musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Messe du Roi Soleil" (The Sun King's Mass)

Ensemble Marguerite Louise
Dir: Gaétan Jarry

rec: July 2018, Versailles, Chapelle Royale
Château de Versailles Spectacles - CVS008 (© 2019) (53'13")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list
Score Lalande

[in order of appearance] François-André Danican PHILIDOR (1652-1730): Marche pour fifres et tambours; Jean-Adam GUILAIN (1680-1739): Suite du 3e ton (Plein jeu)c; Michel-Richard de LALANDE (1657-1726): Exaltabo te Domine (S 66); François COUPERIN (1668-1733): Messe des couvents (Dialogue sur les Grand Jeux)c; Venite exultemusab; Messe des couvents (Tierce en taille, Grand orgue); plainchant: Introibo in domum tuam Domine; Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687): Exaudiat te Dominus (LWV 77)

Cécile Achille, Caroline Arnaud, Aude Fenoy, Virginie Thomasa, Juliette Perret, Anaïs Bertrandb, Eugénie Lefebvre, dessus; Jonathan Spicher, David Ghilardi, Stephen Collardelle, Lancelot Lamotte, haute-contre; Safir Behloul, François-Olivier Jean, Guillaume Zabé, François Joron, taille; David Witczak, Marduk Serrano Lopez, Christophe Gautier, basse-taille; Sydney Fierro, Laurent Collobert, Renaud Bres, basse

Music played a major role at the court under Louis XIV. It was not only an important part of daily entertainment, but also of the mass, which the king attended each day. No wonder, then, that much attention was payed to the construction of the Chapelle Royale at Versailles. Its construction started in 1689, it was inaugurated in 1710. The Sun King himself was actively involved in the whole process. Before it was completed, he visited the site, accompanied by his musicians, in order to check out the chapel's acoustic.

At the Chapelle Royale, every day a mass was celebrated, and part of each mass were a grand motet, a petit motet and a setting of the text Domine salvum fac regem (Lord, save the king). The petit motet was performed during the Elevation, and this was a widespread practice across the Catholic part of Europe. Domine salvum fac regem was a typical French addition, reflecting the importance of the king and the monarchy. This brings us to one of the main features of the liturgy in France, where the king was basically the head of the church. This was formally laid down in 1682 in a declaration known as the Quatre Articles. This position gave him the freedom to adapt the liturgy. This resulted not only in the introduction of a setting of Domine salvum fac regem at the end of the mass, but also of a grand motet during the first part. As Thomas Leconte, in the liner-notes to another disc, puts it: "For the king's mass, in a sort of double liturgy - one for God, the other for the king - the rite dictated by Rome was retained but was to be recited in a low voice by the celebrant, while the king simultaneously heard the motets performed by the Musique de la Chapelle."

The disc under review does not pretend to bring a kind of reconstruction of a mass. In fact, it mixes elements of two kinds of masses. The mass just mentioned was a mass called basse en musique, which does not mean that there was no or little music - on the contrary. As we have just noted, during such masses motets were performed, whereas the celebrant took a back seat. In the mass on Sundays and the main feastdays of the ecclesiastical year, on the other hand, plainchant and organ alternated. This disc includes elements of both. "The recording proposes mixing within an imaginary service the music given during these different types of royal mass, and not a particular mass which we might have proposed an exact reconstruction. It is therefore an extraordinary mass, in the liturgical meaning of the term, but also in the spirit. A mass which is both Low and High at the same time, pushing to the limits the indulgences permitted on feast days".

I find this rather unconvincing and unsatisfying. It is indeed an imaginary service - a mass that could never have taken place, mixing motets of the daily mass with organ music and plainchant which were part of the High mass. The best thing is just to forget the whole concept and focus on the music instead, which is in fact a survey of what was performed at the Chapelle Royale.

The programme starts with the ringing of the Chapel bell, which marks the opening of the mass. A march then accompanies the king's entrance. Next is a piece of organ music, followed by a grand motet. Two further organ pieces embrace a petit motet. Next is a piece of plainchant, and the programme ends with a second grand motet.

Jean-Baptiste Lully was a composer of grands motets of the second generation. The genre had been established by Henry du Mont and Pierre Robert, and it was under Lully that it became a fixed part of the daily mass. After his death it was Michel-Richard de Lalande who became the king's favourite composer of such works. He wrote a large number of them, some of which he reworked after the death of Louis XIV in 1715. His motets were also frequently performed at the Concert Spirituel, the series of concerts that started in Paris in 1715 and lasted until 1795. Grands motets were mostly settings of Psalms, and that is the case here as well. Lully's Exaudiat te Dominus is a setting of Psalm 19 (20), Lalande's Exaltabo te Domine a setting of Psalm 29 (30) (not 24, as the track-list has it). It is interesting to observe the stylistic developments which took place in the time between these two pieces were written. In Lully's motet, episodes for solo voices are short and are fully embedded into the polyphonic fabric. Lalande divided his motet into separate verses which are scored for solo voice(s) and verses allocated to the choir. It opens with a duet for haute-contre and basse-taille, and later we hear a récit de dessus and a trio de dessus. The motet ends with a récit de dessus et choeur: first the soprano sings a solo, and then the choir enters to close the piece. Lully's motet is the last of the programme, and here we find - as the penultimate section - a setting of the Domine salvum fac regem.

The petit motet is from the pen of François Couperin, who - apart from his Leçons de Ténèbres - has written quite a number of small-scale sacred works, which unfortunately are little-known. It is nice that this disc includes one of them. The text was written by the poet Pierre Portes, and is a celebration of the Eucharist. It ends with the words: "Taste and drink the heavenly delicacies at the sacred table". This motet is scored for two voices - dessus and bas-dessus - and basso continuo. The episodes for two voices are sung here by the upper voices of the choir. The liner-notes justify this practice as "an elegant evocation of the very famous choir of des demoiselles de Saint Cyr". It is an example of what I call a lack of discipline: this disc pretends to give some idea of what was performed at the Chapelle Royale, and this practice was not part of it.

What kind of organ pieces were performed at the Chapelle Royale is probably impossible to decide. It seems likely that the organists mostly improvised. The selection of two pieces by Couperin makes sense: he was one of the organists of the king, and it was he who consecrated the organ on 5 June 1710. Jean-Adam Guilain, on the other hand, was never connected to the court.

Lastly, the plainchant is sung here by a vocal ensemble of low voices, accompanied - as was the custom at the time in France - by a serpent.

I already expressed my opinion about the way the programme has been put together. If we focus on the music, this is a very nice disc. In fact, not often have I heard such excellent performances of the solos in grands motets. Too often I note too much vibrato in the solo episodes, and as a result a lack of consistency between solo and tutti passages. That is entirely different here. This is the way such motets need to be sung. Couperin's motet also receives a fine performance, and Gaétan Jarry shows the qualities of the organ of the Chapelle Royale in the pieces by Couperin and Guilain.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Marguerite Louise

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