeed his importance as an internationally popular composer during the bridge period from late Classical to Early Romanticism should not be forgotten.
Here, there are melodies galore, along with high drama befitting the subject material. The anxiety of “the Night Before”, sombre pathos of the March and fury of “the Rabble” are all masterfully conveyed, anticipating the programme music of the next century.
For the punchline, marked in the music “The Guillotine drops”, Dussek writes a dramatic descending glissando followed by eerie quietness. I suspect modern audiences may find the kitsch melodrama here darkly comedic.
If at times the improvisatory qualities, and the mixture of whimsy and drama, conjure something of a Fantasia, the final Apotheosis certainly mirrors the chirpy ending of Mozart’s popular Fantasia in D minor, if not the melodic contour of the (mischievously relevant) overture to The Marriage of Figaro.
Dussek’s melodic gift is most positively in evidence here, bringing this surprisingly delightful work to an unexpectedly happy conclusion.
Ut Orpheus urtext editions are consistency beautiful in their presentation. Here, the slick cover design is produced on soft matt card, housing a 20-page book printed on high quality cream paper.
The score is edited by Chiara Corona and Andrea Coen, using as primary text the first edition published in Edinburgh by Corri, Dussek & co. in 1793. They have also taken account of the edition also published in 1793 by A. Kühnel in Leipzig, and the 1796 edition published in Paris by Pleyel. And finally, a manuscript dated 1821 stored in the library of the University of Louisville School of Music.
The short Preface (offered in both Italian and English) lists these sources. I would have welcomed a longer introduction outlining the composer’s biography, the background, genesis and reception of the work, and period performance tips.
The score is well-spaced and cleanly engraved. No fingering has been added. To the rear of the book there’s a Critical Commentary, but it’s in Italian only.
Players at early advanced level may well enjoy this rewarding work which, though obscure, is highly accessible and rather delicious.
Ut Orpheus have provided a splendid and practical performing edition, underpinned by excellent scholarship. In short, a wonderful discovery, and I’ll certainly be looking to perform this piece in the near future!
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