“Il est temps, Seigneur, que tu paraisses”: Notes on the text of Charpentier’s Nativity Pastorale
The presence of the shepherds in the evangelist Luke’s Nativity narrative makes the form of the pastorale an eminently logical choice for Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ, focusing as it does on the shepherds’ and shepherdesses’ reaction to the news of the Savior’s coming. Evocative of traditional shepherds’ tales, the Pastorale stages the encounter between, on the one hand, humble bergers and bergères, and, on the other, the angels sent to bring the good tidings to earth. Marrying the classical aesthetic to Biblical themes and imagery, Charpentier’s Pastorale proves to be a moving representation of the major themes of the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas, themes that have long illuminated Christian understanding of the spiritual significance of the birth of Jesus.
The text of the Pastorale was most probably written by Phillipe Goibault DuBois, also a member of the Guise household who was actually the director of the musical ensemble and a scholar recognized by the Académie Française for his translations of Cicero and St. Augustine. Written primarily in verses of twelve, ten, eight, and sometimes six or four syllables, the poetry follows the theatrical tradition of seventeenth-century France, which had at its heart a strong emphasis on elegant symmetry and balance. The studied equilibrium of the verse forms is reproduced at the thematic level as well, as DuBois weaves a textual tapestry of contrasting images of good and evil that have informed Christian thought since its inception. (Download the Program Texts)
Scene 1 opens with a shepherdess’ prayer that juxtaposes the woes and afflictions of earthly life (maux) to the kindness (bontés) that she is imploring the Lord to bestow upon His people. Human sin is countered by humane sighs, the prayerful breath of a people recognizing their need for God’s action in their lives, and their desire for God’s life-giving justice. Recognizing the shadowy darkness – l’ombre de la mort – into which human existence has fallen, the shepherds together pray that God will release them from sin’s bonds into the light that is His love; their reference to ton peuple (your people) reminds God of His relationship with them, and of their desire for connection.
The appearance of an old shepherd, whose powerful intervention stands out through its nearly uniform octosyllabic verse, likewise contrasts the current misfortune with the good fortune to come (malheur/heureux), thanks to the newly established state of peace and tranquility that has succeeded an era of noise and confusion. Referencing Daniel 7 – “I saw coming with the clouds of heaven One like a son of man” – the old shepherd reads the scriptural signs, evoking with his final question all mankind’s hope in the Messiah to come, and preparing the arrival of the Angel in scenes 2 to 4.
After an instrumental symphonie depicting the still of the night of Christ’s birth, the Angel appears. A voice connecting heaven to earth, the Angel’s discourse focuses first on images of sovereignty and power, calling for calm to reign over the earth and the sea as he announces that God’s Word will descend from His heavenly throne to become incarnate on earth. Although silence is called for at a proclamation of such solemnity, the shepherds and shepherdesses, in their fear, cannot help but notice the charmingly audible voice of the Angel himself, and yet, when addressed directly, their first impulse is to flee. It is in this moment of tumult that DuBois text most closely approaches traditional theatrical dialogue, as he divides his decasyllabic verse between the Angel and the people in segments of eight and two, then four and six.
Responding to the shepherds’ fear, the Angel then presents one of the fundamental paradoxes of the Christian faith: that the Lord in His majesty, as Master and God, will descend to earth in the form of a helpless and vulnerable child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger; yet he is, simultaneously, the king of kings, worthy of honor, glory embodied. Jesus, in human form, is of the earth; Christ, the anointed Messiah, is of the heavens, the incarnation of divine love sent to bring salvation. The Angel’s primary function is the proclamation of this Good News; once he has done so, he calls upon his fellow angels to join him in praise of all the Redeemer has to offer: rest, sweetness, confidence, and, most importantly, eternal, endless peace on earth. The verticality of the imminent descent of Christ to earth is thus joined to Jesus’ horizontal reaching out to mankind: thanks to this homme-dieu, God’s people will have the relief for which they have long prayed.
Scenes 5 and 6 reprise the dual focus of divinity/humanity of the previous scenes, contrasting the child clothed in poverty with the majesty and brilliance he exudes. The shepherds, newly arrived before the crèche, marvel at the thought that their Savior lies in a mere manger, afflicted by monstrous cold (inhumaine froidure). Here, a new set of images allows DuBois further depth in his exploration of Christian themes, particularly in the way elements of the natural world may be seen to parallel and offer insights into the realm of faith. In scene 1, the shepherds had asked that God rain down his justice from the highest heavens; that justice takes on additional water imagery in the form of dew spilling over and clouds breaking forth. DuBois builds upon this aqueous lexicon with the introduction of the frigid elements of snow, ice, and frost. This time, the image is magnified and extended through DuBois’s parallel reference to the ice found in the souls of man (les glaces de notre âme, the consequence of human trespasses and sin) which might be melted by the ardent and celestial flame of God’s love come to earth. DuBois thus masterfully articulates connections between the physical, tangible world of the shepherds, and myriad intangible, but nonetheless primordial, elements of the spiritual domain.
The finale further extends such parallels in its joyful celebration of the Savior as the source of light and grace. Like the sun that gilds the mountains in spite of the rigors of winter, man’s faith, renewed by the birth of Jesus, reveals God’s infinite and eternally illuminated beauty. Echoing the Hebrew Shema prayer, the shepherds ask repeatedly that God trace His image upon their hearts, marking their relationship to Him for all eternity. In their simplicity, they conceive of this image as containing elements of their humble, pastoral existence – flowers and fruit – but indelible, immortal. The shepherds’ flutes and voices thus join in this final musical celebration of the divine child, whose presence marks a new and eternal spring for humankind.
The text concludes, fittingly, upon the word Redeemer, linking Christ’s birth, indirectly, to his death: Jesus’ ultimate redemption of humankind, his eventual sacrifice that will result in the forgiveness of all sins, allows for a new and blessed rebirth. The Pastorale embodies both the fulfillment of Advent expectation and the joyful hope of Christmas: Gloire dans les hauts lieux, gloire sans fin, gloire éternelle, louange à jamais dans les cieux, louange à l’essence immortelle!
Suzanne Toscyski received a Ph.D. in French from Yale University and a B.A., summa cum laude, with majors in French and Mathematics from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is a Professor of French at Sonoma State University.