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French Baroque – Program Notes

February 11, 2014

Program notes

by Martin Pearlman

Charpentier mass

Over the past half century, as Charpentier’s music has been gradually revived, he has become recognized as one of the great figures of the Baroque era.  This Te Deum, no doubt his best known work, was the first ever to be recorded (1953), and its familiar prelude is particularly popular in Europe as a theme song on Eurovision.

The ancient Te Deum hymn was often set to music through the centuries to celebrate military victories or other public events, but the exact occasion of this setting by Charpentier is not known for certain.  It dates from the early 1690s, when he was music master for the Jesuits in Paris, and may well have been written to celebrate Louis XIV’s victory over the allies at Steenkerque in the Netherlands (1692).

Of his six Te Deums, this is the only one in which Charpentier calls for the military sound of trumpets and timpani.  The work opens with its famous warlike prelude, but then shifts between beautiful, introspective solo music and fanfares with chorus, trumpets, and timpani.  As always, Charpentier’s setting is wonderfully sensitive to the details of the text.  The Last Judgment, to choose just one example, alternates between the gentle pleading of a solo baritone with flutes (judex crederis) and powerful interludes with military instruments.

Many people both in his time and in ours have considered Charpentier to be at least the equal of the more famous French court composer Lully, or even the greater composer of the two.  But, due largely to Lully’s jealosy, he never held a position in the court or received the kinds of honors that such a position might bring.  During his lifetime, he was highly respected by connoisseurs and rose to important posts outside the court, but his originality and emotional depth were never acknowledged or understood by the influential partisans of Lully.  As a result, he fell into complete obscurity shortly after his death and his music was only resurrected in the second half of the twentieth century.  Only the barest outline of his career has survived, with hardly any information about Charpentier as a man — this compared to the wealth of information and accounts about Lully.

As a young man, he spent time in Rome, where he met Carissimi, whose intensely expressive music and Italian style were a great influence on his own music.  By his early 30s, he was serving as music director, as well as an haute-contre singer (high tenor) for the important musical establishment of the Duchesse de Guise, the king’s niece, where he wrote a great many dramatic and sacred works.  During that time, he began also to collaborate with Molière and his company on theatrical works.  But his success and his growing reputation as one of the king’s favorites eventually aroused the jealousy of Lully, who kept Charpentier from gaining a position at court and who was granted royal edicts that restricted performances of some of his rival’s music.  He nonetheless held several important posts outside the court, including that of music director of St. Louis, the main Paris church of the Jesuits, for whom he wrote religious works and sacred dramas and finally, after the death of Lully, rose to one of the most prestigious positions in all of France, music director of Sainte-Chapelle.

Late in his life, Charpentier wrote an ironic and poignant “funeral oration” for himself, in which he depicts himself as a ghost returned to earth:

I was a musician, considered good by the good musicians and ignorant by the ignorant ones.  And since those who scorned me were more numerous than those who praised me, music brought me small honor and great burdens.  And just as I at birth brought nothing into this world, thus when I died I took nothing away.

Rameau, Orchestral Suite

French composers from Berlioz through Debussy, Ravel and Boulez have been known for their imaginative and virtuosic orchestration.  Rameau is widely considered the first in that lineage, a tone painter who, according to one of his contemporaries, “never had a model or a rival.”  Yet he never wrote a purely orchestral work.  All of his orchestral music comes from his operas, which are filled with extraordinary dance music and, of course, overtures.  For the suite on tonight’s program, we have put together one overture and several dances from his operas.

The overture to Zaïs is one of the most original and surprising opera overtures of the 18th century.  It depicts the primordial chaos and the separate elements — earth, air, fire and water — trying to combine into an ordered universe.  It begins with a solo muted drum, followed by confusing fragments of music in unrelated keys, until the various elements coalesce into a brilliant fast music.  In the Menuets from Platée, Rameau creates an unusually beautiful orchestral color using only the string section.  The following pair of Menuets, with light, flowing lines in the piccolos and violins, is from Zoroastre, an opera which was given its American premiere by Boston Baroque in 1983.

