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Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643 - 1704): Petits Motets

[I] "Méditations pour le Carême"
Ensemble Pierre Robert
Dir: Frédéric Desenclos

rec: August 19 - 22, 2005, Prytanée national militaire de la Flèche, Église de Saint-Louis
Alpha - 091 (© 2006) (60'10")

[II] "Motets pour le Grand Dauphin"
Ensemble Pierre Robert
Dir: Frédéric Desenclos

rec: Sept 2007, Tongres (B), Basilique
Alpha - 138 (© 2008) (67'31")

[I] Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER: Méditations pour le Carême (H 380-389); O amor, o bonitas (H 253); O dulce, o ineffabile convivium (H 270); Prose pour le jour de Pâques (H 13); Verbum caro, panem verum (H 267); Nicolas DE GRIGNY (1672-1703): Fugue à 5; Pange lingua en taille à 4; Récit du Chant de l'Hymne précédent; Nicolas LEBÈGUE (c1631-1702): Élévation pour la voix humaine

[II] Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER: Gratiarum actiones pro restitua delphini salute (H 326); O salutaris hostia (H 248); Precatio pro filio Regis (H 166); Quemadmodum desiderat cervus (H 174); Sola vivebat in antris (H 373); Supplicatio pro defunctis (H 328); Louis MARCHAND (1669-1732): Fond d'orgues; Fugue; Fugue sur les anches; Tierce en taille

Anne Magouët, soprano [II]; Sarah Breton, mezzosoprano [II]; Marcel Beekman, hautecontre [I]; Robert Getchell, tenor [I]; Robbert Muuse, baritone [I]; Edwin Crossley-Mercer, bass [II]; Thomas Leconte, Ruth Unger, transverse flute [II]; Michelle Tellier, bass flute [II]; Stéphan Dudermel, Yannis Roger, violin [II]; Florence Bolton, viola da gamba; Alexandre Salles, bassoon; Benjamin Perrot, theorbo; Frédéric Desenclos, organ

A music critic once stated that Purcell hadn't written a bad note. He was right, and the same can be said of Charpentier. Whatever he composed, his music is always first-rate and highly expressive. He was strongly influenced by the Italian style, and this didn't go down too well with those of his contemporaries who wanted to keep the door firmly closed for everything Italian. One of the main exceptions was the theorist and composer Sébastien de Brossard (1655 - 1730), who was a great admirer of the Italian style and an avid collector of Italian and Italian-style music. It is thanks to him that a manuscript of the Méditations pour le Carême by Charpentier have come down to us.

The Méditations pour le Carême consist of 10 pieces. The first three are contemplative in character. The first, Desolatione, desolata est terra, describes the terrible state of the earth. In Sicut pullus hirundinis the protagonist complains about his sorrow: "For in spite of peace my sorrow is most bitter". The third, Tristis est anima mea, is a well-known text from the Tenebrae Responsories: "My soul is sorrowful, even unto death".
Next three episodes from the Passion story are told, each concentrating on one of the characters. Ecce Judas, unus de duodecim is about Judas' betrayal of Jesus, Cum cenasset Jesus about Peter's denial of Jesus and Quaerebat Pilatus dimittere Jesum is about the verdict of Pilate. These meditations are in fact little oratorios, in which the characters are sung by one voice: Judas, Peter and Pilate by the bass, Jesus by the tenor, the woman and the servant in the story about Peter's denial by the hautecontre and the tenor respectively. Here we find the strongest influence of Charpentier's teacher Giacomo Carissimi, also a composer who was able to write highly dramatic scenes in pocket size.
The seventh meditation, Tenebrae factae sunt, is another text from the Tenebrae Responsories: "There was darkness when they crucified Jesus". The piece begins with all voices singing at low pitch. The words of Jesus at the cross are again sung by the tenor. The eighth meditation contains the first six verses of the 'Stabat mater', whereas in the ninth we meet Mary Magdalene who asks how she can repay Jesus' love for her, being a sinner. The last meditation is about Abraham, who is asked by God to offer him his son Isaac. It is again a short oratorio, in which Abraham is sung by the bass, and Isaac by the hautecontre. The inclusion of this scene from the Old Testament makes sense, as the offering of Isaac - which actually never took place because God interfered before Abraham took his son's life - is interpreted as a prefiguration of Jesus' death at the cross.

The Méditations pour le Carême are very moving pieces. I already referred to the dramatic character of those meditations which take the form of little oratorios. In the other pieces Charpentier makes use of harmony and melody to express the content. Just listen how Charpentier dwells on the last line of Sicut pullus hirundinis: "For in spite of peace my sorrow is most bitter".

