7th May, 2016
St. Edmund’s Church, Shipston-on-Stour
Jean Baptiste Lully was court composer to Louis XIV (who ascended the throne when he was only 5).
He used his influence on the boy king to secure for himself a monopoly for the composing of operas in France; he blocked the advancement of rivals, such as the much more gifted composers Charpentier and Lalande. Fortunately both flourished well in the immediate perifery of the royal court. Both had strong associations with the Church, and of course Charpentier had the benefit of employment by the Guise court which culturally was rival to that of the royal household.
One aspect of the Italian style was the approach to the setting of words.
Since the turn of the 17th century, Italian composers had become obsessed with giving vivid expression to words, as in the madrigals of Gesualdo and in the first operas, particularly of Monteverdi. This brought a new boldness in the use of striking harmonies and chromaticisms.
Charpentier did not meet Monteverdi, (Monteverdi died the year Charpentier was born!); but he met, and was strongly influenced by one of his disciples, Carissimi. When he returned to Paris, Charpentier took with him the scores of works by Carissimi, much music in his ‘prodigious musical memory’, and the Italian style in his bones.
Back to Charpentier
Marc-Antoine Charpentier was born in or near Paris into a family of lawyers.
His father was a master scribe, which was perhaps an influence on the beautiful clarity and almost decorativeness of the composer’s manuscripts. Marc-Antoine did study law at university, but left after a term.
He seems to have been educated by the Jesuits, with whom he had a life-long association. So apart from his prestigious position as Mademoiselle de Guise’s court composer, he was also Director of Music at the principal Jesuit church in Paris, St. Paul-St. Louis. He was in constant demand to compose music for numerous churches, colleges and abbeys around Paris. Towards the end of his life he was appointed Director of Music at the Sainte Chapelle. Therefore, while he was never a member of the Chapel Royal, he was the foremost composer working in Paris at the time.
Very little of Charpentier’s music was published in his lifetime, but he took care over its storage. He bequeathed his manuscripts to a nephew, Jacques Edouard, who tried to publish them, but there was by then little interest in his music. So Edouard sold them, bound in 28 large volumes. Some found their way into the king’s library. His music was not rediscovered until the 20th century.