Messe de Minuit pour 4 vox, flutes et violons; In nativitatem Domini canticum; Noels pour H.534 & H.531 & Lebegue organ pieces
Ensemble Vocal de Nantes, ensemble instrumental, direction Paul Colleaux
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In the monumental work that is the music Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote for the church, one notes a kind of fascination for everything connected with the Nativity. We do not know the exact circumstances in which most of these works for Christmas were composed, but it is possible Charpentier wrote them while he was choirmaster for the Jesuits, a post he occupied in the Church of Saint Louis from 1684 to 1698 (in his recent, well thought out catalogue of M.A. Charpentier's works, Paris , ed. A. and J. Picard 1982, H. Wiley Hitchcock places the mass and instrumental ''Nowells'' (popular Christmas songs or carols) round about 1690). However that may be, there is in these pages, the manifest ambivalence of pious spontaneity and absolute musical science, which, consciously or not, echoes the key-word of the Jesuits of that time - seduce the better to convert. And how better to captivate than by embracing the famous tradition of popular French Nowells ! To all intents and purposes, let us remember that indeed from the 16th century, the Nowell was to gain widespread popularity in France, developing from a simple song, without any clever device, suffused even with a certain naivete : its popular inspiration sometimes deriving from dance airs, did not prevent them crossing the threshold of cathedrals to become part of church instrumental music. In the seventeenth century, even more so in the eighteenth, the right of inheritance of this tradition seems to have been claimed first and foremost by organists who liked to improvise on Christmassy themes from their organ lofts. That was another reason why Charpentier went even further in making use of this background familiar to everyone whatever their sensibilities.
From the transcription pure and simple and the arrangement in four instrumental parts to the extremely famous Midnight Mass, the composer uses all his talent to create works as surprisingly fresh as elegant, in which the pastoral character of the music is suggested by all musical means. (That is why we find parts written for the flute in most of the compositions).
And even when known themes are not used, a bucolic inspiration makes itself felt, as if by osmosis, at each melodic contour. This happens, for example in the short cant/cum In Nativitatem Domini, recorded here, which is one of the five dramatic motets in Latin by the composer on the birth of Jesus-Christ (dating, according to Hitchcock from the 1670s.)
Having said that, Marc-Antoine Charpentier's natural penchant for musically celebrating Christmas, this festival as pagan as it is Christian, finds its full satisfaction in the treatment of the famous ''Midnight Mass for 4 voices, flutes and violins''. Here, some eleven popular Nowells are used, taking up again the parodic technique found in preceding centuries. Each of these timbres can be identified from its title, on the manuscript, as follows:
- Kyrie : "Joseph est bien marie" (Joseph is well married) - "Icy l'orgue joue le mesme Noel" (here the organ plays the same Nowell)
- First Christe: "Or, dites-nous Marie" (But, tell us Mary)
- Second Christe: "Une jeune pucelle" (A Young Virgin) - "Icy l'orgue joue le mesme Noel" (here the organ plays the same Nowell)
- Gloria: - Laudamus te : "Les Bourgeois de Chastre" (The townspeople of Chastre) - Quoniam tu solus : "Ou s'en vont ces gays bergers" (Where have the merry shepherds gone ?)
- Credo: - Deum de Deo : "Vous qui desirez sans fin" (You whose desire knows no end)
(following the Incarnatus est, where one finds the instruction : "Faites icy un grand silenc"(Observe a long silence here). - Crucifixus : "Voici le Jour solennel de Noel" (Behold the solemn day of Christmas) - Et in Spiritum: "A la venue de Noel" (With the coming of Christmas)
- Sanctus : "Dieu, que n'etais-je en vie" (God, why did I not live ?)
- Agnus Dei "A minuit fut fait un reveil" (At midnight, there was an awakening).
The Midnight Mass ends in an extremely curious way with a repeat of the "instrumental symphony" which constitutes the first Agnus. Some versions or performances thought it necessary to restablish the Dona Nobis Pacem... This fails to take into account the real power of the music and the association of ideas. Indeed it seems quite clear that here the listener is meant to interiorise the text, while the "symphony" calms him as he listens to "A Minuit fut fait un reveil". This fact however, would not have shocked faithful Parisians who, following a very French custom, had become used to hearing the organ at certain moments during the mass so that some passages of the Ordinary properly speaking were never heard but merely suggested.
In any case, one can easily imagine the enthusiasm of a congregation for this mass which remains the first example of its kind. To seduce them Charpentier combined with the utmost skill the essence of popularity with the genius of a learned musician. The single infiltration of French vocal ornamentation in the simple outline of the design sufficed both to convince and mark this work with the seal of universal success.
In doing so, Charpentier was probably seeking universality wishing, as Descartes had, that that which burned passionately in the soul should also be action for the body. In the same way as clear judgement of a Bossuet, he may have wanted to defend, for this feast of humanity, a music where the mystery itself refused to remain in obscurity, where each melodic element derives from an overwhelming demand for clarity. Thus, the composer affirmed his will to go beyond the false polemic about the sacred and profane, the learned and popular, the old and the new; a false polemic which first appears in the period generally known as the Renaissance, from the age when reason became separated from faith and when Titian painted his famous allegory of sacred and profane love.
In this, Marc-Antoine Charpentier seems to espouse John Buskin's adage : "all true art is adoration". And as Roland Manuel said, "if this sentence no longer has any significance for us, it is because we must have lost both the intelligence of art and the sense of adoration".
-Philippe Le Corf (translated by Josephine de Linde)