Personalities | Marc-Antoine Charpentier | Early Baroque | Classical

(Märk An-twan’ Shar-pont-ya’) 1643–1704
French composer

Charpentier studied in Italy during the 1660s. There he familiarized himself with the instrumental and vocal forms of Carissimi and, above all, that of the oratorio. When he returned to Paris he joined the musicians of the Duchess of Guise and in 1673 became associated with Molière’s Comédie Française.

In 1687, Charpentier composed his popular La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (‘Orpheus’s Descent into Hell’), based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Though he never held a court appointment, he received commissions from many sacred institutions and in 1698 became maître de musique (master of music) of the Jesuit Sainte-Chapelle. He was equally accomplished in sacred and secular forms. Compositions of particular merit include a dramatic motet, ‘Le reniement de St Pierre’ (‘The Denial of St Peter’), a religious drama, David et Jonathas (‘David and Goliath’, 1688), a Mass, Assumpta est Maria (‘Mary is Risen’, 1698–1702), and many tenebrae (matins and lauds for Holy Week) and psalm settings. He described keys in terms of their expressive characters in his Règles de Composition (‘Rules of Composition’, c. 1692). Perhaps Charpentier’s most significant composition, however, was his single lyric tragedy, Médée (‘Medea’, 1693).

The Influence of Lully

The restrictions that Lully imposed upon the larger-scale dramatic endeavours of other French composers meant that while he was alive he had no rivals in the sphere of French serious opera, or tragédie lyrique. Charpentier was perhaps the most gifted musician to suffer under Lully’s monopolistic practices. When Lully died in 1687, composers were suddenly free to write operas and many did, most famously Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729) and Marin Marais (1656–1728); others included Pascal Collasse (1649–1709) André Campra (1660–1744) and André Cardinal Destouches (1672–1749). Charpentier was quick off the mark with his religious drama David et Jonathas. It was followed by Médée, a tragédie lyrique with a libretto by Thomas Corneille, and the composer’s dramatic masterpiece. While adhering to the formal structure of Lullian opera, with its prologue and five acts, Charpentier greatly enriched and diversified the static harmonies of his predecessor with a wealth of ideas inspired by his Italian training. Although Charpentier proved himself brilliantly imaginative in his musical characterization, Médée was not well received by a public whose senses were, perhaps, anaesthetized by the comfortable, undemanding nature of Lully’s music. Maybe the composer and cleric, Sébastian de Brossard, an admirer of Charpentier’s Médée, was near the truth when he blamed its failure on ‘the intrigues of the envious and the ignorant’.

Recommended Recording:
La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, Les Arts Florissants (dir) William Christie (Erato)

Introduction | Early Baroque | Classical
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