The works of the French composer Marc Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704) are generally considered to be the epitome of the formal, learned style cultivated in French music in the late 17th century.
Marc Antoine Charpentier was born in Paris. He came from a family of painters and went to Italy to study painting when a very young man. During a stay in Rome he came under the spell of the famous Italian composer of oratorios Giacomo Carissimi, with whom Charpentier is reputed to have studied. He then changed his allegiance from painting to music and spent several years in Italy perfecting his musical skills.
On Charpentier's return to Paris he collaborated with the playwright Molière on comedy-ballets after the latter's break with Jean Baptiste Lully; Charpentier was responsible for the music for La Mariage forcé (1672) and Le Malade imaginaire (1673). Following Molière's death in 1673, Charpentier passed through a series of appointments as music teacher and conductor to several aristocratic families. In 1679 he became music master to the Dauphin, only to lose this rich post allegedly because of Lully's opposition. Between 1686 and 1688 Charpentier served in a similar position in the establishment of Mademoiselle de Guise. After 1684 he was also involved in the musical life of several Jesuit foundations in Paris. His tragédies spirituelles, written to be performed during Lent, brought him considerable fame. In 1698 Charpentier became director of music at Ste-Chapelle, Paris, and in this post he served until his death on Feb. 24, 1704.
While generally acclaimed for his sacred music, Charpentier's masterpiece is acknowledged to be his most successful opera, Médée, based on the drama by Pierre Corneille and mounted in Paris in 1693. Although Médée was lauded as the best dramatic work to be produced in France after Lully's death, Charpentier was not to enjoy a similar success with any of his other operas.
In general, Charpentier was acknowledged to be a learned but talented composer. He was considered by La Cerf de Vièville (1709) to be the superior of any Italian musician, but his music was nonetheless described as very "dry and stilted." Charpentier's formal, learned style found its best expression in church music. He was particularly acclaimed for his solution to problems involved with musical realizations of Latin prosody. His talent was unsuitable for the exigencies of the music theater, despite his attempts to prove otherwise. Since it would seem he incurred the hostility of the all-powerful Lully, Charpentier did not secure a court appointment and hence passed his life in the service of the aristocracy and the Church.
Further Reading on Marc Antoine Charpentier
Most of Charpentier's music remains in manuscript. His contributions to French music are discussed in Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach (1947). See also Donald J. Grout, A History of Western Music (1960).