Thursday, November 24, 2011

Recreation of Midnight Mass in New France, 1725

We are certainly entering into concert season, and the following concert which will be taking place in Toronto this December particularly caught my attention. I'd certainly encourage our Toronto area readers to give consideration to attending it.

A Concert Recreation: Midnight Mass for New France, 1725

In 1723, the new chapel of the Ursulines in Québec was dedicated with superb music:

“A concert of magnificent voices with the accompaniment of organ and diverse instruments played by the most accomplished masters in Québec.”
Most of us have a clichéd notion of colonial New France as a Davey Crockett trading post with coonskin hats and wooden shoes. On the contrary, the 17th century city of Québec was a little Paris on the St. Lawrence. The Ursuline chapel suffered none of the iconoclasm of the French Revolution and remains a unique monument of the Baroque. Its archives still contain manuscripts of motets brought from the very Parisian church where the great composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote his finest sacred music. To the Jesuit martyrs, St. Jean de Brébeuf and his Companions, Québec was the “Jerusalem of the Frozen Land.”

Could the Jesuits have brought Charpentier’s incomparable Messe de Minuit with them on their voyage across the North Atlantic? On December 10, the Tallis Choir of Toronto will mount a concert reconstruction of a grande-messe as it may have been celebrated on December 24, 1725 in the capital city of Québec. The Choir has offered similar recreations in past seasons with the music of Gabrieli, Tallis and Victoria. Placing the music in its original sequence gives students of both music and the liturgy a unique glimpse back to the Baroque church.

Perhaps the most fascinating feature is the “decadent” Gallican chant which was superseded by the Solesmes editions in 1903. French musicians continued to compose chant well into the 17th century: Henri Dumont and André Campra wrote both orchestral motets and plainsong. The style is surprising. Chant was sung in tempos which varied with the rank of the feast: Christmas was solemn, measure and slow. And the singers added agréments, the vocal ornaments more familiar from the operas of Lully!

In 1979, a musicologist discovered a 500-page 17th century collection of previously unknown organ music in a Montreal library. All of it is liturgical and designed to be sung alternatim in alternation with plainsong. A superb overture-style movement will become the “Deo gratias” of the mass. The alternatim pattern is discovered to underlie Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit as well. In the nine-fold Kyrie, the first petition is “sung” by the orchestra, the second by the choir, and the third by the organ.

Charpentier’s mass was part of the Jesuits’ program of enculturation. Popular carols became the musical material for the mass. The Jesuits in New France also experimented with using Indian vernaculars in the liturgy. There are many reports of entire masses being sung in aboriginal languages (the fathers of course said the Latin texts privately at the altar.) The concert recreation will include several motets which were sung in both Latin and the Abenaki language. And the concert spiritual before mass will include the famous Huron Carol of St. Jean de Brébeuf, sung in its original form as a French noel with Indian text.

A rare opportunity to hear the splendor of the French church in the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Tallis Choir of Toronto
Peter Mahon, Director
“A Midnight Mass for New France, 1725”
Saturday, December 10
7:30 pm
St. Patrick’s Church
McCaul & Dundas


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