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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 17 (2011) No. 1

Published 2015

Le Motet à grand chœur (1660–1792): Gloria in Gallia Deo. By Thierry Favier. Les chemins de la musique. Paris: Fayard, 2009. [644 pp. ISBN 978-2-213-63644-3. €28.]

Reviewed by Don Fader*

1. Le Motet à grand chœur: The grand motet

2. Organization and Argument

3. Institutional and Devotional Contexts

4. Musical Expression and Aesthetics

5. Institutional Role and Reception of the motet à grand chœur

6. Conclusion

References

1. Le Motet à grand chœur: The grand motet

1.1 Despite the major revival of French Baroque sacred music that has taken place over the last forty years or so—with large numbers of studies and editions coming out, especially from the Centre de Musique Baroque at Versailles, but also from American, British, and French scholars—there has never been a general survey of the dominant sacred genre of the era, heretofore known as the grand motet. The last major book-length publications on the subject were a thematic catalogue of sources (1984) and a volume of actes published following a conference held at the Sorbonne (also 1984).[1] Thierry Favier’s Le Motet à grand chœur thus fills a major lacuna in the scholarly literature. Because the genre played a major role in French music from the 1660s to the Revolution, it is a story that deserves to be told as a whole.

1.2 At over 600 pages, Le Motet à grand chœur is a complex book on what Favier reveals to be a complex subject. The complexity of this undertaking arises in part from the different roles filled by the genre from its origins in the 1660s through its long history: its beginnings as a product of ceremonial occasions to celebrate important events in the life of the monarchy, its rise as a staple repertoire of the Royal Chapel with a resulting formalization in Lalande’s wake, its debut as part of a public concert life as the central repertoire of the Concert Spirituel in 1725, and its increasing presence in provincial churches and concert societies, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century. I will concentrate here on aspects that relate to “the seventeenth century,” albeit a particularly long one, because, as Favier points out, the genre transcends not only standard music-historical period boundaries but also provokes fundamental questions about the changing significance of sacred music in French cultural history throughout the genre’s lifetime (the “Gloria in Gallia Deo” of the title).

2. Organization and Argument

2.1 The book’s complexity also comes from its basic design: it is both a recapitulative work—incorporating a large and disparate literature, including recent studies by the author himself—and also a profoundly pointed essay on the role of sacred music in the cultural, political, and aesthetic life of the period, as well as in musical scholarship. To this end, the book is divided into four major parts:

  1. “The Motet à grand chœur and the Gallican Rite,” on the role of the genre in liturgy and period expressions of faith
  2. “A Musical Poetics of Religious Sentiment,” a chronological survey of trends in musical style, the composers, and their aesthetics
  3. “The Elaboration of Repertoires,” on the contexts of the genre’s composition and performance, and their influences on its development
  4. “The Actors and Their Time,” portraits of categories of individuals and their interactions with the genre

2.2 Several polemic strands weave through these different sections. Favier argues for the importance of sacred music to an understanding of period musical aesthetics, whose study has been nearly dominated by discussions of opera. Above all, Favier tries to rescue the genre from its monochromatic modern reception as a mere cog in the political theater of power by emphasizing its spiritual and artistic force, particularly its ability to evoke the sublime. To do this, Favier takes on several received notions: 1) the idea that in its usage in the royal messe basse (where motets were sung while the mass itself was spoken) the political role dominates the liturgical and spiritual one; 2) the idea that the stylistic developments by Lalande and others post-1683 constituted a major secularization of the genre through the influence of operatic topics and other secular musical elements; and finally 3) the idea (promulgated first by Norbert Dufourcq) that secularization of culture over the course of the eighteenth century (reflected by the increasing importance of the Concert Spirituel as a venue for motets) “killed sacred music.”[2] The strength of the book is that its author attempts to place the genre in the full complexity of its contexts and to view it from different angles through the diversity of viewpoints that existed in its time. For Favier, the history of the genre is still ultimately linked to the concept of the “divine right” of kings, which saw its apogee under Louis XIV and its decline toward the end of the eighteenth century under the influence of the Enlightenment, but he situates the genre in the classicist tradition of the period, as a balance between conflicting interests: the worldly (in its frequent function as ceremonial invocation of monarchical power and its appeal to mondain courtly, and later public, audiences) and the sacred (in the expression of transcendent religious feeling).

3. Institutional and Devotional Contexts

3.1 Part 1 consists of three major chapters covering the genesis of the genre, its institutional and devotional contexts, its place in the liturgy of the time, and its changing “Modalities of Performance,” that is, institutions, practices, and performance spaces. Among Favier’s contributions to the study of the genre are his observations about its naming: musicologists have referred to it as grand motet since Michel Brenet’s use of Pierre Perrin’s term, but it was typically called motet à grand chœur in the period.[3] Favier points out that the general usage of this term to indicate large-scale motets with a four-part petit chœur, five-part grand chœur, and an orchestra of five parts only really began after the reorganization of the Royal Chapel in 1683. The picture prior to this period is complicated by the relative lack of musical sources; the motets à grand chœur of Du Mont, for example, are preserved in an edition of 1686 but seem to stem from originals that had only two violin parts. The five-part orchestra seems to have been the contribution of Lully, who brought his orchestral experience to the genre of the polychoral motet in his early motets for ceremonial occasions.

