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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 5 (1999) No. 1

Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Messe pour le Port-Royal. Michel Chapuis, organ; les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr; Emmanuel, director. Auvidis/Astrée, 1997. [Auvidis E 8598.]

Reviewed by Benjamin Van Wye*

1. Historical Background of the Music

2. The Liturgies

3. The Organ Versets


1. Historical Background of the Music

1.1 This compact disc, the first in a series highlighting significant programs from the annual Jeux d'Orgues en Yvelines Festival, was recorded at the parish church in Houdan, where Les Demoiselles de Saint-Cyr perform sacred works for female voices by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634–1704) in combination with related liturgical improvisations played by Michel Chapuis on the church's important Cliquot organ (1735). First presented in autumn 1996, the program was recorded in 1997 and features works chosen from the considerable body of pieces the composer wrote for religious communities. At the heart of the disc's contents are a Mass (H.5) and Magnificat (H.81) that, along with three other of his liturgical works, Charpentier designated pour le Port-Royal. In liner notes for the recording Catherine Cessac reiterates the theory, first expounded in her 1988 monograph on the composer,(note 1) that these two compositions were written not for Port-Royal des Champs—the convent and lay community near Versailles renowned in the seventeenth century for its Cistercian austerity and Jansenist doctrine—but to its Paris branch, Port-Royal de Paris, which separated from the mother-house when its members renounced Jansenism in 1669. Solo parts in four of Charpentier's Port-Royal pieces bear names of residents of the Paris house, and even though the Mass is not similarly annotated it seems reasonable to assume it to have been composed for the same community.

1.2 However, Cessac's suggestion that the Messe de Port-Royal was commissioned specifically for ceremonies at the convent on 20 July 1687, the feast of St. Margaret, is not entirely convincing. On that day and by permission of the convent's abbess Marguerite Harlay de Champvallon, whose name-day it was, Franciscan monks from the neighboring Grand Couvent des Cordeliers held services at her church in thanksgiving for the recovery from illness of her brother François, archbishop of Paris. To support the theory that Charpentier might have composed his Mass for this occasion Cessac notes that, in addition to the mass ordinary, the work also contains two sets of minor propers (introit, gradual, offertory and communion), one for St. Francis, the other for St. Margaret (the names of the archbishop and his sister). This theory cannot, however, be verified since the autograph source for Charpentier's works (the Méslanges) lacks dates, and it even seems contradicted by an account in the Mercure galant stating that the service was sung not by the nuns but by the Pères Cordeliers. (note 2)

2. The Liturgies

2.1 Whether or not performed at the services described in Mercure galant, Charpentier's Mass and Magnificat For Port-Royal as presented on this recording constitute a fascinating attempt to illustrate how mass and vespers might have sounded on such an occasion. To this end Charpentier's mass ordinary and proper (the St. Francis set) are supplemented with appropriate paraliturgical pieces, so that the introit is preceded by a strophic setting of Veni Creator, H.69 (often sung during the procession before High Mass on Sunday), Sanctus is followed by an O salutaris hostia H. 261 (to evoke that most baroque of liturgical ceremonies, the elevation), and the communion by a Domine salvum H. 290 (a prayer for the sovereign appended to the end of mass during the reign of Louis XIII). Organ pieces are supplied according to Charpentier's rubrics (which specify either un couplet or un petit prélude) and, in the case of interpolated pieces, by custom. To suggest clerical participation Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Ite missa est begin with traditional Gregorian intonations in "improved" versions of the period, complete with trills.

2.2 The context for Charpentier's Magnificat is more slender, the vesper office, of which it forms the climax, represented here by a single psalm (no. 116: Laudate Dominum, H.182)(note 3) and the hymn Ave maris stella, H. 63, one of Charpentier's several settings of the popular Marian text. Instead of following the hymn immediately, the Vesper canticle is delayed by the introduction of a motet pour Ste Thérèse (Flores, o gallia, H. 342). The Port-Royal Magnificat features solo verses in sensual monodic style (the continuo accompaniment played by bass viol and organ) in alternation with choral verses set to a simple fauxbourdon. In this performance the proper Gregorian antiphon Veni sponsa Christi is chanted (unaccompanied and in a period version) before the canticle and reappears after it in a plainchant en taille verset for organ. The juxtaposition of musical styles and media in this climactic canticle offer an excellent illustration of baroque liturgical music.

