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8.225126 - ROPARTZ: Masses and Motets

Joseph-Guy Ropartz (1864-1955)

Joseph-Guy Ropartz (1864 - 1955)

Masses and Motets

One episode sums up better than any other the profound musical nature of Joseph-Guy Ropartz: his

decision to leave Massenet's composition class at the Paris Conservatoire in order to work with Cesar Franck, to replace the light melodist of the opera with the mystic, passionate contrapuntist, Born at Guingamp, Cotes du Nord, on 15th June 1864, Joseph-Guy Ropartz very soon showed a lively interest in music, playing the bugle, horn and double bass in various amateur orchestras in his native Britanny. Out of respect for his parents' wishes, he began law studies. Qualifying in 1885, he then decided to turn to a musical career. In that year he entered the Paris Conservatoire, in Dubois' harmony class, then Massenet's composition class. In 1886, the symphonic poem Le chant de la cloche by Vincent D'lndy, a few years his senior, had impressed him deeply and he decided to work with D'lndy's master, Cesar Franck. In 1892, he was appointed director of the Conservatoire in Nancy, where he did remarkable work, both in the running of the school and in the musical life of the town, enriching it with contemporary music. In 1919, he took over as director of the Strasbourg Conservatoire, retiring in 1929 to Lanloup, back in his native Britanny, where he died on 22nd November 1955 at the age of 91.

Ropartz, a gifted artist - a musician, but also a poet and a writer -left almost 200 works involving virtually all musical genres: an opera Le pays, incidental music and ballet, five symphonies, chamber music, melodies and a very fine collection of sacred music.

A profound believer, he was concerned about the beauty of the music to be heard in church. 'You know I care a lot about my religious works and that I strive in them to remain musical and at the same time rigorously religious. I suffer too much from what I hear in churches and most of the time its artistic poverty is matched only by its complete lack of any religious feeling.'

From Ropartz's sacred music, this recording has selected three short Masses (i.e. without a Credo) and a series of motets. The first Mass, Te Deum Loudomus, dedicated to SI Aloysius Gonzaga, was composed in 1925-26. It is built on the pattern of the Gregorian Te Deum, whose intervals underlie the whole of the Kyrie, but which, at the end of the Agnus Dei, conclude also the whole Mass. Gregorian inspiration colours all the music with a soft tint, to which the extremely light polyphonic treatment adds tenderness and reverence. The Gloria particularly brings out the meaning of the text: the atmosphere created by the alternating tone/semitone in the Gratias agimus, the imploring recto-tono of Qui tollis, succeeded by the energetic final acclamation. The Sanctus leads with very beautiful and delicate colouring to the joyful lights of the Hosanna, before giving place to an astonishing unaccompanied Benedictus, which, by its transparency, contrasts strongly with what has gone before. Finally, the Agnus Dei alternates a resolute organ motif with voluptuous vocal responses.

Composed in 1921, the Sainte Anne Mass is more or less constructed on the same model. Surprisingly, each movement opens and concludes on a radiant C major chord. The opening theme has astonishing freedom, turning on itself, coiling in subtle introspection around the interval of a third which enriches all the movements, in the spirit of the cyclic form dear to Cesar Franck. The heart of this work, an appeal for divine pardon, the Qui tollis of the Gloria, establishes the key of C minor, the sadder counterpart of the principal key. Gathering more and more brightness, the Mass ends on a final echo of the opening motif.



The Messe de Sainte Odile, written in 1923, springs from a different aesthetic, at times more dramatic and more taut: strongly modulating harmonies, inverted chromaticisms, expressive semitones. It is music of images, with supple outlines. But one does find some details common to the two other Masses: the initial gentleness of the Sanctus, the unaccompanied Benedictus, with some fine entries on the seventh. The Agnus Dei achieves musical fullness, with the organ playing a major role, its rich harmony supporting a melodic line that is often monodic.

The other pieces are motets, sometimes based on well-known texts (Ave Maria, Salve Regina), sometimes on rarer texts, linked with specific celebrations (Hic vir despiciens mundum, for the feast of an unordained Confessor of the Faith). The style differs from that of the Masses: simpler harmony, easier melodic movement, relatively short duration, unity of mood and tempo, clarity and simplicity of the text: the ideal is Palestrinian. Two of these motets, the Ave Maria and the Ave Verum are, moreover, dedicated to the singers of Saint Gervais, who had given new life to Palestrina's music to such an extent as to dazzle and inspire Chausson at that time. The contrapuntal technique is beautiful, often canonic, with rich internal melismata. The music, however, also still finely emphasizes the principal images of the text, often with very limited resources, as in the five unaccompanied motets. The Domine non sum dignus, for instance, evokes the repentant sinner's humility with its discreet vocal entries and the final confidence in pardon, with repetition of the text at the end of in extremis in the major key. Sometimes the idea is inverted: the melody rises on the words 'descendi de coelo', in the Ego sum. But, above all, the music itself manages to express the profound meaning of the words. the floating fifth – the starkness of the appeal - under the word 'intercede' in the Beata es Virgo Maria or the lengthening of values of the eternity of heaven's reign - 'regni coelorum' in Tu es Petrus.

Only the Salve Regina perhaps contrasts a little more clearly with rich, modulating harmony, melodic phrases sometimes broken and tortured (gementes et flentes), more frequent chromaticism. These works demonstrate well what links Ropartz and Franck: it is not really a matter of technique, or style, but a common mystique, a real faith tinged with undeniable sensuality, expressed in music through a shared interest in counterpoint. Their faith is not marked by fear and anguish, but by tranquil resignation, consolation. Certain musical treatments tend to recur because of this: the three Masses, at the moment of evoking in the Gloria the only Son of God (Domine Fili unigenite) take on an infinite delicacy, an astonishing tenderness. That is the sign of a profound attachment for the Christ figure and of a faith marked above all by love. Nevertheless, this music will still speak to non-believers - of nostalgia, of poetry, and of meditation...

Mathieu Ferey

Translation: Wil Gowans


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