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California Bach Society
Paul Flight, artistic director
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Program Notes, October 2014
Splendor at Versailles
Louis XIV was fortunate in his timing: many extraordinary individuals, representing all of the arts, were his contemporaries (and subjects), and he knew how to cultivate them. He was the protector of writers, notably Molière and Jean Racine, whom he ordered to sing his praises. He was also an ardent practitioner and supporter of ballet — and as the French people watched and took note of what their leader was doing, dancing became an essential accomplishment for every gentleman. Louis imposed his own visions of beauty and nature on these artists, including composers who came to his court. While acknowledging the individual integrity of each composer's musical imagination, there is no doubt that the aesthetic influence of the Versailles court contributed to the unique characteristics of French Baroque compositions. Although the composers represented in this concert were strongly influenced at their roots by the Italian masters, they each transformed that sensibility into something uniquely French — lighter textured than the Italian, less sober and devotional than the German, and, especially in the case of Delalande and Charpentier, replete with dance rhythms, even in the most solemn movements.
According to tradition, Louis XIV organized a contest between composers, giving them the same sacred text, and a set amount of time to compose the musical setting. He alone was the judge. Michel-Richard Delalande (1657-1726) was one of four winners assigned to compose sacred music for each quarter of the year; his was the most important quarter of the year because of the Christmas holiday. Delalande was a distinguished composer of French grands motets, a type of sacred work that was especially pleasing to Louis because of its pomp and grandeur, written for soloists, choir, and comparatively large orchestra. Delalande's grand motet Cantate Dominum for chorus and orchestra is a lively setting of Psalm 98 (one of over seventy motets he composed for the Royal Chapel). The entire setting is elegant, witty and light hearted (very much consistent with the joyful nature of the Psalm text ). The choral movements are crisp and agile, and the solos are colorful and replete with tone painting. This motet is also notable for its extensive use of the haute contre as one of the solo voices — a very high tenor (yet not a countertenor), which is unique to French Baroque vocal music.
Henri Du Mont (1610-1684) was originally known as Henry de Their; this Franco-Flemish composer changed his name when he moved to Paris to become the organist at the important parish church of Saint-Paul. With the exception of a few songs and instrumental pieces, he was a composer of religious music. His illustrious successors were Jean-Baptiste Lully and François Couperin.
Du Mont's grands motets for the Royal Chapel are the first representatives of the genre. The musical texture of each verse setting varies strikingly, in order to maximize contrast; this can also be seen in the deployment of the performing forces: soloists, groups of soloists — petit choeur, grand choeur — and orchestra all enter, leave, initiate dialogues, and recombine, the solo voices melding back into the choir. His Magnificat is a fine example of this style.
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) was born in or near Paris. He spent several years in Rome, and studied with Giacomo Carissimi, whose strong influence can be heard in many of his musical gestures. In his Messe des morts à 4 voix et symphonie (H.10), the orchestra occupies an important position, whether introducing or accompanying the vocal parts. The movements are full of diverse textures, dance-like rhythms, and imaginative word-painting. With the exception of the vigorous setting of "Tuba mirum," the overall affect of this Requiem is serenity, not drama, and is one of his most affecting works.
~ Patricia Jennerjohn