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Pieces of Duphly, a french baroque star

The title page of the first book of Jacques Duphly’s “Pièces de clavecin” (1744).
The title page of the first book of Jacques Duphly’s “Pièces de clavecin” (1744).

This Monday is the 300th birthday of the French composer and harpsichordist Jacques Duphly (1715-1789). Today, Duphly is known largely only to specialists. But in his own time, he was highly regarded indeed. And, in a way, Duphly counterbalances usual tropes of classical-music fame, the way that, especially since the 19th century, music history has celebrated innovators. Duphly was the opposite: the last of a breed.

He was born in Rouen, into a musical family (his grandfather was the organist Jacques Boyvin) and began his career on the organ. But, in the early 1740s, Duphly moved to the big city — Paris — to become a star. He abandoned the organ for the harpsichord, becoming one of the last exemplars of the incomparable French Baroque way with that instrument: limpid, intricately refined counterpoint with a subtly expressive embroidery of ornamentation. He was admired as a performer and much in demand as a teacher; he was friends with the famous, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who used Duphly as a source for musical entries in his “Dictionnaire.”

But Duphly himself passed lightly across history. Just about the only things of Duphly’s to have been preserved in the record are his musical works — the four volumes of his “Pièces de clavecin” — and scattered contemporary testimonials to his Parisian celebrity. The Baroque style Duphly mastered became obsolete in his own lifetime. The fourth book of Duphly’s “Pièces,” published in 1768, decisively turned from Baroque to the newer Classical style: more straightforward harmonic rhythms, less-ornamented melodies, and frequent use of the Alberti bass, the mechanical left-hand spooling of arpeggiated chords that would become a Classical-era cliché. But Duphly evidently was more interested in proving that he could master the new dialect than he was in actually conversing in it; the volume would be his last musical statement.

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It is, perhaps, Duphly's ghostlike historical presence that lends poignancy to his having lived through the turnover of stylistic epochs. He didn’t just retire, he disappeared, to the point that a Parisian newspaper, in 1788, wondered whatever became of the esteemed M. Duphly. He had, as it turned out, been living in a small apartment on the Quai Malaquais (in what is now the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts), surrounded by books, but without even a harpsichord. His musician’s sense of timing had not deserted him, however: Duphly, the remnant of an older France, died the day after the storming of the Bastille.

Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.