By John P. Walsh
Intriguing facts coincide with this live 2007 early music performance of the Messe et Motets Pour La Vierge (Mass and Motets for the Virgin) by Marc Antoine Charpentier (French, 1643-1704) in the Chapel at the Palace of Versailles. This is some of the greatest music ever composed and performed brilliantly by Le Concert des Nations led by Jordi Savall (Spanish, born 1942) in a ninety-one minute YouTube video.
Only fourteen miles west of Paris, there are many ways to visit Versailles’ château and grounds because it is very big and expansive. The château has over two thousand windows (count: 2,153). In 2012 when former Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan sold his house he listed it at $29 million. For that price the residence boasted 32,683 square feet on seven acres near Chicago. What about Louis XIV’s Versailles? The royal château is over 720,000 square feet on two thousand acres. The visitor who wanders the 30 rooms of Jordan’s house could wander Versailles’ twenty-three hundred rooms.
To be expected, there is much to see inside the château: 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 1670s. Composed in 1702, Charpentier’s Messe et Motets Pour La Vierge could have been performed in the Château de Versailles but not in its Chapel where this concert takes place because that was completed in 1710.
What is Charpentier’s 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 continually adapted his work. His religious music is complex for its musical relationships and its theological structures. Charpentier’s complete 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 this theological variety are the different musical styles for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Charpentier’s 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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