A French Baroque Christmas

Friday, December 3 • First Baptist Church, Worcester
Sunday, December 12 • Emmanuel Church, Boston

Suite de noëls    Charles-Hubert Gervais (1671-1744)
  Où s’en vont ces gais bergers
  Joseph revenant un jour • A la venue de noël    
  [title unidentified] • Joseph est bien Marié
  Tous les Bourgeois de Châtres
  Or nous dites Marie • Savez vous mon cher voisin
  Chantons je vous prie
  Ah ma Voisine es tu facheé • Une jeune pucelle
  A minuit fut fait un Reveil • Laissez paistre vos bêtes
Sur la naissance de notre seigneur Jésus Christ — Pastorale, H 482     Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)


Pastorale sur la naissance de notre seigneur Jésus Christ, H 483     Charpentier


Roberta Anderson and Gail Abbey, sopranos
Pamela Dellal, mezzo-soprano
Terence McKinney, haute-contre; Frank Kelley, tenor
Mark McSweeney, bass
Suzanne Stumpf and Wendy Rolfe, traversos
Julia McKenzie and Lisa Brooke, violins
Shannon Snapp, cello; Douglas Freundlich, theorbo
Daniel Ryan, harpsichord

Program notes

Marc-Antoine Charpentier is now considered one of the finest composers of the seventeenth century. In his day, however, he did not receive popular recognition on the level accorded to his colleague J. B. Lully. Charpentier’s introduction and incorporation of the Italian style in his compositions was counter to the aesthetic trend of Louis XIV’s court which, under the autocratic leadership of its maître de musique Lully, favored a “pure” French music devoid of foreign influences. As he never received a court appointment during his lifetime, his genius was appreciated mainly by a small group of devotees, colleagues, and his patroness Mlle. de Guise, the last member of an illustrious noble family for whom Charpentier worked from the 1660s until her death in 1688.

Early in his career, Charpentier traveled to Rome and studied under the great oratorio composer Carissimi. It was there that he absorbed the concerted motets, polychoral works, and oratorios of Carissimi and his contemporaries, stylistic features of which he later incorporated into his own expressive style. His incomparable blend of Italian and French elements offers a rich harmonic palette that makes striking use of dissonance and remarkably sensitive responses to text.

The pastorale was a fashionable musical and literary form in the mid to late seventeenth century. Charpentier wrote five works with the word pastorale in their title, all of them for the musicians of Mlle. de Guises’s household. While nymphs, shepherds, and other mythical personages generally comprise the characters of the pastorale genre, this convention was adapted to the nativity story in both of the pastorales presented on this program. Here, the familiar Christmas story is told from the shepherds’ perspective.

In our program’s first work, Sur la naissance de notre seigneur Jésus Christ, H 482, Charpentier gives names to the shepherds, using the classical personages of Silvie, Tircis, Doris, Philene, Climène, and Damon. In the first scene of this charming work the principal shepherds Silvie and Tircis look upon the manger scene and exchange spirited commentary. In the second scene they visit the other shepherds to tell of the news, whereupon they all rejoice. Charpentier’s musical writing captures the tenderness and naivete of the shepherds, particularly in the final Saraband.

Charpentier’s Pastorale sur la naissance de notre seigneur Jésus Christ, H 483 is on a much larger scale than the previous work and is divided into two parts. In the first part, the shepherds fervently await the coming of the savior. Charpentier incorporates much text painting throughout, particularly in the section drawing its text from Isaiah 45:8 which uses the metaphor of dew dropping from heaven. An angel appears to the frightened shepherds, allays their fears, and announces the savior’s birth is at hand. The angels sing praise to God, and peace is proclaimed.

The second part exists in three distinct versions, each of which was composed for successive Christmases between 1684 and 1686. Charpentier sets each of these versions to completely different texts. The version chosen for these performances is the first. Charpentier here sets a new scene in which a second group of shepherds are lamenting the loss of a lamb viciously killed by a wolf. The composer skillfully combines this group with the rejoicing shepherds by presenting an afflicted sheperdess in the foreground (marked “very loud”) contrasted with the happy shepherds (marked “very soft) in the distance. A noteworthy moment of this section is the recitative which finally arouses the attention of the afflicted shepherdesses and likens the savior to a vigilant shepherd who watches over his flock, freeing them from the bonds of death. The score indicates that the solo for this section was originally sung by Charpentier, who was a haute-contre (high tenor). The work closes with an air for soprano and chorus, followed by a Shepherds’ March (bourée).

In transcribing the original manuscript in preparation for these performances, we noted several features worth mentioning. Charpentier was unusually meticulous in notating performance details. The original vocal soloists, for example are all delineated by name, allowing us to know, with help from surviving records of the Guise household, who took part in the original performances. The first performance of the Pastorale, H 483 probably involved nine singers, with an instrumental ensemble comprised of pairs of flutes and treble viols, and a complement of continuo instruments. Frequent instructions are also found regarding dynamics and color, as well as instrumentation. These performance cues aid in clarifying the great contrasts and diversity inherent in this music—qualities that Charpentier asserted to be the “very essence of music.”
The instrumental noëls of Charles-Hubert Gervais that open this program were composed in 1733. They could possibly have been composed for use at the Chapelle Royale, where Gervais was a director from 1723-1734. The noëls are arranged in an appealing style that makes effective use of contrasts in instrumentation

© Daniel Ryan and Suzanne Stumpf