Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Music for the Virgin Mary

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Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Music for the Virgin Mary

 Concerto Delle Donne

Concerto delle Donne

Donna Deam, Faye Newton & Gill Ross
with sopranos Miriam Allan, Caroline Ashton, Rachel Bevan, Jennie Cassidy, Charlotte Fairbairn & Ana Gabriela Schwedhelm

Music for the
Virgin Mary
Celebrating 300 years of Charpentier

Directed by Alistair Ross (organ)

Recorded in the beatiful church of Notre Dame, Rozay-en-Brie, by Concerto Delle Donne, this CD celebrates 300 years of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose works ranged from simple settings of hymns composed for unaccompanied solo voice to works of great complexity and virtuosity for soloists, double choir and double orchestra. Here, the focus is on the sacred works that Charpentier composed for two and three solo women's voices. The three principal sopranos of of Concerto delle Donne all feature as soloists. Other composers included on this disc are Jean-Baptiste Lully, Nicholas-Antoine Lebègue & Guillame-Gabriel Nivers. 

Reciting the Divine Office was central to the life of a contemplative nun, and at many convents musical instruction was a regular part of daily life. On major feast-days, it was customary to sing, rather than simply recite, the Offices of Matins and Vespers. Throughout the seventeenth century, there are references to nuns singing the Offices, as well as singing motets during the Mass and at the popular devotional service of Salut (or Benediction). This is witnessed, not only in descriptions from the period, but also in the extensive repertory of sacred music known to have been composed for women’s voices by seventeenth-century composers such as Charpentier, Clérambault, Couperin, Lully and Nivers.

There was a dichotomy in elevated seventeenth-century French society: on the one hand, there was the pomp and ceremony of Court, marked by frivolity and artificiality; on the other hand, there was incredible religious fervour found in the convents and other religious establishments, at which members of Court society spent many hours of each day in pious devotion. These noblewomen balanced the life of luxury and attention to social obligations at Court, with a life of prayer, devotion and service. The Guise princesses, for whom Charpentier worked during the 1670s and 1680s, epitomise the devout noblewoman, fulfilling both their worldly and their religious duties on a daily basis. They were particularly devoted to worship of the Virgin and the Infant Jesus which is reflected in the numerous pieces composed by Charpentier in honour of the Virgin Mary – some of which are recorded here.

The religious practices of convents within Paris differed widely depending on the Order, and this affected the type of music used within the establishment. In keeping with Counter-Reformation ideology, emphasis was placed on devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the penitential rites, as well as the veneration of saints. Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was seen in the popular evening service of Salut at which the Host was venerated, and hymns, litanies and motets were sung. Motets were also sung during the services held by the confraternities of the Virgin.


What people are saying

"an engaging combination of tenderness and deeply felt devotional fervour ... the singers' delectably pure, sweet sound, rhythmic liveliness and stylish ornamentation perfectly capture the spirit of some beautiful and inventive music"

Daily Telegraph


"one of the better-preserved French organs of the seventeenth century... The sound quality on this CD is absolutely fantastic, as is the singing. The organ continuo on some of the pieces provides a spectacular effect that can only be produced in a cathedral-performance setting. Lovers of French Baroque music will need to include this CD in their collection"

Opera Today

    " Outstanding form the musical and interpretative perspectives, is the motet Frigidae Noctis, which alone makes the CD worthwhile"


