Who has not heard the Eurovision TV fanfare as opening tune of joint broadcast productions? Only few know that this festive music is composed by the French Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who lived in the second half of the 17th century. Its current use has changed the aim of the piece, since it was originally meant as a hymn for God, the Latin Te Deum Laudamus, instead of a tune for a secular happening.
Apart from that, Charpentier has been neglected for centuries, and has only been rediscovered as one of the greatest French composers of sacred music from the 17th century in the past decades. In any case, he is considerably more valuable in this genre than his contemporary Lully. Namely, his music betrays a greater diversity than that of Lully, often within a single work in which extremes of dignity and intimacy can be heard.
The key to this result was his adaptation of a style which was based on the Italian concerto, in which contrasts between the different parts were placed throughout the work. Furthermore, Charpentier toned down the then primarily formal and grandiose character of French music and introduced a rather Italian sensuality and a greater sensitivity to the text.
Not much is known about Charpentier’s youth. He was born in Paris and stayed in the middle of the 1660’s in Rome, where he studied with the successful oratorio composer Carissimi. Back in Paris he served a few aristocratic patrons, starting with duchesse de Guise, who was known for her piety and the excellent quality of her musical entourage, in which Charpentier sang as a countertenor and conducted.
He also succeeded Lully as composer for Molière and his plays. For instance, in 1673 he wrote the music to his last play La malade imaginaire. In the 1680’s he was at the periphery of the French court; he served the dauphin as music director and was the teacher of Philippe, Duke of Chartres (the later Duke of Orléans and Regent of France), but his illness stood in the way of his appointment as master of the Chapelle royale.
But at the same time Charpentier became composer and maître de musique of the most important Jesuit church, the St. Paul. He worked there until 1698, when he was appointed as maître de musique at the Sainte-Chapelle du palais, an even more important post.
The most striking aspect of Charpentiers sacred choral music is the refined gracefulness of his melodies and the richness of his expressive harmonies. Although a certain religious soberness sets the mood, it is luxuriant music in which the text is underlined at crucial moments and there is also ample contrast between successive episodes.
Even a large-scale, solemn work such as the Te Deum in D from the early 1690, written for the St. Paul church, is clearly split into distinct moods. It starts with the well-known trumpets and timpani, but also contains very calm, pious and intense parts, such as the soprano solo Te ergo quaesunus. In his best mass, the Missa ‘Assumpta est Maria’ , the mood is predominantly somber, but there is also diversity by using different combinations of the eight soloists.
Charpentier wrote a single full-term opera, Médée from 1693, a ‘tragédie lyrique’ after Corneille. Although the composer does not express the complex character of Medea with al her jealousy, indignation, fragility, grief, anger, malevolence, and downright barbarousness as well as Cherubini, let alone Xenakis, it is excepted that the interpreters put it forward. Consequently, success is not guaranteed.
Moreover, the taste of the audience was so decisive and the power of Lully even after his death so great that he overshadowed all others, as a result of which Charpentier’s work was only performed ten times. Les arts florissants from 1686 is a short pieces in five scenes, Actéon a ‘pastorale en musique’ from 1685 and David et Jonathas from 1688 an elaborate tragédie en musique in five acts.
Most of the other theatre works are overtures or prologues with intermèdes, intermezzi. For example, La descente d’Orphée aux enfers from 1687 is a short chamber opera after Ovid with a libretto by an unknown author. The work was only performed once and the occasion for which it had been written is also unknown. Charpentier provided the story with a happy end.
With regard to economy and concentration, the work is somewhat comparable to the opera Dido and Aeneas by Purcell, which originated around the same time. Charpentier’s work only lacks that crushing tragic feeling. It is a rather smooth, pastoral work.