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Charpentier: Music for the Virgin Mary

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Recording details: July 2005
Notre Dame, Rozay-en-Brie, France
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Nicholas Parker & Emily Parker
Release date: February 2006
Total duration: 68 minutes 58 seconds
 

Recorded in the beatiful church of Notre Dame, Rozay-en-Brie, by Concerto Delle Donne, this album celebrates 300 years of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose works ranged from simple settings of hymns composed for unaccompanied solo voice to works of great complexity and virtuosity for soloists, double choir and double orchestra. Here, the focus is on the sacred works that Charpentier composed for two and three solo women's voices. The three principal sopranos of of Concerto delle Donne all feature as soloists. Other composers included on this disc are Jean-Baptiste Lully, Nicholas-Antoine Lebègue & Guillame-Gabriel Nivers.

Reciting the Divine Office was central to the life of a contemplative nun, and at many convents musical instruction was a regular part of daily life. On major feast-days, it was customary to sing, rather than simply recite, the Offices of Matins and Vespers. Throughout the seventeenth century, there are references to nuns singing the Offices, as well as singing motets during the Mass and at the popular devotional service of Salut (or Benediction). This is witnessed, not only in descriptions from the period, but also in the extensive repertory of sacred music known to have been composed for women’s voices by seventeenth-century composers such as Charpentier, Clérambault, Couperin, Lully and Nivers.

“When you sing…you are in the presence of the Angels and God himself…” (Mère Agnès, Port-Royal)

Reciting the Divine Office was central to the life of a contemplative nun, and at many convents musical instruction was a regular part of daily life. On major feast-days, it was customary to sing, rather than simply recite, the Offices of Matins and Vespers. Throughout the seventeenth century, there are references to nuns singing the Offices, as well as singing motets during the Mass and at the popular devotional service of Salut (or Benediction). This is witnessed, not only in descriptions from the period, but also in the extensive repertory of sacred music known to have been composed for women’s voices by seventeenth-century composers such as Charpentier, Clérambault, Couperin, Lully and Nivers.

There was a dichotomy in elevated seventeenth-century French society: on the one hand, there was the pomp and ceremony of Court, marked by frivolity and artificiality; on the other hand, there was incredible religious fervour found in the convents and other religious establishments, at which members of Court society spent many hours of each day in pious devotion. These noblewomen balanced the life of luxury and attention to social obligations at Court, with a life of prayer, devotion and service. The Guise princesses, for whom Charpentier worked during the 1670s and 1680s, epitomise the devout noblewoman, fulfilling both their worldly and their religious duties on a daily basis. They were particularly devoted to worship of the Virgin and the Infant Jesus which is reflected in the numerous pieces composed by Charpentier in honour of the Virgin Mary—some of which are recorded here.

The religious practices of convents within Paris differed widely depending on the Order, and this affected the type of music used within the establishment. In keeping with Counter-Reformation ideology, emphasis was placed on devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the penitential rites, as well as the veneration of saints. Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was seen in the popular evening service of Salut at which the Host was venerated, and hymns, litanies and motets were sung. Motets were also sung during the services held by the confraternities of the Virgin.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was born in Paris—the son of Louis Charpentier, a well-respected copyist and calligrapher whose influence is evident in Charpentier’s beautifully preserved autograph manuscripts. The contents of this remarkably rich and well-organised corpus of music reflect the great diversity of styles and genres found within Charpentier’s works, ranging from simple settings of hymns composed for unaccompanied solo voice to works of great complexity and virtuosity for soloists, double choir and double orchestra. No other French composer of the period left such a wide variety of types and styles of composition. Indeed, Charpentier was described by a contemporary, Titon du Tillet, as “one of the most scholarly and industrious musicians of his time”. In this recording, the focus is on the sacred works that Charpentier composed for two and three solo women’s voices.

Charpentier spent his formative years in Rome during the late 1660s—an experience that was to have a profound effect on the composer’s stylistic development, and a long-lasting impact on the way in which his music was received. Although it is not known exactly how long, nor with whom Charpentier spent his time in Italy, he clearly absorbed fundamental elements of the Italian style and adopted them as his own. While in Rome, Charpentier would doubtless have spent time visiting the many churches and chapels that were renowned for their music. Here Charpentier would have become familiar with the music of composers such as Carissimi, Rossi, Foggia and Graziani. (Concerto delle Donne’s recording of cantatas and motets by Carissimi is available on the Signum label SIGCD040 Piangete). He carefully copied out Francesco Beretta’s Missa Mirabiles, accompanied by a series of comments entitled “Remarks on 16-part Italian masses”, and he was instrumental in bringing the genre of the ‘oratorio’ to France. Charpentier’s own ‘oratorios’ (or more correctly, dramatic motets) offer rare, though not unique, examples of the genre in French music of this period and demonstrate Charpentier’s fusion of French and Italian influences.

