Prière - 17th-century French music for voices and viols

These program notes were written by Elise Groves, Anne Legêne, and James Williamson for a program of French sacred music for voices and viols presented by Tramontana and Long & Away, a consort of viols in November 2014 and June 2015

The inspiration for Prière came in the summer of 2011, when Elise and Hilary first performed a portion of Charpentier’s magnificent Litanies de la Vierge as part of the International Baroque Institute at Longy.  We could not be more thrilled to present this program of the music of Charpentier, Lully, Dumont, and Marais – all composers associated with the court of Louis XIV.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier received his early training from the Jesuits in Paris before venturing south to study with Carissimi in Rome.  Upon his return to Paris in 1670, he entered the employ of Marie de Lorraine, known as “Mademoiselle de Guise”, a cousin of Louis XIV, as a composer and haute-contre.  Her household included one of the largest private musical establishments in France, and he remained in her service until her death.  In 1683 he entered the competition for four quarterly appointments as sous-maîtres of the royal chapel, a position that Dumont would go on to win.  Unfortunately Charpentier became ill and dropped out of competition after the first round.  After the relationship between Lully and Molière soured, Molière began collaborating with Charpentier on revivals of earlier plays as well as new works, all the while carefully constructing their work to abide by the restrictions put in place by Lully in his monopoly on theatrical composition in France.  After Molière’s death, Charpentier continued writing for his company for almost two decades.  He also held appointments at several Jesuit institutions, and in 1698 was made maître de musique at the Sainte Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.

Litanies de la Vierge and Annunciate Superi were likely composed in the summer of 1684 for the musical establishment of Mademoiselle de Guise. The scores for those two pieces even contain the names of the singers employed in the Hôtel de Guise at the time of the first performances.  Mlle de Guise was an ardent admirer of Italian sacred music and a devout Catholic, and this no doubt influenced Charpentier’s compositional output and style. 

During his lifetime, Charpentier was drastically overshadowed by the overwhelming popularity of Lully.  Even after Lully’s death opened the doors for other French opera composers, the cult-like followers of Lully vehemently condemned anyone that may have been perceived as a threat to Lully or his ideals.  With the exception of a handful of airs from Circéand the full score of Médée, none of Charpentier’s music was published during his lifetime, and he remained virtually unknown until the late 20thcentury.

Henry Dumont was a Belgian composer, organist, and harpsichordist.  He, along with his brother, studied at the choir school in Maastricht and later the Jesuit college.  He became organist at the church of St. Paul in Paris in 1643 and held that post until his death.  In 1652 he was named harpsichordist to the Duke of Anjou, thus providing him with access to the French court.  In 1660 he entered the service of the queen, Marie-Thérèse, first wife of Louis XIV, as her organist.  Eight years later he became compositeur de la musique de la chapelle royale and finally in 1673, maître de la musique de la reine.  

The majority of Dumont’s surviving works are sacred vocal pieces, as one would expect of a composer who spent so much of his career in positions related to the church.  Dumont’s instrumental dances, including the sublime Allemanda Gravis, are found in his Meslanges à II, III, IV et V parties published in 1652.  French composers were slow to take up the Italians’ innovations in continuo accompaniment, preferring old-fashioned polyphony that worked so well in matched consorts of instruments.  By the 1650s, however, when Dumont was harpsichordist for the Duke of Anjou, tastes were beginning to change; his works are among the earliest French pieces published with figures in the bass. 

Jean-Baptiste Lully was born in Florence.  He was taken to France in 1646 as garçon de chambre and Italian teacher to Anne-Marie-Louise d’Orléans, another of Louis XIV’s cousins.  He became known in her court for his talent on the violin.  In 1652 he entered into court employment as compositeur de la musique instrumentale to Louis XIV, a position that involved writing music for the court ballets and dancing in them.  He was invited to join the Vingt-Quatre Violons du Roi, but was unimpressed with their lack of discipline.  He set up his own Petits Violons and trained them from 1656 to 1664.  Meanwhile, Lully was gaining fame as a composer of ballet. He was appointed surintendant et compositeur de la musique de la chambre du roi in 1661 and by 1662 was maître de la musique de la chambre.  Through the 1660s, Lully collaborated with Molière on a series of comedies-balletscombining spoken comedy with singing and dancing.  The chaconne from L’amour Médecin, one such comedie-ballet, dates from 1665, roughly a decade before his wildly successful operas were performed. 

Lully was initially resistant to the idea of French opera, but when his rival Pierre Perrin fell from the favor of the king, Lully was quick to take up his post and soon was granted the exclusive right to compose and produce opera at the Académie Royale de Musique.  From 1673-1687 he produced a new opera nearly every year and fiercely protected his monopoly on that genre.  Lully ruled with an iron fist.  He imposed harsh limits on his rivals, preventing them from doing anything that might have threatened his own success.  He insisted on “military precision” in his orchestra, and was adamantly intolerant of added ornamentation by either instrumentalists or singers.  His greed, ambition, and ruthless plotting against other composers and musicians he perceived to be threats resulted in numerous enemies.  His violent temper caused problems with the musicians in his employ.  However, he paid his performers extremely well, and even guaranteed them earnings outside the opera as long as they were not working for any of his rivals.

In the 1680s, mirroring the preferences of the court, and in a desperate attempt to regain his former status with the king, whose tastes had turned away from lavish entertainment, Lully focused his attention on sacred music.  Lully wrote relatively few sacred works, but the petits motets, three of which will be performed on this program, are a unique hybrid of Italian and French tastes. They were most likely composed for the nuns at the convent of the Assumption in rue Saint-Honoré.  In 1687, while conducting a performance of his Te Deum before the king, he struck his foot with his conducting cane and subsequently died of gangrene.

Marin Marais received his initial musical training as a chorister at the parish of St. Germain-l’Auxerrois from 1667 until 1672, where his teachers included members of the Couperin family.  In his late teen years he also studied for a time with the eminent gambist St. Colombe, an episode in his life that inspired the largely fictional book and film Tous les Matins du Monde.  His fame spread far beyond the borders of France, where he was chamber musician to Louis XIV, and played in and later conducted the Opéra orchestra.  Marais studied composition with Lully and remained loyal to Lully for his whole career. The finest viola da gamba player of his time, he published 5 books of viol compositions, a total of 596 pieces grouped into 39 suites, some of them for three viols.  Some are easy to play, some fiendishly difficult.  Beautifully engraved, they are still being re-published in facsimile, as one could not wish for a more pleasing, elegant, and nicely laid out edition.  Marais gives fingering, bowing, and ornament indications, which still make these books extremely valuable as teaching material, besides being the absolute summit of typically French baroque viol music. 

The music for three viols on tonight’s program comes from his fourth volume of viol music, published in 1717.  This volume is organized in three sections: easier solos, quite virtuosic solos which include a number of his most famous works, and finally two suites for three viols, one in D and the other in G.  The Caprice in G opens the second suite.  It is in two sections, the first is lush and chromatic while the second is a brilliantly virtuosic fugue.  The three pieces in D major come from the middle of the first suite.  The Allemande, which was no longer dance music in France by the eighteenth century, moves between grandeur and tenderness.  The Sarabande features luscious soaring lines and the Petit Paysane is a short, rousing vignette depicting a country festival.  The combination of three bass viols is uniquely sonorous and Marais demonstrates his mastery of writing for the instrument throughout these pieces.