Orpheus Chant

Marc-Antoine Charpentier


All along his career, Charpentier had an ambiguous relationship with opera. During part of his roman youth, he was surrounded by the “bel canto” tradition, which may explain the impact of this genre on this composer, so interested with beautiful harmonies, and himself a singer. Once he was back in France, each of his protectors, from the princess Marie de Guise to the Jesuit Fathers, mostly directed him towards sacred art. In an era in which the Florentine Lully locks the doors of Opera to the other composers, Charpentier is of course excluded. Soon after Lully’s death, Charpentier will give his Médée to the Académie Royale de Musique; critics would consider this first attempt as too dense, too “sçavant”. Yet today it is seen as one of the most intense and achieved operas of the history of this genre.

Despite the fact that Charpentier was deprived of lyrical theatre, his attract for it is noticeable all along the Mélanges autographes: first, throughout the music he composes for Molière’s French comedians, and his successors, then for those same Jesuits whose schools would each year set biblical tragedies to music. Charpentier also approaches the lyrical genre in an unprecedented form in the 1680-1690 France; therefore, he invents little forms, the “small opera” made specifically for the House of Guise, which employs him.
Marie de Guise was exiled in Italy for a long time, and was passionate about music. In Paris, she maintains a court, in which there is a young team of about fifteen talented musicians. Charpentier composes customised works for them: each singer is perfectly highlighted, both individually, and collectively. The names of those original performers can be found in the composer’s manuscripts, and each vocal profiles can be deduced. The company spirit presiding over these pieces also gives them their particularity.

Away from the world in the years 1680, Marie de Guise does not seem to have given up the joys of music and entertaining. It was in this context that one of the most intense, expressive and exquisite operas by Charpentier was born: The descent of Orpheus to the Underworld (La descente d’Orphée aux enfers). Charpentier picks up a part of this founding topic of lyric art (the story stops when Pluton allows Orpheus to bring back Eurydice to Earth) and makes it so intense that it is out of comparison with the reduced staffing at his disposal. About twenty musicians, much less than the staffing of the Académie Royale de Musique, make us travel throughout the passions of the soul, physically feeling the power of music and Orpheus’ singing. By the beauty of each of its details, the extreme care to the voice, and the expressive richness of the harmonies, this little opera certainly is one of the jewels of French opera.


Marc-Antoine Charpentier
La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers Acte I
Motet pour les Trépassés
Antiphona in honorem Beatae Virginis a redemptione captivorum
La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers Acte II

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