It makes sense to combine these meditations with three elevation motets, which are performed at the heart of the mass and are directly connected to the Passion of Christ. They show a different side of Charpentier: the composer of sweet and intimate music. Especially striking is the setting of the opening line of O amor, o bonitas, which is repeated after the first section and at the end of the motet: "O love, o goodness, o charity!".
The disc appropriately ends with Victimae paschali laudes, a sequence for Easter.

I would like to quote Théodora Psychoyou in her programme notes, because she sums up the character of Charpentier's music so well. "The spirituality served by Charpentier's music is very theatrical, dramatic. Its aim is to convey the Word of God through images and emotions that the listener not only follows and imagines, but in which he is also invited to participate through active contemplation. Using concerted elements and dialogue between the three voices, echo effects, violent contrasts between sombre, painful harmonies on the one hand and rich, lively vocalises on the other, the composer stages the text and brings out the full meaning of the words. His language is exceptionally efficient and truly rhetorical in its discourse, a discourse that is both compelling and emotionally expressive".

It was Jean-Baptiste Lully, although Italian by birth, who was the staunchest advocate of the French style and it is partly due to his influence that Charpentier had no formal connections to the court. But although his music was officially too Italianate to be acceptable Louis XIV though highly of it. That is shown by reports about performances of Charpentier's compositions which he had written for the king's son, the Dauphin Louis.

On January 1, 1682 the Dauphin was made a Knight in the Order of the Holy Spirit, and Charpentier wrote the music for this occasion, which took place in the chapel of Saint-Germain. Interestingly we know who sang his music: the bass Antoine Frison and the sisters Marguerite and Madeleine Pièche, who belonged to the filles de la Musique de Chambre of the king. They had three brothers, Antoine, Joseph and Pierre, who performed the flute parts (two trebles and a bass) in Charpentier's motets. In Charpentier's manuscripts the names of Frison and Pièche appear several times. This way it is possible to identify the pieces Charpentier has written for the Dauphin. And as the instrumentation is rather uncommon, other pieces with a comparable scoring can be identified as royal commissions.

The disc opens with Precatio pro filio regis which is a setting of Psalm 71 (72), 'Deus judicium tuum', often performed at the occasion of coronations, whose text was also appropriate for the Dauphin: "Give to the King thy judgment, O God, and thy justice unto the King's son." The word "vivet" (he shall live) is frequently repeated.
Sola vivebat in antris is another piece - like one of the Méditations pour le Carême - in which Mary of Magdalene laments about Jesus' death for her sins: "Would that I could repay thy love which causes thee to sacrifice thyself to save the world!". This piece was written for the feast of St Magdalene (July 22). In the prelude Charpentier makes use of a chaconne bass. There are several spicy harmonies between the two voices (dessus and bas-dessus). Supplicatio pro defunctis ad beatam Virginem is a piece in which Mary's grace is asked for the souls of the dead: "Of those who suffer in Purgatory and are cleansed by a terrible fire and tortured by a cruel ordeal, may thy compassion come to the aid, O Mary". Charpentier uses the instruments - in particular the transverse flutes - effectively for expressive means. The last stanza gets much attention: "O Mary, who art blessed for thy goodness, raise the dead and, dismissing their debts, be for them the pathway to repose, O Mary".

In French sacred music a difference was made between the petit motet and the grand motet. Psalms were mostly used as text for the grand motet. But Psalm 41 (42), Quemadmodum desiderat cervus, is used by Charpentier for a petit motet. Here he also uses some sharp dissonances to express the content of the text, for instance on "fuerunt mihi lacrimae meae, panes die ac nocte" (my tears have been my bread day and night) and the verse "Quare tristis es anima mea" (Why art thou cast down, o my soul). O salutaris hostia is another elevation motet on a text from one of the Eucharistic hymns by Thomas Aquinas.

The last piece on this disc was written as part of thanksgiving for the Dauphin recuperating from a severe illness. Fragments from several psalms are taken to create a compelling motet in which harmony is exploited to express the shift from anxiety ("The sorrows and terrors of death have surrounded me") to joy ("Let us rejoice, let us celebrate and give thanks unto the Lord").

On both discs the vocal items are interspersed by organ pieces from some of the most famous composers of organ music of Charpentier's time. They fit into the programme and give some idea of the musical world Charpentier lived and worked in.

As far as the performances are concerned, I can't rate them high enough. The Ensemble Pierre Robert is the perfect interpreter of this small-scale repertoire. The six singers have all very nice voices which blend perfectly. The immaculate intonation helps to bring out the peculiarities of Charpentier's harmonic language. The interpreters understand the character of his music and explore its expressive character to the last detail. The performances of the dramatic parts of the Méditations pour le Carême leave nothing to be desired. The historically founded French pronunciation of the Latin text fits well into the overall approach of this ensemble.

I hope to hear much more of this in the future. And it would be nice if the two ladies would get the opportunity to record Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres: they could produce the wobble-free interpretation I haven't found yet.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Pierre Robert

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