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by Catherine Cessac published in Goldberg # 11 (05-07/2000)
Thus does Charpentier introduce himself in his astonishing piece in Latin entitled Epitaphium Carpentarii, in which he himself appears on the stage: he imagines that he returns to earth after his death, in the guise of a shade, and looks over his life with a curious mixture of humility and bitterness.
One might say that three centuries later, Charpentier has taken a kind of revenge. Today, he is the most recorded French composer of the baroque period on disc. Since the 1950s, of his monumental output, which includes more than 550 works, more than half has been, recorded. This circulation, quite exceptional, bas allowed a reconsideration of Charpentier’s place within the western musical landscape. However, the man still retains his mystery and, in spite of some important studies (notably those by Patricia M. Ranum), it is difficult to know exactly who he was, how he lived, what was the nature of his relationships with his contemporaries, musicians and others. Only his epitaph allows one to perceive the feelings which could have been his at a particular time of his life, probably shortly after his arrival at the Sainte‑Chapelle in 1698, that is, after having completed the greater part of his career and suffered many torments.
Marc‑Antoine Charpentier was
born in 1643, in the "diocese of Paris", which does not necessarily mean
Paris itself, but what corresponds to the present* region of the Île‑de‑France,
though we do not know the exact location. The Charpentier family had in fact
originally come from Meaux for several generations. His great‑grandfather
Denis was "master megissier", his grandfather Louis "royal hussar sergeant,
and his uncle Pierre "great chaplain priest of the cathedral". It was at
Paris, on the other hand, that his father, also named Louis, followed the
career “master scribe", a profession which consisted of writing official
documents for Parliament or the Châtelet, or for highly‑placed officials.
Nothing, therefore, would seem to have indicated that Marc‑Antoine was
destined for music. He spent (a part of or all of) his childhood and
adolescence in Paris, in the quartier Saint‑Sévérin. He had two brothers, of
whom one, Armand‑Jean, would
Aged about twenty, Charpentier left for Rome, where he stayed for three years. He rubbed shoulders notably with Giacomo Carissimi, then considered the greatest Roman composer of the time. Composer of cantatas and motets, Carissimi was above all famous for his "sacred histories" (or oratorios) which were played at the oratory of the Archconfraternity of the Holy Cross, at the church of St Marcel. Charpentier learned from this, composing many sacred histories in Latin, and would be, indeed, the only Frenchman to cultivate the genre so assiduously. His first pieces of this kind show the effects of the elder man, in the themes he chose (Abraham, the Last Judgement, the Judgement of Solomon) as much as in the compositional style itself. But there are other Roman influences in Charpentier’s work, such as those of Bonifazio Graziani or Francesco Foggia. Charpentier was also clearly impressed by the great polyphonic compositions which could then be heard in Roman churches. As he did with Carissimi’s famous Jephtha, he copied assiduously the Missa Mirabiles elationes Maris sexdecimus vocibus by Francesco Beretta, followed by a series of remarks on Italian 16‑part Masses, in which he undertakes a critical analysis; and he himself composed, some years later, a Mass for four choirs, the only French example of the genre.
In Rome, Charpentier also met one of his compatriots, Charles Coypeau d’Assoucy, who drew an unflattering portrait of the composer, but which was apparently inspired by the pique of being, some years later, scorned by Molière. An "original" who "has his brain ventricles rather damaged", "barking mad", who "needed in Rome (his) bread and (his) pity" ‑these are the terms in which he described his rival. One would need other testimony to counterbalance these obvious calumnies. Unfortunately, Charpentier’s lifelong discretion has resulted in hardly anything being brought to light.
