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Music of King Louis XV: The Masques at St. Paul's Episcopal Church


The Montreal-based ensemble, Masques, brings you back to a time of powdered wigs and elaborate costumes. The Masques’ concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Saturday night will bring audiences back to the court of King Louis XV through the performance of the music of Rameau and his contemporaries.

Tuomo Suni, the baroque violinist of the group, came to Lake Effect to talk about what the ensemble does. The group, founded by Olivier Fortin, chose the name Masques based off of the mystical performances of Elizabethan England. Masques fused poetry, music, dance, and drama. The ensemble is made up of players from around the world, including countries as Finland, Australia, and Belgium as well as Canada.   

The Masques are a chamber ensemble, meaning that it is a smaller number of players than a typical orchestra (in this case, there are 6 musicians) and that it does not have a conductor. Founder and harpsichordist Fortin stands in front of the ensemble, laying out the ensemble somewhat in a circle. Having the keyboardist in the front of the ensemble, acting as the conductor, was practiced up until the 19th century and sometimes even after.

Musical Playing Styles

Being a Baroque violinist, Suni needs to be well-versed in French, Italian, and German playing styles. Italians have a freer style, allowing for improvisation. French is fixed on ornaments, making sure that they are played accurately. That plays apart in the freedom the French have in rhythm within the piece. However, both styles have a sense of inegalite, or uneven note values, creating a dotted rhythm throughout the piece. Because of the high number of harpsichord composers in French Baroque, the music has a structure that the Italian style lacks. The German style is a mixture of the Italian and French styles. Suni associates the reflection of music with the fashion and architecture of the times and regions.

“The composers started to get a bit more famous. They were not just artisans making music. You knew the names of the composers and afterwards people wanted to use the same pieces again. But this was a new phenomenon. Usually you played a piece once and then next time you played something else.”—Tuomo Suni

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was one of the leading 18th century French composers, especially of the French opera, as well as a music theorist. According to Grove’s Dictionary of Musicians, he was named chamber music composer in the court of King Louis XV in 1745. The king’s mistress, Marquise du Pompadour, was a significant patron of the arts and especially found music to be important in the court. She would arrange for concerts to be played in Versailles in order to maintain the King’s affection.

Preserving the Music

The retention of the pieces is a new phenomenon. Pieces at the time were originally composed for one specific event and not intended to be performed again. However, once composers became well-known, musicians and arts patrons wanted to perform/hear the pieces by a particular composer. Music of the Baroque times exist today because they were either rediscovered in private collections or certain ones were published for commercial reasons, trying to get a little extra money for composers.


The Masques are playing off of arrangements that were transcribed by a musician after the death of Rameau in the 18th century. Suni notes that there two types of pieces that the ensemble will perform. Programmatic music, writing music based on a nonmusical object or idea, such as La Poule (The Hen) where the musicians have to make music sound like a hen. The other type of pieces performed will be named after Rameau’s friends, most likely reflecting the personality of the person in the music, similar to what Edward Elgar did in his Enigma Variations in 1899.

The performance will be on Saturday February 16th at 5 PM at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee. The performance is one of six in the Early Music Now concert series in the 2012-2013 year.

Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.