Monday, May 9, 2016

Charpentier vs. Lully


We don’t have a ton of biographical detail about Marc-Antoine Charpentier, possibly because he led a fairly quiet life. Perhaps he is best considered in relation to who he was not: Jean-Baptiste Lully.

Lully was older by nine years. This allowed him to grab (okay, he also earned it on merit) the plummest job for composers going: Superintendent of Music for the Royal Court. Among other things, this meant Lully had a chokehold on music publication in France. But Charpentier did have the good fortune to find a permanent place with Mlle de Guise, a cousin of Louis’ and a leading patron of the arts. As long as he composed buckets of music for her (which he did) she didn’t mind him taking on outside jobs, too. And her influence with her cousin made it possible for Charpentier’s music to get published. 

Lully got this amazing bust
Lully wrote sacred music sometimes, but mostly operas, dances, theatre music, and other popular genres. Charpentier wrote his share of secular music, but most of his output is sacred.

Lully was actually born an Italian, but he became a French citizen and claimed that he had no Italian influences in his music, that it was in the purest French style. Charpentier was a dyed in the wool Frenchman, who was proud of the Italian influences he picked up studying in Rome with Italian composers.

Lully led an outrageous private life, fathering at least four children with his wife and enjoying numerous affairs with both men and women. Charpentier seems never to have married. After his patroness’ death he got a job with the Jesuits and later at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. 

Charpentier got this wierd engraving
In his lifetime Lully towered over his contemporaries, even influencing composers like Purcell, Handel, and Bach decades after his death. Charpentier had a much lower profile. 

But about 100 years after the time we are discussing, the ancien régime fell to the guillotine. Everything the aristocrats had loved, especially their music, fell out of favor, and in time was lost to history. Lully, Charpentier, Marais, Couperin, Rameau – all were now equal in their obscurity. But by the mid-20th century that began to change. First the harpsichordists rescued the divine music of this time. And in 1953 musicologist Carl de Nys “discovered” Charpentier. Interest in him has remained strong throughout the intervening decades as Baroque music has been re-explored. Charpentier is among the most recorded and most likely to appear on a concert program from his era. Lully has been much slower to find his audience. Lully’s momentum is gathering, to be sure, but Charpentier’s appeal to modern audiences would have seemed remarkable to his contemporaries, when everyone lived in Lully’s shadow.

In the mid 1680s, Louis began to turn away from Lully, as the composer’s debaucheries became too much. Charpentier had been quietly writing and publishing gorgeous music for years, and his day job gave him free rein to take on other projects. It was a perfect opportunity for Armand to get ahead of the curve in what was clearly going to be a post-Lully world. He obviously sent Charpentier the plans for the refurbished garden, because the score is filled with marginalia describing where the musicians should be placed (have I mentioned that a grotto was involved?) and using the very position of the sun in the sky to provide the special effects. 
Shepherds in the garden. Seriously, this is what their lives were like

It would have been so perfect.

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