Concerto Delle Donne

Release date: 1st Feb 2006
Order code: SIGCD073
Barcode: 635212007327

1.Lebègue Prélude du cinquième ton (C major)[1.14]
2.Charpentier Antiphon Ave Regina coelorum H.19QUEEN OF HEAVEN[3.07]
3.Charpentier Motet Sicut spina rosam H.309THE BIRTH OF THE VIRGIN[2.26]
4.Charpentier Motet Gaude felix Anna H.315[1.50]
5.Lebègue Tierce en taille du deuxième ton (G minor)[3.22]
6.Nivers Antiphon Gabriel Angelus Charpentier Magnificat pour le Port Royal H.81THE SALUTATION[10.00]
7.Charpentier Antiphon Alma redemptoris mater H.21[3.03]
8.Charpentier Motet Frigidae noctis umbra totum H.421 In Nativitate Domini N(ost)ri Jesu Christi CanticumTHE NATIVITY OF CHRIST[11.16]
9.Lebègue Noël: Où s?en vont ces gays bergers?[2.35]
10.Attrib. Lully Antiphon Salve ReginaA PRAYER TO THE VIRGIN[7.12]
11.Nivers Récit de cromorne du troisième ton (A minor)[3.24]
12.Charpentier Sequence Stabat Mater pour les religieuses H.15THE PASSION[9.09]
13.Nivers Dialogue à deux choeurs du sixième ton (F major)[2.26]
14.Charpentier Antiphon Regina coeli laetare H.32THE RESURRECTION[2.38]
15.Charpentier Hymn Gaudia Virginis Mariae H.59THE CORONATION OF THE VIRGIN[3.15]
16.Lebègue Plein Jeu du huitième ton (G major)[2.01]

Daily Telegraph - 21st Feb 2006 Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Music for the Virgin Mary

Concerto delle Donne are performing a valuable service for those who relish the byways of Baroque music by exploiting little-known repertoires to which their three beautifully-matched soprano voices are uniquely well suited. In this case, the music was composed for fashionable Parisian convents, whose sung services were much frequented by devout noblewomen.

Simply scored for voices and organ, the pieces on this delightful disc display an engaging combination of tenderness and deeply felt devotional fervour, whether in the plain and undramatic Stabat mater, playful duets such as Sicut spina rosam and Gaude felix Anna, with their lilting triple-time passages in thirds, or the joyful alleluias of Regina coeli.

These shorter pieces are complemented by a miniature Christmas oratorio, Frigidae noctis, which tells the story of the angel and the shepherds with a nice mixture of awe and joyful excitement, and ends with a charming pastoral carol. The singers' delectably pure, sweet sound, rhythmic liveliness and stylish ornamentation perfectly capture the spirit of some beautiful and inventive music, ideally suited to its very specific purpose.

Elizabeth Roche


This wonderful CD was recorded in the magnificent church of Notre Dame, Rozay-en-Brie, which is 30 miles east of Paris, and contains one of the better-preserved French organs of the seventeenth century, actually played by Francois Couperin during his lifetime.

The Concerto delle Donne specializes in the Italian vocal repertoire of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The three principal sopranos that perform in the group, all early music experts, collaborate with six other sopranos, as well as the organ mentioned above, to present various Office motets and antiphons composed by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), Nicholas-Antoine Lebegue (c. 1631-1702), and Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers (c. 1632-1714), all composed for various feasts and services related to the Virgin Mary. The 16 pieces on the CD are subdivided into various topics, such as Queen of Heaven, The Birth of the Virgin, The Salutation, The Nativity of Christ, A Prayer to the Virgin, The Passion, The Resurrection, and The Coronation of the Virgin.

The sound quality on this CD is absolutely fantastic, as is the singing. The organ continuo on some of the pieces provides a spectacular effect that can only be produced in a cathedral-performance setting. Lovers of French Baroque music will need to include this CD in their collection.

Dr. Brad Eden - University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Goldberg, May 2006

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was particularly prolific in the production of sacred works, with over 450 compositions that include, among other genres, antiphons, hymns, masses, occasion and dramatic motets, and sequences. Well known in late 17th-century Paris, Charpentier worked mostly under the shadow of Lully, yet his music came to be widely admired by his contemporaries, only to be quickly forgotten after his death. A prominent feature of his music is the infusion of typically Italian traits into the French musical tradition, something particularly evident in his motets. This genre includes some of his best music, and the few examples here included are by far the most satisfying part of the recording. Outstanding form the musical and interpretative perspectives, is the motet Frigidae Noctis, which alone makes the CD worthwhile. The all-soprano ensemble, accompanied by solo organ, has a placid, crystal-clear sound, which functions well in giving an introspective, almost pious quality to the music. Although written for sacred setting, the acoustics of the church somewhat obscure many of the rich harmonies and at times the text in otherwise good performances. As a consequence, notwithstanding the variety provided by the inclusion of solo organ works by Nivers and Lebegue, the recording feels fairly homogenous.

