11 Dec 2019

Solomon’s Knot: Charpentier - A Christmas Oratorio

When Marc-Antoine Charpentier returned from Rome to Paris in 1669 or 1670, he found a musical culture in his native city that was beginning to reject the Italian style, which he had spent several years studying with the Jesuit composer Giacomo Carissimi, in favour of a new national style of music.

Charpentier secured the position of ‘resident composer’ under the patronage of his sponsor, Duchess Marie de Lorraine of the Guise family, and found himself in a household which boasted an expansive musical establishment that performed both services in the family chapel and theatrical works. Though forced to adapt to the prevailing taste, Charpentier integrated Italianate features in the works which he composed during the next decades - first for the Guise family and, from 1687, in his position as director of music at the most prestigious Jesuit institution in Paris, the Saint Louis Church. And, this ‘duality’ can be heard in the two dramatic works based on the Nativity which Solomon’s Knot performed at St John’s Smith Square: In nativitatem Domini canticum (On the Birth of Our Lord, a Song) and Pastorale sur la naissance de notre signeur J ésus-Christ (Pastorale on the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ).

The anonymous librettists of both works took a similar approach to the Nativity story. First, a group await the coming of Christ; then follows the Christmas story, focusing on the shepherds to whom Christ’s birth was first announced; finally, the shepherds reflect on the meaning of events they have witnessed. The Latin text of In nativitatem incorporates numerous scriptural references including a paraphrase of the gospel reading for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, suggesting that it was performed as part of a religious service, most probably at Saint Louis.

In contrast, the French text of Pastorale sur la naissance and the appearance at the top of the score of two characters, ‘Marie’ and ‘Joseph’, who do not take part in the musical presentation of the work, suggests a more theatrical staging - perhaps one presented by the Guise household (the names of Guise performers appear in the margins of the score) or by the ‘Daughters of the Academy of the Infant Jesus’ at the Barré Institute. (There are three versions of the work, dating from 1684-86.) The Academy, which some have suggested may have commissioned Pastorale sur la naissance, had been founded by the Guises in 1675, after the death of the family’s last male heir. A devotional centre with a particular focus on the birth and infancy of Christ, it served to train girls who had little financial support to become teachers.

While the melodic style and the use of dance movements in In nativitatem accord with French musical style, there are some Italian elements such as the use of word-painting and counterpoint. Leading the small ensemble with discrete assurance, violinist Naomi Burrell began the Praeludium in which high tenor Peter Davoren pleaded urgently: “How long will you turn your face away, O Lord, and disregard our torment?” In the Chorus of the Righteous that followed, individual voices stepped forth from the finely blended choral ensemble, creating a forward momentum that built towards the prophetic declaration: “let the earth be opened and bud forth the Saviour.” Dynamic contrasts and beautifully executed ornamentation of the final cadence enhanced the sense of anticipation and wonder.

A short instrumental movement, ‘Night’, made for a deeply expressive transition to the Angel’s announcement to the shepherds of the birth of Jesus. The strings were muted and the tone was full of mystery, but, seated close to the performers, I wondered how well the instrumental sound projected to the rear of St John’s, and whether In nativitatem requires a more intimate venue for its beauty to be fully appreciated. But, Jonathan Sells’ tambourine taps added some gaiety to the shepherds’ awakening, as Davoren guided the shepherds, “Be not afraid”, presenting the Angel’s proclamation with varied tone and dramatic conviction. The chorus praising the infant Saviour was full of awe and reverence - deepened by some harmonic contortions which surely would not have pleased Charpentier’s French peers - but the dynamism was quelled in the closing lines, where solemnity and was restored: “Righteousness will reign on our earth, and peace will be without end.”

With Pastorale sur la naissance, Charpentier undoubtedly chose a genre which would have pleased his contemporaries, the gently comic ‘Pastorale’ being one of the most popular genres in France. Solomon’s Knot communicated the innate vivacity and emotional range of what is essentially a Christmas cantata, observing the ‘silences’ that Charpentier interjects - for example, before the Elder’s pronouncement in the first scene, or following the Angel’s call for mankind to be silent in the presence of the Lord - and pushing forward persuasively, as when the shepherds depart excitedly for Bethlehem: “We depart, we go. Divine spirit, we go, we fly hither.”

Indeed, it might have been fruitful to have had even more intimation of a ‘staging’ such as the Guise family might have experienced in December 1684, especially as the singers performed from memory (with the exception of tenor Marcus Farnsworth, who made occasional use of a discrete prompt and who I imagine must have been a late substitution). But, there was no sense of staticism: the ensemble moved fluently through the multi-sectional divisions and frequent changes of tempo. The simple recitatives had a melodic freshness and clarity, while the counterpoint - as in the overlapping descents of the choral cry to the heavens, “drop down your dew, Dissolve divine clouds./Rain the Just One on these lowly places” - was neatly shaped. The instrumental playing was disciplined but eloquent, and, when required, dynamic.

Bass Alex Ashworth was a bold, magisterial Elder, foretelling a time of good tidings. The pure tone of sopranos Clare Lloyd-Griffiths and Zoë Brookshaw perfectly captured the innocence of the shepherdess and angels, though Charpentier’s lines lie quite low at times and when the solo soprano recitative was accompanied by organ, occasionally the voice was overshadowed. Brookshaw beautifully shaped the First Shepherdess’s lament, “Hélas, cette brebis si chere” (Alas, this ewe so dear to me), reaching through the melancholy lines which are accompanied with surprising dissonance. The shepherds’ dance in praise of God was bright and joyful, the exchanges between solo voices and ensemble generating lively energy.

First Davoren (A Shepherd), then Farnsworth (The Elder) confirmed the birth of the Messiah with dignified ceremony, leading tenor Thomas Herford to present a simple but exquisite air, celebrating the return of the sun’s light to the dark Earth. The final chorus, “Source de de lumieres et de grâce” (Source of light and grace) had both grandeur and refinement, the suspensions overlapping expressively as the voices entered one by one.

Solomon’s Knot wonderfully captured the simple, perhaps naïve, joyfulness of these two Christmas works by Charpentier. “The sun begins to gild our mountains once more,/ In spite of the harshness of winter,” the Shepherd rejoices as the close of the Pastorale - uplifting sentiments which we can but hope to share.

Claire Seymour

Solomon’s Knot: Charpentier - A Christmas Oratorio

In nativitatem Domini canticum H.416, Pastorale sur la naissance de notre signeur J ésus-Christ H.483 & 483b

Clare Lloyd-Griffiths/Zoë Brookshaw (soprano), Kate Symonds-Joy/Peter Davoren (haute-contre), Thomas Herford/Marcus Farnsworth (tenor) Jonathan Sells/Alex Ashworth (bass).

Naomi Burrell/Beatrice Scaldini (violins), Joanne Miller (viola), Jonathan Rees (viola da gamba), Carina Cosgrave (violine), Eva Caballero/Marta Gonçalves (flutes), Jamie Akes (theorbo/lute), William Whitehead (harpsichord/organ).

St John’s Smith Square, London; Monday 9th December 2019.