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Esprit Joseph Antoine BLANCHARD & François COLIN DE BLAMONT: "La guerre des Te Deum"

Michiko Takahashi, Caroline Arnaud, soprano; Sebastian Monti, haute-contre; Romain Champion, tenor; Cyril Costanzo, baritone
Choeur Marguerite Louise; Stradivaria
Dir: Daniel Cuiller

rec: June 30, 2018 (live), Château de Versailles (Chapelle Royale)
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS007 (© 2019) (66'38")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Esprit Joseph Antoine BLANCHARD (1696-1770): Te Deum in D; François COLIN DE BLAMONT (1690-1760): Te Deum

Most music lovers know about the Querelle des Bouffons, a musical and literary dispute waged in Paris between 1752 and 1754 over the respective merits of French and Italian opera. The present disc's subject is the guerre des Te Deum (the "war of the Te Deums") which took place in 1745. Whereas the Querelle des Bouffons was a dispute about music, the quarrel of 1745 was about two egos.

In 1745 we are in the middle of the War of the Austrian Succession. It was about Archduchess Maria Theresa's succession to the Habsburg Monarchy, and the major powers of Europe were involved. On 11 May, the Battle of Fontenoy between the forces of the Pragmatic Allies - comprising mainly Dutch, British, and Hanoverian troops under the command of the Duke of Cumberland - and a French army under Maurice de Saxe, commander of King Louis XV's forces in the Low Countries, resulted in a victory of the French. This was to be celebrated with a Te Deum, as was the custom in France at the time.

The music was written by Esprit Joseph Antoine Blanchard, who at the time was assistant master of the Royal Chapel at Versailles. He had received his first musical education in Aix-en-Provence, and had taken the position of maître de musique, first in Marseille and then in Besançon. His first contacts with Paris were performances of his music at the Concert Spirituel. In 1734 he moved to Amiens Cathedral, and in 1738 he succeeded Nicolas Bernier as one of the four sous-maîtres of the Chapelle Royale, alongside Gervais, Campra and Madin. He held this position until his death.

In order to celebrate the victory of Fontenay, Blanchard had given out the scores of his Te Deum to the musicians. However, an 'ancient custom' implied that on such an occasion, it was the surintendant de la Musique de la Chambre who should conduct the Te Deum in the chapel. And that was François Colin de Blamont.

He was from Versailles; his father was ordinaire de la musique du roi. He became a pupil of Michel-Richard de Lalande, the favourite composer of Louis XIV. In 1709 he entered the Chapelle Royale as an haute-contre. In 1719 he was appointed surintendant de la musique de la chambre, succeeding the son of Jean-Baptiste Lully. In 1726 he composed a Te Deum at the occasion of the consecration of Louis XV.

"Colin de Blamont rushed in at the last minute to replace Branchard's scores with his own, but it was too late: the Queen was taking her seat and Blanchard started the music" (booklet). That was not the end of the story, though. Colin de Blamont sought the help of the Duc de Richelieu, one of the leaders of the French army during the battle, who, claiming to represent the king, wrote to Blanchard that the king strongly disapproved of his behaviour and ordered that the victory of Tournai should be celebrated by a Te Deum by Colin de Blamont. "The Queen managed to ward off the attack: Colin de Blamont therefore conducted his Te Deum, but at the King's mass (although he was away on a military campaign), whereas at the Queen's mass, Blanchard's Te Deum was given again". In the end, Blanchard came out as the winner of the quarrel: Colin de Blamont had to withdraw his Te Deum from prestigious court celebrations.

It was a nice idea of Daniel Cuiller to present the rivals with their respective settings of the Te Deum back to back during a concert at the Chapelle Royale in Versailles. Both settings are in the form of a grand motet, a typical French genre of sacred music, scored for solo voices, choir and orchestra. Originally intended for performance at the court, specimens of this genre - especially those from the pen of the above-mentioned Lalande - were soon also frequently performed at the Concert Spirituel. Both composers treat the structure of the Te Deum with considerable freedom. An example is the third verse: "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth, pleni sunt caeli et terra maiestatis gloriae tuae". Blanchard splits the second verse, and unites its second half with the first half of the Sanctus section. Colin de Blamont splits the Sanctus section in two halves, each comprising two lines. Notable is also the difference in their setting of the this section. Blanchard's is rather restrained: the tempo is slow and the orchestral score omits trumpets and timpani. In contrast, Colin de Blamont's setting is brilliant and exuberant, as one probably would expect with this text.

The opening of the two settings is also different. Blanchard begins with a lenghty instrumental introduction, in which the orchestra includes trumpets and timpani. The first verse is then sung by the choir. Colin de Blamont's introduction, also with trumpets and timpani, is much shorter, and here the first verse is sung by the haute-contre, whose part is embedded in the orchestral fabric. Another interesting contrast is the way the words "Judex crederis esse venturus" (We believe that you will come and be our judge) are set. Blanchard opted for a restrained approach, with a slow tempo and with accompaniment of strings alone. Colin de Blamont, on the other hand, sets this episode in a dramatic way. The orchestra includes trumpets and timpani, and the text is illustrated by a fast descending figure in the orchestra. In the closing section - "In te Domine speravi" - the choir is joined by the entire orchestra in both settings. Colin de Blamont singles out the word "speravi", and this further proves that he goes some steps further in the illustration of the text. Overall his setting is the more dramatic.

The heydays of the grand motet were during the reign of Louis XIV, and especially Lalande's contributions to the genre were widely admired, and often played at the Concert Spirituel long after his death. These two Te Deum settings of 1745 are late specimens of the genre. They are very well worth listening to. Overall, I have greatly enjoyed the performances. The choir and the orchestra are outstanding. The performances are not without some flaws, though, and that concerns the contributions of the soloists. The duets of the two sopranos are very good, but if Michiko Takahashi is on her own, she uses a bit too much vibrato. It is not really disturbing, unlike the singing of Sebastian Monti, whose vibrato is wider. He can do without it, as his fine duet with Romain Champion (Blanchard, 'Patrem immensae majestatis') proves. The latter and the baritone Cyril Costanzo make the best impression.

The story of the Battle of the Te Deum is little known; in New Grove neither the article about Blanchard not the one about Colin de Blamont mention it. It sheds light on the rivalries and competition between the leading musicians at the court and as such gives some colour to music history. Both from a musical and a historical angle this disc is an important addition to the discography of French baroque music.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Caroline Arnaud
Romain Champion
Michiko Takahashi
Choeur Marguerite Louise

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