Joyeux Noël—A French Baroque Christmas

Friday, December 17, 2010, Emmanuel Church, Boston
Saturday, December 18, 2010, Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester

In nativitatem Domini canticum, H 314 ............ Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)

Noëls sur les instruments, H. 534 ............ Charpentier
    [Les Bourgeois de Châtre]• Où s'en vont ces gais bergers    
    Joseph est bien marié • Or nous dites Marie • A la venue de Noël
    Une jeune pucelle • [Les Bourgeois de Châtre]

Magnificat, H. 73 ............ Charpentier


Noëls, H. 531 ............ Charpentier
    O créateur
    Laissez paître vos bêtes
    Vous qui desirez sans fin

Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judeæ in nativitatem Domini, H. 420 ............ Charpentier


Roberta Anderson, soprano; Terence McKinney, haute-contre
Matthew Anderson, tenor; Aaron Engebreth, baritone
Suzanne Stumpf, traverso; Sarah Darling and Jesse Irons, violins
Marcia Cassidy, viola, Daniel Ryan, basse de violon
Olav Chris Henriksen, theorbo; Michael Bahmann, organ

traverso by Folkers and Powell, 1993, after Thomas Lot
violins by anon. (possibly French) labeled Carlo Bergonzi, and tba
viola by T. Andreas Johnson, 1994, after P. G. Mentegazza, c. 1780
bass violin by Abraham Prescott, c. 1815
fourteen course theorbo by Jacob van de Geest, 1973, after Venere, c. 1620
Organ by John Bennett, after Baroque models


Program Notes

Marc-Antoine Charpentier is notable among French Baroque composers for the quantity, variety, and quality of the works he composed for the Christmas season. Written for both sacred and secular occasions, these include six of his 34 Latin oratorios, several motets, two pastorales, his famous Messe de Minuit, and ten instrumental noël settings.

At the age of eighteen, Charpentier traveled to Rome to study under the great oratorio composer Giacomo Carissimi. It was there that he absorbed the style and techniques of the motets, polychoral works, and oratorios of Carissimi and his Roman contemporaries. Later, he incorporated features of these genres into his own uniquely expressive idiom. His style exhibits a blend of Italian lyricism and French grace yielding a rich harmonic palette in its striking use of dissonance and remarkably sensitive responses to text.
While Charpentier’s importance as one of the finest composers of the seventeenth century is unquestioned today, during his lifetime he did not receive popular recognition on the level accorded to his colleague Jean-Baptiste Lully, the maitre de musique for King Louis XIV. Charpentier was never granted a position at court and received few court commissions. His introduction and incorporation of the Italian style ran counter to the aesthetic trend of Louis XIV’s court, which, under Lully’s’ autocratic musical leadership, favored a “pure” French music devoid of foreign influences. Consequently, Charpentier’s 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 as a musician in residence from the 1660s until her death in 1688.

Charpentier’s motet In Nativitatem Domini canticum, H 314, was composed in 1671 and is among several brief motets Charpentier composed for the Christmas season. The text gives the shepherds’ account of the birth they had just witnessed and offers their enthusiastic praises to God. Charpentier’s setting is lively and joyful, containing trumpet and horn-like fanfares in the vocal parts.

Charpentier composed ten settings of the Magnificat text for litugical use at Sunday vespers. His Magnificat, H. 73, scored for haute-contre, tenor, bass, two violins, and continuo is structured as a grand passacaille, with a repeating four-note descending tetrachord in the bass that is repeated 89 times. Far from monotonous, this extraordinary work is full of harmonic, textural, and expressive variety. Soaring melismatic solo sections are alternated with tutti sections, and through skillful avoidance of cadences, Charpentier achieves an impressive harmonic complexity within the limitations imposed by the ostinato bass.

Charpentier’s noël settings, composed in the 1690s, owe much to the French dances of the period: gavotte, bourée, and minuet. These settings show Charpentier’s refined contrapuntal mastery and variety in instrumentation. Here, he achieves colorful contrasts by utilizing various trio combinations in juxtaposition to the full ensemble. This program presents all of Charpentier’s instrumental noël settings.

Dialogus inter angelos et pastores Judeæ in nativitatem Domini is among his Latin oratorios, a form that he inherited from his tutelage with Carissimi, incorporating his teacher’s fluid use of recitative and aria, his effective use of the chorus, and his clear sense of dramatic structure. Charpentier added his graceful style and expressive mastery to the form. This work shows structural similarities with his In nativitatem Domini canticum, H 416, using the same text and similar organization of sections and instrumentations within corresponding sections. The work is in two parts. The text of the first part concerns the faithful’s yearning for the Savior and draws from Psalm 13, Revelation, and the medieval antiphon Rorate caeli desuper. This section is, in turns, pleading, reassuring, hopeful, and apocalyptic. The second part begins with an ethereal instrumental movement depicting night (using muted strings and flutes). This is dramatically contrasted by the startling outburst of the ensuing Shepherd’s Awakening . This section’s text, derived from the familiar account in Luke 2:10-12, recounts the angel’s tidings of the birth, the chorus of angels praising God, and the shepherds’ journey to the manger. In keeping with the aesthetic of Charpentier’s other Christmas works, the pastoral is emphasized in this section, which contains rustic and simple music used to depict shepherds as well as deeply tender and awed invocations to the infant Savior. The work concludes with a joyful sung minuet.

© Daniel Ryan and Suzanne Stumpf