After his years in Italy, Charpentier returned to Paris in the late 1660s. Under the protection of Marie de Lorraine, Princess of Joinville, Duchess of Joyeuse and Duchess of Guise, he moved into his private mansion in the rue du Chaume, now the rue des Archives. He stayed there for twenty years. The last descendant of a family which had made some impact at certain points in history, Mademoiselle de Guise was the granddaughter of Henri de Guise, nicknamed le Balafré "Scar face", the organizer of the League and assassinated on the orders of Henry III. With such a past, it is understandable that, even generations later Marie de Lorraine had scarcely any relations with the Court. Did Charpentier suffer from these ancestral rivalries, being kept away from important positions as coveted as the Musician to Louis XlV? Like the king, Madamoiselle de Guise loved music and had set her heart on having in her circle a group of singers and players of such quality that, according to the Mercure galant "the noblest lady does not come near ii”. Apart from Charpentier, who sang (as an haute‑contre) and composed also there were the flautist and theorist Étienne Loulié, the singer (an( future engraver) Henri de Baussen, as well as Anne Jacquet (nickname( Madamoiselle Manon), the elder sister of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre Throughout these years, the composer was also in the service, of Élisabeth d'Orléans (known as Madame de Guise), the last daughter of Gaston d'Orléans, who in 1667 had married the nephew of Marie de Lorraine, Louis‑Joseph de Guise. For his two patronesses and their entourage, Charpentier also wrote many sacred works (Litanies de la Vierge for six voices and two treble viols, Bonum est confiteri Domino, Caecilia Virgo et Martyr, etc) as well as secular (including Actéon, Les Arts florissants, La Couronne de fleurs, La Descente d'Orphée aux enfers). These divertissements, by their variety of character and inspiration, represent a very personal part of the composer’s secular output, in which he places on stage shepherds, allegories or mythological characters. Works such as Actéon or La Descente d'Orphée aux enfers are really very close to the world of opera, not only because of their themes, but also on account of their dramatic and psychological dimension, as one may hear in the lament of Acteon and the chorus of lamentation which follows, or in the death of Eurydice and the recitative of Orpheus at the entrance to the underworld. On the borderline of the sacred and the secular, the Pastorales on the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ join religious emotion and the naïve and elegant atmosphere of the world of the shepherds.
At the Court
In 1672, Molière asked that Charpentier replace Lully, with whom he had become angry, to take care of the musical part of his comédies‑ballets. On 8 July, the theatre of the Royal Palace produced new versions of La Comtesse d'Escarbagnas and Le Mariage forcé with new music by Charpentier. On 30 August there followed a new production of Les Fâcheux, Charpentier’s music for which is lost, like that for Psyché, a tragédie‑ballet which would be produced in 1684. On 10 February 1673, Charpentier was able to give full rein to his talents in a new piece by Molière, Le Malade imaginaire. Unfortunately, the dramatist died at the time of the fourth performance, thus putting at an end any further collaboration between the two artists. Moreover, the composer was the victim of letters of patent sent by Lully to Molière’s troupe; he was thereby obliged to revise his. score for Le Malade imaginaire in order to conform to the restrictions on the number of players and singers authorized by the superintendent of the King’s music on stages other than that of the Royal Academy. Charpentier continued, however, to work for the King’s troupe, named after 1682 the Comédie française: he wrote the music for plays “with machines" (Circé, L’inconnu) whose authors were Thomas Corneille andJean Donneau de Visé. In 1682, for the revival of Andromède by Pierre Corneille, he wrote new incidental music, the music for the previous production having been written by d’Assoucy. In spite of increasing difficulties imposed by the all-poweful Lully, Charpentier continued his activity at the Comédie française with Les Fous divertissants (1681), Le
Rendez‑vous des Tuileries
et Médor, Vénus et Adonis (1685) and a revival of Le Malade
imaginaire at Versailles in January 1686.
In the comédies‑ballets
written in collaboration with Molière, Charpentier’s showed tremendous
aptitude for the theatre music, in the composition of dances as much as in
grotesque comic scenes such as "La la la bonjour!" from Le Mariage forcé.
In the work's "with machines” such as Circé or Andromède,
pieces of pure entertainment, the music placed after or within the spoke
acts is only an "ornament", pride of place being given to the stage design
and the extraordinary machinery which brought these pieces so much success.
Even though Charpentier never had an official post at Court he was nevertheless requested, on various occasions, to take part in royal ceremony. At the beginning of the 1680s, he was requested to write music for the religious offices of the Dauphin. On a visit to his son, Louis XIV had the time to appreciate Charpentier’s compositions as on the day in April 1681, when arriving at Saint‑Cloud, he “dismissed all his musicians, and wanted to hear those of the Dauphin until his return to Saint‑Germain. They performed every day at Mass motets by M. Charpentier, and His Majesty wished to hear no others, whatever else was proposed to him." The works composed for the Dauphin are essentially petit motets on texts from the psalms for two female voices and a bass, sometimes accompanied by flutes, played and sung by the King's musicians, the Pièche brothers and sisters.
Music for the Convents
During the 1680s convents such as Port‑Royal, Paris, and the Abbaye‑aux-Bois requested pirces from Charpentier. For the first, he wrote a Mass and some motets (Pange lingua, Magnificat, Dixit Dominus and Laudate Dominum), for the second Tenebrae Lessons with Responsories. In the 17th century, the Office of Tenebrae was one of the high points of the liturgy. It took place during Holy Week. The lessons, three per day, occurred during the first Nocturn of Matins. The texts are drawn from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in which the prophet mourns the destruction of Jerusalem. As with many other genres, Charpentier was the only French composer of his time to have left such a large number of Tenebrae lessons. In his first lessons, for from one to three voices, Charpentier developed a specifically French style inherited from the air de cour, highly ornamented, while remaining faithful to the Gregorian tonus lamentationum, and bringing to it the richness of his harmony. The later lessons abandon this style of
writing for that of the concertato petit motet, with instruments.
