Learn about the fête champêtre with Jenny Eriksson

Elysian Fields



A fête champêtre was a form of 18th Century entertainment, a kind of upmarket garden party.

It was particularly popular at the French court of Versailles where the surrounding parklands were sumptuously landscaped with pavilions and temples to accommodate parties, artistic events and other celebrations. The fête champêtre was typically an elegant event, sometimes involving exotic treats like orchestras hidden in the forest and guests in elaborate fancy dress.

As a musician, I have spent much of my life prior to taking up the electric viola da gamba playing the ancient music of the French Court of Versailles. The idea of a kind of jazz garden party seemed as good a starting point as any for a new piece for our electric viola da gamba band Elysian Fields.

My inspiration is one of my favourite works by Marin Marais called Suite d’un gout Etranger. Marais was a famous court composer and virtuoso viola da gambist who worked for Louis XIV, the so-called ‘Sun King’. Louis XIV’s fabulous support for the arts at Versailles has rarely been surpassed. The original Suite d’un gout Etranger is a bit of a crowd-pleaser, and is divided up into three contrasting sections. Section one, is a lively up beat tune which keeps returning. Section two is in the form of a slow musette, being a 17th/18th Century French dance that imitates the drone of bagpipes. Last of all comes a Tombourin. A tambourin is an upbeat dance in double time, so named because the music imitates a drum, tambour being the generic French term for drum.

Although Suite d’un gout Etranger gave me a number of musical ideas, I ended up writing my own tunes except for a menuet I lifted from another Marais work. There are no copyright payments for a composer who died in 1728!

My jazz garden party, starts off with a fast tombourin-like melody, which returns again towards the end. This is followed by a menuet which commences with an improvised section based on the harmony underlying the Marais menuet I borrowed. It concludes with Marais’ original setting, this time set for the whole band.

Following the pattern of Marais’ Suite d’un gout Etranger, I have added a musette like melody in a modal key which acts as the link to what happens next, a bluesy menuet which opens up opportunities for improvisation. Fête champêtre ends how it begins, with the full band going for it.

I did not start out thinking that this piece would be a synthesis between French baroque and jazz, it just emerged. As in Marais’ compositions, the melodies are driven by the viola da gamba – in this case, the electric gamba – but given more colour by the inclusion of additional melody instruments, the blues scale, and a rhythm section.

It is interesting for me to compare how jazz versus baroque musicians compose.  At the same time as developing Fête champêtre I was also arranging a piece by Jan Gunnar Hoff, a Norwegian jazz pianist whose music I enjoy. It seems to me that there are similarities and it helped me to seriously look at the structure of a jazz work while composing a new piece inspired by a Baroque composer.

In any case, I had a ball!


See Jenny perform with Elysian Fields at Foundry 616 this 11 May. Details and tickets available online.

Image supplied.

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