MARC-ANTOINE CHARPENTIER (1643-1704) was unusual among 17th-century French composers because he embraced Italian music at a time when it was considered suspicious, if not subversive (not without reason, because in a regime that did not tolerate overt dissent, supporting music the old guard disliked was a veiled way of dissenting). Far more typical of the time was Lully, who was Italian by birth but embraced Frenchness with the zeal of a convert, and took the lead in enforcing French purity in music.
Charpentier, by contrast, went to Rome to study with Giacomo Carissimi in the 1660s. It is not clear how much contact the two composers actually had, but they shared a genius for depicting a character or mood in only a few notes. That knack is on display in Charpentier’s music for Le Mariage Forcé. The one-act comedy by Molière was originally staged at court in 1664 with ballet interludes by Lully in which prominent nobility, including the young king Louis XIV himself, are said to have danced. In 1672, after collaborating for 11 years, Lully and Molière parted ways, so Charpentier composed new interludes for a revival that year. The three “masters of do re mi fa so la,” based on (or, at least, named after) stock commedia dell’arte characters, switch gears and subjects quickly and capriciously as they try to decide what to sing about. For all their buffoonery, they sing some very sophisticated music, including chromatic passages as bizarre as anything in a Mannerist Italian madrigal.
The three Charpentier songs in the second half of the program all take a satirical look at the poetic conventions of the day. In the first, a shepherd, instead of wooing his shepherdess in the usual way, gets drunk and steals her hat. In the second, the shepherd, with real-world practicality rare in pastoral poetry, asks to dispense with the usual outdoor trappings because it’s winter (“We can make love by the fire as well as we can amid the ferns”). The third turns the typical description of the beautiful but pitiless beloved on its head, describing the object of the poet’s love as an ugly seed of contagion.
— Howard Posner plays lute and Baroque guitar and practices appellate law in Los Angeles.