Christie brings les arts to life in Symphony Hall

By Andy Greenwood

Given the dominance of repertories of late periods over much earlier music, what is peculiar and interesting about the music to audiences today? This question was raised when Christie’s Les Arts Florissants received a warm set of ovations at the conclusion of their performance of two of Charpentier’s chamber operas (Les arts florissants and La descente d’Orphe aux enfers) at Symphony Hall. Surely the local audience is not just pleased that the performance wasn’t a warm up and experiment for New York City. I suggest that, whether we are aware of it or not, perhaps the fascination lies with the place of these two works within a fundamental transition in musical history and a reshaping of world views.

An important outcome of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century was a language for describing the world, independent of human meanings. A popular notion at the beginning of the seventeenth century was the idea that one should somehow try to attune oneself to the real harmonious world of the Platonic and Aristotelian forms. Over the course of the century, this notion was shattered by political turbulence and wars in Western Europe and on theological and philosophical levels. A Creator-God creating the forms ex-nihilo became the favored view because of the voluntary capacity for God to act. As a result, the forms lost their eternal character. The fracturing of the forms ran parallel to a new scientific outlook. They also ran parallel to the rise of Empiricism, which based itself around the assembling of inner mental ideas and causation—principles that go totally against the inherited Greek tradition of simply attuning oneself to what ‘always is.’

The first of the chamber operas, Les arts florissants, is about tart forms such as music, poetry, painting and architecture and how they flourish under the reign of King Louis XIV. After each art appears and pays tribute to Louis, the music of Dischord appears with the chorus of Furies. Dischord tries to disrupt the universal harmony made possible under Louis, but the attempts prove fruitless after divine intervention via a thunderbolt from Jupiter. The work finishes with all the arts uniting to celebrate Peace; thus, the opera reaffirms the harmony of the arts under the reign of the king. Could it be that apart from being a blatant piece of propaganda for the king, the first opera was a response to some of the intellectual and political concerns mentioned above?

The drama on stage was supported by a number of musical qualities of Charpentier’s composition. This performance was indicative of his vocal music, which is richly colorful, light in nature, and particularly harmonic. Contrapuntal and linear textures do the musical work for him and give the music its flavor and delicate character. One gets the impression that the composer has carefully constructed these two works to highlight affective musical relationships, to move his audience with the same affects. This is a common feature of musical composition of the seventeenth century, and its rhetorical associations are frequently misunderstood given the predominance of expressive and romantic repertories in our concert halls.

Another outcome of the seventeenth century transition was the move away from what Charles Taylor calls an ad hominem mode of practical reasoning—whereby one distinguishes between a lesser (apodictic) and stronger (ad hominem) form of commitment to desiring something. This stronger form of commitment takes on its important status because “if we were to suddenly to cease desiring … we would be shown up as insensitive or brutish or morally perverse.” Thus inescapable commitment is the essence of this mode of reasoning.

In the second of Charpentier’s chamber operas, La descente d’Orphe aux enfers, scholars are undecided as to whether the composer actually wrote a third and final act; we don’t know whether Euridice will be lost a second time (by Orpheus looking back at her on the way back from the underworld) or whether they will ultimately be together. Other composers have chosen various outcomes according to popular reception practices. One reason for the breakdown in ad hominem was the seventeenth century move toward detaching ourselves from some purported intrinsic telos of the universe. If Charpentier never wrote a third act, he has removed the inherent meaning associated with the Orpheus myth and the ad hominem nature of his commitment to Euridice. If they had been reunited, the character of Orpheus’ actions would seem to be validated through the attainment of a happy ending; whereas if he had lost Euridice forever, the tragic element in this story would provide the meaningful context for Orpheus’ ad hominem commitment and for Euridice. Whether Charpentier actually did set a third act might shed some light on his own position regarding broad patterns of thought and political movements in French society at the time.

Because of such developments, the implications of “wholeness” (in various senses) that arise from a term such as “baroque” might prove at times to be more misleading than useful. What seems important is that the transition towards baroque be examined—in that way we might be able to give an account of how the move was possible (and conversely how the reverse move, in “baroque” terms, would be implausible). Thus we ought not dispense with a term such as “baroque,” but better understand the implications of its usage instead of using characteristics of the term to justify its own canon. It seems that the transitional and dramatic aspects of Charpentier’s music might be why these two chamber operas would result in a positive reception to an audience today in Chicago Symphony Hall. The attire of the performers—tuxedos and bright pastel colored dresses—certainly provided a contemporary dimension to the performance and staging. It is not only that these two early operas were written at a time when a new worldview was radically transforming life, but also that the performance of works in an important transitional period might carry with it various implications for understanding ourselves.