Messe de Minuit – Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 – 1704)
One of our featured works this Fall, the Messe de Minuit by Baroque composer Marc-Antione Charpentier is a Latin liturgical work written by a Frenchman of Italian training and influence, during a period when the chief composer of the royal court of Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste de Lully, was an Italian native who became the chief architect of the French baroque style, rejecting all Italian influence in French music. While this circumstance kept much of Charpentier’s music from being published during his life (as Lully was able to buy the rights to control music performance and publishing from the Crown!), he was able to obtain positions of importance and compose prolifically, including ten additional Mass settings aside from our programed work.
Modern audiences have become used to Mass settings by composers who have chosen to edit or augment the traditional Latin Mass rite for their own purposes, especially in Requiem Masses such as the popular John Rutter setting, and that of his younger countryman, Bob Chilcott. Both of those compositions insert texts from the Anglican Prayer Book to great effect. In Seventeenth Century France, however, a Mass was intended for performance in the Roman Catholic church, restricting the form to the use of the approved Latin Rite texts. Around that frame, Charpentier chose a then-novel method to inspire his Mass composition:
“The use of popular carols in church music had long been an accepted practice. In… France noëls figured prominently in the substantial French organ repertoire. The liturgy of Midnight Mass permitted the singing and playing of these Christmas folksongs, and by Charpentier’s time quite complex instrumental arrangements were commonplace. However, Charpentier’s idea of basing a whole mass on these songs was completely original. Altogether there are eleven noëls, most of which are dance-like in character, reflecting the carol’s secular origins. In addition to the carol melodies that he adapted to fit various parts of the mass text, Charpentier also composed new material, such as the slow sections ‘Et in terra pax’ at the beginning of the Gloria and ‘Et incarnatus est’ in the Credo. It says much for the composer’s craftsmanship that these quite different idioms are so seamlessly and convincingly blended together.”*
Perhaps Charpentier’s Jesuit training reveals itself in his use of folk tunes familiar to the French populace. The Jesuit tradition of “enculturation,” the presentation of the Word through forms familiar to the surrounding culture, may well have inspired this devout, Jesuit-trained composer to set messages of life-altering, faith-inspiring import with songs of familiarity and comfort to the worshipers. As the Jesuits vow to “Find God in All Things,” using simple melodies to pave a pathway for much higher aspirations to the hearts and minds of the people would surely appeal to their mission.
The listener may note that certain sections of the Mass texts are represented in music but not sung, it was traditional in Charpentier’s day for those attending to softly speak the words while the organ or other instruments played, so as not to omit sections of the rite.
Although Charpentier would have interwoven the sections of the Mass with additional noëls played on the organ, the Chorale will present one such noël only in order to give a flavor of the period performance without devoting an entire evening to the work alone! (A noël, by the way, is derived through Old French from the Latin nâtâlis (diës), meaning “(day) of birth,” according to Wikipedia, and has come to be used as a synonym for Christmas, as well as Christmas carols.)
Eric and the Chorale look forward to presenting this delightful work to nourish your holiday spirit.