Long completely forgotten and then hailed, in the twentieth century, as a Baroque genius, Charpentier was born in Paris, in 1643. In the mid-1660s, he traveled to Rome, where he spent three years studying with Carissimi and mastering the Italian style. Upon his return to Paris, Charpentier accepted employment and patronage from the powerful and pious Marie de Lorraine, known as Mademoiselle de Guise, last scion of the illustrious Guise family. In 1627, already known for his religious music, Charpentier agreed to provide incidental music for Molière's comedies. With astounding facility, the church composer wrote witty, charming, and delightful music in perfect consonance with Molière's comedic genius, as exemplified by the extraordinary score for Le Malade imaginaire. Nevertheless, church music remained Charpentier's primary vocation, and he steadily wrote masses, motets, hymns, and various other liturgical pieces. After Mademoiselle de Guise died in 1688, Charpentier found employment at the college Louis le Grand, where his accomplishments included the Latin oratorio David et Jonathas, a dramatic masterpiece. His next post was at the Jesuit Church of St. Louis, where he composed music for various aspects of the Catholic liturgy. In 1693, Charpentier's Medea, a tragédie en musique, had its premiere at the Academie Royale. If the composer thought this extraordinary work would secure him a royal appointment, he was mistaken, for the audience seemed deaf to the music. In 1698, Charpentier became music master for children at the Sainte-Chapelle, remaining there until his death. Two and a half centuries after Charpentier's death, millions heard the opening bars of his stunningly brilliant Te Deum (H. 146), selected as Eurovision's official theme. A master of harmonic and melodic invention, Charpentier satisfies the three prerequisites for beauty formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas: consonantia (harmony), integritas (perfection), and claritas (brilliance). This quintessentially Catholic composer ingeniously resolved the perceived conflict between faith and pure beauty by creating music in which devotion and beauty cannot be separated. Indeed, musicologist Catherine Cessac captured the essence of Charpentier's music when she wrote that the "grandeur and originality of Charpentier's music is due to a combination of exceptional musical talent and deep faith, each complementing the other."
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Classical - Released August 25, 2017 | harmonia mundi
Marc-Antoine Charpentier always had an ambiguous relationship with opera. While living in Rome in the late 1660s he had a chance to familiarise himself with this fast-expanding vocal genre. When he returned to Paris, some time around 1670, he was able to witness the creation of the Académie Royale de Musique, followed by the birth of the tragédie en musique, that typically French genre elaborated by Jean-Baptiste Lully over a lengthy period. Although his functions with his new patrons, particularly the Jesuits and the Grand Dauphin, tended to push him in the direction of sacred music, Charpentier was often tempted to write operatic works. Unfortunately, like all his contemporaries, he came up against the hegemony of the jealous Lully, who ensured the doors of the Opéra remained closed to him. It was not until 1693, six years after the Lully’s death, that he finally gained access to that institution; his only tragédie en musique, Médée, was a failure - deemed too dense, too learned. Yet Charpentier’s attraction for musical theatre may be observed throughout his career, in the numerous scores of incidental music, his two biblical tragedies intended for the Jesuit colleges, and above all the divertissements. Charpentier’s divertissements are on a small scale (a few scenes or else short one-act pieces) and conceived for relatively modest forces. Their inspiration is mythological, allegorical or heroic; they mingle light-hearted and dramatic elements. In all these respects, they owe a great deal to the genre of the pastorale en musique, the earliest specimens of which contributed to the rise of French opera. Alongside his motets and histoires sacrées in Latin intended for the devotions of the princess, Charpentier invented for her more secular recreations, small vocal forms sung in French, genuine miniature operas tailor-made for the little company of musicians she maintained at her Parisian town house. These chamber operas, marginal in comparison to the large-scale tragédie en musique cultivated by Lully, occupy a highly individual place in the late seventeenth-century musical landscape. The last short opera Charpentier wrote for the princess, La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers (late 1686-early 1687), constitutes in its breadth and dramatic density a little gem of seventeenth-century French vocal art. References to the myth of the shepherd musician are rare in French literature at that time. Only two eponymous tragedies had appeared before Charpentier’s little opera. In the domain of music, the French usually depicted Orpheus merely in his persona as a player of the lyre, in which he appears in several ballets de cour. Charpentier was therefore one of the first French composers to take up the myth in its full dimensions. He had already produced a version of it in 1683, in a short divertissement called Orphée descendant aux Enfers, which may be regarded as the earliest example of the French cantata, another miniature vocal genre that was to flourish in the aristocratic gatherings of the early eighteenth century. Conceived on a larger scale, La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers unfolds over two acts. The first installs the listener in the bucolic universe typical of the pastorale, peopled by nymphs who have come to celebrate with carefree joy the wedding of Eurydice with the shepherd Orpheus. But Eurydice is mortally wounded by a serpent, and soon sees her strength ebbing away. Her sudden death leaves her companions and Orpheus distraught and tearful. Then Apollo convinces his son to go to beseech Pluto, and try to make him yield to the power of his songs. The more extended Act Two retraces Orpheus’ difficult quest through the Underworld, where he charms first of all the damned souls, in the hope of bringing Eurydice back with him. Charpentier’s manuscript stops at the point when Orpheus commences his journey back to the light, leaving the denizens of the Underworld in despair at his departure. One may therefore surmise that the work, which thus sets only part of the myth, has come down to us incomplete, or that the composer left it unfinished. It is true that the autograph manuscript exhibits none of the conclusive gestures he often uses. But why not, on the contrary, envisage the hypothesis that Charpentier consciously crafted this conclusion, which leaves the myth in suspense, without the edifying moral resolution which the litterati of the time were generally so fond of. For the work does possess a genuine musical conclusion, in the yearning Sarabande légère danced by the Shades deploring the departure of Orpheus, who leaves them only “so sweet a memory” of his songs. If this ending is indeed deliberate, the work assumes a particular emphasis and may be read as an optimistic interpretation of the myth, which is considered more as an allegory of the union of body and soul. A symbol of the fragility of humanity, but also of its ability to surpass itself in defiance of the ineluctable laws of nature, Charpentier’s Orpheus thus embodies the full creative force that the power of love can elicit, and, finally, in a humanistic ideal, also represents the perfection that the human soul can attain through art.
Classical - Released August 18, 2017 | Masterworks
Classical - Released June 16, 2017 | Warner Classics