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Program for Magnificat’s Charpentier Concerts

The program for this weekend’s concerts, with text and translations, can be downloaded here (PDF.)

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The music on Magnificat’s program this weekend was composed during the decade that Marc-Antoine Charpentier served as maître de musique at the principal Jesuit Church of St Louis in Paris. As a result of his early education, both in France and Rome, and his inclinations as a composer, Charpentier had ideal credentials as a Jesuit composer and benefited from the Jesuits’ liberal, even worldly, approach to the arts and religious education and the decade he spent working for the Jesuits was remarkably productive.

The sumptuously decorated Eglise St. Louis, now called St. Paul-St. Louis, was built on Rue Saint-Antoine in the affluent Marais district. Commissioned by Louis XIII, who ceremoniously laid the first stone in 1627, the church was completed by 1641 and is one of the oldest examples of Jesuit architecture in Paris. The design of L’Eglise St. Louis, directed by Etienne Martellange and Francois Derand, was inspired by the baroque-style Gesu Church in Rome, and, like Charpentier’s music, incorporates elements of both Italian and French styles. Its congregation was wealthy and sophisticated and they no doubt greatly appreciated (and generously supported) the church’s lavish architecture, marble, gold and silver ornament and exquisite paintings. They would have also appreciated Charpentier’s sensuous and expressive music performed by the finest musicians in Paris, including singers from the Opera.

The most distinctive feature of Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit is of course its use of the melodies of traditional French Christmas carols, or noëls. The use of the word noël in reference to the birth of Christ can be traced back even further to the 13th century. The word is related to newness, as in “good news” or “New Year,” and was used in non-Christmas contexts as well. By Charpentier’s time, noël could refer to Christmas Day itself, songs related to Christmas (like those upon which his mass is based), or simply an exuberant cry of rejoicing. Since the fifteenth century noëls have been sung by Frenchmen of all classes to celebrate the Christmas season. Most of the tunes that Charpentier employed in his setting of the mass ordinary were already centuries old and would have been as familiar to his listeners as Silent Night or O Come All Ye Faithful would be to audiences today. Indeed, many of the noëls used by Charpentier are still sung in Francophone countries around the world today.

The tunes themselves most often had an existence independent of their Christmas lyrics and with very few exceptions collections of noëls (typically called Bibles des Noëls) contained only the texts with an indication to sing the words to a tune (or timbre) often identified by their commonly known secular titles. Not until Christophe Ballard’s Chant des Noëls, published in Paris in 1703, do we find a complete collection of noëls with words and music – in this case as continuo songs or airs.

The noël tunes are noted for their simplicity, their often dance-like rhythm and above all the bucolic nature of their texts. Most concern themselves with the response of the shepherd’s and townspeople after receiving the news of Christ’s birth from the angel and their subsequent celebration and rejoicing as they hurry off to the manger. The characters in the noëls are distinctly French and the lyrics include frequent references to food and wine – some things never change! By the end of the 17th century, many French composers had embraced these rustic tunes and settings for organ and various instrumental ensembles were published from the 1680s onward. Charpentier’s use of the tunes in a “parody” technique in his mass was most likely the first, though several others followed, most notably Sebastien de Brossard in 1700.

Charpentier uses ten noël melodies as the basis for specific section of the Mass, for example, Joseph est bien Marie serves as the subject matter of the first Kyrie, Or, nous dites Marie for the Christe and Une jeune pucelle for the second Kyrie. In addition to the ten noël melodies that Charpentier incorporates in the mass ordinary, he also suggests that after the Credo an instrumental setting of Laissez paistre vos bestes be performed at the Offertory – and he provides just such a setting elsewhere in his notebooks. The composer also calls upon the organist to perform two noëls, Joseph est bien marie after the first Kyrie and Une jeune pucelle after the second. We have also added a third organ setting, A la venue de Noel, before the Credo.

Charpentier’s use of the noël tunes fits well with the Jesuit approach of ‘enculturation,’ the blending of indigenous cultural traditions in the service of God and the celebration of the sacraments. It is especially fitting that these popular noëls were incorporated into a mass explicitly intended for Christmas Eve – precisely on this unique night when God takes on human form, when the sacred can combine with the secular.

The Mass provides the basic structure of the program, but in the place of the Liturgy of the Word between the Gloria and Credo we will perform the oratorio (or histoire sacreé) Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judæ, which sets the Christmas Eve narrative of angels and shepherds, which paraphrases the Gospel text for Midnight Mass. Charpentier wrote at least six settings of the Christmas narratives, which to some extent share both music and text. It has thus far proven impossible to determine the year or the circumstances for which the Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judæ was composed, but based its placement in Charpentier’s notebooks and evidence of the paper stock it was certainly composed and presumably performed during his tenure at the Jesuit church. It closely resembles In nativitatem Domini Canticum, H. 416, sharing structure, text, and a considerable amount of music, though the keys and instrumentation differ.

The Dialogus opens with a grand prelude that lead’s to a somber tenor recitative and a “Chorus of the Righteous” that describes a state of anticipation, awaiting the birth of Christ. A bass air in the form of a rondeau follows and the section concludes with a chorus calling for redemption, joyful and full of hope. The second part opens with an instrumental depiction of night built on interwoven fugal textures. The composer effects a striking contrast by following the Night music with a “Shepherd’s Awakening,” followed by the appearance of the angel, addressing the shepherds in a blinding light. The Heavenly Host joins, singing to the glory of god and after a march of the shepherds, all fall adoringly before the newborn infant. The oratorio concludes with a chorus, in which the shepherd’s marvel at their experience.

We will open our program with an arrangement of five noël melodies, in lieu of an Introit, that incorporates several settings by Charpentier and other French composers of the time. The Introit des Noëls begins with perhaps the oldest of the melodies, often designated as “The First Noel”, A la venue de Noel, adorned with a flute duet by Jean-Jacques Rippert published in 1725 and then a polyphonic setting adapted from the Credo of Sebastien de Brossard’s Missa quinti toni pro nocte Die festi natalis Domini of 1700. One verse of Une jeune pucelle is followed by an instrumental arrangement of the noel by Charpentier. Next is an organ setting of the noel Ou s’en vont ces gais bergers by Nicolas LeBegue, one of the organists of the Sun King and a colleague of Charpentier. A verse of Or, nous dites Marie is framed by a trio sonata arrangement of the noël by Michel Richard De Lalande from his Symphonies des Noels. Finally we perform two verses of Tous les bourgeois de Châtres together with Charpentier’s instrumental setting.

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