La Descente d'Orphée aux enfers

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

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In 1670, upon returning to France from his studies with Carissimi in Rome, Marc-Antoine Charpentier became a member of the household of Marie de Lorraine, called Mademoiselle de Guise. One of the wealthiest women in Europe and a princess in rank, Mlle. de Guise chose to live in Paris independent of the intrigues and obligations of court life under Louis XIV. She was a passionate lover of music and maintained an ensemble of musicians, less opulent than that to be found at court, but highly admired by the Parisian connoisseurs of the time.

The ensemble was made up for the most part of young people from families long under the protection of the Guise who, having come to live with Marie de Lorraine first as chambermaids or companions, demonstrated some talent or interest for music. They were given lessons and eventually granted the status of musicians-in-ordinary, taking part in the devotional services at the private chapel and in the frequent private concerts at the Hôtel de Guise. The ensemble, although it included some salaried male singers and one member of a famous musical family (Ann Nanon Jacquet, sister of the remarkable Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre), was fundamentally amateur and it is extraordinary that it should have developed to the extent that in 1688 the journal Mercure Galant wrote that the music of Mlle. de Guise was “so excellent that the music of many of the greatest sovereigns could not approach it.”

It was in this intimate and secure setting that Charpentier composed La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers. The performers were people with whom he lived, took his daily meals, and worked as a peer, himself singing alto in the ensemble; these were people with whom, to judge by the designation of parts in the manuscripts –Isabelle, Brion, Carlié, etc.–Charpentier was on a comfortable first name basis.

La Descente d’Orphée, composed in 1686 for one of the musical evenings at the Guise establishment, is a dramatic work which, like so many pieces from the 17th century, defies classification, being neither pastoral, nor cantata, nor opera, yet having some characteristics of each. This extended setting was derived from an earlier cantata on same subject. Judging by the vocal assignments in the manuscript, Orphée was not staged in its original performance, although notes in the manuscript call for Pluton, Proserpine and Orphée to leave before the final chorus. It is the longest of Charpentier’s dramatic chamber works, but the fact that it is in only two acts and ends with the victorious departure of Orphée and Euridice from the underworld has raised the question of whether the piece is incomplete. It is true that the Charpentier’s manuscript ends with “Fin du deuxième acte”, and not simply “Fin”.

On the other hand, the many interpretations of the Orpheus legend throughout history have stressed different aspects of the complex archetypal poet-musician, and the relation between art, love and death. The most familiar version of the myth is the one transmitted by Virgil and Ovid. On their wedding day Eurydice, the bride of Orpheus, is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus, encouraged by Apollo, descends to Hades and by the power of his music succeeds in persuading Pluto to let Eurydice return with him to life. But, in disobedience to Pluto’s command, Orpheus glances back at his wife during their ascent, and thus loses her forever. Returning to the upper world alone, Orpheus renounces the love of women, turns to homosexual love, and is torn apart by angry Maenads. His head is tossed out to sea and continues to sing as it floats away to the island of Lesbos to become an oracle.

However, as early as the 5th century B.C. another version of the myth ended with Orpheus successfully bringing Eurydice back from the dead. Although Charpentier’s setting follows Ovid closely in most details, including the intervention of Proserpine and the effect of Orphée’s song on the interesting punishments of those mythical sinners Tantalus, Ixion, and Tityus, his account ends with the victory of art and love over death, and the triumphant departure of the couple from Hades. The theme of this particular text is the power of music to arouse compassion, but the power of human emotion is also stressed – even Pluton is given a human face and in the end it is not so much Orphée’s singing that moves him to relent, but his own feelings for his wife, Proserpine. Catherine Cessac has pointed out that Charpentier’s use of differing key-feelings or énergies des modes, particularly in the sequence of exchanges between Orphée, Pluton and Proserpine (a minor – d minor – F major – G major – A major,) express the emotional modulation from despair to hope.

La Descente d’Orphée, like most of Charpentier’s dramatic writing, fuses his native French musical tradition with Italian elements. Indeed, the piece opens in the manner of any number of pastoral divertissements of the period. The typical elements of French opera are here: récit, air, choeur, instrumental character dances, with fluid transition between elements. The récit features changing meters to accommodate French speech rhythms, the airs are in dance forms with perfectly balanced phrases, solo air alternates with choral response to form large-scale rondeau structures.

The introduction of Italianate elements, looked upon by the court as foreign, and certainly not politically correct, was nevertheless stubbornly supported by a kind of cultural underground in Paris, which included the establishment at the Hôtel de Guise. Italian influence is felt in La Descente d’Orphée in the chromaticism of the lament-chaconnes, and the use of dissonant added sevenths and ninths, but most particularly in the dramatic treatment of the text; for example in Act II when Orphée falters into silence as he tries to pronounce Euridice’s name. It is the use of expressive dissonance combined with exquisite French classical clarity and balance that sets Charpentier’s style apart, and makes it at once so sensuously satisfying and so emotionally expressive.

A unique and especially beautiful feature of this work is Charpentier’s use of the viols to accompany Orphée’s long complaint to the God of the Underworld. The low sonorities express Orphée’s despair as well as the underworld setting. But in an even deeper association, this texture of voice interwoven with viols at once acknowledges a rich and particularly French baroque instrumental tradition, as well as the classical association of stringed instruments with Orpheus. The three-fold recurrence of Orphée’s “Ah! Ah! Laissez-toi toucher” functions musically as a refrain to create a rondeau structure for the act, and psychologically to express the obsession and tireless effort of the lover to win back his beloved.

Adapted from program notes written by Susan Harvey in 1997 for Magnificat’s performances of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphée aux enfers.

Read about the Orpheus myth in French music before Charpentier

Background image detail from François Perrier, Orphée devant Pluton et Proserpine, around 1647 – 1650, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

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