How to authentically record historical works on modern instruments? Ahead of the release of her upcoming album ‘Hélène de Montgeroult: Études’, Clare Hammond explains how she overcame the challenge of performing in the absence of an established performance tradition
Visionary French composer Hélène de Montgeroult has been described as “the missing link between Mozart and Chopin”, she wrote in a style that was decades ahead of her time, foreshadowing the music of Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann and Brahms. His studies, numbering 114, testify to a premonitory romanticism that forces us to reconsider the boundaries between classical and romantic music. Why, then, is it still virtually unknown? The absence of his music from the canon is disconcerting.
Over the years, I’ve spent many hours digging through archives, searching for the music of lesser-known composers. As a student, I dreamed of accidentally discovering a lost score by a great composer and giving the premiere. I had never expected to come across a body of work of such astonishing quality and stylistic significance as Montgeroult’s studies, and the thrill of becoming familiar with his music was intense.
Unfortunately, I cannot claim to have discovered Montgeroult’s music. The musicologist Jérôme Dorival has been promoting it diligently for twenty years and today there are a few records of his music. However, when I met Dorival in 2019, the name Montgeroult was completely unknown to me. Reading the scores he gave me, I was struck by the high quality of this music, and checking the date they were written, I was amazed. How is it possible that this woman, writing in near isolation with very little public performance of her work, could create music of such vision? So many things sound like Mendelssohn or Schumann, while studies no. 107 and no. 110 could easily be prototypes for Chopin Groundbreaking study or one Night. Yet these were written no later than 1812, when Chopin was just a toddler.
I started to prepare studies for interpretation and I threw myself into it with enthusiasm. The series displays an enormous emotional range from the extravagant virtuosity and drama of nope. 74 to the intimate pathos of nope. 38. There was plenty to keep me busy and I enjoyed the first few performances, but later felt that my approach wasn’t working. Although I realized that I was starting from scratch with Montgeroult, it took me time to appreciate the full extent of my ignorance.
Many moments in the studies are reminiscent of later composers and so I had initially used their music as a starting point, transferring the key I used for Mendelssohn or Chopin to Montgeroult. It worked to some degree, but it started to look like a rough approximation of his style. I made some progress when I started experimenting with period instruments and learned to understand the timbres that a more delicate and unpredictable instrument could produce. However, my interpretations still seemed incomplete.
After over a year of working with his music, I realized what the problem was. It is very rare to find a composer of such importance and insight, with so much to say, who is still so completely unknown. I had taken for granted the importance of a general familiarity with a composer’s style, a knowledge of his historical context and, more importantly, the existence of a tradition of interpretation. When learning new repertoire, musicians use shortcuts, often unconsciously. With a Scherzo by Chopin, for example, I already know the figurations and harmonic schemes of his studies. I can listen to other pianists interpret the piece and I have often heard it in concert. This familiarity speeds up the learning process and also provides a pathway to the composer’s distinctive voice. Montgeroult stands out from the crowd, both in his personal circumstances and in the surprisingly advanced style of his music. With it, the effect of absence of context is all the more pronounced.
Although a few people currently perform Montgeroult, this does not yet constitute a “performance tradition”. Recording a disc of his studies was the first time I had struggled with so many new works with such an unfamiliar historical context. It took much longer than I could have imagined to untangle the subtleties of this music and, above all, to discover the unique voice of the composer. In doing so, I gained even more respect for these works. I had dismissed some of the simpler etudes as little more than a succession of lightly ornamented tonic and dominant chords. Yet over time, and performing them in front of a live audience, I began to appreciate the skill and sensitivity with which Montgeroult weaves the emotional course of his music.
This time is necessary, not only as a performer, but also as a listener. We navigate the world by preconception, using what we already know as a crutch, and it’s natural to listen to Montgeroult’s music through the lens of later composers. Knowing that she was writing decades before Mendelssohn and Chopin, in 18th century France, does a lot to dispel that. His work offers us a radically new perspective on the transition from a classical to a romantic style and testifies to his vibrant musical sensibility. Being able to bring this voice to life in concert and on record, in all its unique freshness and vitality, was a remarkable experience that I hope to share as widely as possible.