Thursday, 19 July 2012

Des profondeurs je crie vers Toi, ô Seigneur


Back into the depths then (but only so that we may cry out of them!)...

The French Baroque had, as French music so often has, a flavour all of its own. It also had forms of its own, including the grand motet - a big multi-sectional piece for soloists, double choir and orchestra that began as another means of glorifying the Sun King Louis XIV but which managed to escape the confines of the Palace of Versailles as time passed.

One of the form's leading exponents was Michel Richard Delalande (1657-1726), Master of the Chapel Royal, whose elegant De Profundis is a typically substantial piece setting Psalm 130, with the additional words Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, el lux perpetua luceat eis from the Vespers of the Office of the Dead. The presence of these additional words is a recurring feature of the pieces in this post. Delalande's work begins with a beautiful, sombre introduction for the strings which leads into an impressive bass solo with chorus. There are further solos and choruses, plus trios and quartets. The trio Quia apud te (for soprano, alto and bass) is one section to listen out for, as is Sustinuit anima mea - a particularly attractive soprano solo with obbligato oboe. At the end the chorus sing Requiem aeternam before launching into a fugue at Et lux perpetua

The De Profundis of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704, Part II here) has many of the same features, though it has more of an intimate feel than the Delalande. It opens with a grave string introduction which leads into a slow contrapuntal chorus of considerable power. During the following section, Fiant aures tuæ intendentes, a pair of flutes add to the soulful beauty of the music, which is shared between the soloists. They also add to the gentle charm of the trio for male voices A custodia matutina. 

The 'Big Daddy' of French Baroque music was, of course, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). His power in France was enormous (rather to the detriment of his contemporaries) and his influence extended beyond his adopted country's borders. Those of you who enjoy the music of Purcellian England will find much to enjoy in Lully's De Profundis. The additional Requiem aeternam words here are set contrapuntally following an orchestral interlude. 


André Campra (1660-1744) was another of this golden generation of motet-writing French masters. His later De Profundis shows the continuing development of French Baroque sacred music as it imported more and more features from Italian opera (though it still sounds very French). There are many 'arias' in this setting, plus dancing choruses, and the melodies are beguiling and the scoring full of charm. If you like the dramatic works of Rameau and Handel, you will love this delightful piece - a piece so delightful that it makes being "in the depths" sound not such a bad thing after all!

One last engaging example from the French Baroque, this time the De Profundis of Henri Desmarest (1661-1741), a man who spent his last 40 years in exile after escaping a death sentence for 'seduction' and 'kidnapping' the young lady who was to become his wife (an enraged father pressing the charges). He was almost as unlucky with his surname, which gets spelled in many different ways! As with the Campra, Desmarest's setting has strong Italian influences, with many attractive vocal solos and catchy choruses. There's an especially winning passage for the soprano soloists, with flute and high-register organ for accompaniment, at A custodia matutina. 

Outside of France, the French Baroque very much plays third fiddle to its German and Italian counterparts yet, as I hope this post has show, its relative neglect (and that neglect is quite pronounced) is undeserved. There are vast riches to be found in French music from this period. It's time to bring Charpentier, Delalande & Co. out of the depths. 

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