Le Concert Spirituel
Celebrating the Battle of Steinkerque
by James Leonard
From 1688 through 1697, the French waged war against the Spanish, the English, the Dutch, the Danes, the Swedes, the Germans, and the Holy Roman Empire in what was later called the War of the Grand Alliance. Louis XIV, the aging Sun King, began the war in the autumn of 1688, when he invaded Germany with an army of 375,000 equipped with the latest weapons the fixed bayonet and the flintlock musket and supported by massed artillery. After almost four years of war, the French and the Grand Alliance fought the Battle of Steinkerque on August 3, 1692, near a small town on the Senne. After nine hours of continuous fighting at close quarters, half the Allied army of 15,000 was dead, and about the same number of the larger French army suffered a similar fate, in what was described at the time as the bloodiest infantry battle in European history.
Because there were more of them still alive at the end of the day, the French declared themselves the winners and set about celebrating their victory. The French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, matre de musique at Paris's great Jesuit church of St. Louis, wrote his mighty and majestic Te Deum to commemorate the victory. Scored for eight soloists and chorus accompanied by woodwinds and strings plus trumpets and drums for their military associations this Te Deum was conceived and executed as a grand and glorious hymn of praise to the Lord for the victory. It was hailed as a patriotic masterpiece at its premiere, and quickly and completely forgotten as the war ground on to an inconclusive end five years later.
Charpentier's Te Deum remained forgotten until its triumphal Prelude was revived as the theme song for the Eurovision TV network 260 years later. Since then, it has been recognized as a masterpiece of the High Baroque, with its expressive solo vocal melodies, piquant instrumental harmonies, massive choral effects, and enormous contrasts
of tempos, timbres, textures, and, especially, dynamics.
It has also become a test piece for any period instrument ensemble with aspirations to grandeur. The most enthusiastic and persuasive of Charpentier's French advocates is Hervé Niquet, who, with Le Concert Spirituel, an ensemble of thirteen singers and sixteen instrumentalists, has made a specialty of Charpentier's sacred music. Their many recordings of his works have attracted encomiums from European critics, and their 2001 recording of the Te Deum was warmly praised by Grammophon.
On Thursday, November 4, at St. Francis Church, Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel perform this Te Deum, along with Charpentier's Messe de Monsieur de Mauroy, his longest and most elaborate setting of the Ordinary of the Mass.
[Originally published in November, 2004.]