2.3 Except for the addition of a continuo accompaniment, the Messe pour le Port-Royal stands in the tradition of the plainchant musical mass, a genre that first appears in Bourgoing's mass settings for the Oratorians (1634) and continues in Du Mont's Cinq messes en plein-chant, propres pour toutes sortes de Religieux et Religieuses, de quelque Ordre qu'ils soient; qui se peuvent chanter toutes les bonnes festes de l'année, (1669). By their austere, quasi-modal melodies (which retained traditional Gregorian intonations), simple but marked rhythms, and absence of instrumental accompaniment) such masses served the needs of religious communities seeking to fulfill the choir obligation on feast days with something more attractive than a Gregorian mass, but ill prepared or forbidden by the order's constitutions to perform polyphonic settings. Plainchant musical mass movements had the further advantage of sparing conventual choirs the fatigue and monotony of uninterrupted singing by being cast, like Gregorian ordinaries, in clearly separated sections that could be performed in alternation with vocal solos or, if the conventual chapel possessed an organ, versets. The latter were not regulated by the Ceremoniale parisiense, which addresses itself to parish and collegiate churches and describes alternation with Gregorian chant. Charpentier's Port-Royal Mass, on the other hand, reflects patterns of alternation between soloists, choir, and organist that reflect the unique requirements and resources of conventual music-making.

3. The Organ Versets

3.1 Although the liner notes are silent about the chapel organ at Port-Royal de Paris, it was probably no more elaborate than the Cliquot instrument at Houdan, but the nuns who played it are unlikely to have possessed Michel Chapuis's skill at improvising preludes and versets. Seventeenth-century conventual and provincial organists were rarely more than adequate players, and in fact it was for them that leading Parisian organists produced their livres d'orgue, raising the question of whether their contents might not be better suited for a messe pour les couvents than Chapuis's sophisticated contributions. In either case, Charpentier calls for considerably fewer organ pieces than are contained in the masses of Nivers, Lebègue or Gigault, owing to his reluctance to replace many portions of text by organ music.

3.2 Credo is set for voices throughout and only the concluding Amen of Gloria in excelsis is supplied by the organ (a spirited dialogue sur les grands jeux) ; Benedictus, on the other hand, is replaced entirely (and appropriately) by a tierce en taille (à la Couperin). Where a text contains repeated phrases, the organist is given a wider berth: four versets (fonds d'orgue, récit de voix humaine, récit de trompette, and grand plein jeu) alternate with voices in Kyrie eleison; a plein jeu and récit de cornet articulate the first and third acclamations of Sanctus; while the first and third petitions of Agnus Dei are represented by a récit de trompette and flûtes, respectively. In addition, the organist is directed to supply a short prelude before the introit and gradual and after each of the celebrant's intonations, that for Ite missa est being answered by a brief plainchant en taille. At Vespers, the organist's solo contributions are confined to even-numbered stanzas of the hymn(note 4) (récit de cornet, récit de trompette, récit de nasard, and point d'orgue sur le plein jeu) and the repeat of the Magnificat antiphon.

3.3 Chapuis improvises pieces in a variety of genres and registrations which reveal his solid knowledge of the French classical tradition and demonstrate the historic importance of the Houdan organ. Individually as soloists and collectively as a chorus, Mandarin’s ten Demoiselles masterfully shape Charpentier's deceptively simple vocal lines, stylishly execute his ornaments, and pronounce the Latin in a charmingly Frenchified way.


*Benjamin Van Wye (bvanwye@scott.skidmore.edu) resides in upstate New York, where he serves as Lecturer in Music at Skidmore College, writes about the organ's role in historic liturgies, and is active as organ recitalist and choral conductor. Return to text


1. Catherine Cessac, Marc-Antoine Charpentier (Paris: Fayard, 1988); English translation by E. Thomas Glasow (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1995). Return to text

2. Mercure Galant, August 1687, 96–9, quoted in Cessac (trans. Glasow), op. cit., 163. Return to text

3. Although not one of Charpentier's psalm settings for Port Royal (H. 226 and H. 227), H. 182 appears nevertheless to have been intended for conventual use. Return to text

4. It was customary for the organ to take even-numbered stanzas when alternating with polyphonic vocal settings, such as this one for two florid upper voices and basso continuo, and odd-numbered ones when alternating with plainsong. The alternatim pattern of Charpentier's hymn is therefore standard and not, as the liner notes state, a reversal attributable to local custom. Return to text

Account in the Mercure Galant

Father Gardien, in the company of his officers and around thirty monks, arrived at the church of Port-Royal on the morning of the feast day. They began by chanting Terce, and then High Mass was sung with all the ceremonies of the great convent, and several accompanied motets to the Blessed Sacrament, Saint Margaret, and for the king, following which Sext was sung.... Nones and vespers were sung at the usual time in plainchant and fauxbourdon.... A salut en musique [i.e., Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament with composed music] ended the feast. It was sung by the same Fathers who performed the entire service of the day.

Return to text

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