Baroque in Normandy


Great Norman motets


Has French baroque only sounded in Versailles ? Definitely not ! In the 17th, music is everywhere in the realm : from the smallest chapels of far away lands to big cities’ cathedrals, from the streets to the aristocratic salons, from village squares to royals residences. Gregorian chant is the primary music of all the religious services, and the chanson de rue is certainly the most common profane genre. However, contemporary music from that time, the cream of the creation, is not stopped at the walls of the royal palaces.

Then, who was in Normandy in the 17th century and let his mark in the history of music ? If the “famous” composers are more linked to the Age of Enlightenment (especially Brossard), back in the 17th century, several first leading figures are linked very closely to Normandy. Then the question is not to know who might be born there (one rarely has the choice), but more to know who really did work there and who the Normans of the Grand Siècle have genuinely had the chance to hear.

First leading figure, if not the greatest composer of the time, Marc-Antoine Charpentier was protected by Marie, duchess of Guise and Joyeuse, princess of Joinville. This princess, who was single after her return from Italy, gathers around her literature people, high-flying intellectuals, art amateurs, all passionate about music. After a terrible loss (the passing of the young François Joseph of Lorraine at the age of 5, last heir of the powerful House of Guise), Mlle de Guise got close to the mother of the lost child, her sister-in-law Elisabeth of Orléans, duchess of Alençon and first cousin of Louis XIV, also know as Mme de Guise. The stays in Alençon were regular (Mme de Guise spent six months of the year there) and we know for sure that a court moved to these Norman quarters. Several works by Charpentier may have been ordered during these Norman stays, the Litanies de la Vierge among them and probably profane amusement pieces, and even performed in Alençon by the Guise’s musicians. Mlle de Guise, just like the King, had musicians linked to her and not to a place: thus she had to follow the movings, in the same way as the all house’s servants. Therefore, just like the many paintings that Mme de Guise has ordered for her private mansion in Alençon (that she gave down for it to be a hospital), the regular presence of this princess set in motion a series of musical creations ad hoc which Charpentier was the great organiser.

The other leading composer linked to Normandy was Henry Dumont. Born in Belgium in 1610, his career has essentially developped in Paris. Passionate about Italian music, and after studies in the Netherlands, he was hired at St-Paul parish in the neighbourhood of the Marais in Paris. He quickly got noticed, and his career continued at the court where he totally renewed, with Pierre Robert, religious music. Inventor of the great French motet, which influenced Lully and Lalande, he produced a series of pieces at the service of the royal chapel that marked history in the long run. When he retired, King Louis XIV offered to Dumont a royal edition of all his work.

He also contributed very actively to the repertoire for nun abbeys. Is is actually by this means that the king’s composer discovered Normandy : he was attributed Prémontrés Notre-Dame de Silly-en-Gouffern’s Abbey for orders in 1667, with a high income. He had his heart set on following the management of the abbey closely, visiting it regularly and making deals with its managers. He also received a pension taken on his wage of Saint-Évroult Abbey, also is the Orne and today in ruins, from the King.

Finally, two high profile composers, even though the fame has left them since, have been active in Normandy during their whole careers. The first was the organist Jacques Boyvin, appointed incubent of the prestigious tribune of Rouen cathedral, held held by the master Jehan Titelouze. Great expert of organ craftsmanship, he supervised the creation of a new instrument for the cathedral and he was one of the only ones to hand down registration rules back in the 17th century, that’s to say the combination of different registers of the instrument. His organ books are among the masterpieces of the French organ school. In this programme there are transcriptions for violas da gamba, in accordance to the contemporary tradition.

The last man of this programme, and probably the most forgotten despite a major talent, is Louis Le Prince. Born in 1637 in Ferrières St Hilaire in the Eure department, he has been active in Lisieux all along his career. What’s left from him is a beautiful six-part mass, typical of the style of 17th-century cathedrals, and a great contrapuntal richness. The music, recreated a few years ago,  is also in this programme under his original format, giving then the great hours of Lisieux’s Cathedral.

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