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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 12 (2006) No. 1

La Chapelle royale de Versailles sous Louis XIV: Cérémonial, liturgie et musique. By Alexandre Maral. Études du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles. Sprimont, Belgium: Mardaga, 2002. [478 pp. ISBN: 287009809X. €58.]

Reviewed by Benjamin Van Wye*

1. The Royal Chapel: Its Places and Personages

2. Liturgy, Celebrations, and Royal Ceremonies


1. The Royal Chapel: Its Places and Personages

1.1 The jacket biography on the back cover of Alexandre Maral’s remarkable study reveals that it was during his student years that the archivist-paleographer (now curator of the Granet Museum at Aix-en-Provence) chose Louis XIV’s royal chapel as a focus of study out of “his passion for Versailles and Baroque music,” and indeed that intense enthusiasm is evident throughout this thoroughly researched, absorbing account of ceremony, liturgy and music at the royal chapel of Versailles during the Sun King’s reign. Originating as a doctoral thesis defended at the Sorbonne in 1997 and recast as a book published five years later by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Maral’s study is the first to offer a detailed and authoritative description of the liturgical, cultural and architectural setting in which so much of this sacred music was performed.

1.2 The book’s text is cast in two parts, containing two and three chapters respectively. The first part, “Un Lieu et des hommes,” begins with a chapter (“Un Sanctuaire vagabond”) describing the five successive chapels at Versailles, from the modest-sized one built in 1665 by Louis XIII to the magnificent chapel standing today, which was completed in 1710. That final, “definitive” edifice and its immediate predecessor—a “temporary” chapel erected in 1682 (the year king and court took up permanent residence at Versailles)—were, as Maral eloquently demonstrates, the settings for sacred ceremonies regulated by an etiquette and protocol every bit as intricate and rigid as that which governed the court’s secular life. The author supplements his account of the penultimate and final Versailles chapels with a series of twenty-six illustrations depicting their architecture and use. Attached to these are helpful annotations which in several instances draw attention to the presence and location of musicians and organs.

1.3 In the next chapter (“Au Service de Dieu et du Roi”) Maral explains how Louis’s increasing piety and passion for sacred music in later life led him to restructure and enlarge the chapel’s personnel. Under his supervision the chapelle-musique acquired additional director-composers (sous-maîtres) and organists, saw an increase in lay singers (including castrati and, on occasion at least, women) and was sometimes augmented by instrumentalists (symphonistes) from the chambre-musique for motets and Te Deums. We also learn that in addition to concerted sacred music, the king fostered plainsong (albeit in altered versions by men like Nivers, whose conviction that “by its antiquity Gregorian chant enhances the dignity of the service” Louis probably shared), installing a community of priests (the Lazaristes) to chant daily services (even in his absence), by equipping his chapelle-musique with priests (prêtres-musiciens) endowed with “lovely deep voices” to officiate at solemn masses and vespers on major feast-days, and commissioning chant books specially designed for use in chapel liturgies.

2. Liturgy, Celebrations, and Royal Ceremonies

2.1 The second part of Maral’s text, “La Vie quotidienne à la Chapelle royale,” constitutes the heart of his narrative and runs to more than twice the length of the first. With impressive command of a wide range of sources and breathtaking liturgical fluency, the author guides us through the daily round of religious ceremonies performed at Versailles during the years 1682–1715. These he classifies in three separate (but not entirely exclusive) categories, devoting a chapter to each: 1) liturgical and paraliturgical services linked to the ecclesiastical year; 2) celebrations of events in the life of the court and royal family (births, confirmations, marriages, military victories, recoveries, deaths) and ceremonies for chivalric orders; and 3) cérémonies royales, by which the king projected the quasi-sacerdotal character of the French monarchy.