On the death of Mlle de
Guise in 1688, Charpentier entered the employment of the Jesuits at two of
their Parisian establishments. He became master of music of the collège of
Louis the Great, rue Saint‑Jacques, then of the church of Saint‑Louis, rue
Saint-Antoine. In his Catalogue of musical books, Brossard explains
the choice of the Jesuits, Charpentier having “always been known to the
taste of all true connoisseurs as the most profound and learned of modern
musicians. It is doubtless this which made the Reverend Jesuit Fathers of
the rue Saint‑Antoine take him as master of music for their church, then a
splendid position". During the course of six years, Charpentier composed a
significant number of pièces which reflect the great diversity of the
Jesuit ceremonies: psalms, Magnificats, hymns and antiphons for Vespers,
Masses, Tenebrae lessons, motets for the Virgin, for the saints, for the
Holy Sacrament and so forth.
From the installation of the Jesuits in France in the mid 17th century, and the foundation of the first colleges, school theatrical presentations were quickly integrated into their educational programme. These were written in Latin, on a religious theme. Very quickly, interludes, danced or sung in French, were inserted within these tragedies. In fact, in the face of the success of Lullian opera, Jesuit theatre found it necessary to be present in this field too. Thus, the musical interludes increased in size, so that they became true tragedies in music. The finest example of this evolution was David et Jonathas by Fr Francis Bretonneau and Charpentier, given on 28th February 1688, together with the spoken Latin tragedy, on the same subject, entitled Saül. One year before, on 10 February to be exact, Charpentier had put on another work, Celse martyr, whose music is lost. Fortunately, David et Jonathas has come down to us thanks to a copy compiled by the King’s librarian, Philidor the elder. As with tragédie lyrique, David et Jonathas comprises a prologue and five acts. The proportions of the work allowed contemporaries to consider it a genuine “opéra", which one may even regard as a challenge to the monopoly of the Royal Academy, even though it distanced itself from the official model played at Court in the originality of its conception and its language: there is an almost total absence of recitative, no great effects "with machines", a concentration of the dramatic interest on the characters (the importance of monologues) and on their psychology, emphasized particularly by the expressiveness and refinement of the music. David etJonathas is an unique work of its hind, a masterpiece by the great Charpentier, and a valuable testimony to the dramatic musical art of the Jesuits of which so few traces remain.
In around 1692‑23, Charpentier gave composition lessons to Philip of Chartres, soon to be Duke of Orléans, then Regent on the death of Louis XIV. In order to complete his education, the composer gave him a little manuscript treatise entitled Rules of Composition, in which are listed the characters of the modes: C major "hard and warlike", C minor "dark and sad", D major "joyful and very warlike", D minor 'serious and devout", etc. On 4th December 1693, when he was fifty years old, Charpentier produced Médée at the Royal Academy of Music, his only tragédie en musique, to a libretto by Thomas Corneille. If David et Jonathas had moved away from the model of the tragédie lyrique, Médée is in the Lullian mould: a prologue to the glory of the King, a large role accorded to recitative, obligatory divertissements such as the Underworld scene of Act III... But Charpentier could not avoid reverting to his own personal style with a remarkable melodic vein, colourful orchestration and a recondite harmonic vocabulary which takes the drama to the heights of rare beauty (the great air of Médée in Act III, the death of Créuse), to which the audience was not accustomed. The work thus succumbed to the "cabals of the envious and the ignorant" after a few performances. Though Le Cerf de la Viéville characterized Médée as "second rate opera", Brossard defended the work, claiming that "it is in this, of all operas without exception, that one may learn most things essential to good composition."
On 28 June 1698, Charpentier was appointed master of music of the children's choir of Sainte‑Chapelle, where lie remained until his death on 24 February 1704. This last period is also the one of the great masterpieces, with the Missa Assumpta est Maria, the sacred history Judicium Salomonis and the Motet pour l'offertoire de la Messe Rouge to celebrate the annual return of Parliament.
