Author Archive

Charpentier’s Oratorio Judith, ou Béthulie libérée

February 17th, 2015 No comments

Judith, ou Béthulie libérée, (Judith, or Bethulia Liberated) was the first histoire sacrée composed by Charpentier, and is his longest. The text is adapted from the Book of Judith, 7-14 of the Old Testament. Judith devotes a very large role to the narrator or narrators, and thus to declamatory ensembles. In order to diversify the narration, Charpentier assigns the part of the historicus in alternation to soloists, vocal trios, and choruses, with the latter two shifting between homophonic texture and imitative counterpoint. Within a single section of recitative, a wholly declaimed vocal line can give way to more lyrical arioso, as in the long dialogue between Holofernes and Judith. The airs are all in rondo form (ABA or ABACA). Since they essentially fulfill the role of narrator, choruses are not very elaborate and remain homophonic in style.

Part 1 is set at the foot of the mountains near the city of Bethulia. The Chorus of Assyrians tell how Holofernes and his army are preparing to attack the city. In a sung trio, three of his commanders tell how the Israelites are counting on the steep cliffs to protect them, and they recommend cutting off their water supply by placing a guard at their well. An Assyrian recounts how this plan pleased Holofernes, and for the next twenty days the Israelites went without water. The scene changes to the camp of the thirsty Israelites and an Israeli relates how three of them went to ask their leader Ozias to surrender to Holofernes. The trio of Israelistes say that it is clear that God had delivered them into his hands and that it would be better to die swiftly by the sword than slowly by thirst, and, in a chorus of startling harmonic richness, the Israelites bewail how they have sinned and acted unjustly and that this is their well-deserved punishment. They grow weary and then Ozias arose and in a dancelike solo air he tells his people to take heart and wait five more days for mercy from God; if no aid arrives by then, they will surrender to Holofernes.

A trio of Israelistes then relate how Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, arose and addressed the people. In solo arioso, Judith tells them that they should not set a time limit for God to deliver them from their foreign conquerers and in an aria advises them to adopt an attitude of humility that may become for the Israelites a thing of glory. Judith then reveals to Ozias that she has a plan to save her people. Part 1 concludes with a series of set-pieces. First, a glorious concertante Chorus of Israelites sends Esther on her mission with their best wishes. Then a solo historicus explains that the following night, Judith put on haircloth, spread ashes in her hair, and prayed to the Lord. Judith’s sung prayer, interspersed with ritornelli for flutes and continuo, is the musical high point of Part 1. Here she reveals her plan to use her beauty to entrap Holofernes with his eyes and then cut off his head with his own sword. Read more…

Charpentier’s Historia Esther

February 17th, 2015 No comments

Perhaps because of its complications of plot, the role of narration (and consequently that of the historicus) is quite prominent in Esther. The narration is divided up between 4-part chorus, vocal trios, duos, and solos of every voice type and combination. To enliven the narration, the ensembles constantly shift musical texture between homophony and imitative polyphony. In between the narration of the historicus, soloists give voice to the main characters of the drama.

Esther relates the story of a Jewish girl who becomes queen of Persia and thwarts a genocide of her people. The biblical Book of Esther is set in the third year of the reign of Ahasuerus, a king of Persia. In the opening chorus, the Jewish people relate how Ahasuerus, ruler of a massive Persian empire, held a lavish party, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards for all the inhabitants of the capital city Shushan. Queen Vashti held a separate feast for the women of the palace. On the seventh day, Ahasuerus, merrier than usual with wine, commands Queen Vashti to display her considerable beauty before the guests but Vashti refuses to obey Ahasuerus’s order. Ahasuerus becomes very angry and consults his wise men as to a fitting punishment for his queen. One of them warns the king that other women in the provinces will learn from this and come to disobey their own husbands, and he advises Ahasuerus to remove Vashti as queen and give her estate to a more worthy consort.

Ahasuerus has a royal decree sent across the empire that men should be the ruler of their households and should speak their own native tongue. Ahasuerus then orders all the beautiful young girls in the empire to be presented to him, so he might choose a new queen to replace Vashti. One of these is the orphan Esther, who finds favor in the king’s eyes and is made his new queen.  Esther at first does not reveal her Jewish background, as her uncle Mordecai had advised her. Read more…

Charpentier’s Music for Plays by Corneille and Poisson

November 18th, 2010 No comments

In 2002, Magnificat presented a program featuring music Marc-Antoine Charpentier had written for stage works by Thomas Corneille and Raymond Poisson. John Powell wrote these very informative program notes for those performances, which reveal another side of Charpentier’s character and the circumstances in which he lived and worked. Powell has written extensively on Charpentier’s works for the stage and recently presented the paper Music, Gesture, and Tragic Declamation in the Scene of the Dancing Demons from Thomas Corneille’s Machine Play Circé (1675) at the symposium Gesture on the French Stage, 1675-1800 at the Festival Oudemuziek Utrecht on 27 July 2010, from which the image below of Henry Gissey’s drawings of the some of the fabulous costumes used at court is drawn. The plays, librettos, and music for the works discussed in this article (and much more) can be found on John’s website.

