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Score Review: Charpentier Motets

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M.-A. Charpentier, Motets pour chœur, vol. 8, ed. Théodora Psychoyou, Editions du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles

Bulletin Charpentier (online revue)
Volumes in the complete works edition devoted to Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), published by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, continue to appear. Baroque performance specialists are likely to want to work with the autograph scores directly, now in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France and published in a complete facsimile edition by Minkoff. This new installment of the CMBV's authoritatively researched, beautifully produced series includes five of Charpentier's unusual six-voice motets, accompanied by that quintessentially Baroque instrumental texture, two treble instruments (likely treble viols) and basso continuo. These motets were all composed for the private chapel of Mademoiselle de Guise, in whose hôtel particulier Charpentier had been employed since returning from Italy in 1670. Furthermore, they have been dated to the years 1684 to 1687, when the Guise establishment was at its strongest in terms of singers on the payroll: three female voices (an unusual boon in France at the time) and three male voices.

Le Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet:
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H. 83 / H. 333

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H. 345
Two of these motets -- Annuntiate superi (H. 333) and Litanies de la Vierge (H. 83) -- have Marian texts that would serve very well today to honor Mary, Queen of the May. The latter is the familiar Litany of the Virgin, from the fifteenth century, but the former is a text that is new to me at least and that appears unique to Charpentier's motet (in fact, it was possibly created by Charpentier, a formidable Latinist, and is a slight revision of an earlier anonymous text. It is a sort of dialogue in which, in reply to earth's question about who is the most exalted being in heaven, the angels enumerate the glories of the Virgin Mary enthroned above all other heavenly beings. The other pieces are a gorgeous setting of Psalm 50, Miserere mei deus (H. 193, for Lent and other penitential feasts), the Benedictus canticle from Luke 1:68-79 (Canticum Zachariae, H. 345, for that rare grand celebration of Lauds, or Morning Prayer), and a complete setting of Psalm 91 (Bonum est confiteri domino, H. 195). Their use in concert or liturgy would be ideal for a small professional ensemble, six balanced singers, two violins, with organ and cello on the continuo line, for example.

The score is clear and open to the eye, allowing me for example to read through it for this review, condensing the lines at the piano. Having all of the vocal parts converted from their original C clefs into treble or bass is very helpful for modern musicians. The only thing I occasionally missed was some editorial guidance in the continuo figures: in several places where the parts have accidentals, it would be helpful to have a continuo sharp added in brackets, to tell the continuo player to play A major instead of A minor, for example. More talented players would surely not need that crutch (Charpentier obviously felt no need to add it), but it would help the less fortunate make fewer mistakes. To hear some of these pieces yourself, look no further than the exquisite series of Charpentier recordings that Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel made for Naxos, one of the best deals for excellent French Baroque sacred music out there.

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