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Marc-Antoine Charpentier

1643 - 1704

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (French: [maʁk ɑ̃.twan ʃaʁ.pɑ̃.tje]; 1643 – 24 February 1704) was a French composer of the Baroque era.

Exceptionally prolific and versatile, Charpentier produced compositions of the highest quality in several genres. His mastery in writing sacred vocal music, above all, was recognized and hailed by his contemporaries.

Any family relationship between him and Gustave Charpentier, the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century French opera composer, is highly unlikely.

A recently discovered portrait, inscribed by the artist as representing Charpentier, but dating circa 1750

Early in the summer of 1698, Charpentier was appointed Maitre de Musique at Ste-Chapelle, the second most prestigious musical position in all France (the first being the directorship of the Royal Chapel at Versailles). He occupied the post until his death in 1704 and there wrote some of his most impressive music, including the Missa Assumpta est Maria. This Mass displays a vast range of expression and shows Charpentier's skill at contrasting chorus and orchestra. The Te Deum, also written at Ste-Chapelle, features a four-part choir with eight soloists, and shows Charpentier's total command of religious music combined with a rare gift for melodic writing.

Music, style and influence
His compositions include oratorios, masses, operas, and numerous smaller pieces that are difficult to categorize. Many of his smaller works for one or two voices and instruments resemble the Italian cantata of the time, and share most features except for the name: Charpentier calls them air sérieux or air à boire if they are in French, but cantata if they are in Italian.

Not only did Charpentier compose during that “transitory period” so important to the “evolution of musical language, where the modality of the ancients and the emerging tonal harmony coexisted and mutually enriched one another” (Catherine Cessac, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, 2004 edition, p. 464), but he also was a respected theoretician. In the early 1680s he was analyzing the harmony in a polychoral mass by the Roman composer Francesco Beretta (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Ms. Réserve VM1 260, fol. 55–56). About 1691 he wrote a manual to be used for the musical training of Philippe d’Orléans, duke of Chartres; and about 1693 he expanded this manual. The two versions survive as copies in the hand of Étienne Loulié, Charpentier’s colleague, who called them Règles de Composition par Monsieur Charpentier and Augmentations tirées de l’original de Mr le duc de Chartres (Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. n.a. fr. 6355, fols. 1–16). On a blank page of the Augmentations, Loulié in addition listed some of the points that Charpentier made in a treatise that Loulié called Règles de l’accompagnement de Mr Charpentier. Three theoretical works long known to scholars exist, but did not reveal much about Charpentier's evolution as a theoretician. Then, in November 2009, a fourth treatise, this time in Charpentier’s own hand, was identified in the collection of the Lilly Library at Indiana University, Bloomington, U.S.A. Written during the final months of 1698 and numbered “XLI,” this treatise appears to have been the forty-first in a series hitherto not imagined by Charpentier scholars, a series of theoretical treatises that spans almost two decades, from the early 1680s to 1698.

Unusually for a French composer of his time and talent, Charpentier never achieved a position at Louis XIV’s court. Instead, he produced a wide variety of music for theatre and Church, collaborating with the dramatist Moliere and producing several Masses, motets, and sacred dramas, including his “Christmas Oratorio”. Seen as too “Italian” in his lifetime, his unique style is now coming to be fully appreciated.

Unlike his contemporary Lully, an Italian who came to epitomise French music, Charpentier was a Parisian who went to Italy to study composition, bringing back with him not only the works of Italian composers but also a unique hybrid writing style. He also enjoyed the patronage of Madamoiselle de Guise, a well-connected French noblewoman with a large private musical entourage, while his reputation as a composer of sacred music not only helped him to procure a position at the Jesuit church of Saint-Louis in Paris, followed by Sainte-Chapelle, but also won him commissions for the chapel of the Dauphin.

1662   Travels to Rome, possibly to study with Giacomo Carissimi
1673   Collaborates with Moliere on his final play, Le malade imaginaire
1679   Begins composing for the Dauphin
 1683   Misses auditions at the Chapelle Royale due to illness
1680s    Director of Music at Saint-Louis
1693    Premiere of Medee at the Academie Royale de Musique, Paris
1698    Appointed choirmaster of Sainte-Chapelle, Paris


Key Works

Te Deum

Te Deum laudamus
Tu aeternum Patrem
Te per orbem terrarum
Tu devicto mortis aculeo
Te ergo quaesumus
Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis
Dignare Domine
Fiat misericordia tua Domine
In te Domine speravi

Messe de Minuit pour Nöel


Charpentier’s Midnight Mass for Christmas is quintessentially a work of light to be performed at the darkest hour. Each of the six movements, set to the text of the traditional Latin liturgy, is based on popular French carol tunes of the period (some of which may still be known to audiences today). The Mass as a whole alternates between upbeat tunes and gentle lilting melodies, reflecting the contemplation of the Christ child.

Magnificat à trois voix H. 73

Messe de minuit H.9

Litanies de la Vierge H.83

1.Kyrie eleison
2.Speculum justitiæ
3.Salus infirmorum
4.Agnus Dei 

Virtually nothing is known about Charpentier's early life - even his date of birth is uncertain. What is generally agreed is that he studied counterpoint and choral writing under Giacomo Carissimi in Rome for a period of time, and readily embraced the Italian music of the mid-seventeenth century. As a result, his initial compositions did not find a ready place in his native France; they were performed away from fashionable circles. Some of his first commissions were from the Duchess of Guise and he remained in her service until her death in 1688, writing motets, dramatic works, and sacred material for the convents in which she had interests. These were all pieces with the unusual feature of being composed specifically for performance by female voices.When Lully moved on from his work with the French dramatists, leaving Moliere without a collaborator, Moliere approached Charpentier. Together they developed productions for his theatrical company, which in time would be known as the Comedie Franause. Charpentier created new overcures and intennedes to replace Lully's, and even after Moliere's death in 1673 continued to work with this tamed troupe.In the early 1680s he was employed by the dauphin, the King's eldest son. He wrote a grand motet to mark the death of Queen Mane-Therese, as well as a number of well-received sacred works and two large-scale dramatic works. He later became music teacher to both the Regent of France and to the Duke of Chartres.Charpentier's love for music and his ability to progress without courtly favours made him a perfect candidate for the position of Maitre dc Musique and composer to the church of St Louis, the mam Jesuit church in Paris. At this time the Jesuits were an influential force; Charpentier wrote Latin dramas for their colleges as well as a great deal of music for their services. So illustrious a position in French musical life allowed the composer to combine his early kalian influences with his interest in drama. In 1693, Medee, Charpentier's only tragedie lyrique, modelled on Lully's work, was performed, but with little success.


An engraving from the 1682 Almanach Royal thought to be Charpentier.

Missa Assumpta est Maria


Miserere, H. 219
Miserere mei, Deus
Quoniaminiquitatem meam
Asperges me hysopo
Ne projicias me
Sacrificium Deo
Benigne fac, Domine

1. Kyrie
2. Christe 1:55
3. Gloria 5:12
4. Credo 8:54
5. Offertoire: Laissez paitre vos bestes H. 531 b 18:02
6. Sanctus - Benedictus 19:23
7. Agnus Dei 22:23

Missa Assumpta est Maria
Kyrie I
Kyrie II
Agnus Dei
Domine Salvum

Marc-Antoine Charpentier - Entrada de las Furias, de la ópera "Les Arts Florissants"

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