When, in 1673, Marc-Antoine Charpentier became the principal composer to the King’s Troupe (Troupe du Roy), he became involved in the ongoing struggle between the company’s director and chief playwright, Jean-Baptiste Molière, and the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. Throughout the 1660s, Molière and Lully had worked closely in providing for the king’s entertainment a series of multi-generic experiments that combined theater, ballet, vocal numbers, choruses, and machine effects. But by the spring of 1672 Lully had decided that his own future lay in opera. Having witnessed the successes of Perrin and Cambert with pastoral opera, Lully set about obtaining the royal opera privilege and, thereafter, a series of draconian decrees designed to protect his monopoly and reduce his musical competition.

Molière soon found another musical colleague in Charpentier, recently returned from Rome and his studies with Giacomo Carissimi. The revivals of earlier collaborations with Lully (La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas, Le Mariage forcé) with new music by Charpentier led to a full-scale comedy-ballet, Le Malade imaginaire. This devastating musical satire would be the playwright’s last work—for during its fourth performance Molière, playing the leading role of the hypochondriac Argan, fell ill during the finale and died at his home shortly thereafter. Thereafter, musical life in Parisian theater was a struggle to survive in the face of Lully’s active opposition.

Charpentier continued on as the leading composer the Troupe du Roy after Lully evicted the actors from their theater. On 17 March 1675, the company premiered Circé, the first in a series of new machine-plays given at their new playhouse, the Théâtre de Guénégaud. Struggling to survive after Molière’s death and to justify its existence in the shadow of Lully’s Académie Royale de Musique, the actors deployed all of their scenic, musical, and choreographic resources in this spectacular and expensive production. Read more…

Charpentier's Music for the Grand Dauphin

September 7th, 2008 No comments

From late 1679 until mid-1683, Charpentier composed music for the establishment of the eldest son of Louis XIV and Queen Marie-Thérèse. Also named Louis, he was popularly known as the Grand Dauphin and referred-to at court as “Monseigneur”. Monseigneur had been given a musical establishment of his own a few months prior to his wedding (on 7 March 1680) to Maria Anna of Bavaria, and for several years he remained loyal to Charpentier and his musicians—who would provide music throughout the 1680s.

“The Dauphin’s Music” consisted of three vocalists: Magdaleine Pièche, a high soprano (haut-dessus); Marguerite Pièche, a soprano (dessus); and Antoine Frison, a bass (basse). They were accompanied by two treble instruments—usually flutes, played by Antoine and Pierre Pièche—and basso continuo. Charpentier had known the singers from his collaborations with Molière in the early 1670s, when the Pièche sisters (then ages 7 and 9) had danced in, and Monsieur Frison had sung in, Le Malade imaginaire (1673).

So taken was Monseigneur with his Music, and so eager was he to please his new bride (who had a fine voice and extensive vocal training), that he began taking singing lessons himself. The Dauphin, “in his extreme youth, where the generosity and the kindness of his heart were continually appearing, thought only of his pleasures and left the cares of the Crown to the King his father.” By contrast, the Dauphine was proving to be “a princess with a great deal of wit, but she did not permit its breadth to be seen in all sorts of situations. She kept her eyes on the King, wanting to let his wishes entirely rule hers, and to do nothing that would appear disagreeable to him.” (Sourches, I, 11)

The Dauphin’s education was all but over by the final months of 1682, and his Bavarian bride was becoming quite outspoken about her musical and theatrical tastes. Mirroring this change in focus, Madame de Guise ordered some entertainments for the coming winter season, when she would be in residence at Versailles. One of these court events was the “Fête of the Apartments”, an innovation by Louis XIV himself that began in November of that year and continued well into January. Three times a week, from 6 until 10 in the evening, a variety of entertainments were held in the principal rooms of the Great Apartment of Versailles: billiards, cards, games of chance, refreshments (including fruits, sorbets, wine and liqueurs, and hot coffee and chocolate), plus “symphonies” and “dancing”. Throughout the fête, only a few guards were present, and the King, the Queen, and all the royal family stepped down from their grandeur, to gamble with some of those present, who have never before been so honored…[The King] goes to one game or another. He allows no one to rise or stop the game when he approaches. (Mercure, Dec. 1682)

During this fête, an “opera” was performed every Saturday (Mercure, Jan. 1683). Les Plaisirs de Versailles and La Couronne des Fleurs were most probably performed on these occasions. In an annotated list of the manuscripts that Charpentier bequeathed to him, the composer’s nephew Jacques Edouard claimed that Les Plaisirs de Versailles was a “piece for the King’s apartments”—for those evening entertainments in the royal palace at Versailles hosted by the King (and referred to generally as “the apartments”). Indeed, on his manuscript title page Charpetier includes the rubric: “la scène est dans les app[artements] ”.

