Sound of Versailles comes to the Proms

Kate Youde talks to the students recreating Louis XIII's orchestra

The distinctive sound of the world's first professional orchestra will be recreated in London this Saturday, more than three centuries after it was founded.

Students from the Royal College of Music (RCM), along with musicians from the conservatoires of Paris and Orsay, will use specially made instruments to replicate Les 24 Violons du Roy for the BBC Proms. Set up under the French king Louis XIII in 1626, and embraced by Louis XIV, the string orchestra played at Versailles.

Its sound was different from what we hear today because it had five – as opposed to four – separate string instrumental parts. It featured six dessus de violon (what we would call violins), six basses de violon (the bass section), and three different middle parts similar to violas: four smaller hautes-contre de violon (which became the second violin part in a modern orchestra); four tailles de violon; and four quintes de violon.

"The five-part texture of the orchestra is unique to this project so, for the first time, we are getting very close to the sound that would have existed in Louis XIII's and XIV's times, and we now have the tools to create this music," said Ashley Solomon, head of historical performance at the RCM.

The Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles commissioned Paris-based luthiers Antoine Laulhère and Giovanna Chitto to make the 24 instruments. The RCM commissioned British bow-maker Philip Brown to make 24 bows, at a cost of about £500 each. Seventeenth-century bows were much shorter than those used today: court performers wore big costumes, meaning their movement was restricted and so bow movements were smaller.

The RCM's historical performance students have had to learn how to play these different instruments: a quinte de violon, for example, is the size of a small cello but played in the same way as a viola with the help of a supportive velvet strap behind the neck. "You have to have a long reach and be pretty tall to be able to play the instrument," said Mr Solomon. "It is difficult to play fast. As the repertoire became more technically challenging, these instruments simply couldn't keep up."

Sophia Anagnostou, 26, is playing the haute-contre de violon. "It is basically a viola but smaller in terms of size but a little bigger than a normal violin," she said. "I had to learn to read the alto clef and get used to the different tuning. The bow is much shorter and lighter, which made it harder to get an even sound out of the instrument, but it was just a matter of getting used to it."

The Prom at Cadogan Hall includes five suites by French composers, dated between 1686 and 1703, from the musical archive at Versailles.

"It was in those days by far the largest orchestra in the world, of course reflecting the glory of Louis XIV in Versailles and so on," said the conductor Sir Roger Norrington. "It's really rather extraordinary to be involved with something so completely unusual and to find 41 young people taking Baroque, particularly French Baroque music, which is very difficult technically, in their stride." The students performed the music for the first time in France last month.

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