- Marc-Antoine Charpentier - Capturing the Essence of French Nobility [Biography]
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Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was born in Paris, probably into a family of artists. Charpentier's exact date of birth is in question. While 1634 is the date most often cited, recent scholars suggest that he may have actually been born some ten years later.

Charpentier's early life is unclear, but it is known that in 1662, he travelled to Rome to study under the great Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi, famous throughout Europe for his sacred music.

In 1672 he was engaged by the playwright Molière's theatre company to write music for the play Le Mariage forcé ("The Enforced Marriage"). He succeeded Jean-Bapiste Lully as composer to the troupe, writing a wealth of fine overtures and incidental music. However, his only surviving opera, Médée, failed to compete with the public's appetite for those of Lully and only ran for ten performances. Following this, Charpentier joined the household of the Duchess of Guise as a singer and Master of Music.

In the mid-1680s, around the time of the births of J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel, Charpentier was appointed Master of Music at the church of St. Louis in Paris. It was thanks to the power of this influential Jesuit church, which later came to be known as St Paul-St. Louis, that Charpentier became one of the most important Catholic composers in Europe. In 1698 he was further honoured by the appointment of Master of Music at the Parisian church of Sainte-Chapelle.

Almost all of what remains of Charpentier's religious music comes from this period, which accounted for the last twenty years of his life. It includes not only his famous Te Deum, but also the beautiful Christmas Midnight Mass and the Assumpta est Maria Mass. It is here, in the composition of sacred music, that Charpentier's true genius lies. He managed to combine the sensuousness of the Italian music he had studied under Carissimi with the pomp and grandeur of French court music. The result is a distinctive style, decorative yet profound, expansive yet personal, that was a considerable influence on successive generations of French composers.

During his lifetime, however widely admired he was, Charpentier never attained his ambition of an official post at the court of the "Sun King", Louis XIV. This was largely due to his rival, Jean-Baptiste Lully, who enjoyed royal patronage and conspired against him. He did, however, gain an appointment as musician to the king's son, the Dauphin, and the king eventually granted him a pension in 1683 in recognition of those services.

For nearly three centuries, Marc-Antoine Charpentier was all but forgotten in favour of his contemporary, Jean-Baptiste Lully. But many believe Charpentier to be the greater of the two, displaying in his work impressive breadth of range - from the pomp of the court and the flamboyance of the theatre to the intimacy of the private chapel. His music captures the essence of the French nobility in its prime, before the French Revolution swept it away.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier died in Paris on 24 February, 1704.

contributed by Gifford, Katya


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