By John P. Walsh
Several intriguing facts coincide with this live 2007 early music performance in the Chapel at the Palace of Versailles of the “Messe et Motets Pour La Vierge” (“Mass and Motets for the Virgin”) by Marc Antoine Charpentier (French, 1643-1704). First it is ninety minutes of some of the greatest music ever composed and it is performed and led by the prolific Jordi Savall (Spanish, born 1942).
A visit to the chateau and grounds at Versailles about fourteen miles west of Paris invites many ways to see it because it is very big. The chateau, for instance, has over two thousand windows (exact count: 2,153). When former Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan sold his house in 2012 it listed for $29 million. At that price it boasted 32,683 square feet on seven acres near Chicago. And Versailles? The royal chateau is over 720,000 square feet on two thousand acres. A visitor may wander the thirty rooms of Jordan’s house while Versailles boasts 2,300 of them.
To be expected, there is much to see inside the chateau: 6,123 paintings, 1,500 drawings, 15,000 engravings, 2,000 sculptures and 5,000 pieces of furniture. Most of the palace was built in the 1670’s – so Charpentier’s music composed in 1702 could have been performed there although the Chapel where this video’s concert takes place was completed in 1710.
What is the composition of “Messe et Motets Pour La Vierge” about? During the Counter Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church renewed its devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Charpentier was a prolific composer who had a diverse list of clients in Paris and the artist had to continually adapt his work. His religious music is complex not only for its musical relationships but its theological structures. Charpentier’s final composition is not trivial. It supports varied expressions of Marian devotion – specifically, a didactic dialogue in her honor (“Canticum in honorem Virginis Mariae Beatae homines…”), a sorrowful Virgin at the foot of the Cross (“Stabat mater dolorosa”), a litany of the Virgin, and a great Mass in her honor for God’s glory (“Assumpta est Maria…”). Added to these theological variances are the different musical styles for soloists, chorus and orchestra. The final product is sublime and leads directly to the Mass worship on the Feast of Mary’s assumption into heaven which is August 15.
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