A monumental output
Very soon after his death, Charpentier fell into an almost complete oblivion. The reasons for this silence seem to derive more from him as a man whose modest existence took place on the fringes of the powerful Court, than as an artist. Indeed, Charpentier’s output does not always follow the canons of French aesthetics of the time and did not have the audiences it deserved, as the composer laments in his epitaph. Very few scores (Médée, serions and drinking songs) were published during his lifetime. The greater part of his work is preserved in autograph manuscripts called Mélanges, which make up a collection unique in France for its time. These manuscripts provide us first of all with information about the way in which Charpentier saw his work. Throughout his career, he took meticulous care to recopy his works into large notebooks which he divided into two numbered series, one in Arabic numerals (front 1 to 75), and the other in Roman numerals (from I to LXXIV). Certain manuscripts escaped this classification, and others, on the other hand, are lost (about a quarter of his output). On Charpentier's death, this precious legacy came into, the hands of his two nephews, Jacques Édouard and Jacques‑François Mathas. The first was a bookseller, and published in 1709 a collection of small motets which he dedicated to the Duke of Orléans, but he did not continue this enterprise, apparently unsuccessful, any further. In 1727 he sold the collection of manuscripts to the Bibliothèque Royale for the modest sum of 300 livres.
Charpentier worked in all the genres of his time, sacred and profane. He was a precursor in the realm of the sonata and the cantata, with several pieces in Italian (Serenata a tre voci e simphonia) and in French (Orphée descendant aux enfers). He also wrote thirty‑five serious and drinking songs ranging from the amorous (Auprès du feu l'on fait Ilamour) to the comical (Beaux petits yeux d'écarlate), and including more dramatic works (Tristes déserts, Stances du Cid). But the most important aspect of Charpentier’s work is in the religious field. Here also the diversity is huge: Masses, motets, sacred histories. Charpentier is the only French composer to have been so interested in the composition of Masses at a time when they had become outmoded with the exception of compositions in the stile antico, or plainchant. His output (eleven vocal Masses and one instrumental) remains, from, all points of view, exceptional. The variety brought to the ensemble, liturgical function and writing is complimented by the stylistic diversity: stile concertato (Mass for eight voices, eight violins and flutes, Mass for four voices, four violins, two flutes and two oboes for M Mauroy, Assumpta est Maria, Missa sex vocibus cum simphonia), polychoral works (Mass for four voices), Requiem Masses (Messe pour les trépassés, Messe des morts for four voices, Messe des morts for four voices and orchestra),, monody and faux-bourdon (Mass for Port‑Royal), parody technique (Messe de Minuit).
The sacred histories are the works in which Italian influence is most clearly felt. Thirty‑five in number, these pieces in Latin are divided, according to H.WHitchcock, into three groups: historia, canticum and dialogus. The historiae, such as Judith, Caecilia virgo et martyr and Mors Saulis et Jonathae are the most developed, using choir, and in most cases, orchestra. The cantica (Canticum in nativitatem Domini, Pour la fête de l’Epiphanie, etc) are of more modest proportions, and call upon an ensemble usually made up of three singers and two concertante instruments. The action in these works is limited. The dialogi, as the name indicates, are based on the principle of dialogue between two characters, or two groups of people (In circumeisione Domini/Dialogus inter angelum et pastores, Dialogus inter Magdalenam et Jesum ... ). Charpentier’s sacred histories make up a body of dramatic and religious works without precedent and which would also remain without successors.
Charpentier wrote few instrumental works, but a number of them, show a great originality. The Messe pour plusieurs instruments au lieu des orgues, in which the instruments (flutes, oboes, crumhorn) are chosen because of their ability to reproduce the various registers of the French organ of the time, is a case in point. Apart from the sonata, the overtures, the symphonies and the offertories for the Church, the Noëls for instruments also show the interest that this instrumental repertoire holds.
in all the genres in which Charpentier wrote, he showed the same mastery of composition. He was able to be profound and serious in his religions music, moving or light in his theatre music. He was also quite at his ease in small as well as large scale forms. His contrapuntal choral writing is magnificent, and he excelled in writing for double, triple or quadruple choir layout. Charpentier’s music takes its substance and its singularity from the mixture which he achieved between the Italian and French styles. He borrowed from Italy numerous traits of his style such as the suppleness of his melodic writing, the dramatic use of silence and of modulation, the taste for chromaticism, and dissonance. Criticized for the italianizing aspect of his music, notably by Le Cerf de La Viéville, who found his works "pitiable", and his style "bard, dry and excessively stiff', Charpentier's music had some faithful defenders such as Sébastien de Brossard, who was able to recognize its beauty (its "goodness"): "it is this trade he had with Italy in his youth that some Frenchmen, excessively purist, or, rather, jealous of the goodness of his music, have taken very much amiss, in reproaching him for his Italian taste, for one may say without flattery that he has only taken what is good from it, as his works well testify". As Charpentier so lucidly put it, "good amongst the good and ignorant amongst the ignorant"!