The Ranums' Panat Times
The first thing one notices in the new (Fayard, 2004) edition of Catherine Cessac's admirable Marc-Antoine Charpentier is an omission: gone is the short, very personal introductory statement, in which the author confides in the reader, describing musicological research as an immense, and often solitary task, a task made more challenging by an enigmatic subject. Perhaps she wanted to emphasize the nature of her a book as strictly a work dedicated ad maiorem gloriam Carpentarii.
In the world of books, a new, revised edition is usually predictable: new research is incorporated, the bibliography is updated, theories are re-examined. While Cessac's 2004 book richly fulfills these standard requirements, with the added benefit of footnotes at bottom of the page, her new work essentially rewards the reader with the aesthetic blessings of an exquisite artistic accomplishment, also graced with the composer's only likeness (established by Patricia M. Ranum), taken from P. Landry's Almanach Royal de 1682 , on the attractive soft cover. Indeed, for this writer, the 1988 Marc-Antoine Charpentier was more of a revelation than just a book. I admired Cessac's scholarship, her elegant prose, her command of Charpentier arcana; but I was enchanted by her passion for Charpentier's music. In the first edition, I admired her ability to mine the Mercure galant, as well as many other contemporary sources, for fragments about Charpentier, illuminating the great composer's crepuscular existence, particularly his years of service to the Jesuits. As an encyclopedic Carpentarian, moreover, Cessac, in her book, gracefully and graciously, included research ranging from timid, even confused, encounters, in the early twentieth-century, with Charpentier's tremendous genius to the first serious scholarship, in mid-century, and on to more recent work, exemplified by Patricia M. Ranum's ingenious analyses of documents (musical manuscripts of Charpentier's Mélanges and manuscript archival sources), which resulted in a clearer picture of the underlying chronologies of the Mélanges. As a musicologist, Cessac is impeccable: one admires her stylistic analyses and aesthetic judgment. Also, her formal analyses of Charpentier's compositions are beyond reproach. But Cessac is also an intuitive writer who quickly grasps the essence of her subject. Her eloquent descriptions of particular works, which bring the reader as closely as possible to the experience of hearing the actual music, reflect a deep understanding, intellectual and visceral, of Charpentier's unique art. Even after listening to a work, and enjoying the transformative power of its beauty, one benefits enormously from Cessac's passionate translations of Charpentier's resplendent music into speech. "If there were such a thing as polyphony in prose," wrote Gustave Reese in his monumental Music in the Renaissance, "it would obviously be a godsend to the writer of history, whatever it might be to the reader." With her limpid and powerfully evocative prose, and her opulently metaphoric and evocative language, Cessac attains Reese's ideal. In her discourse, one hears resonances of a deep, comprehensive, rich knowledge of the composer's spirit.
If the 1988 edition was the first Summa of Carpentarian knowledge, the first book to successfully circumscribe the many dimensions of Charpentier (religious composer, Molière's musician, author of Medée, etc.) the new edition is a significantly enriched book, in which the sound foundations are overlaid by such treasures as new information about manuscripts, important contributions to Charpentier's family history and biography, such as Ranum's hypnotically labyrinthine Portraits around Marc-Antoine Charpentier (2004), and a clearer view of the historical, literary, and cultural context of Charpentier's music. But there is more than new knowledge in the 2004 edition. For example, Cessac's writing about the music, while not moving in a new direction, attains an unprecedented depth of understanding and level of stylistic finesse. While her original intuition of the music remains intact, the reader experiences a sharpening of focus, an impressive conciseness of tone. Thus, in her initial discussion of In Nativitatem Domini Canticum (H. 416), Cessac admires the freedom with which Charpentier uses counterpoint. In the new edition (p. 363) she makes a stronger assertion, telling us about the magnificent prelude "dont les dernières mesures montrent le contrepoint souverain de Charpentier."
