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Messe à quatre chœurs
As with most of Charpentier’s output, the precise date of composition of this work is unknown. Its position in the composer’s autograph manuscripts suggests that it was an early work and thus probably written not long after his return from Italy, or even while he was still there. Patricia Ranum has suggested that it could have been performed at ceremonies in Paris in August or December 1672. A posthumous inventory of Charpentier’s works makes reference to a sixteen-voice Mass which he apparently composed in Rome for ‘les mariniers’. Whether this refers to the present work is not certain; it may instead be a reference to a four-choir Mass by the Italian composer Francesco Beretta, Missa Mirabiles elationes maris, an annotated copy of which survives in Charpentier’s hand. This could have been the model for his Messe à quatre chœurs, though the fact that the two works are very different in their handling of the choirs makes this seem less likely. Still, Charpentier’s interest in Beretta’s score underlines his interest and immersion in the Italian polychoral Mass tradition.

Having four choirs at his disposal gives Charpentier scope for considerable variety of scoring and texture. Not only does he use his choral groups both antiphonally and in combination, but he also incorporates passages for various different ensembles of solo voices. Particularly striking in this respect is the opening of the Gloria. In this highly melismatic setting of the text ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ for four solo sopranos (one from each choir, and therefore physically separated), it is not difficult to imagine that the composer had a choir of heavenly angels in mind. All four choirs then enter together, with a stately, homophonic setting of the text ‘et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis’ before declaiming in turn the word ‘pax’ on long notes, creating an appropriately peaceful setting. The music becomes immediately more lively at ‘Laudamus te’ as the joyous phrases ‘We praise thee. We bless thee. We worship thee. We glorify thee’ are passed between the choirs. Such contrasts of scoring, texture and musical material occur throughout the Mass and not only sustain the musical interest but also clearly serve to enhance the liturgical text.

On a number of occasions in his score, Charpentier indicates that the organist should improvise between sections; indeed, it was common practice at the time to incorporate short organ pieces into the Mass in this way. What is unusual here is that during the improvisations before and after the second Kyrie, Charpentier may have intended his singers to move away from their original positions and back again: two small diagrams on the first page of the score appear to show two different arrangements of the choirs in relation to the altar.

The Mass concludes with a setting of the psalm text ‘Domine, salvum fac regem’ (‘O Lord, save the king’). The convention of ending Mass with this prayer for the king’s health had begun in the early seventeenth century during the reign of Louis XIII. Despite the fact that Charpentier spent his life largely outside court circles, the inclusion of a Domine, salvum setting as an integral part of many of his Masses clearly points to the climate of absolutism in late seventeenth-century France.

from notes by Shirley Thompson © 2004

Track-specific metadata
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Details for CDA67435 track 8
Agnus Dei
Recording date
1 February 2003
Recording venue
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Charpentier: Mass for four choirs (CDA67435)
    Disc 1 Track 8
    Release date: January 2004
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