Jean Baptiste Lully

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.


friends and relations

Living upstairs at the Hôtel de Guise was Marie’s nephew, the Duc de Guise and his wife, née Isabelle d’Orleans, known as Madame de Guise.

Apart from composing music for them, no doubt the family connection eased Charpentier into the position of music teacher to Phillipe d’Orleans (nephew to the king).

It was probably through the family that Charpentier came to work with Molière and his theatre, La Comédie Française.  Lully was the composer Molière employed to produce incidental music for his plays; but they fell out. Charpentier took his place and continued a fruitful association with Molière and La Comédie (after Molière’s death) for 20 years.


Mademoiselle de Guise and the Italians

In her 20s, Marie was exiled with her family to Florence.

 There she became very attached to the Medicis, with whom she remained in continual contact for the rest of her life. Being immersed in Italian high culture, she became very attached to Italy, its art and particularly its music. So it is hardly surprising that she pounced on the young, highly gifted and Italianate Charpentier.

The Italian style

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.


Mademoiselle de Guise

Mademoiselle de Guise was born in Paris, (1615) Princess Marie de Lorraine. She lived in the Hôtel de Guise, and when her father the Duc de Guise died, she became Duchesse de Guise; but she had been known as Mademoiselle de Guise since she was a child.

The Guise family history is one of much wielding of power, brutality and sticky ends. Claiming descent from Charlemagne, the family aspired to the French throne and sought to eradicate the Bourbons. A forebear was mother of Mary Queen of Scots, another was Archbishop of Reims, another started a civil war (the War of the Three Henrys).

Mademoiselle de Guise was the last of the direct line, however, and married morganatically. This meant her several children were not heir to the title. But she had her own somewhat lavish select private court. She otherwise used her immense wealth to found a teachers’ training college, and both in Paris and her provincial lands she founded hospitals for the poor and schools for girls.

After her death in 1688 there was much wrangling over the inheritance, and the palace was sold in 1700 and became the Hôtel de Soubisse – which now houses the National Archive.



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.

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Charpentier’s Filius prodigus

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 – 1704) lived and worked under the rule of Louis XIV.

For a composer of his stature it is perhaps surprising that he was never a member of the Chapel Royal. But there were excellent opportunities elsewhere in Paris, such as the court of Mademoiselle de Guise, for whom he composed Filius Prodigus in 1680.

Ten years previously he had returned home to Paris from a 3-year stay in Rome, imbibing all that was Italian in musical practice. Mademoiselle de Guise, being very much an italophile, immediately appointed him her court composer and resident counter-tenor.
During the next 17 years he composed a huge amount of music for her and her friends and relations, including the ‘motet dramatique’, Filius prodigus. In 1680 Mademoiselle de Guise enlarged her group of musicians, making it one of the largest and best private musical establishments in France. His scope thus widened, Charpentier produced, in Filius prodigus, a work on the scale of a small oratorio. He cast the rôle of the prodigal son as a counter-tenor, so Charpentier himself will have been the first to perform the rôle.