Daniel Zuluaga

Gramophone Magazine, October 2006

Ravishing music draws some exquisite singing in response

Although a shade late for Charpentier's tercentenary celebrations, this recording is the culmination of two years of preparation by Concerto delle Donne. Their vigilant programme takes us through different stages of the Virgin Mary's story: Birth, Salutation, the Nativity of Christ, the Passion and the Coronation of the Virgin. Concerto delle Donne reveal ravishing music, helped in part by the Newfoundland-based Charpentier scholar Jane Gosine, who provided most of the music editions and wrote the informative booklet essay. Charpentier composed more than 100 sacred works for women's voices, several of them for the Cistercians at Port Royal in Paris, where the composer's sister was a nun. The Magnificat for Port Royal (edited from the autograph manuscript by Alistair Ross), one of his numerous joyful Nativity compositions, and a simple stophic yet affecting Stabat mater are the most substantial pieces in this superb disc. The shorter motets are gems, too.

Donna Deam, Faye Newton and Gill Ross sing beautifully, with support from six other sopranos in chorally reinforced sections. Their polished vocal blend is complemented by expressive sincerity and stylistic integrity. Ross's accompaniments and solos are exemplary - as one might expect from an experienced keyboard player who has been the backbone of several English Baroque bands. He plays a magnificent organ dating from 1690 at the church of Notre-Dame in Rozay-en-Brie (about 30 miles east of Paris) that Couperin is known to have played. The church's wonderful acoustic is reverberant yet modest, and is perfect for enabling the singers to project effortlessly.

David Vickers

Early Music America, Winter 2006

This very well performed and intelligently programmed recording focuses on the sacred works Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) wrote for combinations of women's voices. As might be expected, Marian music dominates, so the program is divided into sections reflecting on the life of the Virgin Mary. Organ music by Nicholas-Antoine Lebégue (1631-1702) and Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers (1632-1714), beautifully played by Alistair Ross on the 1690 organ of the church of Notre Dame in Rozay-en-Brie, as well as a gorgeous Salve Regina attributed to Lully, are sandwiched between the Charpentier works.

There is much stunning music here. The Magnificat, pour le Port Royal is a familiar gem, and it receives a lovely performance, but in some ways it's the smaller-scale works for two or three voices that leave a more lasting impression. For example, there's an exuberant little motet, Guade felix Anna honouring the Virgin's mother, that showcases the Italian style Charpentier absorbed in Rome. Larger in scale is Charpentier's Stabat Mater, which moves the heart with its tender melody and simple design.

The women of Concerto delle Donne - Donna Deam, Faye Newton and Gill Ross - are outstanding. Their voices blend beautifully, and they bring a sense of quiet joy to each note they sing. Alistair Ross does a stellar job with the brief organ works and provides tasteful accompaniment throughout, making this writer hungry for an entire recording of music played on this instrument. There are many subtle beauties on this recording, which is essential for lovers of the most sublime composer of the French Baroque.

