Marc-Antoine Charpentier

1643 1704

Marc-Antoine Charpentier



Charpentier was a 17th century French composer and though he never held a position in the court of Louis XIV, he was able to make a name for himself throughout Paris. During his lifetime his works were overshadowed by the leading French composerJean Baptiste Lully. After Charpentier’s death, his compositions were quickly forgotten but were revived in the 20th century and he is now recognized as one of the top French composers of his time.

Charpentier was born in 1643 in or near Paris. His childhood remains rather uncertain. He was the son of a master scribe and it is thought that he was taught by the Jesuits. Other unproven accounts claim that he came from a family of artists and went to Rome to study painting. Though this cannot be proven at this time, it is true that Charpentier arrived in Rome in 1666 or 1667. Some researchers believe that he was taught by Carissimi in Rome for three years. While in Italy, Charpentier was greatly influenced by Italian music, especially the music of the Roman composers Domenico Mazzochi, Stradella, Bonifatio Gratiani, Francesco Foggia and Pasquini. The French composer and theorist Sebastien de Brossard wrote of Charpentier’s impressive musical memory in 1724. He also added that Charpentier had brought several Italian motets and oratorios back to Paris to introduce.

Upon his return to Paris, Charpentier stayed at the Hôtel de Guise, run by Marie de Lorraine, better known as Mademoiselle de Guise. She was a noblewoman with one of the greatest private musical establishments in France and allowed Charpentier to stay there for quite some time, composing and singing for her. He left before her death in 1688. While there, Charpentier wrote many works for her ensemble of seven female and seven male singers and instrumentalists. Works from this period include six secular theatre works, often called miniature operas.

After leaving the hotel, Charpentier began a working relationship with the ‘Troupe du Roy’ (later Comédie- Française), which was led by Molière after. From this point on, Molière preferred to work with Charpentier instead of Lull, due to the royal monopoly on his music. Many theatre works previously had music by Lully were replaced with music by Charpentier, such as the overture toLa comtesse d’Escarbagnas(1672). After Molière’s death, Charpentier stayed with the theatre company for nearly twenty years, creating new material in addition to replacing Lully’s contributions. The music from this period had to adhere to the increasingly restrictive terms regarding the use of musicians, as ordered by Louis XIV through Lully.

In the late 1670s, Charpentier was in demand by other groups and organizations as well. He began writing much sacred music for the Feast of St Louis, the Abbaye-aux-Bois, the Port-Royal de Paris and the chapel of the young dauphin. For the Abbaye-aux-Bois he composed many Tenebrae works and among the works for the musicians of the dauphin are the dramatic motet on the death of Queen Marie- Thérèse,In obitum augustissimae nec non piissimae gallorum reginae lamentum (1683) and a De profundis.

During a competition in 1683, organized by Louis XIV, 35 composers competed for the chance to be appointedsous-maître (music director and composer). Charpentier was one of only 16 to make it to the second round. Illness kept him from competing further, however he was awarded a pension from the king just two months later for his work with the dauphin.  Charpentier also gave music lessons to Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Chartres, in the early 1690s. With the exception of these events, Charpentier worked exclusively outside the courts.

Charpentier also continued his work with the Jesuits, which he had begun a decade earlier. Manuscripts from around this time name singers from the Opéra, showing his demand. He composed many sacred works for St Louis until the mid-1690s. In addition he wrote sacred dramas for the Jesuit Collège d’Harcourt (no.498) and the Collège de Louis-le-Grand. Many of his works, even before Lully’s death in 1687 are large-scale and dramatic. This was due to the power the Jesuits had, exempting them from the restrictions placed on all music outside the Académie Royale de Musique by Lully.

One of Charpentier’s tragedies lyriques, Médée (1693), soon appeared at the Opéra, though it was not a great success as the public was accustomed to only the work of Lully and as Brossard described, the audience was full of  ‘the envious and ignorant’ people. Many felt that Charpentier’s style was too Italian. Brossard stated, ‘without exception, it is from this opera, more than any other, that one can learn the essentials of good composition.’

In 1698, Charpentier became the director of music and composition and the Sainte-Chapelle in the Palais de Justice. He held this position until his death. While there, he was required to not only direct and compose the music for all the services and events, but also to teach the choirboys various aspects of music such as solfège, counterpoint and vocal skills. Some of the grand works he composed for the Sainte-Chapelle include theMotet pour une longue offrande(1698-9) and the mass Assumpta est Maria. He also composed an Epitaphium Carpentarij, which is set to Latin text. Its date of composition is unknown, but this semi-dramatic cantata includes the following statement from Charpentier: ‘I was a musician, considered good by the good ones, scorned as ignorant by the ignorant. And since those who scorned me were much more numerous than those who lauded me, music became to me a small honour and heavy burden. And just as at my birth I brought nothing into this world, I took nothing from it at my death’.

The majority of Charpentier’s output is sacred music. Despite the fact that very little of Charpentier’s music was published during his lifetime, much of it is available today as he cared very well for his manuscripts, which his nephew inherited. Of all his compositions, nearly 500 religious works have survived. These include 11 masses, 140 liturgical works, 84 psalm settings and 2007 motets (many are commonly termed oratorios). Approximately 30 of his instrumental works for the church survive, as well as many works for the stage. Of all of Charpentier’s works, it is probably one of his four settings toTe Deum that is best known (no. 146). This work, in the key of D major, which Charpentier described as a ‘joyous and martial key,’ features eight soloists, a chorus and an orchestra with strings, woodwinds, trumpets and timpani.