Marc-Antoine Charpentier


Marc-Antoine Charpentier (Paris, 1643 – Paris, Feb. 24, 1704) was a French composer of the Baroque period and probably the greatest exponent of French sacred music of his period so much so that he was nicknamed “the phoenix of France” by his contemporaries.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was born in approximately 1643 in the diocese of Paris, corresponding to the present Île-de-France region, without, however, being able to locate the exact location.

He received a very good education, perhaps with the help of the Jesuits, and at the age of eighteen enrolled at law school in Paris from which, however, he withdrew after about a semester. The next two or three years (perhaps between 1667 and 1669) he spent in Rome studying music under Giacomo Carissimi. He attended the German-Hungarian College in Rome and perfected his knowledge of counterpoint and Italian polyphony from both the compositions of maestro Carissimi and those of other composers such as Palestrina, Monteverdi and Victoria. From Carissimi, in particular, he assimilated and brought to France the genre of the oratorio.

During this period he came into contact with the poet and musician Charles Coypeau d”Assoucy, then a composer for the French embassy in Rome. One legend states that Charpentier initially went to Rome to study painting and was discovered there by Carissimi. This story, however, finds no documentary support and is believed to be probably untrue. His 28 volumes of autograph manuscripts do not contain any drawings, although they do present examples of considered skill in tracing the arabesques used by professional scribes. Instead, from his stay in Rome he gained a solid knowledge of Italian musical practice of the time, which was poiported to France.

Returning to Paris, he frequented Italianizing circles and found himself in controversy with the advocates of an exquisitely French musical style who saw Lully as their greatest exponent. He stayed for nearly two decades at the home of Marie de Lorraine (known as Mademoiselle de Guise), princess of Joinville, duchess of Joyeuse and Guise, on the rue du Chaume.

Mary was a niece of Henry of Guise, who was had assassinated by order of Henry III, and was such a music lover that she had musicians and singers staying at her house. Charpentier was hired as a composer and singer having a haute-contre voice.

In the French capital he came into contact with Molière and, later, Corneille with whom he collaborated on plays and in this he clashed with the monopoly that Lully exercised (in fact, in 1672 Lully bought from Pierre Perrin the royal privilege that allowed control of opera throughout France).

The dictatorship that Lully exercised in the musical world marked his break with Molière, who chose Charpentier as his musician in 1672, and thus were born among others: Le malade imaginaire (a comedie-ballet), Le mariage forcé, La comtesse d”Escarbagnas.

Life for the two was not easy, however, given Lully”s strong opposition, which gradually decreased the number of instrumentalists and singers available to theater groups other than his own. The collaboration with Molière, however, did not last long as the playwright died in 1673.

Lully”s very strong operatic monopoly would endure until his death in 1687 as a result of a wound he unintentionally inflicted on himself with the cane he used to conduct, which degenerated into gangrene.

Despite Lully”s strong opposition, Charpentier did not stop devoting himself to theatrical pieces and took up collaboration in 1682 with Thomas Corneille, Jean Donneau de Visé, and Pierre Corneille. With the first two he wrote pièces à machines (Circé H.496 and L”inconnu H.499). In the same year he writes new stage music for the performances of Pierre Corneille”s Andromede (H.504).

In 1693 his only tragédie-lyrique was performed, with a libretto by Thomas Corneille: Médée H.491. It did not receive much acclaim at the time and in some cases was even criticized; today it is considered one of the best plays of the period. The rest of Charpentier”s theatrical activity focused mainly on comedy (Comédie-Francaise).

In 1679 he was commissioned to write the compositions, at Saint-Germain, for the religious ceremonies of the Dauphin of France (the only surviving son of Louis XIV and Maria Theresa of Habsburg).

His reputation as a composer in this area became remarkable so much so that the king himself wanted to attend the ceremonies in order to hear his works. The compositions written for the Dauphin are basically small motets usually for two sopranos, a bass, and two instruments (usually two flutes played by the brothers Anthoine and Joseph Pièche).

In 1680 Charpentier was appointed music master to the Duchess of Guise (a post he held until her death in 1688) and received commissions from the two convents: Port-Royal de Paris and the Abbaye-aux-Bois.

For the nuns of Port-Royal de Paris he wrote: the Messe H.5, the Pange lingua H. 72, the Magnificat H.81, the Dixit Dominus H.226 and the Laudate Dominum H.227. For the Abbaye-aux-Bois, however, he wrote an important cycle of compositions for Holy Week: the Leçons de ténèbres (H. 96-110) and the Répons (H.111-119).

In April 1683 a competition was announced for the appointments of several music masters at the royal chapel. After managing to pass the first test along with 15 other candidates, he fell ill and was unable to participate in the second part of the competition, which involved composing a motet on the text of Psalm XXXI. Louis XIV, however, compensated Charpentier with a pension.

The news of the composer”s illness is not well understood. It would seem that it was a kind of pretext implemented to remove from the royal court a character who was all in all not very appreciated for some of his characteristics. In fact, Charpentier always maintained excellent contacts with the Jesuit order and unlike many musicians was not a virtuoso instrumentalist but only a singer moreover having a very severe compositional style. Add to this his frequentation of the Guise family, rivals of the king.

On July 30, 1683 Charpentier was asked to produce pieces for the death of Queen Maria Theresa. Thus were born: In obitum augustissimae nec non piissimae Gallorum Reginae Lamentum H.409, the De profundis H.189 and the Luctus de morte augustissimae Mariae Theresiae reginae Galliae H.331.

From 1688 to 1698 he was music master at the Jesuit college of Saint Louis-le-Grand on Rue Antoine. For the religious celebrations held at the church of Saint Louis he wrote pieces of various kinds destined for the different services: psalms, hymns, motets, etc.