On his return to Paris in the early 1670s, Charpentier maintained close ties with Italy through his early employers, the wealthy and politically prominent Guise family and the powerful Jesuits. In April 1683, perhaps ambitious for a Court appointment, and having already composed a number of works for the King’s eldest son, the Dauphin, Charpentier entered a contest being held at the Palace of Versailles to choose four new directors of music for the Chapel Royal—each to serve quarterly, filling the positions vacated by Du Mont and Robert, who after 20 years of royal service were retiring. However, according to the popular and highly influential periodical, the Mercury Galant, Charpentier became ill and was forced to withdraw from the competition. In recognition of Charpentier’s talent and in compensation for his required withdrawal (perhaps initiated by a jealous and suspicious Lully), the King granted him a pension. He was the only composer to receive such a pension. During the late 1680s, Charpentier was appointed as Director of Music at the Jesuit Church of St Louis—a church surrounded by the sumptuous mansions of the Marais district and drawing on a congregation largely comprising Paris’ social elite. On the 28th June 1698, Charpentier was appointed to the prestigious position of Master of Music at the Sainte-Chapelle—a position he held until his death on 24 February 1704.

Charpentier’s lack of a Court appointment may have had a detrimental effect on the way in which his music was preserved and how history until recently perceived him, but it had positive effects on his stylistic development. Free from the artistic constraints of a highly stylized and restrictive Court, and supported by patrons early in his career who were sympathetic to an Italian aesthetic, Charpentier embraced influences from both France and Italy to create a musical style quite distinct from that of his contemporaries—a style that emphasized the union between rhetoric and music.

Charpentier composed over 100 sacred works for women’s voices—some of which identify the names of the original singers, including the names of nuns. In addition to providing sacred music for his regular employers, Charpentier composed music for the Cistercians of the Port-Royal de Paris and the Abbaye-au-Bois, the Benedictines of the Abbaye of Montmartre (at which Mlle de Guise’s sister was the Abbess), and he almost certainly composed music for the Carmelites of the rue du Bouloir or the Grand Couvent in the rue Saint-Jacques where the Guise princesses regularly attended services, often as part of Queen Marie-Thérèse’s entourage.

Many of the Parisian convents and churches hired professional musicians, both men and women, to perform at religious services. The seventeenth-century writer Lecerf de la Viéville made some disparaging remarks about this practice, noting that on occasions it was necessary to pay for a seat in the Church, just as at the Opéra, and that he had even heard applause at some of the services. Lecerf also criticised the singers’ outrageous attire, their constant turning around, laughing and even sniffing tobacco during the services. He notes that:

“one hires singers who sing a Leçon on Good Friday or a solo motet for Easter behind a curtain that they draw apart from time to time to smile at their friends among the listeners.” (Lecerf, Comparaison de la musique italienne et de la musique française, 1705-1706)

Certainly, performances at many of the convents were regarded as great musical attractions—a fact reflected by the number of comments found in the Mercure Galant and the Gazette de France which recount visits by members of the nobility and royal family to musical performances at convents in Paris. There are contemporary references, for example, to the crowds that were attracted to the Abbaye-au-Bois by the excellent quality of the music, including works by Charpentier (Mercure Galant, April 1680). Similarly, the Abbaye of Montmartre was renowned for the quality of the singing during celebrations of the liturgy.

Charpentier’s association with the convent of the Port-Royal, where the composer’s sister, Marie de Sainte-Blandine Charpentier, was a nun, resulted in at least seven compositions of which two are recorded here. From an early age, aspiring nuns at the convent of the Port-Royal were taught to sing chant each day. The chant books show ornament signs over the chant notation, indicating that the nuns were familiar with simple ornamentation, used to emphasise the melodic shape and make more sense of the text. The voices of the nuns at the Port-Royal were described in an eighteenth-century account as “sweet, distinct, articulate, harmonious, touching, moving [listeners] to tears, and at the same time, filling their hearts with joy and consolation.” Similarly, in a description dating from 1678, the beautiful singing of the nuns was said to “pierce the heart” and nuns who joined the Order with “artificial and worldly voices” were prohibited from singing for three or four months, but instead had to listen in order to transform their voices to produce a “tone of intelligence and an expression so faithful to the pronunciation that their chant was effectively a true prayer” (C. Davy-Rigaux, “L’Oratoire, Port-Royal et la Réforme du Chant” Chroniques de Port-Royal, 2001) In the letters of Mère Agnès, as well as in other accounts, there are repeated references to the nuns singing like angels.

