Monday, July 14, 2014

In the shadow of Lully: Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
A possible portrait of Marc-Antoine Charpentier
When Jean-Baptiste Lully accidentally plunged his heavy conducting staff through the top of his foot during a performance in December 1686, and died in agonizing pain three months later from gangrene, his fellow composers must have had mixed feelings. Fifteen years before his death Lully had purchased the exclusive privilege of producing opera (and other music) for Louis XIV's court. In effect, it was a lifetime monopoly on the production of opera and musical theater in France, and the quarrelsome Lully employed it ruthlessly against those he perceived as his rivals.

Jean-Baptiste Lully
Jean-Baptiste Lully
Lully portrayed himself as defending French musical values against Italian influence. Ironically, Lully himself was born in Tuscany as Giovanni Battista Lulli; and one of the composers whose "Italian" style he most fiercely opposed was the Parisian native Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

As a young man Charpentier had gone to Italy, birthplace of opera, in order to study music. But only a year or two after his return to France, Lully acquired the royal privilege. Lully's monopoly virtually closed off for Charpentier any possibility of producing a large-scale opera.

So Charpentier focused on other forms, particularly sacred music. Marie de Lorraine, the highly devout 'Mademoiselle de Guise,' brought Charpentier into her household to compose for her private orchestra and 14-voice mixed choir (Charpentier himself sang the haute-contre parts). He also composed a large amount of music for the religious institutions that she and her relatives supported.

While Lully's monopoly made it impossible for Charpentier to have operas publicly staged, the ban did not extend to private performances. Of course, private concert rooms lacked the size and stage machinery of an opera house, and so the works performed had to be reduced in scale. For his patrons Charpentier composed half a dozen chamber operas on Biblical, mythological and allegorical subjects.

And the chamber operas were not the only music Charpentier wrote for the stage during the time of Lully's monopoly. Charpentier also took Lully's place as the composer for Molière's theatre troupe, the Comédie-Française. In yet another irony, Charpentier had to write new music for many of Molière's plays; the music Lully had written for them was not in conformance with the restrictions he himself later imposed on the number of musicians and singers theaters could employ. (To add insult to injury, Lully also evicted the Comédie-Française from the Théâtre du Palais-Royal so he could use it as an opera house.)

But after Lully's death, the monopoly was finally relaxed, and Charpentier began composing large-scale music dramas. Celse Martyr (The Martyr Celsus, music lost; libretto published 1687) and David et Jonathas (David and Jonathan, 1688) were performed at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, where Charpentier had recently become maître de musique. A few years later, Médée (Medea, 1693) was produced for the Académie Royale de Musique at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal—the royal opera company and theater formerly controlled by Lully. While Médée was praised by connoisseurs and by the king, it was not revived at the Académie, and Charpentier never composed another opera. In 1698 he was named as the maître de musique of the Sainte-Chapelle, where he spent the final six years of his life composing motets, psalm settings and masses for services at the chapel.

Eclipse and revival

After Charpentier's death in 1704, his music fell out of favor—in part because those loyal to Lully's style disparaged it, and in part because it was less widely available than Lully's: in contrast to Lully's compositions, the vast majority of Charpentier's works remained unpublished. Fortunately, after his death Charpentier's music manuscripts remained in his family and were kept largely intact. In 1727 they were sold to the king's library, which during the Revolution became the the core of the Bibliotèque Nationale.

There the manuscripts remained until the mid-20th-century revival of interest in the music of the Baroque. In the early 1950s Médée received its first performances in over 250 years. Three decades later, the rediscovery of Charpentier was accelerated when the scholar H. Wiley Hitchcock published the complete catalog of Charpentier's works, and in the early 1990s facsimiles of his surviving manuscripts began to be issued.

For a composer's work to truly flourish it must be performed, and conductor William Christie has been Charpentier's most important modern champion. Christie's period-instrument group Les Arts Florissants, founded in 1979, is even named after one of Charpentier's chamber operas. Over the past 30 years Les Arts Florissants and other early-music groups have performed and recorded a wide variety of Charpentier's music; I've listed a handful of recommended recordings below. The catalog numbers are for those who (like me) cling to the outmoded CD and DVD formats.

Sacred music

Canticum ad Beatam Virginem Mariam. Le Concert des Nations, directed by Jordi Savall. Recorded 1989. Astrée E 8713.

A selection of motets dedicated to the Virgin Mary; the pieces for which dates can be determined were written during Charpentier's time as the composer-in-residence to Mlle. de Guise. A sample: "Salve Regina à trois voix pareilles," featuring John Elwes (tenor), Josep Cabré (baritone), and Gerard Lesne (haute contre), directed by Savall:

This recording is about to be reissued by Savall's own Alia Vox label in a deluxe 25th anniversary edition featuring two remastered SACD discs and a DVD.

Chamber opera

Actéon. Boston Early Music Festival Vocal and Chamber Ensembles, directed by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Recorded 2009. CPO 777613-2.

Acteon was a hunter in Greek mythology, who spied on the bathing goddess Diana and was punished by being turned into a stag pursued and torn to pieces by his own hounds. One of the chamber operas written by Charpentier when he was in the service of the Guise family, Actéon is given an excellent performance by the ensembles of the Boston Early Music Festival, and is accompanied on this recording by two smaller-scale secular cantatas. Aaron Sheehan (tenor) sings the role of Actéon:

Tragédie lyrique

Médée. Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie. Recorded 1994. Erato 2564 66035-7.

Médée has come to be viewed as one of the great achievements in Baroque opera, and it is hard to imagine this recording of it ever being surpassed thanks to the astonishing performance of Lorraine Hunt in the title role. Here is the end of Act III, in which she summons demons from the underworld to help her wreak revenge on her unfaithful husband Jason and his new lover Creusa:

Charpentier was left bitter by his long struggle to have his music recognized. As H. Wiley Hitchcock writes in his article on Charpentier in Grove Music Online:
To posterity he left an enigmatic and poignant Epitaphium Carpentarij (no. 474), a strange, semi-sacred dramatic cantata to a Latin text, its date unknown, in which 'the shade of Charpentier' speaks to two wanderers in the underworld. It includes this rueful assessment: 'I was a musician, considered good by the good ones, scorned as ignorant by the ignorant. And since those who scorned me were much more numerous than those who lauded me, music became to me a small honour and a heavy burden. And just as at my birth I brought nothing into this world, I took nothing from it at my death'. [1]

1. H. Wiley Hitchcock. "Charpentier, Marc-Antoine." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed July 13, 2014,

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