3.2 The second chapter considers the liturgical usage of the motet à grand chœur in its various contexts, and it traces the evolution of the texts. The first motets à grand chœur were based on newly composed Latin poetry and the centonization of different Biblical passages, following the models composed by Pierre Perrin in the early 1660s. Shortly thereafter, most composers of motets à grand chœur turned to the psalms, whose Biblical authority and references to King David served to underline Louis XIV’s divine right as king, a Christian parallel to his representation as Apollo in secular musical genres. At the same time, Favier argues, the motet à grand chœur also reflects a less well-recognized role: that of aid to prayer. In performances at the Royal Chapel, the king and courtiers held in their hands the Livre du roy, which contained the words to the motet being sung. This allowed a type of meditative practice that was the object of a contemporaneous reform of prayer: the simultaneous reading of the text and hearing of the music allowed the listener to key into the emotional character of the psalm while avoiding the danger of a purely sensual appreciation of the music.

4. Musical Expression and Aesthetics

4.1 The second part of the book is a chronological history of the genre’s musical evolution and the expressive aesthetic it engendered. Chapter 4 (“Les Fondateurs”) considers the genre’s origins and continues the book’s attempt to carve out an aesthetic history of sacred music distinctly separate from the well-known discussions of opera. The motet à grand chœur had its own unique history of text setting: in the early polychoral style of Robert and Du Mont, the composers broke the text into units set syllabically as short melodic-rhythmic motives based on accent, resulting in a general unity of style throughout. This style soon gave way to a varied approach, which aimed to set the text using a more dramatic declamation along oratorical lines. Especially common is the “amplification” of a particular line through various kinds of repetition and (after the 1670s) by changing forces and tonalities, along with a variety of motives. The diversity of texture and scoring reflects not only an increase in number and length of solo récits, but also a sensitivity on the part of the composers to the content of each psalm verse: whereas composers set récits as intimate expressions of prayer, they set choruses as collective exclamations of victory, thanks, or praise to God.[4] Favier imputes this change in expression to the influence of a “culture of rhetoric,” and he describes compositional choices using specifically rhetorical terminology: dispositio (choice of forces for particular sections of text) and varietas (in the variety of their disposition).  He also reads particular compositional elements as rhetorical figures, citing terminology borrowed from Kircher, Burmeister, and Scheibe. While the application of such concepts seems problematic because they were not used by French musicians of the period, the kinds of melodic representation they describe certainly are common in the motets of the period, as Favier’s examples convincingly demonstrate.[5]

4.2 Chapter 5 (“The Foundations of the Modern motet à grand chœur“) attempts to account for a revolution in compositional technique and expression that occurred through the agency of the genre’s central composer, Michel-Richard de Lalande. Lalande’s life and works are well known, having been the subject of two recent studies, and Favier thus rightly concentrates on the composer’s musical style and its expressive language.[6] Favier’s original contribution to the interpretation of Lalande’s motets is his placement of them in the context of discussions concerning the sublime in the writings of the Jesuit order (for whom Lalande worked as organist during the period), but particularly in Nicolas Boileau’s translation of Longinus’s treatise on the subject, published in 1674.[7] Boileau, in particular, attached the notion of the sublime to the grand simplicity of biblical language, and especially that of the psalms, whose lively imagery “struck” or “astonished” the reader, causing emotion without the intermediary of reason. It is these effects Favier finds in Lalande’s musical invocation of the psalms’ images as tableaux through massive homophonic choruses, vehement orchestral writing, striking changes of scoring and texture, and sudden silences, as well as the audacious harmonic effects whose usage only increases in the composer’s later motets and in his reworkings. It is noteworthy that Favier classifies these musical techniques not as rhetorical elements (despite having codifiable rhetorical figures among them), but, more convincingly, as expressions of a French line of thought.

4.3 Favier’s attempt to point out the uniqueness of the motet à grand chœur as cultivated by Lalande and his contemporaries, and to underline its particular appeal to contemporary religious thinking, is carefully balanced both against the genre’s tradition and its secular influences. In particular, Favier notes Lalande’s debts to his predecessors and contemporaries, especially Lully and Charpentier, and his continued use of traditional musical elements and expressive devices. He also points out Lalande’s increasing use of secular styles as topical devices in his later motets, including those drawn from opera, such as tempête and sommeil, as well as the increasing influence of Italian style elements, especially those drawn from opera and cantata arias, elements Favier interprets as traces of a “mondain” influence (195). For Favier, therefore, the Motet à grand chœur represents “a reconciliation of two opposed aesthetics, that of the sublime and of grace” (196).

