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Magnificat Revives Charpentier Program

On the weekend of December 9-11, Magnificat will revive one of our most beloved programs that features the Pastorale sur la naissance de Nostre Seigneur of Marc-Antoine Charpentier together with traditional French noels, or Christmas carols from the period. This program was performed by Magnificat as part of our 1993-1994 season and again in 1997 on the San Francisco Early Music Society concert series.

Like many, I first encountered the music of Charpentier in the delightful Midnight Mass, a work that uses the tunes associated with many popular noels in setting the text of the Mass ordinary. Charming as this piece is, it gives only a faint glimpse of the range and profundity of Charpentier’s compositional skills. Nevertheless, in making reference to the infectious melodies, it captures the earthy flavor of these tunes, which were known and loved by Frenchmen of all classes.

Charpentier’s Pastorale is once removed from the noels, borrowing much of the imagery and tone of the texts but providing them with a rich and highly refined musical setting. It was exactly these parallels that motivated the construction of Magnificat’s original program in 1993. The Pastorale on its own was a bit short for an entire concert and by framing its four sections with arrangements of noels (some by Charpentier himself) a satisfying and revealing program resulted.

In 1670, upon returning to France from his studies with Carissimi in Rome, Marc-Antoine Charpentier became a member of the household of Marie de Lorraine, called Mademoiselle de Guise. One of the wealthiest women in Europe, and a princess in rank, Mlle. de Guise chose to live in Paris independent of the intrigues and obligations of court life under Louis XIV. She was a passionate lover of music, and maintained an ensemble of musicians, less opulent than that to be found at court, but highly admired by the Parisian connoisseurs of the time. It was for this ensemble of companions that Charpentier wrote his Pastorale.

During this time, Charpentier was primarily involved with writing music for the stage, working briefly with Moliére before the playwright’s untimely death, and later with others. His gifts as a composer of dramatic music contributed significantly to the Pastorale and it has been suggested that the work was intended to accompany a traditional Christmas pageant. This possibility is supported by the list of characters on the title page of the manuscript: along with the shepherds and angels are the names of Mary and Joseph, who have no singing parts anywhere in the piece. Charpentier’s biographer Catherine Cessac has suggested that the Pastorale may have been intended for performance at a school for the education of poor girls supported by Mlle. de Guise. It is easy to imagine costumed young girls arranged in the traditional tableaux vivants during this musical expression of the Christmas story.

Three versions of the Pastorale are preserved in the composer’s manuscripts, the first having been performed in 1684. The following two years the piece was performed again but with some new music and some of the previous music rearranged. The reasons for the revisions is not clear, though it is easy to surmise that perhaps the capabilities of different singers may have motivated the changes. In any case, the basic form of the piece remained consistent and for Magnificat’s program an amalgamation of the three versions has been assembled using the opening scenes common to all three arrangements which tell the story up to the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, while the scene at the crèche comes from the1685 version and the closing scene depicting the shepherds on their way home at dawn is taken from the 1686 version.

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