2.2 Although music was present at many ceremonies in all three categories, it found its greatest employ at those celebrating the ecclesiastical year: masses, vespers, saluts, processions, and Holy Week rites. In describing these observances (“Une Année à la chapelle”) Maral makes excellent use of remarkably full and detailed accounts of them in two important manuscript sources: the Coutumier général (a complete transcription of which he includes in the appendix), compiled for Louis XV’s return to Versailles in 1722 but clearly intended to perpetuate customs established by Louis XIV, is especially informative on joint participation by the Lazaristes and the chapelle-musique at certain ceremonies; and Abbé Chuperelle’s four-volume Cérémonial historique, begun in the last decade of the seventeenth century and completed under the Regency, contains valuable details about the way music was woven into chapel services, including uses of the grand motet at and beyond the messe basse solennelle. Chuperelle’s manuscript, long believed lost but recently rediscovered, is in fact used here for the first time. Maral devotes almost half of this central chapter to genres of sacred music that flourished at Versailles under Louis’s leadership and patronage: plainsong (including its alternation with organ), fauxbourdon and motet. His presentation of these topics is informed by a wide range of musical and scholarly sources, including recent research into French Baroque church music by authorities such as Davy-Rigaux, Mongrédien, Montagnier, and Sawkins.1

2.3 By contrast with an abundance of references to music in contemporary accounts of ecclesiastical observances at Versailles, far fewer occur in those describing ceremonies of Maral’s second classification. In addition to coverage in Chapter 2 (“Un Sanctuaire de cour”) these events are itemized chronologically in an appended “Calendrier des cérémonies extraordinaires et irrégulières à la chapelle, de 1682 à 1715,” where mention of music is limited to a handful of Te Deums (ten for military victories, three for baptisms) with no indication as to whether they were sung in plainsong or polyphony.

2.4 Maral’s final chapter (“Cérémonies royales”) discusses how at certain ceremonies the king assumed the aura and functions of a bishop. Notable among these were royal masses at Versailles that followed ecclesiastically sanctioned prescriptions for celebrations in the presence of a cardinal or archbishop, the reverences and participatory prerogatives accorded those high-ranking prelates being transferred on these occasions to Louis XIV himself, who thus became a liturgical actor in his own chapel.

2.5 By reconstructing the sacred ceremonies that formed such an important part of the daily ritual of the Sun King and his court at Versailles, Alexandre Maral has produced a study of immense value to those seeking to understand the relationship between liturgy, plainsong, the organ, and polyphonic religious music during the royal chapel’s most brilliant period.


* Benjamin Van Wye (bvanwye@skidmore.edu) serves as Lecturer at Skidmore College in upstate New York. His research and publication centers on the organ’s role in historic liturgies of the Western church.

1 Cécile Davy-Rigaux, “Plain-chant et liturgie à la Chapelle royale de Versailles (1682–1703),” Plain-chant et liturgie en France au XVIIe siècle, ed. Jean Duron, Domaine musicologique 2 (Paris: Klincksieck, 1997), 217–36; Jean Mongrédien, “Préface” to Actes du colloque international de musicologie sur le grand motet français (1663–1792) (Paris: Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1986), 1–5; Mongrédien, Catalogue thématique des sources du grand motet français (1663–1792) (Munich: K.G. Saur, 1984); Jean-Paul Montagnier, “Le Chant sur le livre au XVIIIe siècle: Les Traités de Louis-Joseph Marchand et Henry Madin,” Revue française de musicologie 81 (1995): 37–63; Lionel Sawkins, “Chronology and Evolution of the Grand Motet at the Court of Louis XIV: Evidence from the Livres du roi and the Works of Perrin, the sous-maîtres, and Lully,” Jean-Baptiste Lully and the Music of the French Baroque: Essays in Honor of James R. Anthony, ed. John Hajdu Heyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 41–79; Sawkins, “La Vie et l’œuvre de Michel-Richard de Lalande,” in Le Concert des muses: Promenade musicale dans le Baroque français, ed. Jean Lionnet (Paris: Klincksieck, 1997), 157–68.

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