Our suite ends with the great Chaconne that concludes Les Indes galantes, an opera which Boston Baroque performed a few seasons ago.  The length and grand conception of this famous dance left the original choreographer at a complete loss for what do with it, until Rameau outlined for him what he expected.  It was a narrative dance, rather than a dance in the old traditional forms.  Rameau, the revolutionary, was pointing the way to the type of ballet that would be seen soon afterwards in the operas of Gluck and later composers.

Rameau, La Guirlande

Following the huge success of his one-act opera Pigmalion, Rameau was asked by the Paris Opéra to write another one-act drama.  The result was his pastoral — or Acte de ballet, as he called it — La Guirlande, which was premiered in 1751 on a triple bill, along with two other works.

Jean-François Marmontel, Rameau’s librettist provided him with what we might expect from a pastoral:  a moral tale with relatively little action.  It is a simple and somewhat wistful commentary on love — and, of course, an excuse for the dance music which the French so loved in the theater.  Out of this material, Rameau fashioned a finely detailed miniature with beautiful set pieces and wonderful dances, a work which his biographer Girdlestone called “a flawless piece.”  Although La Guirlande is not often heard today, it was, in some sense, this piece which began the Rameau revival in the 20th century.  When it was first revived in 1903 in Paris, legend has it that Debussy excitedly exclaimed, “Long live Rameau; down with Gluck.”

Like Charpentier, Rameau spent his life outside the circle of the royal court.  Very few details are known about his early career.  (Even his wife claimed to know little about his youth.)  Most of it was spent outside Paris as an organist, and when he finally did settle in the capital in the early 1720s, he appears to have had no regular position for nearly a decade.  For most of his later career, he enjoyed the patronage of the wealthy tax collector and financier Le Riche de la Pouplinière, conducting his orchestra, living for some years in his mansion, and socializing with other artists and luminaries in La Pouplinière’s circle, including Voltaire and Rousseau.  Rameau was known as a thorny character with no close friends but was nonetheless a central figure in that circle.  According to Rousseau, “Rameau’s will was law in that house.”

Then, at the age of 50, he suddenly achieved enormous fame and popular success with the premiere of his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie.  It was a shock to the musical establishment in Paris.  Until then, he had been known mainly to connoisseurs for his harpsichord music, some vocal works, and particularly for his treatises on music theory, which are still the basis of theory teaching today.  Few people knew that this theorist could write music of such depth and brilliance, unprecedented music with extraordinary detail and colorful orchestration.  Some immediately recognized him as the greatest opera composer since Lully.  One leading composer of the day, André Campra, remarked, “This man will eclipse us all.”  For others, the music was bizarre, overly “learned,” and “baroque” (a pejorative term at the time), a threat to long established tradition.  The musical public quickly split into two opposing camps, ardent supporters of the old Lully tradition and equally ardent supporters of Rameau.  But over time, as more of his operas appeared, Rameau firmly established his reputation as the greatest French composer of his time, even, for some, as the “new Lully.”

Synopsis of La Guirlande

The shepherd Myrtil and the shepherdess Zélide have exchanged two garlands of flowers that will not fade, as long as they are faithful to one another.  But Myrtil was infatuated for a time with Amaryllis, and his garland has wilted.  Filled with remorse, he begs Cupid to come to his aid.  Zélide fends off Hylas’s advances and yearns for Myrtil to return to her.  Realizing that her lover has been unfaithful and that his garland has wilted, she substitutes her own fresh bouquet for Myrtil’s, leading the shepherd to believe that Cupid has worked a miracle and has forgiven him.  But now having the wilted bouquet herself, she pretends to have been the one who was unfaithful.  When Myrtil forgives her, they discover that both bouquets are now again in full bloom and that Cupid has truly worked a miracle.  They and the chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses dedicate themselves to the god of love.

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