Under director Sébastien Daucé, 17th-century French sacred music specialist Ensemble Correspondances made its North American debut for the Boston Early Music Festival on June 13th at Jordan Hall. “Motets for the House of Guise,” featured music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Born in Paris in 1643, the composer journeyed to Rome in the 1660s, where he came under the influence of Giacomo Carissimi, Rome’s reigning composer of sacred music, and absorbed important Italian musical traits while retaining the French tradition of declamatory recitative. Returning to Paris in 1670, he took up residence in the vast Hôtel de Guise presided over by Marie de Lorraine, known as “Mademoiselle de Guise,” a pious noblewoman who inherited the family fortune in 1675 and enjoyed one of the largest private musical establishments in France. Charpentier seems to have served as her composer-in-residence as well as singer (haute-contre) until shortly before her death in 1688; the many motets and psalm settings he composed for her household seem to have been written with specific performers in mind.
An instrumental work composed, not for the Guise establishment, but for the consecration of a bishop, “Ouverture pour le sacre d’un évêque,” opened the show. Here a typical overture in the French operatic style: a stately movement in slow dotted rhythms, followed by a sprightly triple-meter section with imitative entries, invoked the solemn occasion. The well-coordinated ensemble, consisting of Béatrice Linon and Simon Pierre, violins; Mathilde Vialle and Lucile Boulanger, viols, Matthieu Bertrand and Lucile Perret, recorders, and Thibaut Roussel, theorbo, was directed by Daucé from a chamber organ. The “Salve regina” (Hail, Queen) that followed was scored for two sopranos (Caroline Dangin-Bardot and Caroline Weynants) and mezzo (Anaïs Bertrand) and basso continuo (bass viol, theorbo, and organ). Delivered in bright (some would say piercing), straight tone, the contrapuntal interaction among the three highly flexible women’s voices projected with brilliant clarity. In the final line, “O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria” (O lenient, O pious,O sweet Virgin Mary), melting ternary rhythms proved especially lovely.
The setting of Psalm 50, “Miserere mei Deus” (Have mercy upon me, O God), one of the seven penitential psalms, probably been sung by Mademoiselle de Guise’s musicians during Holy Week in 1685; after a revision in the 1690s for a Jesuit institution, it became known as the “Miserere des Jésuites.” This large, 20-verse work involved the entire ensemble in various configurations; its opening section led from an instrumental prelude to a solo recitative by baritone Etienne Bazola; then it enlarged to a full choir response which haute-contre (countertenor) David Tricou and tenor Davy Cornillot joined. At “Ecce enim in iniquitatis conceptus sum” (Behold, I was shapen in iniquity) the six voices divided into a double choir, declaiming in sustained chordal harmonies, before reorganizing first as trios with pungent dissonances on words such as “peccatis” (sins), and then finally regrouping in three pairs. The conclusion of the 14th verse, “et impii ad te convertentur” (and sinners shall be converted unto thee), was set as a slow movement rife with suspensions and augmented chords. Once our ears got used to the French pronunciation of the Latin text we could recognize Daucé’s sensitive rendering of the rhythmic life implicit in the typically free-flowing declamation of French recitative that carried over into few- and full-voice ensembles as well. The final chorus opened with percussive declamations of the word “Tunc,” followed by multiple fugal entries for one voices after another, and culminating in an extended cadence over a long-held bass.
Two secular instrumental works drew on the 17th-century English tradition of music for viol ensemble without continuo accompaniment. The Concert à 4 parties de violes featured six contrasting dance movements, concluding with a chaconne in the manner of a French Baroque dance suite. The Sonata à 8 combined elements of sonata and suite: a prelude-like first movement was followed by two virtuosic instrumental recitatives, one for bass viol, the other for bass violin, and six dance movements, each with two repeated strains.
The text of the motet “Annuntiate superi” (O angels, announce), designated for all feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was composed in the form of a dialogue between heaven and earth. In each of the first three stanzas, those on earth—represented first by the baritone alone, then by tenor and baritone duet, finally by the full ensemble—interrogate the angels: who is the most glorious, the most admirable, the most splendid thing on high? The Virgin alone, the high women’s voices answered. The fourth stanza, affirming the miracle of Mary’s chaste motherhood, was introduced by the solo tenor, answered in declamatory style by the women’s voices. Here the haute-contre part demonstrated its flexible role, acting either as harmonic support to the trio of high women’s voices or as the highest voice in the men’s trio. In the final stanza, the entire ensemble joined in a primarily chordal declamatory celebration. In this remarkable motet, luxuriant melody, Italian style, joined with flexible French declamation, precise intonation, and sheer beauty of sound with stunning results.
Settings of the Litany of the Virgin, also known as the Litany of Loreto, were particularly common in Italy in the 17th century. Charpentier produced some nine versions of this evening prayer; the setting for six voices and two treble viols (alternating in this performance with recorders) and continuo was the most elaborate of all. Opening with the familiar Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) and closing with Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), the series of repetitive pleas to the Virgin was assigned alternately to the trios of upper voices (two sopranos and mezzo) and lower voices (haute-contre, tenor, and baritone), and full vocal ensemble. Most of the text was set syllabically, the repeated pleas of “Miserere nobis” (Have mercy on us) and “Ora pro nobis” (Pray for us) enhanced by varied modulations and punctuated by instrumental ritornellos. “Salus infirmorum,” a prayer for the health of the sick and comfort of the afflicted, set for the trio of women’s voices in slow tempo and ornamented with clashing suspensions, was particularly moving.
One of the pleasures of the Early Music Festival has been the chance to hear vibrant young ensembles in unfamiliar repertory. Ensemble Correspondances rewarded us with two encores: an early Stabat Mater, and a repetition of the final chorus of the Miserere des Jésuites.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.