Q & A with James Halliday
Ahead of our next performances in December, we caught up with our artistic advisor James Halliday, who has helped put together the programme of our upcoming Charpentier Christmas concerts.
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 –1704)
Charpentier: a Christmas Oratorio
Why have you chosen these two dramatic sacred works by Charpentier for this year's Christmas concerts of Solomon's Knot and how did you first come across them?
Marc-Antoine Charpentier has been close to my heart for a long time: I know these pieces from wonderful recordings by Les Arts Florissants and Ensemble Correspondances, and also from my student days in libraries flicking through the pages of facsimiles of Charpentier’s autograph manuscripts. These pieces are highly sophisticated but tell the story of the Nativity in a very touching way, evoking a world of devotion and sensuality which we rarely come across in the UK.
What should we know of Charpentier in the context of these works for the Christmas period?
The Pastorale de Noël was written for Charpentier’s very cultured and incredibly rich patron, Marie de Lorraine, the Duchesse de Guise. She fostered a group of singers and instrumentalists who lived in her house, the Hôtel de Guise (which still exists in Paris, on what is now Rue des Archives in the Marais district), and performed newly composed works by Charpentier, who also sang in the performances. He worked for the Duchesse for about 18 years - a rather different experience to that of the more politically aggressive Jean-Baptiste Lully, who worked for Louis XIV during the same period. In nativitatem Domini canticum, H.416, was probably composed for the Jesuit church of Saint Louis (also in the Marais), where Charpentier worked after the death of Mlle de Guise.
As it is a rare occasion for Solomon's Knot to perform French repertoire, how is the group tackling Charpentier?
What I love in this concert is that each of our eight singers is reincarnating one of the young singers employed by Mlle de Guise, who are named alongside their vocal parts in the composer’s manuscripts: for example, alto Kate Symonds-Joy will take on the bas-dessus (or ‘mezzo-soprano’) originally sung by Marie Guillebault de Grandmaison, and tenor Peter Davoren will be taking the roles sung initially by Charpentier himself. There’s also a small group of instrumentalists.
What are the particular musical challenges of these works?
The French Baroque style is self-consciously very different to the style of works more commonly performed at Christmas in Britain (Handel, Bach, etc), with a more flexible approach to rhythm (so-called inégalité), different ornamentation, and of course French pronunciation - singing in French involves doing some counter-intuitive things with your voice, and the first piece is in Latin, which we’ll be tackling with a French pronunciation - this adds a delicious perfume to the experience.
Do you have a favourite part or solo you're looking out for?
Each of the pieces we’re performing contains a magical instrumental movement entitled ‘Nuit’ which we can imagine as the very moment that Christ is made incarnate - it’s reminiscent of the 'sleep’ music which was a staple of 17th-century operas, but here it takes on a mystical significance. Charpentier even indicates in the score that the movement must be followed by a moment of silence - I wonder what was happening dramatically in these moments in the first performances.
How does this Christmas concert make an interesting alternative for more regular numbers like e.g. Handel's Messiah or Bach's Christmas Oratorio ?
Well... is Christmas just about renditions of comfortingly familiar pieces? If you’re on a quest for the ever more elusive ‘meaning of Christmas’, then this concert is for you. You can imagine the flickering clair-obscur of the Hôtel de Guise, the walls decorated with tapestries and dozens of mirrored sconces, the singers and instrumentalists bringing to life the story of the birth of Jesus in the most personal way possible. Think Georges de la Tour (as below), with a dash of Nicolas Poussin’s Arcadia. And the concert will feature the first UK performances of this particular version of the Pastorale de Noël.