These two works are examples of the operatic divertissement: a short entertainment that is sung throughout in the manner of an opera, but has only one act and lasts a mere half-hour. As common in the divertissements of French opera, the main characters of Les Plaisirs de Versailles are all allegorical—La Musique, La Conversation, Le Jeu, a “Choeur des Plaisirs”—and one mythological figure, Momus, the god of festivities. The singing of La Musique is interrupted by La Conversation, who cannot stop prattling. They argue at length and with increasing heat: which of them is more essential to pleasure…expecially the King’s pleasure? Fearful that they both will leave the château of Versailles in anger, the Chorus of Pleasures calls upon Comus to mediate. He offeres them chocolate, fine wine, exquisite pastries. No use. He then pleads for help from Le Jeu, who is equally unsuccessful, for La Musique and La Conversation continue their bickering. Finally, however, they are reconciled, and the Chorus of Pleasures sigh with relief: Music, Conversation, “our flutes and our voices” can continue to help distract the great King from his military pursuits.

The most striking thing about this lightweight mini-opera, besides its witty and sparkling text, is the sharpness with which Charpentier portrays each character musically. La Musique is languid, tender, sensuous. La Conversation has to admit that she is a “sociable siren”. La Conversation is a nonstop chatterbox, and something of an idiot: she cannot tell a minuet from a courante. La Musique confesses, however, that she is a “babillarde divinité”. Comus, a bass, is a gourmand of small sensibility and Falstaffian bluster. Le Jeu (perhaps played by Charpentier himself) is a wheedling card-sharp.

La Couronne de Fleurs was most probably also performed at Versailles for such an occasion. Names of singers from the musical establishment of the king’s cousin, Marie de Lorraine, Duchess of Guise, known as “Mademoiselle de Guise”—which she shared with her cousin/aunt Isabelle d’Orléans, Duchess of Alençon, known as “Madame de Guise”—appear in the margins of Charpentier’s manuscript. We will recall that Madame de Guise had arranged for musical events to coincide with her winter residence at Versailles; given the flatteries paid to the King in La Couronne des fleurs, it seems likely that Louis XIV was present for the performances.

The text is a free adaptation of the original 1673 Prologue to Molière’s final comedy-ballet, Le Malade imaginaire (1673). In fact, the unknown librettist (perhaps Charpentier himself?) retained only the skeletal outlines of the Prologue. Flora, goddess of spring, calls upon the flowers to repopulate the desolate winter fields, and summons the shepherds and shepherdesses to return. “Louis has banished from them the dire sounds that the cries of the dying and the clash of arms had once allowed to reign there.” She then calls for a contest to see who can best sing of the valiant deeds of Louis. Four brave shepherds (Amaranthe, Forestan, Hyacinte, and Mirtil) try their best, and compare Louis’s warlike prowess to that of a devastating spring torrent, to a bolt of lightning, to the great deeds of ancient Greece, and lament that future generations will scarcely believe the least of his exploits…as they will have nothing with which to compare. Pan then appears to call a halt to the contest, and Flora renders her decision: although they all lack the strength and ability to do justice in song to Louis’s immortal glory, it was enough that they attempted it. So she divides the flowers among the four contestants. In a final ensemble, they wish that just as Louis is the master of the world, may he become the master of time and live a hundred years.

Charpentier’s Petits Motets for the Feasts of Christmas, Epiphany, Circumcision, Purification, and Saint Geneviève

December 25th, 2007 No comments

Four sacred works follow successively in Charpentier’s manuscripts: Pour la Feste de l’Épiphanie (for the Feast of Epiphany), In Circumcisione Domini (for the Circumcision of our Lord), In Festo Purificationis (for the Feast of Purification), and Pour le Jour de Ste Geneviève (for the Day of Saint Geneviève). Earlier in the notebooks is the Canticum in nativitatem Domini. The similar musical forces required imply that they were performed by the same ensemble of singers and instrumentalists. Their placement in the Mélanges autographes suggests that these works were composed during the Christmas season of 1676-1677.

Such are the facts, the forensic evidence, offered up by Charpentier’s autograph manuscripts these works. From this we can broaden our understanding of them by considering the various Christmastide feasts and saint’s days for which they were intended.

Epiphany is from a Greek word meaning “appearance” or “manifestation”, and it is the Christian feast to celebrate the “shining forth” or revelation of God to mankind in human form. The feast is also called Twelfth Night, as it falls 12 days after Christmas. This observance has its origins in the Eastern Orthodox church, and included the commemoration of Jesus’s birth, the visit of the “Wise Men” who arrived in Bethlehem, and all of Jesus’s childhood events up to and including his baptism by John and Baptist. By 534, the Western Christian church had established December 25th as the date of Jesus’s birth, and January 6th the arrival of the wise men. These are the events dramatized in Charpentier’s Pour la Feste de l’Épiphanie, the words of which are taken the second chapter of the book of Matthew:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, and thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. Read more…