Charpentier: A Christmas Oratorio
St John’s, Smith Square, 9 December 2019
In nativitatem Domini Canticum H416
Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ H483/483b
In a refreshing change from the usual Christmas music offering, the Solomon’s Knot Collective took us to 17th-century Paris for two of the pieces that Marc-Antoine Charpentier composed for the Christmas season. The 1685 Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ was composed for Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, also known as Mademoiselle de Guise. She was Charpentier’s principal patron. It was performed in the chapel of the Guise family’s Paris home, the Hôtel de Guise, and included several household staff as singers or instrumentalists, with Charpentier himself sang haute-contra. A mini-opera in scope and structure, the piece includes a reference to the death a few years earlier of the Duchesse’s nephew, the 5-year old heir to her line of the Guise family, as well as a shepherdess’s touching elegy on the death of her favourite sheep.
The evening started with the later work, the In nativitatem Domini Canticum. It was composed after the death of Mademoiselle de Guise in 1688 for the church of St Paul-Saint Louis, where Charpentier had become music director. It opens with a sensuously chromatic Praeludium played with the utmost delicacy by the nine instrumentalists of Solomon’s Knot as the impressive haute-contre Peter Davoren pleaded for relief from torment. The five (muted) string players later gave a similarly gorgeous depiction of Night (Nuit) that preceded the second part of the piece as the shepherds travel to Bethlehem.
The more extended Pastorale sur la naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ followed. the natural elegance and sophistication of Charpentier’s writing, notwithstanding the predictable nature of the story-line, was evident from the start. Sung in French, rather than the Latin of the first piece, it was clearly more of a domestic scale affair, intended for a family meditation combined with what seems to be an ‘end-of-term’ get together for the Guise staff. Both pieces combined Charpentier’s Italian influence with the increasingly prominent French style.
As the title suggests, the ‘plot’ is based around the shepherds and the angels who appear to them – or, at least, to most of them. One shepherdess seems to miss the whole thing as she mourned the death of her favourite sheep, swallowed whole by a ‘cruel beast’. Curiously, for a shepherdess, but understandable for the Christian message, she wishes that the beast had killed the whole of the rest of her flock, rather than that one sheep. It is a touching moment.
Some background to this performance can be found here with a Q&A with James Halliday, artistic advisor to Solomon’s Knot. Below is a rehearsal clip of the lovely chorale-like O infans, O Deus, from In nativitatem Domini Canticum. It also shows the distinctive style of performance of Solomon’s Knot, singing from memory, without a conductor, and making delightfully direct communication with the audience. Any direction came with the subtlest of nods from Jonathan Sells, the first amongst equalls of the collective, and violinist Naomi Burrell who was responsible for keeping the instrumentalists controlled.