The French Baroque (1)

I recently met, after a gap of about 25 years, a ‘boy’ to whom I had taught the piano and who had also been Head Chorister in the Abbey Choir I was then conducting. He wasn’t expecting to see me, but once he had recovered the power of speech he blurted out I have to thank you for Bach! This was quite gratifying, though a simple greeting would also have been fine.

If I were now to meet my former teacher I think I’d highlight Marc-Antoine Charpentier as the composer I’m particularly grateful for (I found Bach via my organ playing father!). Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit, which is based on French Christmas carol melodies, gained popularity in this country as a result of a 1967 recording by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Its tunefulness and the Christmas association made it a good choice for my school choir in the late 1960s and rehearsals duly began. I was immediately intrigued by this ‘unknown’ composer – a French contemporary of the 17th century German organists with whose music I was already becoming familiar – and the fact that the rhythms we had to sing were not those written, and started to explore French keyboard repertoire that I could play myself – especially Couperin and Clérambault on the organ.

I maintained the keyboard repertoire but didn’t have the opportunity to delve further into the vocal side of things French until the early 1980s. Then I attended one of the first concerts given by the French ensemble Les Arts Florissants and the light went on, big-time and flashing. The Messe de Minuit has charm by the bucketful, but the Charpentier I heard from LAF was powerful, gritty stuff – rich and inventive in its textures and truly astonishing harmonically. I still think he wrote the most arresting cadence ever.

One thing led to another and I was soon preparing Charpentier editions from the manuscripts myself and performing them right, left and centre and in time I became the ‘French Baroque correspondent’ of the magazine Early Music Review. Recordings of Charpentier, Lully, Boismortier, Rameau etc. etc. were now (early 1990s) being issued in torrents as near-forgotten repertoires were revived with the benefit of substantial research into performing style and the appropriate instruments. What was more, reasonably affordable and accurate editions were now being published so one was no longer dependent on the manipulation of pen, ink and magnifying glass for repertoire. Of all the music I have encountered in this sphere the vivid motets (actually psalm settings) of Lully, Charpentier, Rameau and their contemporaries have made the strongest impression on me and this is how they come to be the focus of the Ripieno Choir’s forthcoming concert La Chapelle Royale.

Coming soon – Why we should all love the French Baroque