Home > Music > Charpentier's Music for the Red Mass & The Judgment of Solomon

Charpentier's Music for the Red Mass & The Judgment of Solomon

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was appointed as music master of the Saint-Chapelle in 1698. Founded in the 13th century by Louis IX (Saint Louis) as a sanctuary for the crown of thorns, which he had purchased at great expense from the Latin emperor of Constantinople Baldwin II, the Sainte-Chappelle enjoyed the special attention of the kings of France. Described by a 14th century theologian as “one of the most beautiful abodes in paradise” the Sainte-Chapelle was also an important center for music, and Charpentier’s position as music master was second in prestige only to the Surintendant at the Chapelle Royale.

The Sainte-Chapelle was situated in the heart of a walled enclosure of what was formerly the palace of the king and, during Charpentier’s tenure, the Parlement. The reconvening of the Parlement, which took place annually on November 12, the day after the Feats of St. Martin, was commemorated by the celebration of a grand ceremonial mass, called the Messe Rouge because of the magistrates scarlet vestments. The two large works on today’s program were written for performance at the “Red Mass”, the Motet pour une longue offrande in 1698 and Judicium Salomonis in 1702. The circumstances of their intended performance, the justice of humanity being transported to the realm of God, inspires both.

Louis XIV did not like sung masses, preferring the low masses celebrated in his chapel at Versailles, during which glorious motets were performed, while priests chanted the mass inaudibly. The lack of royal interest in the mass ordinary affected the attitudes of composers even after his death. As a consequence, with some notable exceptions, mass composition in France was ignored while motets, both large and small, flourished, benefiting from the finest efforts of French composers.

The Motet pour une longue offrande is constructed of four parts, each related to the Red Mass, and each one longer than the preceding one. Each section is independent and possesses its on tonal atmosphere, and is focused on one particular idea in the text. Except for the first section, which has no full ensemble chorus, each section has the same elements – prelude, solo or duet, full ensemble – though the order of these elements varies.

Judicium Salomonis (The Judgment of Solomon) was apparently Charpentier’s last composition. The work is a fine example of the histoire sacrée and demonstrates Charpentier’s lifetime debt to his teacher Iacomo Carissimi. A work of vast proportions, it alternates instrumental movements, recitatives, arias, ensembles and choruses, the dramatic continuity provided by a narrator (Historicus), taken sometimes by solo voices and sometimes by the full ensemble. In her masterful monogram on the composer, Catherine Cessac notes that Judicium Salomonis “can be considered his musical testament because of the prodigious diversity of its textures (that essential trait of his all his works, and one which the composer himself considered the musical ideal), the perfect synthesis of French and Italian styles, as well as the sumptuous architecture supporting the entire composition. Indeed, everything in this remarkable work deserves our attention, especially the large, brilliant, and varied choruses of unusual vocal and instrumental density.”

The text of Judicium Salomonis is drawn mainly from 3 Kings: 3 and Psalm 117: 1-3. The first of its two parts is essentially descriptive, dwelling on the glory of Solomon and the happiness and piety of his people. The actual narrative is taken up in the second part. After God commends Solomon for requesting wisdom rather than worldly treasures, and proceeds give him both. Solomon is then visited by two recent mothers who each claim a newborn infant as their own. Solomon in his wisdom suggests that the child be cut in two and judging by the different reactions of the two women, determines correctly which is the true mother of the child.

The brief opening motet was written for the Feast of the Holy Sacrament in 1687, shortly after Charpentier left his employment in the household of Mme. DeGuise. A concise expression of the composer’s ability to create music that is both lush and precious, richly extravagant and humbly pious, grand and intimate, it was a performance of this piece that I heard two decades ago that first made me aware of Charpentier’s unique genius.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.