A Wondrous Holiday Experience

Music and Jealousy in 17th Century Paris: A Charpentier Christmas

by Alan McLellan

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) was a busy composer in Paris in the time of Louis XIV.

His patroness, the influential Mademoiselle Marie de Lorraine, Duchess of Guise, introduced him to all the right people in high society. Not only did she hire him to write music for her own household: she arranged for others to commission him as well. He composed oratorios, operas, masses, theater music, and short pieces that are hard to categorize.

Eventually he was noticed by King Louis himself, arousing the jealousy of the court composer, Jean Baptiste Lully.

Lully proceeded to make it impossible for Charpentier to get a position at court, and difficult for him to even have his music played.

But Charpentier still managed to rise to important posts outside the court, becoming music director at St. Louis, the Paris church of the Jesuits, and, after the death of Lully, succeeding him as the music director at the magnificent church of Sainte-Chapelle.


Charpentier’s Christmas Masterpieces

Charpentier wrote a lot of music for Christmas: oratorios on Christmas themes, pastorals, noels, and a lovely “Midnight Mass for Christmas.” Here are a few contenders for your Christmas classical masterpieces list:

Noël pour les instruments, Noëls sur les instruments

Charpentier’s charming “Carol for Instruments” (1690) and “Carols on Instruments” (1693) are collections of popular carols set in lively arrangements for small groups of instruments at Christmastime.


Pastorale de Noël

Joshua Kosman describes Charpentier’s Christmas pastorals as “marvels of musical invention — soulful, expressive, rich in melodic design. The Nativity story is sketched in lightly, with emphasis on shepherds and angels, but the fluency and vividness of Charpentier’s writing is the main selling point here.”


You can hear Charpentier’s soulful music on our Classical Christmas and Holiday Classical Mix streams.

About this content

Alan McLellan is an on-air host and producer at 99.5 WCRB, Classical Radio Boston. Follow him on Twitter @AJMcLellan.

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