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Les Arts Florissants: Charpentier at Christmas

William Christie sitting at a harpsichord smiling

Les Arts Florissants and William Christie offer a typically unorthodox helping of seasonal cheer.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704) never held a position at the court of Louis XIV. Yet his prolific output – almost 500 religious works survive – and a mastery of pretty much all genres brought him considerable renown in Paris. He began his career in Italy, where he studied with Giacomo Carissimi (no documentation exists to support the claim that Charpentier came from a family of artists and initially went to Rome to study painting). Carissimi, who seems to have never left Italy during his lifetime, was appointed in 1656 by Christina of Sweden as her maestro di cappella del concerto di camera. Charpentier studied with him for three years, and among his extant autographs are copies of his teacher’s Jephte. The Frenchman soaked up all manner of Roman techniques, and we can trace the influence of Domenico Mazzocchi, Alessandro Stradella, Bonifatio Gratiani and Francesco Foggia on his compositional style, too.

According to the contemporary biographer Titon du Tillet, on Charpentier’s return to Paris from Rome, he was given an apartment in the Hôtel de Guise by Marie de Lorraine. ‘Mademoiselle de Guise’ was an important figure in Parisian life, and Charpentier clearly won her favour. He seems to have served as her composer-in-residence and as a singer until shortly before her death in 1688. But enduring success was not guaranteed. His composition Médée, a tragic opera that premiered on 4 December 1693, though well received by some critics, can be considered a flop having only ran for some few months. Charpentier would devote the rest of his career to composing only religious music.

He composed his 10 Noëls sur les instruments in the 1690s. Scored for flutes, strings and continuo, they are instrumental versions of some of the most well-loved French traditional Christmas carols of the time. Three of these (H531) were apparently composed for performance along with his Christmastide motets, In Nativitatem Domini canticum; the remainder (H534) to accompany the so-called ‘O’ Antiphons. Some scholars have argued that the textures in the Noëls suggest that Charpentier was not composing for a small chamber ensemble, such as the one from his earlier years in the service of Mademoiselle de Guise, and that the contrast between tutti and solo passages, as well as the large organ suggest a much bigger orchestra. In his orchestration, Charpentier specifically indicates flutes which strongly evoke the pastoral.

The Antiennes ‘O’ de l’Avent (‘O’ antiphons for Advent) stem from a long liturgical tradition. While each antiphon was sung on a separate day in the week leading up to Christmas, they seem to have been conceived as a kind of whole. The textural contrasts between them are at the heart of their charm. There is a sumptuousness to the first three, which are scored for three male voices with basso continuo; the fourth and fifth are for four voices and four instrumental parts; in the sixth we glimpse a world beyond Paris with interjections from two solo violins that dance between sprightliness and luscious longing; the seventh, ‘O Emmanuel’, brings a semblance of symmetry to the collection with a return to the opening sonority.

The antiphons make an appeal to the coming of the saviour. Their rhetoric is characterised by a movement from expectation to impatient desire. Charpentier gloriously explores the invocation ‘O’ through suspension and melisma, these vowels of expectant mystery bloom and drift away like vapour. The ‘veni’ sections shift into more dance-like patterns which embody an eager expectation as well as gesture to the literal eschatological entrance – Jesus’s feet will dance on earth. Each antiphon concludes in a mood of solemnity.

Charpentier set In Nativitatem Domini Canticum to music no fewer than four times; this one, H416, dates from 1690. He was clearly drawn to the text – three of the settings have almost identical words – and seemingly rejoiced in creating different combinations of soloists, chorus and instruments to evoke the narrative. The work also speaks of his teacher’s influence, being an oratorio. As the musicologist Catherine Massip observes, in the 17th century the term canticum was used somewhat arbitrarily to designate both motet and oratorio. Here, an evangelist retells the Christmas story, while groups of singers represent angels and shepherds.

But perhaps it is Charpentier’s powers of evocation that make the oratorio so special: he combines high art music with more folky, popular elements as a way of telling the story. His melodies are often cast in shapes that invoke French Noëls; rhythmically, many have their roots in pastoral dances. Charpentier takes us through the still of night-time in the fields, the sparkling awakening of the shepherds by the angels – flutes cast the scene in radiance as the heavens are opened – and an angel proclaiming the good news in dance-like Italianate profusion. Time then seems to move slower during the ‘et in terra pax’, a particularly neat trick that makes the ensuing ‘Shepherds’ journey’ even more energetically joyous – an emotion that then transform into wide-eyed mystery at their first glimpse of the baby Jesus.

© Mark Seow

Programme and performers

Marc-Antoine Charpentier Antiennes ‘O’ de l’Avent, H36–43 
and Noëls pour les instruments, H531 and 534

Noël ‘Laissez paître vos bêtes’
Salut: O salutaris hostia
Noël ‘O créateur’
Premier O: O Sapientia
Deuxième O: O Adonai
Noël ‘Vous qui désirez sans fin’
Troisième O: O radix Jesse
Noël ‘Les bourgeois de Châtre’
Quatrième O: O clavis David
Noël ‘Où s’en vont ces gais bergers’
Cinquième O: O Oriens splendor
Noël ‘Joseph est bien marié’
Sixième O : O rex gentium
Noël ‘Or nous dites Marie’
Septième O : O Emmanuel

Sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ
1. Overture
2. Scene 1
3. Scene 2

In nativitatem Domini Canticum, H416
1. Prelude
2. Chorus of the Just
3. Night
4. The Shepherds’ Awakening
5. Shepherds’ Chorus
6. The Angel
7. Chorus of Angels
8. The Shepherd
9. The Shepherds’ Journey
10. Chorus
11. Final Chorus

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie
Emmanuelle de Negri soprano
Julie Roset soprano
Nicholas Scott high tenor
Bastien Rimondi tenor
Lisandro Abadie bass-baritone


Artist biographies