Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre was a musical pioneer, rising from a young performer to one of the most prolific musicians in the court of Louis XIV. Following in the footsteps of Francesca Caccini, Elisabeth became the first French woman to compose an opera, which was performed at the Paris Opera and later published. Working in a field dominated by Louis’ favorite opera composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully, this was no small feat, especially for a woman. Though it is important to note her operatic legacy, I am especially excited about her other achievements, including her contribution to the development of the French sonata and taking the salon performance from the royal setting into the home.
Published in 1707, her Sonates pour le violon et pour le clavecin represent a daring new direction in music. They combine the delicate character of French Baroque with elements of the Italian sonata, the latter showcasing Arcangelo Corelli’s advances in violin writing. She was one of the earliest French composers in a movement to fuse the best of French and Italian composition. This development elevated the form to a new level of compositional sophistication with more depth and variation of character. When I listen to Haydn sonatas, I hear glimpses of her influence.
After marrying a fellow musician, Elisabeth left the court and brought the idea of a musical salon to new places. In the noble salon setting, the social element of royal mingling was of primary importance, while the music stayed in the background. But in her home, the music became the centerpiece of the evening. That development was a path-breaking step that brought us the concert hall experience. There, the patrons cease their conversations (and maybe even turn off their phones) to devote an evening to music.