4.4 Chapter 6 (“The Motet à grand chœur in the Enlightenment”) traces the influence and eventual abandonment of the model established by Lalande, especially through the compositions of the sous-maîtres of the Royal Chapel chosen by the Regent (Philippe II d’Orléans) in 1723 to replace Lalande—Gervais, Bernier, and Campra—and their successors, Henry Madin and Antoine Blanchard. The influence of Lalande’s music also came through performance at the Concert Spirituel (founded 1725) and through publication of his works (completed in 1729). The model lasted unchallenged until the great success of Mondonville’s motets at the Concert Spiritual in the 1740s. Mondonville made more virtuosic use of the orchestra and chorus as well as a greater use of Italian vocality, probably a reflection of the success of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater at the Concert Spirituel (1736), a harbinger of what would become the near dominance of Italian and German models in the later eighteenth century through the influence of Gluck, who arrived in 1773.

5. Institutional Role and Reception of the motet à grand chœur

5.1 The third part of the book concerns the role of the genre in the different institutions where it was performed. Chapter 7 contains a very informative discussion of the role of the motet à grand chœur in the careers of the sous-maîtres of the Royal Chapel. Favier’s survey concludes that each sous-maître was responsible for providing enough motets to fill the more than eighty masses performed during a quarter year of service, requiring of new sous-maîtres an intense period of composition in their early years. Most of the sous-maîtres provided around twenty-five motets of their own composition, although several brought with them motets composed prior to their service. The importance of this practice was underlined by problems incurred by Mondonville, who had little experience with the genre and maintained an active career as violinist, organizer of the Concert Spirituel, and composer of chamber music and opera. After his resignation, the Royal Chapel issued an edict stating that composers hired for the position had to bring with them at least twelve motets. Another important task was the stylistic updating of older motets, for which Lalande is well known, but which a number of other sous-maîtres also practiced. During the late reign of Louis XIV, the repertoire performed at the Royal Chapel also consisted of older motets, especially by Lully, but also by Du Mont and Robert, a practice that was discontinued under the composers appointed by the Regent, indicating the changing view of the importance of tradition in the repertoire.

5.2 Chapters 8 and 9 cover the life of the genre in the new institutions in which motets à grand chœur were heard, largely in the period after 1720: the Concert Spirituel and in Parisian churches, provincial academies, and concert societies. These belong properly to the new public concert life that is one of the defining characteristics of the eighteenth century. Chapter 10, “Relations between Repertoires,” considers the repertoire exchanges among these various institutions. Among other things, Favier points out the importance of the competition of 1683 for three new posts of sous-maître of the Royal Chapel. Provincial composers invited to compete in the composition of a motet à grand chœur became familiar with the style and structure of the genre, thereby acting as “ambassadors to their province” (439), spreading the new style throughout the realm. This “pyramidal” system of dissemination (438), with the Royal Chapel as capstone, weakened with the establishment of the Concert Spirituel and provincial concert series. It might have been useful to have considered relationships to other French sacred repertoires as promised in the title, especially the relationship of the solo récits to the style and expression of that other important sacred repertoire—the petit motet—whose combination of a more mondain style and air of personal devotion the motet à grand chœur seems to have adopted, but this is a subject for another book.

5.3 The fourth part of the book, consisting of two chapters entitled “Portraits” and “Collective Representations,” recapitulates elements from the previous sections but also mixes in arguments concerning the place and significance of the motet à grand chœur. It presents some intriguing documents on the reception of the genre that contradict the frequently rehearsed complaints about the secularization of sacred music in “église[s] de l’opéra,” which, Favier points out, represented a small minority of institutions. Similarly, the supposed secularization represented by the Concert Spirituel can be seen as “the institutionalization of a type of devout entertainment widely promoted by Louis XIV” (510), an argument that, while interesting, is not fully substantiated.[8] Finally, Favier’s evocation of the motet à grand chœur à la Louis Marin as a “portrait du roi” in the guise of David is more subtle in that it presents the genre as being at once a representation of the king’s divine right, and a meditation—via the diverse forms of expression found in the psalms—on the different facets of the monarch’s relation to God, not just his earthly power. This is a subject that deserves more discussion (and examples) than Favier gives it, but it is hard to fault this lack in a book that takes such a large swath of time and repertoire, and presents such a rich variety of documentation.[9]

6. Conclusion

6.1 Inevitably, the book reflects the current state of knowledge on this broad subject, including lacunae in the field—the topic of provincial institutions, for example. On the music itself, the book is certainly a fine survey of what is a very large repertoire, but one of its weaknesses is the musical examples. Although there are certainly quite a few examples, the discussions often require access to scores that are probably more easily available to French readers than to American ones. Of the musical examples themselves, a number are poorly reproduced and in some cases are actually different from the passage discussed.

6.2 In sum, this is a book that largely fulfills its author’s ambitious aims and represents a major contribution to the fields of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music studies. It will no doubt become the standard reference on the genre, serving as the springboard for future research, particularly from a cultural perspective.

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