The musical setting of the poignantly beautiful Stabat mater (H15) is one of the simplest of the seven works by Charpentier for the Port-Royal. Each of the ten verses is sung to the same music, alternating a solo voice with a unison chorus. The writing is syllabic throughout, with simple ornamentation on stressed syllables, and a narrow vocal range.

The Magnificat (H81), like the two psalm settings that Charpentier composed for the Port-Royal, is written for three solo voices which alternate with a fauxbourdon chorus for four high voices. The three soloists are named as ‘Mlle Dufresnoy (perhaps a boarder within the convent), Mère Saint-Bernard, and Mère Sainte-Agathe.’ In the fauxbourdon passages, the voices move in parallel motion: the top line sung by two nuns, the second line sung by one nun, and the third and fourth lines sung by a divided chorus. Here, Charpentier contrasts the style of writing for the simple chorus with the more florid writing for solo voices. Even in the fauxbourdon sections, however, Charpentier uses expressive harmony to provide musical interest.

The remaining works by Charpentier cannot be linked directly to specific convents but may have been performed at convents or within the churches and chapels with which Charpentier was associated.

Charpentier’s petits motets reveal the composer’s penchant for the Italian style. While the dissonant harmonies and often tortuous melodic lines are one aspect of the Italianisms so beloved of the composer, the use of a refrain (such as in Sicut spina rosam and Gaude felix Anna), the exuberant swirling melismatic writing for the voices, often in close imitation or in parallel thirds and sixths heard in all the motets, and the use of the genre of ‘oratorio’ or dramatic motet (In nativitate Domini n[ost]ri Jesu Christi canticum, Frigidae noctis umbra totum) are also features of an Italianate style.

The text for the ‘oratorio’ In nativitate is an adaptation of words from the Gospel of St Luke (chapter 2: 8-16) that recount the nativity story in which the Angel appears telling the shepherds about the birth of Jesus and the shepherds respond by hurrying to Bethlehem to honour the Christ Child and Virgin Mother. Charpentier’s setting conveys both the sense of hushed expectancy and of simple joy.

The Florentine-born French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully is most commonly associated with the splendours, the grandeur, and the magnificence of the Court and Chapel at the Palace of Versailles. As Court favourite, Lully enjoyed a life that revolved closely around the King and his entourage. Although Lully’s best-known sacred music comprises the grands motets written for use at the King’s Mass, Lully also appears to have left a collection of more intimate petits motets. Little is known of the history of these works for solo voices: there are no dates for the works in the manuscript sources, there are no accounts of performances of the music from the period, and even the attribution of these works to Lully has been much debated. One source (André Danican Philidor’s catalogue of music, 1729) suggests that Lully’s petits motets were written for use at the convent of the Filles de l’Assomption in the rue Saint-Honoré in Paris which was renowned for the quality of its music.

Lully’s Salve regina is scored for three treble voices and continuo. The writing, like that found in the other petits motets is highly Italianate—sharing much in common not only with the music of Italian composers such as Carissimi, Foggia and Graziani, but also with the writing of Lully’s rival, Charpentier.

From 1664 until his death Nicholas-Antoine Lebègue (c1631-1702) was organist at St Merry in Paris. In 1678 he was appointed organiste du Roi. Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers (c1632-1714) held three organist positions, the church of Saint Sulpice (from 1651), the royal convent of Saint-Louis de Saint-Cyr (from 1686), and the royal chapel of Versailles.

Jane Gosine 2006

We recorded this CD in the beautiful church of Notre Dame, Rozay-en-Brie, thirty miles east of Paris, which contains a wonderful organ dating from 1690, played by François Couperin himself. Both the organ and the acoustics of the church proved to be perfect for this music. I wish to thank l’organiste titulaire Mr Philippe Lécossais, Mr Francisque Tranchand, Président de l’Association des Amis des Grandes Orgues Historiques, and Le Père Alain Ruysschaert, Curé de la Paroisse de Rozay-en-Brie for all the help which they gave us in the preparation for this recording.

We could not have recorded this CD at all without the help, hard work and enthusiasm of Jane Gosine, Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Newfoundland and Charpentier scholar. Although I had already edited the Magnificat pour le Port Royal, all the other Charpentier pieces in tonight’s programme have been edited by Jane. She has also written about the background to this repertoire, biographical notes on Charpentier and descriptions of the pieces. I am very grateful to her. I also want to thank Patricia Ranum, Charpentier scholar, for supplying me with fascinating background information to the music, and for her helpful comments about the programme at the planning stage.

Concerto delle Donne 2006

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