Boston's beloved tenors, Jason McStoots, Marc Molomot and Aaron Sheehan, perform cantatas by Clérambault and Charpentier for the haute-contre voice.

Essential Information

Three Madmen

Love, jealousy, and that pesky little thing called Death...

December 5, 2009 8pm

Marsh Chapel
at Boston University

$25 General Admission
$12 Students/Seniors


Marc-Antoine Charpentier:
Orphée descendant aux enfers
Jason McStoots, haute-contre
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault:
Pirame et Tisbé
Marc Molomot, haute-contre
Le Jaloux
Aaron Sheehan, haute-contre
Concert pour quatre parties de violes
Jason McStoots, haute-contre
Marc Molomot, haute-contre
Aaron Sheehan, haute-contre


Jason McStoots
Marc Molomot
Aaron Sheehan
Scott Metcalfe
Marika Holmkvist
Tatiana Daubek
Laura Gulley
Daniel Golleher
Nina Bishop
Karina Fox
Chritsopher Nunn
Viola da Gamba:
Colleen McGary-Smith
Jane Leggiero
Andrea Leblanc
Héloïse Degrugillier
Leslie Kwan


The "haute-contre" voice type was cultivated primarily in eighteenth-century France. The misleading contemporary translation in English sources as "countertenor" is almost certainly not the same as the modern notion of the countertenor as chiefly a falsettist. By all accounts the eighteenth-century haute-contre sang especially high into his chest/mixed voice, unfortunately not always with the most agreeable results (the philosopher/composer Rousseau describes the classification as "le plus aiguës" (shrillest) of voice types). Nevertheless, a good haute-contre was a valuable commodity, as evidenced by its common use as a lead role in operas of the French Baroque. A majority of Lully's opera heroes were hautes-contres, for example.

Repertoire for the haute-contre was nearly always written in the alto clef, the same clef used by the modern violist. This places the range of music for haute-contre roughly a third higher than the "normal" ensemble tenor of the French Baroque, designated as "taille." Alto clef yields a compass that seems especially taxing at first glance, but one must bear in mind that the pitch standard in France was, on average, a good bit lower than modern pitch. Tonight's performance adopts what has become a fairly standard choice for "French Baroque" pitch at A=392 Hz, a whole step lower than the modern A=440.

How does this designation, then, compare with modern conceptions of vocal range and timbre? Range is well-documented, notwithstanding the considerations of certain variations of pitch standard, but naturally the evidence for vocal timbral ideals in the eighteenth-century is at best a qualitative guessing game. We can be reasonably sure that the haute-contre was a voice with good carrying power, even when poorly executed, with that related quality of "ping" that is an integral component of modern concepts of trained vocal production. Our talented trio of tenors would, I suspect, have been regarded in the time of Charpentier and Clérambault, among the finest practitioners of this rare art.

The royal privilege granted to the Florentine Giovanni Battista Lulli (better known as the "quintessential" French Baroque composer Lully) granted him enormous influence over musical life in France; under less musically authoritarian circumstances one can easily imagine a talent as fertile as Marc-Antoine Charpentier's to have benefited far more from royal patronage in his lifetime, but in fact Charpentier never held an official royal appointment, which helps to explain why his status as one of France's greatest musical sons has been so slow to emerge.

A common, if oversimplified, remark on the musical style of Johann Sebastian Bach is that he managed to fuse the national styles of France and Italy into a cohesive whole. The same can be said of Charpentier, though as a Frenchman and a Catholic his musical output conformed much more to national musical and liturgical traditions. After early years in Rome, and under the influence, if not the direct tutelage, of Carissimi, his late twenties were spent at the boarding home of Mademoiselle de Guise, whose patronage of the arts gave Charpentier the opportunity to compose and perform (Charpentier himself was an haute-contre). The pious de Guise seemed to have encouraged sacred compositions, and indeed Charpentier's career path resulted inan oeuvre heavily weighted towards sacred repertoire, specifically sacred vocal.

Tonight's concert presents examples of Charpentier as a composer of instrumental music and as a secular dramatist. Lully's virtual monopoly of the opera stage in France no doubt severely restricted Charpentier's output for the stage; he managed only three full-scale operas, along with a collection of incidental music to stage works, much of it in collaboration with the great playwright Molière. Orphée descendant aux enfers is not a work for the stage, though in its dramatic content it mimics the actions of an opera plot. David Tunley gives this retelling of part of the myth of Orpheus, as transmitted by the Roman author Ovid, the honor of "the first genuine cantata in the French style."

If Charpentier was a trailblazer of the cantata, then Louis-Nicolas Clérambault was one of its most accomplished early practitioners. In his day Clérambault's fame rested on his cantata composition and his organ playing. Also like Charpentier, Clérambault borrowed from the Italian musical dialect when it suited his needs, though his treatment of the French language is entirely idiomatic.

Jean Saint-Arroman, in the modern reprint of Clérambault's Livre Premier of cantatas, provides a synopsis of Le Jaloux: “Iris' lover is jealous of his rival. He beseeches the Spring to send this rival far away to war (to the battle fields of Mars). But even this is not enough to calm his jealousy. As his rival's heart is shared between war (Bellonne) and love (Eros) he hopes to god of love will punish him.”

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is also an Ovidian myth, perhaps best known to the English-speaking world as it was adapted for the plot of Romeo and Juliet. These "star-crossed lovers" of Babylon, divided by family rivalry, agree to run away together, but Pyramus mistakenly believed Thisbe has been killed by a lioness, and so takes his own life.