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Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)
Messe de Minuit pour Noël • Te Deum • Dixit Dominus
While Lully held a dominant position in the musical life of the French court during much of his career, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, nevertheless, enjoyed a very considerable reputation. The exact year of his birth remains unknown, although 1643 offers a reasonable conjectural date. Probably born in Paris, he studied in Rome with Carissimi, acquiring from him a knowledge of contemporary Italian styles. Soon after his return he seems to have entered the service of the King’s cousin, the Duchess de Guise, Marie de Lorraine, later assuming the position of her maître de musique, which he held until her death in 1688, winning favour as a proponent of the Italian style that had been championed by Cardinal Mazarin and had been supported by the King. He collaborated with Molière, after the end of the latter’s partnership with Lully in 1672, providing music in 1673 for his last play, Le malade imaginaire, and continued to work with other playwrights of the Comédie Française under the restrictive conditions imposed by Lully. Relatively brief direct association with the court came in work for the Dauphin and a royal pension after his failure to achieve appointment in 1683 as a sous-maître of the Royal Chapel, when he withdrew from the final stage of the necessary competition. He gave lessons to the most musical member of the royal family, Philippe II de Bourbon, the somewhat dissolute nephew of Louis XIV. Although valued by the King and feared by Lully as a very possible rival, Charpentier won particular fame through his employment, probably from 1687, as maître de musique at the Jesuit Church of St Louis, known to contemporaries as l’église de l’Opéra through its employment of singers from that establishment. It may be presumed that the position was secured for him through the influence of Mlle de Guise. From 1698 until his death in 1704 he was maître de musique of the Sainte-Chapelle, a position of considerable importance in the musical establishment of the country.
Charpentier left a very large quantity of church music, Mass settings, sequences, antiphons, settings of the Tenebrae lessons and responsories, canticle and psalm settings, motets for the Elevation and dramatic motets, with a smaller but not insignificant number of instrumental and secular compositions, including songs, dramatic cantatas and music for the theatre. Much of this reflects the influence of Italy, although his work for the theatre inevitably demanded a more French style of writing.
There are four surviving settings of the Te Deum by Charpentier, out of a probable six, at the least. The canticle was of practical use on various occasions in the celebration of major triumphs for the King, whether military or personal. The Te Deum, H146, was written for the Jesuit church and has been conjecturally dated to 1692. It has won a certain modern popularity through the use of the opening prelude as a signature-tune, but deserves its relative fame as an assured example of the composer’s work.
The Te Deum is scored for a four-part chorus and eight solo singers, with trumpets, flutes, oboes, bassoons, strings, and, as is immediately evident, drums. The autograph score records the name of one of the soloists, the bass Pierre Beaupuis, who had been in the service of Mlle de Guise, and after her death continued his career at the Jesuit church. The work opens with a Prélude in rondeau form, the principal theme framing two couplets without trumpets and drums. Strings and continuo accompany the bass soloist in the first verse of the canticle, followed by the four-part chorus, continuing without the bass, and passages for the solo voices. The trumpets and drums, at first silent, return to introduce the words Pleni sunt coeli. A tenor soloist introduces the verse Te per orbem terrarum, followed by the haute-contre (alto) and then the bass, accompanied by the organ continuo. The full instrumental ensemble returns for the following section, marked Guay, as the chorus celebrates the victory over death, Tu devicto mortis aculeo. A rapid fanfare prefigures the Day of Judgement, as the bass sings of the coming of the Judge, Judex crederis esse venturus, continuing with the dessus (Soprano) accompanied by flutes and continuo at Te ergo quaesumus. The full chorus and the instrumental ensemble without trumpets and drums return for the words Aeterna fac cum Sanctis tuis. Flutes, strings and continuo accompany the soloists in Dignare Domine die isto, the plea for divine mercy leading to a short dramatic pause. The brief silence is broken by the joyful and confident return of the full instrumental ensemble to introduce the optimism of In te Domine speravi in a final section that again contrasts the solo singers with the full four-part chorus, with its largely homophonic textures.
Charpentier left six settings of the Vespers psalm Dixit Dominus. The setting listed by the Charpentier scholar Wiley Hitchcock as H204, has been dated conjecturally to 1690, relatively simple, compared with the compositions for Mlle de Guise. Scored for strings and continuo, with four-part chorus and soloists, the psalm opens with a short contrapuntal Prélude, before two solo voices, tenor and bass, introduce the first verse, followed by the chorus. The three soloists continue with Tecum principium, before the return of the homophonic chorus. Two solo violins add energy to the bass Dominus a dextris tuis, going on, after an intervention from the chorus, to glory in the prospective crushing of enemies in conquassabit capita in terra multorum. There is contrast between the chorus and the solo voices in the final Gloria, with its energetic conclusion.
The French noël represents a tradition of popular Christmas celebration that developed from its earlier origins into a very considerable repertoire of songs in the sixteenth century, some of them derived melodically from plainchant and others making use of secular melodies. Charpentier made use of this material in his Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass), written perhaps for Christmas 1694, and in instrumental arrangements from the late 1680s or early 1690s. The Mass is scored for four-part chorus, soloists, flutes, strings and continuo, and makes use of ten popular carol melodies, in the tradition of the earlier parody Mass.
The carol Joseph est bien marié is heard before the four-part Kyrie based on it, played here with the notes inégales (unequal notes or dotted rhythms) usual at the time. Or nous dites Marie precedes three soloists in the Christe eleison, and Une jeune pucelle provides the basis for a further Kyrie eleison for the four-part chorus. The Gloria opens conventionally, before a noël melody is introduced, Les bourgeois de chastre, for Laudamus te. The three soloists return for Domine Deus rex coelestis, followed by the chorus at Qui tollis peccata mundi. The soprano soloists’ Quoniam tu solus Sanctus is based on Ou s’en vont ces guays bergers. The Credo opens solemnly in traditional style, before the words Deum de Deo, a section based on Vous qui désirez sans fin, heard in a lively instrumental introduction. The homophonic Et incarnatus est, and the following silence leads to a setting of Crucifixus etiam pro nobis using Voicy le jour solomnel de noël, for three soloists. The first soprano soloist introduces Et in Spiritum Sanctum, derived from A la venue de noël. At the Offertory instruments play Laissez paître vos bestes and the Sanctus takes its theme from O Dieu que n’estois je en vie, with a formal Benedictus for the three male soloists. At the Agnus Dei Charpentier has recourse to A minuit fut fait un resveil, making a lively ending to the whole work. In this model for some later composers Charpentier succeeds in providing, as Catherine Cessac has remarked in her authoritative study of the composer, ‘a perfect synthesis between the secular and the liturgical, between popular and learned writing’.
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