While the great spiritual tradition of the seventeenth century was implied in the original edition, in the new version Cessac does not hesitate to bring the spiritual background of Charpentier's music into full view. For instance, on p. 181, she describes the text to the Pastorale sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (H. 483) as a magnificently wrought sermon, rich in images. In Scene II, when an Angel appears in the splendor of the divine night, Cessac mentions Bossuet's sermon, based on Luke 2:12 ("Et hoc vobis signum: invenietis infantem pannis involutum et positum in preasepio.") In the new edition, she exhorts the reader: "Écoutons Bossuet," and proceeds to quote the section, pertaining to the music, in which Bossuet imaginatively describes Christ's descent from divinity to the humble status of human being. Also in Scene II, Cessac explains on p. 184, in an austere recitative, we hear an "écho encore de 'l'étonnement religieux' dont parle Bossuet dans un autre sermon pour le dimanche dans l'octave de Noël, aux Carmélites de la rue du Bouloir, le 30 décembre 1663." As we read these lines, we realize that Charpentier, just like Bossuet, masterfully captured the breathtakingly ineffable mystery of "l'étonnement religieux" in his art. One is tempted to say that Cessac is more explicit about Charpentier's achingly passionate religiosity in her new edition. The religiosity of composers like Bach, it seems, is categorically majestic. Charpentier is a humble believer, in constant awe of God's majesty, and, in the new edition, Cessac beautifully, with exquisite subtlety, acquaints the reader with the composer's particular devotions. For example, in the first edition, there is mention of Charpentier's attachment to the Virgin Mary. In the 2004 edition, on p. 304, she clearly states: "Rares sont les compositeurs ayant consacré autant d'oeuvres à la Vierge que l'a fait Charpentier." Placing Charpentier in the spiritual context of the Counter-Reformation, Cessac writes: "Il convient d'y voir, en premier lieu, les effets de la Contre-Réforme qui exalta cette dévotion, associée à celle de l'enfant Jésus, et dont on peut mesurer l'importance dans des ouvrages comme Grâce et grandeurs de la Vierge de Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629) ou Le Traité de la vraie dévotion de la sainte Vierge de Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716) ...."
The new edition also includes an interesting comparison between Charpentier and Nicolas Poussin. In her discussion, on p. 320, of Quattor anni tempestates (H. 335-338), which she describes as Charpentier's "Four Seasons," Cessac compares Charpentier's composition to a series of paintings by Nicolas Poussin: Le Printemps ou Le Paradis terrestre, L'Été ou Ruth et Booz, L'Automne ou La Grappe de raisins rapportée de la terre promise, L'Hiver ou Le Déluge, which the artist created for the duc de Richelieu, around 1660-1664. Instead of seeking superficial parallels, Cessac identifies the deeper artistic intention, the desire to depict the joys and sorrows of life, which Charpentier and Poussin share. "Les deux artistes," she writes, "ont voulu célébrer les saisons de l'âme."
Finally, significant textual additions in the
new edition illuminate the extraordinary emotional and spiritual depth of
Charpentier's music. If true religious insight can be discerned in Charpentier's
devotional works, Cessac never lacks the eloquence to convince the reader that
the subject of her book is not only a great composer but in many ways a
religious visionary of the greatest magnitude. For example, in the first edition
her book, Cessac describes the miraculous Night of In Nativitatem Domini
Canticum (H. 416) as a moment of calm and serenity. In the 2004 edition,
however, her language rises to a level of pure poetry, vividly conjuring up the
otherworldly aura, religious grandeur, transcendent beauty, and spiritual
substance of Charpentier's music: "Cette page se révèle être un moment de pure
grâce et d'une beauté stupéfiante, avec son instrumentation dans le grave des
cordes munies des sourdines, ses longues tenues enserrées dans un contrepoint
d'un extrême raffinement aboutissant à une impressionante pédale de dominante de
quatorze measures, ses superbes clair-obscures harmoniques, ses silences
éloquents, au seuil de la vie qui va advenir. Bien qu'inspirée des sommeils
d'opéra, la dimension spirituelle de cette pièce va bien au-delà d'une page
(Z.M.'s essays about music have appeared in Contemporary Musicians and other reference publications.