CHARPENTIER: Noels and Christmas Motets
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No?½ls and ChristmasMotets
After nearly two hundred years of almost total neglect, the music ofMarc-Antoine Charpentier is now well established both on the concert stage andin recordings. Relatively little, however, is known about his early life andeven his date of birth has been open to conjecture. His father was a copyistand the gifted son obviously inherited his father's calligraphic skills, as canbe attested by the script of the 28 autograph volumes of his works.
Shortly after his eighteenth birthday Charpentier went to study in Rome,spending three years as a pupil of the famous Italian composer GiacomoCarissimi. Carissimi was distinguished for his Latin and Italian oratorioswhich played an important part in Roman religious life, as the oratorios ofCharpentier were subsequently to do in Paris. Carissimi's reputation wassecured with his 1649 oratorio Jephte,
and the style of this and otherworks left its Italianate mark on Charpentier. In both composers we hearflowing melodies, dramatic use of silence, and chromatic and descriptiveharmonies with harsh dissonances and expressive modulations.
Charpentier was a close contemporary of King Louis XIV (1638-1715). Itwas in part because of illness on the day of official auditions for the post ofsous-ma?«tre
for the Chapelle Royale in Versailles and in part because ofthe overwhelming influence of Jean-Baptiste Lully at the court that Charpentierreceived few royal commissions, although he was granted a generous pension bythe king as a consolation for his failure to gain an official court position.
It may, indeed, have been because of Lully's monopoly over the performance ofstage works that Charpentier turned to religious oratorios and the church foremployment. From the early 1680s until his death, he was, like his teacherbefore him, employed by the Jesuits, establishing himself as one of the mostimportant composers of French sacred music.
Of the 34 Latin oratorios by Charpentier, the six celebrating Christmasare the most modest. They have an equal balance of French and Italianinfluence, with instrumental ritornelli,
choruses (some called chansons
and resembling popular no?½ls
) and recitative narrative by shepherds,angels or evangelists. The texts are adaptations of the nativity account fromthe Gospel of St Luke2:8-16.
Many French composers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had aparticular fondness for setting traditional and popular Christmas carols, knownin French as No?½ls.
There are arrangements for organ by Gigault (1683),Leb?¿que (1685) and Geoffroy (1690). In addition there is a famous orchestralsetting by Michel-Richard Delalande for the Chapelle Royale. The liturgy of theChristmas Midnight Mass had long allowed the singing of these popular carols,but whereas they had often been incorporated into vocal compositions in thesixteenth century, by the time of Charpentier instrumental arrangements werethe norm.
are to be found in two groups which seem tohave been written in conjunction with the oratorio-like In nativitatemDomini canticum.
They are very dance-like in format: Joseph est bienmarie
and Une jeune pucelle
are bourrees, O?? s'en vont ces gaisbergers?
and A la venue de No?½l
while Vousqui desirez sans fin
resembles a minuet. Altogether there are nine no?½ls
in Charpentier's collection.
The first of the motets here included, In nativitatem Domini canticum
(H.314), has been dated to the early 1670s and was perhaps written forperformance at the house of Mlle de Guise. A motet of this kind could be usedduring a Mass for the season or after the office of Vespers or Compline. Thetext Quem vidistis pastores
is derived from a trope,
an additionto the liturgy that formed the basis of early liturgical Christmas plays.Canticum in nativitatem Domini
has been dated to the sameperiod. The instrumental introduction is followed by an alto solo based on theopening text, Frigidae noctis umbra,
accompanied by basso continuo. A soprano takes up the message of the angel,telling the shepherds not to be afraid, after which a three-part chorus ofshepherds urges immediate presence in Bethlehem. A pause marks the period oftheir going, followed by three verses for the three-part ensemble, addressed tothe Holy Child and to the Virgin. In nativitatem Domini canticum
, H.416,conjecturally dated to the later 1680s, includes a chanson, Pastore,undique
The final motet Innativitatem DNJC
, H.414, uses a text that is largely similar to that ofH.314, and has been dated to the period between 1683 and 1685. It was writtenfor the singers employed by Mlle de Guise and is a more elaborate work, aminiature oratorio. It starts with a Preludium,
after which thenarrator, a solo soprano, identified in Charpentier's manuscript as MlleIsabelle, Elisabeth Thorin, a maid of the chamber to Mlle de Guise, starts theChristmas story, joined by a second soprano, Marie Guillebault de Grandmaison.
A solo soprano, in the manuscript Jacqueline-Genevi?¿ve de Brion, a maid of thechamber, is entrusted with the words of the angel, followed by a six-partchorus of shepherds, urging each other to hurry, the top soprano line nowshared between Mlle Isabelle and Antoinette. Talon. A March
representsthe journey across the fields to Bethlehem. A solo baritone, identified simplyas Joly, a musician who left the service of Mlle de Guise in 1685, takes up thebiblical narrative, before a solo soprano, Antoinette Talon, sings the simple Air,
a song in the tradition of the French no?½l.
A three-verse finalchorus, for five parts, includes a recurrent ritornello.
Here the upperpart is allocated in the manuscript to Brion, Talon and Isabelle and the secondline to Grandmaison.
Aradia has added tothis collection by adapting music from the Agnus Dei
of the Messe deMinuit,
a work that makes use of popular no?½ls.
This is based on theno?½l A minuit fut fait un reveil.
The ensemble has also, in someinstances, added the original words to the no?½ls,
notably Laissezpaistre vos b?¬tes
and Une jeune pucelle.
In the spirit of theirdance qualities Aradia have also added percussion. In the Messe de Minuit
Charpentiertwice directs the organist to play arrangements of noels.
With this inmind the ensemble have added arrangements of our own, based on those by Jean Fran?ºoisDandrieu (1682-1738).
Kevin Mallon, adapted by Keith Anderson