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8.557036 - CHARPENTIER, M.-A.: Noels and Christmas Motets, Vol. 2 (Aradia Ensemble, Mallon)

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)

Noels and Christmas Motets Vol. 2


I am he who was born a long time ago and was widely known in this century, but now am naked and nothing, dust in a tomb, at an end, and food for worms. I lived enough, though too briefly in comparison to eternity I am a musician, considered good by the good musicians, and ignorant by the ignorant ones. And since those who scorned me were more numerous than those that praised me, music brought me small honour and great burdens. And just as I at birth brought nothing into the world, thus when I died I took nothing away.


Thus, the composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote his own epitaph (from the text of Epitaphium Carpentarii, H. 474). He was a composer whose talents were recognised in his lifetime by only a handful of connoisseurs. Of French birth, he was most influenced by the Italian style, in comparison to his rival, the Italian born Jean-Baptiste Lully, who championed and cultivated the French style.


Relatively little is known about Charpentier's early life. His father was a copyist and the gifted son obviously inherited his father's calligraphic skill, as can be attested to by the script of his 28 autograph volumes bearing the title Melanges. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Charpentier went to study in Rome, spending three years as a pupil of Giacomo Carissirni, an Italian composer famous for his Latin and Italian oratorios - works that were important in Roman religious life, as the oratorios of Charpentier were subsequently to be in Paris. Carissirni's oratorio Jephte (1649) established his reputation throughout Europe, and the style of this and his other works left its Italianate mark on Charpentier. In both composers we hear flowing melodies, dramatic use of silence, chromatic and descriptive harmonies with harsh dissonances and expressive modulations.


Charpentier was a close contemporary of Louis XIV (1638-1715). It was in part because of illness on the day of the official auditions for the post of sous-maitre for the Chapelle Royale in Versailles, and in part because of the overwhelming influence of Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court that Charpentier received few royal commissions, although he was granted a generous pension by the king as a consolation for his failure to gain an official court position It may, indeed, have been because of Lully's monopoly over the performance of stage works that Charpentier turned to religious oratorios and the church for employment. From the early 1680s until his death, he was, like his teacher before him, employed by the Jesuits. He thence became one of the most important composers of French sacred music.


Of the 34 Latin oratorios by Charpentier, the six motets, In nativitate Domini canticum, are the most modest. They have an equal balance of French and Italian influence with instrumental ritornellos, choruses (some labelled 'chansons' and resembling popular noels) and recitative narratives by shepherds, angels or evangelists. The texts are adaptations of the nativity account from the Gospel of Saint Luke 2:8-16.


The two motets here included, In nativitatem Domini canticum (H. 416) and Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judeae, in nativitatem Domini (H. 420) also use texts from Psalm XII and Isaiah 45:8. Unlike the other motets entitled In nativitatem Domini (Naxos 8.554514) that were probably composed for performance at the house of MIle de Guise, the present motets are somewhat grander in scale and were probably performed at one of the Jesuit churches or schools where Charpentier worked between 1688 and 1698. They are almost identical in musical structure, with Charpentier making great use of the symbolism of the text.


The Nativity story starts with the shepherds in the fields watching over their flocks by night. The mood is set by a dark orchestral prelude, particularly in H. 416, in the minor key. A taille (high tenor), recites the sombre words of Psalm XII, expressing the notion of spiritual darkness or night. The chorus of the just (three men in H.420, the full chorus in H. 416) urges God to come from on high and set us free. A rondeau-like aria for bass solo and two violins offers comfort with the reminder that when the king comes "in that day the mountains will drip sweetness, and the hills will flow with milk and honey". The chorus, in expressive lines depicting the text, urges the Redeemer to descend and burst through the clouds. Motet H. 416 has a further bass solo (Prope est ut veniet Dominus) with frequent interjections by the orchestra. This is followed by a very powerful chorus Rorate coeli de super, which paraphrases Isaiah 45:8 (You heavens, drop dew from above).


The motets continue with a separate instrumental interlude Nuit, also in the minor key. This movement acts as a centre-piece to the musical structure. The mood, however, is no longer one of darkness, but one of calm and stillness. Motet H. 420 makes use of frequent but subtle fugal textures with the flutes adoucies (soft flutes) gaining prominence. The Suite de la Nuit of motet H. 416 is one of the most beautiful of Charpentier's compositions. Scored for muted strings, Charpentier formulates a three-movement structure, the first in C minor, the second to the dominant G minor and the third back to C minor. The last movement ends with a moving counterpoint in the top parts over a fourteen-bar pedal in the bass.


With the appearance of the angel of the Lord, the mood is suddenly interrupted by an instrumental Reveil des bergers (Shepherd's awakening), played in the major key, The angel then appears in a terrible, blinding light and addresses the shepherds in the Nolite timere (Fear not), This is one of the most famous and beloved Christmas texts: "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people, For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour , which is Christ the Lord." The chorus of angels sing

Glory to God in the highest and a shepherd, in a recitative, urges the shepherds to go to Bethlehem to "see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." An instrumental march depicts the shepherds' march to Bethlehem.


The shepherds sing a prayer of worship, O infans, O deus, O salvator noster (O infant, O God, O Our Saviour). An angel sings a chanson, Pastores undique, which, with two verses, is sung solo then restated, harmonized by the vocal ensemble. It has a gentle minuet feeling with simple two- and four-bar phrases.


In nativitatem Domini canticum (H. 416) concludes with a chorus exalting, rejoicing and celebrating the justice and peace that will never end.


Un flambeau, Janette, Isabelle! (Noel H. 460c) is known in English-speaking countries as the carol Bring a torch Jeanette, Isabella! It seems likely that the melody was written by Charpentier, derived from the air a boire Qu'ils sont doux, bouteille jolie from the now lost Le medecin malgre lui. It is here arranged by Kevin Mallon for voices and organ (with organ improvisations by Christopher Dawes), choir and strings and for instruments (with divisions by Alison Melville, recorder).


Kevin Mallon




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