‘These pieces were never propagandist, or about lavish court display… they feel much more immediately approachable and contemporary than her only opera’

HERA’s Toria Banks, who made the English translations of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Cantates Bibliques for Out of her Mouth, tells us about the challenges of making authentic modern translations for a contemporary audience.

Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) by Françoise de Troy

What can you tell us about Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre?

Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre came from a family of musicians and harpsichord makers and began her career as a child prodigy at the court of Versailles: which must have been both thrilling and dangerous for a teenage girl. However, unlike many prodigies she sustained a successful career as an adult, including for a long time as a widow, composing and publishing music in Paris. Although she has been underperformed and appreciated, she was recognised as exceptional in her own day and in the years after her death. She was living at the centre of cultural life, and innovating in new forms (particularly the sonata and the cantata) and she’s only been pushed to the margins over time.

How did you come across her Cantates Bibliques?

Since Linda (HERA’s Joint Artistic Director) and I first started talking about starting our company, we knew we wanted to focus on women composers, but with older works our ambition ran ahead of our knowledge. We’ve spent the last 5 years correcting that as much as we can, and trying not to feel bad about the terrible gaps in our education! Back in 2018 we were planning some workshops, and were hunting for arias by women composers from all eras that weren’t love songs about men. Our thinking was that it might feel liberating for young women singers to get to know different women composers at the same time as exploring a wider range of female experiences. I first read about the cantatas in Anna Beer’s brilliant book ‘Sounds and Sweet Airs’ (2016), and working on ‘Susanne’ with students in 2018, not long after #MeToo broke, was very powerful. There are other pieces we found during that process that we’d love to stage too!

What is so special about them?

By the time Jacquet de la Guerre wrote these cantatas she was in her 40s, and had been composing for decades. She knows what she’s doing, and they’re not tentative. They’re also a wonderful gift to performers, to really hold a space and an audience, and to play all the different characters in the stories.

What were the challenges of translating them into English?

I really enjoy translating but it’s a tricky thing. I was aiming for a simple, everyday sort of English that’s not overly poetic, that would be able to sound like it really belonged to the singers. You’re trying to work backwards from rhythms that are already in place, that were composed for French text, and end up somewhere that seems natural. They’re very concise pieces too, so there are places, especially in the recitatives, where you’ve only got a very limited number of syllables for quite a lot of plot.

Really they’re new versions, as much as translations (but then every translation is!). I haven’t changed the stories themselves (which come from the Hebrew Bible), but in the telling I’ve tried to find more space for the experience and feelings of the female characters. I feel like it’s as important to be faithful to them, to their full humanity, as it is to the original French text (by the poet Antoine Houdar de la Motte).

Do you think a modern day audience will receive them in the same way as in 18th-century France?

Obviously not precisely, but in a way — yes. These pieces were never propagandist, or about lavish court display, and they would have been experienced in intimate settings. They feel much more immediately approachable and contemporary than her only opera, ‘Cephale et Procris’. One difference is that 18th century audiences would all have been very familiar with their Bible stories, whereas I wanted to make sure that you didn’t need any prior knowledge to enjoy our show, but I do think a lot of people still know one or two of them.

What can you tell us about the book you’re writing on this subject?

I’m very much in the middle of writing it! It’s a guide, for listeners and producers, to opera by women composers and librettists before 1800. There’s a lot of it!  One of the reasons I wanted to write it is because it can sometimes feel like the idea of opera by women is always treated as something a bit new, which frankly I find exhausting. Yes, women composers and writers have faced additional barriers —  they still do! — but they’ve always existed. It’s also a very practical thing: I want to make it easier to find and perform the works. It focuses on surviving pieces and includes information about story and performance history and where to find scores and recordings. I want to let these pieces put their best case to opera companies, singers and audiences. That also means my working definition of opera is flexible, it also includes oratorios, concert arias and dramatic cantatas like these! I’m not an academic: many lifetimes of dedicated musicological and feminist scholarship have gone into the materials I’m drawing on. I’m hugely grateful, and I want to amplify that work.

Join Dunedin Consort for Out Of Her Mouth this June.

Universal Hall, Findhorn — Friday 23 June, 8pm
Platform, Midland Street, Glasgow — Saturday 24 June, 8pm
Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh — Sunday 25 June, 8pm
Village Underground, Spitalfields, London — Sunday 9 July, 6.30pm
National Centre for Early Music, York — Wednesday 12 July, 7pm