Kept under the thumb of the Sun King’s tyrannical master of music, Marc-Antoine Charpentier is only now receiving his due.

Professional musical life has been beset by jealousies, petty grievances, and unfounded gossip for over three centuries. When musicians began gaining power in courtly and civic positions in the 17th century, the more envious and ambitious intrigued and machinated in order to promote their own interests or shore up their own reputations. One of the most ruthless was Jean Baptiste Lully. Here was a musician who could backup his ambitions with formidable artistic credentials; nevertheless, the man was a tyrant. He rose quickly as a rank-and-file member of Louis XIV’s court orchestra to become musical composer to the king. By 1674, Lully had a monopoly over all opera productions in France. No other production could be mounted without Lully’s express permission. Thus did the Italian-born violinist dominate French musical life until his death in 1687.

Orpheus before Pluto and Proserpine by François Perrier, 1645

One such composer who was forever the victim of Lully’s collusions and influence was Marc-Antoine Charpentier, 11 years younger than his powerful colleague. Charpentier was a native Parisian and was deeply impressed with music of the Italian peninsula. He studied there for a time in the late 1660s and was an admirer of the works of Carissimi, Stradella and Pasquini, amongst others. Returning to Paris in 1670 he soon felt the pressure of Lully’s presence. 

After a much needed position in the musical establishment of a rich and pious noblewoman, Charpentier fell in with Molière. Lully and Molière had ceased collaborating since Lully’s monopoly had stimulated him to focus on opera. Charpentier wrote music for the troupe, doing his best to conform to the restrictive, indeed Draconian policies that Lully’s edicts placed on composers and performers of dramatic music.

Dr Erin Helyard

In the 1670s and 1680s Charpentier’s uniquely expressive style caught the ears of others and generated commissions for sacred and secular music alike. In 1683, Louis XIV reorganised the royal chapel and Charpentier came close to securing a royal position but had to withdraw due to illness. Both the vicissitudes of fate as well as Lully’s power games conspired to keep Charpentier’s musical gifts from reaching the ear of the king, and it was only after the death of Lully that an opera of his was presented at the establishment theatre of the time: the Académie Royale de Musique. This was his great masterpiece Medée (1693) and it failed due to the “cabals of the envious and ignorant”, as a later commentator put it. 

The weight of these perceived injustices left a heavy burden on the composer, despite a brief golden period as maître de musique of the Sainte-Chapelle. He left a poignant poem as an epitaph: “I was a musician, considered good by the good ones, scorned as ignorant by the ignorant. And since those who scorned me were much more numerous than those who lauded me, music became to me a small honour and a heavy burden. And just as at my birth I brought nothing into this world, I took nothing from it at my death.” 

Charpentier is an exquisite composer of great emotional power, dazzling invention, and consummate craftsmanship. The years in Italy imbued him with a fondness for lyricism and dramatic effects and his keen oversight of structure and sure handed – indeed, virtuosic – command of counterpoint led the younger Brossard to laud him as “the most profound and learned of modern musicians.” Unique amongst his peers, Charpentier was also a brilliant orchestrator, deploying a vast palette of unique sonic effects in his sacred and secular music.

Pinchgut Opera presented and recorded Charpentier’s David et Jonathas to great acclaim in 2008, and now the staff and students of the revitalised Early Music Studio at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music will be presenting one of his lesser-known gems, his rarely performed La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers from 1686, which tells the tale of Orpheus in the underworld and features – amongst other delights – muted viols accompanying Orpheus’s impassioned singing. Come along and hear this unfairly neglected composer in performance.

La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers is at Grant Street Theatre, Southbank, University of Melbourne, September 28-29