Marc-Antoine Charpentier was one of France's most prominent composers of the last quarter of the 17th century. That position was not reflected in the positions he held. The music scene in Paris and Versailles was dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully, and he did everything to frustrate Charpentier's career. He disliked anyone who could be a threat to his own position, but he also wanted to be more French than the French. Charpentier was under strong Italian influence and that made him suspect in the highest echelons of the then music scene.
For almost twenty years Charpentier was in the service of Marie de Lorraine, known as Mademoiselle de Guise, the last representative of a wealthy and once powerful family. His Italian leanings went down well with her. Her father had been suspected of conspiracy by Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister from 1624 to 1642, and went into exile. For twelve years he lived in Florence with his family, and here Mademoiselle de Guise's musical taste was formed. She heard oratorios of the kind which were written by Giacomo Carissimi, who was probably also Charpentier's teacher during his stay in Rome.
In 1675 Mademoiselle de Guise inherited the family fortune which allowed her to found one of the largest private musical establishments in France. Although it comprised non-professional singers and players, according to a French paper "this musical establishment was so fine that one may say that those of several great monarchs cannot compare with it". Charpentier acted as a kind of 'composer in residence'. As an haute-contre he himself participated in performances of vocal music. A large part of his oeuvre was composed for performances by Mademoiselle de Guise's chapel. Music in the honour of the Virgin Mary played a leading role in that oeuvre; his employer was deeply devoted to her. Once she made a pilgrimage to San Loreto, where the singing of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin made a deep impression on her.
In the mid-1680s her chapel comprised about 15 members. We know their names, and this in turn gives interesting information about the way Charpentier's music was performed. The programme begins with a setting of Psalm 50 (51), Miserere mei, Deus, one of the seven penitential psalms. It is assumed that this setting was sung during Holy Week in 1685. It is scored for six voices, two treble instruments and bc. The specifying of six voices was rather unusual, as elsewhere - for instance at the court of Louis XIV - sacred music was mostly scored for four or five voices. Charpentier makes use of this scoring in order to create contrasts, for instance between high and low voices, or by splitting the ensemble into three groups: high, middle and low voices.
Contrasts are also a feature of Annunciate superi, a motet "for any feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary". The angels are invoked: "O angels, announce, O heavens, recount, what is the most glorious thing on high, what is the holiest thing after God: oh tell us". This is the central issue in this piece. Then various possibilities are mentioned: the cherubim and seraphim, the patriarchs and prophets, the pleasing brightness of the stars. None of them is "the holiest thing after God". It is rather Mary, "unique, most holy, chosen among a thousand thousands, love and joy of Paradise, mother and beloved daughter of God". The English translation of the text attenuates the contrast: "not only are there cherubim and seraphim" … "but there is also Mary" ... In reality the contrast is much stronger: the holiest are not those, but only Mary. Charpentier shows here lessons learnt in Italy from masters like Carissimi.
The Litanies de la Vierge have an equally strong Italian accent. On the passage "Rosa mistica, turris davidica" (Mystical rose, tower of David) there is an unmistakable level of excitement, perfectly reflecting the great passion for the Virgin Mary of Charpentier's employer. In the three pieces on this disc Charpentier not only makes use of contrasting groups of voices, but also of contrasting rhythms, and often daring harmonic progressions. This was all quite unusual in French music of the time, and this contributes to the unique character of Charpentier's oeuvre.
This disc is a treasure, because of the repertoire and because of the performances. The Ensemble Correspondances delivers incisive performances in which the qualities of Charpentier's music are impressively exposed. The singers have nice and supple voices and are very responsive to the text. Thanks to their precise intonation the harmonic pecularities come off perfectly. The label Recording of the Month is well deserved.
Johan van Veen