Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) was a French composer of the Baroque era. Exceptionally prolific and versatile, Charpentier produced compositions of the highest quality in several genres. His mastery in writing sacred vocal music, above all, was recognized and hailed by his contemporaries.
Charpentier was born in or near Paris. He received a good education and entered law school in Paris when he was eighteen, but he withdrew after only one semester. He spent several years in Rome, probably between 1667 and 1669, and studied with Giacomo Carissimi. There he acquired a solid knowledge of contemporary Italian musical practice and brought it back to France.
Upon his return to France, Charpentier began working as house composer to Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, who was known familiarly as "Mlle de Guise." She gave him an apartment in the recently renovated Hôtel de Guise. For the next seventeen years, Charpentier composed a considerable quantity of vocal works for her. Throughout the 1670s, the bulk of these works were for trios. Then, around 1680, Mlle de Guise increased the size of the ensemble until it included thirteen performers. In the pieces written from 1684 until late 1687, the names of the musicians appear in the margins of Charpentier's manuscripts—including "Charp" for himself beside the haute-contre (high tenor) line. The Litanies de la Vierge, written circa 1684, was among these works.
In 1679, while still employed by Mlle de Guise, Charpentier was singled out to compose for Louis XIV's son, the Dauphin. Writing primarily for the prince's private chapel, he composed devotional pieces for a small ensemble composed of royal musicians. With Mlle de Guise's permission, this ensemble performed works he had earlier composed for the De Guises. By early 1683, when he was awarded a royal pension, Charpentier was being commissioned to write for court events such as the annual Corpus Christi procession.
After Mlle de Guise passed away, Charpentier served as maître de musique to the Jesuits, working first for their Collège Louis-le-Grand and then for the church of Saint-Louis. By this time he had virtually ceased writing oratorios and instead primarily wrote musical settings of Psalms and other liturgical texts.
In 1698, Charpentier was appointed maître de musique for the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, a royal post he held until his death in 1704. This Sainte-Chapelle post was the most prestigious choral conductor job in all of France at the time. It was during this time that Charpentier wrote the Missa “Assumpta est Maria.”
Salve Regina, H. 24
Salve Regina (Welcome, Queen) features triple choirs (two full choirs and a trio) and recalls the stylistic elements of the oratorio, as Charpentier skillfully manipulates the musical texture by combining and separating the three choirs, and using the small choir in the most dramatic gestures of the piece. The most expressive of these is the astounding “Ad te clamamus” (We cry to thee) section, with its powerful dissonances that describe a painful descent into a “vale of tears” (lacrimarum valle).
Nisi Dominus, H. 150
Psalm 127 (Unless the Lord built the house, those who built it labored in vain) has been set by many composers. Our regular audience members might remember Handel’s setting, which we sang in April. Written for four voices and accompanying instruments, the work is introduced by a tenor solo. The “Vanum est vobis” (It is in vain for you to rise before daybreak) section is a treble duet that seems to pay tribute to Monteverdi with its lively rising lines on the word “surgite” (arise). This is followed by a quiet four-part setting alluding to sleep, and then jumps vigorously into the words “Ecce heriditas Domini filii” (Lo, children are the heritage of the Lord). A bass solo then leads into the final triple meter “Beatus vir” (Happy is he) and the rousing final doxology.
Litanies de la Vierge, H. 83
Litanies de la Vierge (Litanies of the Virgin) was composed under the auspices of Mlle de Guise. This work, also known as the Litany of Loreto, is represented in a volume of nine different settings, scored for a variety of vocal and instrumental forces, taking advantage of the personnel added by Mlle de Guise after 1680. This particular setting requires six voices, two viols, and continuo. The voice parts are notated with the names of the performers, including Charpentier’s name for the haute-contre. With the exception of the opening and closing chorus, directed towards the Holy Trinity and towards Jesus (the Lamb of God), the remaining seven verses request the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and praise her mystical qualities and spiritual virtues. The settings alternate between trios of the upper three voices, the lower three voices, and the full chorus, and also move between stately homophony and elegant counterpoint.
Missa “Assumpta est Maria” H. 11
The Missa “Assumpta est Maria” (Mass for the Assumption of Mary) is the last of Charpentier's many mass settings and is considered his greatest work in the genre. It was first performed at the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, most probably on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, in 1699. Its grandeur suggests that it accompanied considerable ecclesiastical display. Charpentier's decision to place the climax at the Creed's affirmation of belief in "one holy, catholic, and apostolic church" would have had political resonances at a time when tensions between church and monarchy in France were high.
Throughout the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, the mass sung in France remained outside the stylistic currents affecting other forms of secular and sacred music. Most of the masses that could be heard in Paris and in the provinces during the reign of Louis XIV were either plain-chant or polyphonic, sometimes decades old, and adapted to the taste of the day by instrumental accompaniments. Consequently, the eleven vocal masses left by Charpentier assume an exceptional brilliance, written in a much different “concertante” style. The manuscript indicates that early performances separated its sections with motets, instrumental music, and organ improvisations. The mass ends, as did all masses written for the French king, with a short “God Save the King.”
– Patricia Jennerjohn