Craig Zeichner


This disc presents a sequence of French music regarding different aspects of the Virgin Mary. It was written for female voices - predominantly nuns - during the second half of the 17th century. The majority of the music featured was written by Charpentier and the recording marks the 300th anniversary of his death in 1704. The music is, I'm ashamed to say, all but unknown to me; apparently Charpentier wrote over one hundred works for women's voices. Here it is beautifully presented, together with works of Lully, Nivers, Lebègue, and interspersed with organ works by the latter pair. It is good to hear these organ works in something of a liturgical, or at least wider musical, context. The London-based keyboard player Alastair Ross plays the remarkable instruments at Rozay, perhaps the best preserved 17th century organ in France, surprisingly little known and restored in 1996 by Yves Cabourdin. The original builder in 1690 is seemingly unknown, or at least the CD booklet doesn't tell us. The virile Pleins Jeux, with its modified 1/5th comma meantone tuning, reminds us of how much Classical French organ building had changed by the time its most famous executants, Dom Bedos, and Francois-Henri Cliquot built their most famous surviving works at Bordeaux and Poitiers respectively. As far as I can tell, Ross uses a second organ, presumably a continuo-organ, for the accompaniment of the singers. If so, this is a shame, as such an instrument would have been completely unknown to Charpentier, and the use of the large organ presents more interesting possibilities in this regard, as well as more key-colour. The singing on the whole is first-rate; excellent blend, intonation, a very musical feeling for expression, and careful diction, despite some very Anglican-sounding Latin from time to time. The three principal sopranos of the Concerto delle Donne are joined by six further sopranos for the works with alternating soloists and choir. For me, everything is perhaps a little too pretty. Of course, one must remember the situation for which the music was created, but I can't help feeling that the approach lacks a certain variety of affekts suggested by the texts. Likewise Ross's organ playing, while very neat and tidy, lacks a little flexibility in the pulse, or at least a feeling for the inherent rhetoric, so essential to bring this literature off the page. These are charming performances of charming music. Warmly recommended.

Chris Bragg

A wholly delightful sequence of 17C music which would have been given by nuns, trained in singing, at the Convent of Port-Royal and elsewhere.

The soprano voices here carry their considerable expertise unshowily, just right for the descriptions of the time, e.g. "sweet, distinct, articulate, harmonious, touching, moving [listeners] to tears, and at the same time, filling their hearts with joy and consolation."

The famous organ at Rozay-en-Brie has been restored to its 17C glory; it still has its original keys, upon which the Couperins would have played, in playable condition. An illustration on the Rozay-en-Brie website (a painting by an organist) shows that there is a gallery where the singers might have been placed. Whether or not for this recording, the ensemble with Alastair Ross is immaculate.

His own solos punctuate the vocal music ideally, and display the beauties of the historic organ in its perfect acoustical setting. There are motets for two, and three voices and solos for all three. My only disappointment was with the four-square motet "attrib. Lully". Charpentier's daringly simple Stabat Mater, nine minutes long, which holds attention easily through its ten identical verses varied only by the alternation of soloists and supporting choir, is a good one to get to know the three voices of the principal Donne. Then the mood lightens with music to celebrate the Ressurection and the Coronation of the Virgin, ending with a celebratory Plein Jeu by Lebègue which shows the full glory of the Rozay organ.

Early Music Review, Frebruary 2006

This disc has serveral items in common with a 1998 Virgin Veritas French release (see EMR 48, p19) and also shares several of its virtues and vices. The recording was made in Notre Dame, Rozay-en-Brie, and makes use of that church's fabulous 1690 organ, an instrument which has apparently had only one restoration and that recently enough to be sympathetic. Even the original keys are still in place, so one's fingers literally follow paths once traced by the Couperins, among others. The programme is devised in such a way that there is a narrative thread running through it and the vocal items are complemented by organ pieces. The music is all pretty much out of the top drawer and has been carefully prepared, even if the French pronunciation of the Latin does not always sound entirely natural. There is much to enjoy though I do have my reservations about some aspects of performance practice. The use of organ only for the continuo means that the bass line itself sometimes lacks the definition an added theorbo and/ or gamba would bring. The other issue that raises an eyebrow is the use of a small choir in some pieces. This is entirely appropriate and provided for in the fauxbourdon verses of the Port Royal Magnificat and Stabat Mater but elsewhere solo / ripieno alternations are imposed that are rather harder to justify - and the principals do cope very nicely on their own.

David Hansell