Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)
Noels and Christmas Motets Vol. 2
I am he who was born a long time ago and was widely knownin this century, but now am naked and nothing, dust in a tomb, at an end, andfood for worms. I lived enough, though too briefly in comparison to eternity Iam a musician, considered good by the good musicians, and ignorant by theignorant ones. And since those who scorned me were more numerous than those thatpraised me, music brought me small honour and great burdens. And just as I atbirth brought nothing into the world, thus when I died I took nothing away.
Thus, the composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote his ownepitaph (from the text of Epitaphium Carpentarii, H. 474). He was acomposer whose talents were recognised in his lifetime by only a handful of connoisseurs.
Of French birth, he was most influenced by the Italian style, in comparison tohis rival, the Italian born Jean-Baptiste Lully, who championed and cultivatedthe French style.
Relatively little is known about Charpentier's early life.
His father was a copyist and the gifted son obviously inherited his father'scalligraphic skill, as can be attested to by the script of his 28 autographvolumes bearing the title Melanges. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday,Charpentier went to study in Rome, spending three years as a pupil of Giacomo Carissirni,an Italian composer famous for his Latin and Italian oratorios - works thatwere important in Roman religious life, as the oratorios of Charpentier weresubsequently to be in Paris. Carissirni's oratorio Jephte (1649)established his reputation throughout Europe, and the style of this and hisother works left its Italianate mark on Charpentier. In both composers we hearflowing melodies, dramatic use of silence, chromatic and descriptive harmonies withharsh dissonances and expressive modulations.
Charpentier was a close contemporary of Louis XIV(1638-1715). It was in part because of illness on the day of the officialauditions for the post of sous-maitre for the Chapelle Royale inVersailles, and in part because of the overwhelming influence of Jean-Baptiste Lullyat the court that Charpentier received few royal commissions, although he was granteda generous pension by the king as a consolation for his failure to gain anofficial court position It may, indeed, have been because of Lully's monopolyover the performance of stage works that Charpentier turned to religiousoratorios and the church for employment. From the early 1680s until his death,he was, like his teacher before him, employed by the Jesuits. He thence becameone of the most important composers of French sacred music.
Of the 34 Latin oratorios by Charpentier, the six motets,In nativitate Domini canticum, are the most modest. They have an equalbalance of French and Italian influence with instrumental ritornellos, choruses(some labelled 'chansons' and resembling popular noels) andrecitative narratives by shepherds, angels or evangelists. The texts areadaptations of the nativity account from the Gospel of Saint Luke 2:8-16.
The two motets here included, In nativitatem Domini canticum
(H. 416) and Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judeae, in nativitatem Domini(H. 420) also use texts from Psalm XII and Isaiah 45:8.
Unlike the other motets entitled In nativitatem Domini (Naxos 8.554514)that were probably composed for performance at the house of MIle de Guise, thepresent motets are somewhat grander in scale and were probably performed at oneof the Jesuit churches or schools where Charpentier worked between 1688 and 1698.
They are almost identical in musical structure, with Charpentier making greatuse of the symbolism of the text.
The Nativity story starts with the shepherds in the fieldswatching over their flocks by night. The mood is set by a dark orchestralprelude, particularly in H. 416, in the minor key. A taille (hightenor), recites the sombre words of Psalm XII, expressing the notion of spiritualdarkness or night. The chorus of the just (three men in H.420, the full chorusin H. 416) urges God to come from on high and set us free. A rondeau-like aria forbass solo and two violins offers comfort with the reminder that when the kingcomes "in that day the mountains will drip sweetness, and the hills willflow with milk and honey". The chorus, in expressive lines depicting thetext, urges the Redeemer to descend and burst through the clouds. Motet H. 416has a further bass solo (Prope est ut veniet Dominus) with frequent interjectionsby the orchestra. This is followed by a very powerful chorus Rorate coeli desuper, which paraphrases Isaiah 45:8 (You heavens, drop dew from above).
The motets continue with a separate instrumental interludeNuit, also in the minor key. This movement acts as a centre-piece to themusical structure. The mood, however, is no longer one of darkness, but one of calmand stillness. Motet H. 420 makes use of frequent but subtle fugal textureswith the flutes adoucies (soft flutes) gaining prominence. The Suitede la Nuit of motet H. 416 is one of the most beautiful of Charpentier'scompositions. Scored for muted strings, Charpentier formulates a three-movementstructure, the first in C minor, the second to the dominant G minor and thethird back to C minor. The last movement ends with a moving counterpoint in thetop parts over a fourteen-bar pedal in the bass.
With the appearance of the angel of the Lord, the mood issuddenly interrupted by an instrumental Reveil des bergers (Shepherd'sawakening), played in the major key, The angel then appears in a terrible,blinding light and addresses the shepherds in the Nolite timere (Fearnot), This is one of the most famous and beloved Christmas texts: "Fearnot: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to allpeople, For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour , which isChrist the Lord." The chorus of angels sing
Glory to God in the highest and a shepherd, in a recitative,urges the shepherds to go to Bethlehem to "see this thing which is come topass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." An instrumental march depictsthe shepherds' march to Bethlehem.
The shepherds sing a prayer of worship, O infans, O deus,O salvator noster (O infant, O God, O Our Saviour). An angel sings achanson, Pastores undique, which, with two verses, is sung solo thenrestated, harmonized by the vocal ensemble. It has a gentle minuet feeling withsimple two- and four-bar phrases.
In nativitatem Domini canticum (H. 416) concludes witha chorus exalting, rejoicing and celebrating the justice and peace that willnever end.
Un flambeau, Janette, Isabelle! (Noel H. 460c) is knownin English-speaking countries as the carol Bring a torch Jeanette, Isabella!
It seems likely that the melody was written by Charpe