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If we exaggerate a little, the life of Marc-Antoine Charpentier had something of the dramas, he probably would have liked to compose, if he had been given the chance. But the operatic scene was dominated by Jean-Baptiste Lully, who wanted to make sure that no Italian influences disturbed the development of a purely French style.
Charpentier had been in Rome for some years and that discredited him as a true French composer. His Italian affiliations also prevented him from taking a major position in French musical life, for instance at the court of Louis XIV.
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For about twenty years he was in the service of the family De Guise, which had lived for some time in Italy and loved Italian music. The pastorale was a popular genre in the second half of the 17th century. Originally it was a secular genre. But the features of such a piece were well suited to the subject of the shepherds, who are chosen by God to be the first to hear about the birth of Jesus.
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The Pastorale is in two parts and it is likely that, in between, a sermon was held. In the first part several protagonists - a shepherdess, an old shepherd - express the misery of everyday life as a consequence of mankind having fallen into sin. The old shepherd expresses his expectation of salvation coming soon and this is followed by an angel announcing the birth of Jesus.
Let all be silent in his presence". Here Charpentier requires "une grande silence". It is followed by a lively dialogue between the old shepherd and the angel; the latter is supported by a host of angels, who end the first part with a song of praise: "Glory in the highest". The second part begins with a shepherdess warning the shepherds of the danger of wolves. They have already taken some of her sheep. They urge each other to "banish all sorrows"; the loss of sheep is more than made up for by the birth of the Saviour.
The piece goes on with the shepherds expressing their joy about the fact of Jesus' birth and its effects on mankind. This Pastorale dates from In the next two years Charpentier adapted it: he replaced the second part by new lyrics and music. Both versions are recorded here which allows the listener to hear every version complete. In the second version of the second part is about the fact of the birth of Jesus. The old shepherd we met in the first part presents the new-born child to the shepherds.
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The contrast between the divine status of baby Jesus and the rather poor surroundings are emphasized. Charpentier includes elements of folk music here.
It ends with a chorus in praise of the Virgin Mary. The third version of is shorter and here it is the Sun which is used as a symbol of the birth of Jesus. The sun, which rises in the morning, has limited powers as elsewhere it is night. In contrast the Lord is "surrounded by radiance" and is "ever bright, ever new and everlasting beyond all eternity". A chorus of shepherds about the "source of light and grace" closes this version.
VIAF ID: 56800493 (Personal)
This Pastorale is a mixture of solos and tutti, often in quick succession. Some passages are first sung by a solo voice and then repeated by the tutti. There are fine solos by some of the members of the ensemble, in particular the sopranos Caroline Weynants and Violaine Le Chenadec, the baritone Etienne Bazola and the bass Renaud Bres. Notable is the important role of the instruments: two recorders and two violins.
In between the first version of the Pastorale and the two next versions we hear a different kind of music, written for the liturgy. These seven O antiphons , as they are often called, root in a long tradition which goes back to the 8th century.