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The French Grace of Charpentier's Music for the Season

Church of St. Paul and St. Louis, Paris
Wikimeda Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Church of St. Paul and St. Louis, Paris

Marc-Antoine Charpentier's noëls and pastorales embody an uncommonly beautiful experience of the Christmas season.

Charpentier was a busy composer in Paris in the time of Louis XIV. His patroness, the influential Mademoiselle Marie de Lorraine, Duchess of Guise (or, more simply, Marie de Guise), introduced him to all the right people in high society. Not only did she hire him to write music for her own household; she also arranged for others to commission him as well. He composed oratorios, operas, masses, theater music, and short pieces that don't fit our pre-conceived categories.

Eventually Charpentier was noticed by King Louis himself, arousing the jealousy of the court composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully. It was a jealousy so strong that Lully proceeded to make it impossible for Charpentier to get a position at court, and difficult for him to even have his music played.

But Charpentier still managed to rise to important posts outside the court, becoming music director at the Jesuit Church of  St. Paul and, after the Lully's death, succeeding him as the music director of the magnificent church of Saint-Chapelle.

Charpentier wrote a lot of msuic for Christmas: oratorios on Christmas themes, pastorales, noëls, and a lovely "Midnight Mass for Christmas." Here are some of the highlights:

Noël pour les instruments and Noëls sur les instruments

Charpentier's charming "Carol for Instruments" (1690) and "Carols on Instruments (1693) are collections of popular carols set in lively arrangements for small groups of instruments at Christmas time.

Pastorale de Noël

Joshua Kosman describes Charpentier's Christmas pastorales as "marvels of musical invention - soulful, expressive, rich in melodic design. The Nativity story is sketched in lightly, with emphasis on shepherds and angels, but the fluency and vividness of Charpentier's writing is the main selling point here."

Hear Ensemble Correspondances and director Sebastian Daucé perform this music on WCRB In Concert with Boston Early Music Festival on Sunday, Dec. 22, at 7pm on 99.5 WCRB.

Alan McLellan is a host and producer for CRB.