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André Campra - French Composers

Aix-en-Provence 1660-Versailles 1744

He studied at the Saint-Sauveur choir school in Aix, under the supervision of G. Poitevin. As cantor first in Arles, then Toulouse, then at Notre-Dame de Paris (1694), Campra published his first books of motets, yet he was attracted to opera. He put an end to his functions at Notre-Dame in 1700, renouncing a religious career. As the creator of opera-ballet with Galant Europe and the Venetian Festivities, Campra concentrated solely on secular music for 20 years. Appointed cantor in 1723 at the royal chapel at Versailles, he then resumed work with religious music and devoted the last years of his life to works in which his genius and science shone through in a way that still stuns even today.

Petit Oratorio de Noël is undated, yet from its style it appears to date from before 1700. It was not published; it features in a manuscript containing a copy of Récits et Duos de M. Delalande et quelques autres maîtres (B.N. Ms Vm 13123). The copyist only noted the vocals, the higher-range instruments and the bass. We have filled in the missing parts. The work is simple, noble, the melody is charming, often naïve, with popular Christmas themes, there are dance rhythms, typical of Provence in the Christmas themes where a tambourine can be distinguished.

There is a cultural divide between this Nativity and the In convertendo psalm which, with the Livre III des Motets (1703), rounded off Campra’s first religious composition period. It reveals a personality of unquestionable power: his dramatic temperament transforms the motet into action; the operatic influence is clear both in the recited parts and in the arias. The music shows considerable breadth, stunning contrasts and polyphonic variety in the choirs. There is a marked lack of rigour, the utterly pliable nature of this music setting it apart from German music. The Italian influence can be perceived in the madrigal quality of some pages (a vocal trio reminiscent of Monteverdi); the sheer variety of dance rhythms and rich ornamentation. This psalm is a perfect example of its admirable blend of French and Italian styles.

Renée Viollier

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