On June 28, 1698, he was appointed music master for children at the Sainte-Chapelle. The assignment was onerous as Charpentier not only had to produce music for all religious ceremonies but also teach the children solfege and singing.

Charpentier passed away, at the Sainte-Chapelle residence, on February 24, 1704 at about eleven o”clock in the evening.

Charpentier left an extremely large repertoire of works (more than 550 compositions) and very varied in content: severe and profound in religious music, light and mobile in secular pieces.

He made himself the bearer of the Italian style in France, especially in sacred music, as can be seen from his taste for dissonance and chromaticism, skillful alternation of silences and modulation, and rigorous counterpoint (he was a master in composing pieces for several choirs). Such stylistic features were not much appreciated by his contemporaries, especially in his operas, who regarded them as a faded copy of Italian music. It should also be noted that at the time France was proceeding in the elaboration of a national identity in music as well, and anything that came from outside was frowned upon.

In sacred music such needs were less felt, and indeed the Italianate stylistic features that Charpentier was reproached for were used by Lully in the Petit Motets.

Of the many pieces that Charpentier composed, few were published (the remainder came to us through autograph manuscripts of which the most voluminous corpus consists of the manuscripts that go by the name of Mélanges which together form no less than 28 volumes.

Charpentier also wrote some works on composition of which the Règles de composition is worth mentioning. In this writing he proposed an interesting correlation between musical modes and the characters they would bear according to the following scheme:

In sacred music Charpentier was an undisputed master and created a large number of works. These include: the Messe à 8 voix et 8 violons et flûtes H.3, the Messe à quatre choeurs H.4, the Messe pour les trépassés H.2, the Messe des morts à 4 voix H.7, the Messe des morts à 4 voix et symphonie H.10, the Messe pour le Port Royal H.5, and the Messe de minuit H.9 (the latter based on reworkings of popular Christmas carols: the noels). Particularly notable was Charpentier”s contribution to the petit motet genre (with more than 300 compositions), especially in the choral form with basso continuo accompaniment (Magnificat H.72, Salve Regina, à trois choeur H.24). Charpentier also tried his hand, however, at the grand motet, of which his Te Deum H.146 is well known.

Because of his Italianate taste that was ill-fitting with The French canons of the time, Charpentier”s music soon fell into disuse after his death. It was not until the 20th century that a rediscovery and analysis began, and today Marc-Antoine Charpentier is one of the best known and most appreciated French Baroque composers.

Te Deum H. 146 in D major for soloists, choir and orchestra is a composition in the form of Te Deum written by Charpentier probably during his time spent in the service of the Jesuits.Its prelude is particularly well known for being used as the opening and ending theme song for Eurovision.

This work was written during the time Charpentier was music master at Saint-Louis Church and belongs to the many compositions he wrote for Christmas celebrations.

As seen earlier Charpentier was influenced, by Giacomo Carissimi, by the genre of the oratorio which he tried to transfer to France. The works that he wrote in this sense are not really oratorios so they are more generally referred to as histories sacrèes (sacred representations).In this canticle the typical structure of the oratorio is missing as there is no presence of the historicus and the action is extremely reduced.

The text was borrowed from different sections of Scripture, a common practice at the time: from the Gospel according to Luke, Psalm XII and the book of Isaiah.

The work consists of two parts. The first consists of an introduction, quivering with anticipation, to the mystery of Christmas. After a prelude based on a descending chromatic movement, the bass recitative begins (Usquequo avertis faciem tuam) which is then followed by the chorus of the righteous (Memorare). Then the proclamation of Christmas becomes more incisive (Consolare fila Sion) until it leads into the invocative chorus that closes the first part (Rorate coeli). Between the two sections is interposed an instrumental piece (La nuit) based on a skillful interplay of chiaroscuro and silence, aided by the use of the lower registers of the strings and the use of mutes. This all serves to introduce the mysterious prodigy that takes place in the darkness of the night.

The second part begins, in stark contrast to the recollection of La nuit, with the explosion of the orchestra and then the choir (Coeli aperti sunt) introducing the scene of the angel”s announcement to the shepherds (Nolite timere) and the singing of the heavenly choir (Gloria in altissimis).

The shepherds respond to the invocation and make their way to Bethlehem accompanied by the sound of a march (Marche des berges) and, once there, worship the newborn child (O infans, o Deus, o Salvator noster). The whole piece plays on a delicate balance of absorbed silences and barely soft singing. After this contemplative moment, the time of joy begins (Pastores undique), which closes on the solemn concluding chorus (Exultemus, jubilemus)

The Messe de minuit H.9 is perhaps one of Charpentier”s most original compositions and is one of eleven masses the composer wrote for Christmas Eve. This work was composed, probably, in 1690, or perhaps shortly thereafter. It belongs, however, to the body of works that Charpentier wrote for the Jesuits at Saint Louis Church.

The profound originality of the Messe de minuit lies entirely in the then unprecedented decision to include popular Christmas songs: noëls. These were popular compositions very much in vogue in the 17th and 18th centuries, the performance of which during the Mass was not, however, permitted. On the contrary, in Charpentier”s time the inclusion of these songs within instrumental compositions was a frequent attitude as evidenced by Lalande”s Symphonies des Noël, Charpentier”s own Noëls sur les instruments and, not least, the form of the noël varié.

In particular, Charpentier used as many as eleven noëls in the composition of the Messe de minuit H.9, creating a profound marriage of sacred and folk art. Many of the pieces used are based on dance movements: bourée (such as Joseph est bien marié used for the Kyrie), gavotte (as in Ou s”en vont ces guays bergers used for Quoniam tu solus sanctus) and minuet (such as Vous qui desirez sans fin used in Deum de Deo).


  1. Marc-Antoine Charpentier
  2. Marc-Antoine Charpentier