Death and the Sun (King)

In the movie The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, the Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini concludes his film with a scene showing the Sun King, tired and overwhelmed by the burden of absolute power. After a long day spent embodying absolute power under the watchful eyes of his courtiers, the sovereign asks to be alone and enters his private apartments. He proceeds taking off his ridiculous clothes and wig to put on a simpler and more comfortable jacket. Then, he grabs a book of Maxims by La Rochefoucauld, lying around on his desk, and begins reading them aloud. He comes across this famous maxim according to which « Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily », which he slowly repeats with a pensive air. This beautiful scene was of course invented by the Italian filmmaker, as it is not very likely that Louis XIV was seized with such an attack of melancholy at the beginning of his personal reign. However, this scene enables us to grasp how much the loneliness of power must have weighed on the Great King, as well as it foreshadows both the grandeur of his reign and the tragedies that hit him personally, including the loss of his wife, his children and grandchildren, Louis XIV ending his life with his great grandson, the future Louis XV, as his only direct heir.

Royal funerals were particularly lavish events at the court of King Louis XIV, but they were also an opportunity to remind the world of the power and glory of the Sun King through music specially composed for the occasion. While not officially being in charge of the music of the Royal Chapel, Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was the surintendant of the music of Louis XIV, had considerable influence on the development of the religious music of the Grand Siècle. Lully’s eleven grands motets have been relatively rarely recorded so far, and apart from the excellent recordings of Hervé Niquet and his ensemble Le Concert Spirituel it used to be difficult to find quality recordings of the Dies Irae and De Profundis. Concerning the Te Deum the music lover had in addition to the recording of Niquet, the excellent recording of Vincent Dumestre and his ensemble Le Poème Harmonique.

This recording of three of Lully’s grands motets by the Argentinian conductor Leonardo García Alarcón, the Millennium Orchestra, an ensemble he founded in 2005, the Cappella Mediterranea, the Chamber Choir of Namur as well as brilliant soloists (Sophie Junker, Judith van Wanroij, Matthias Vidal, Cyril Auvity, Thibault Lenaerts and Alain Buet) is the perfect occasion to (re)discover these beautiful pieces in a luxurious performance, as luxurious as the magnificent cover of the disc. It is noteworthy that this recording is a coproduction of the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, which does a remarkable job in order to revive and shed light on French music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

A motet is a vocal composition, often polyphonic, composed from a religious text, or sometimes a profane one. It is a genre whose tradition dates back to the late Middle Ages and which had a great success during the Renaissance. In French Baroque music, there are two kinds of motets, ‘petits motets’, choral or chamber music, only accompanied by a basso continuo, and ‘grands motets’, which include choruses and a sizeable orchestral ensemble. As Thomas Leconte explains in the libretto of the recording, Lully helped develop the genre of the great motets to create a ceremonial music « worthy of celebrating with the same pomp the glory of God and that of the King ». This recording allows us to hear the Dies Irae, composed for the funeral of Queen Marie-Thérèse in 1683, the De Profundis composed a few months before the end of the recruitment trials of the new sous-maîtres de la Chapelle du Roi, as well as the Te Deum, which he composed in 1677 on the occasion of the baptism of his son, whose godfather was the Sun King. This Te Deum is a grand and sumptuous work that enjoyed enormous success during its first performance and was conducted on many occasions by Lully himself, whether to celebrate military victories or princely weddings, until the leathal concert given to celebrate the king’s recovery in 1687, a concert during which Lully, carried away by his passion, pierced through his foot, while beating time with his cane. The wound worsened, because Lully refused to have his foot amputated as his doctors were advising to do, and as a result he died of grangrene two months later.

What is striking from the beginning of this very beautiful recording is the orchestral and vocal luxury of the performers. Lully’s music sounds radiant, flamboyant and adorned with sumptuous colors. The orchestral ensemble directed by the young and brilliant conductor Leonardo García Alarcón has a round and warm sound, but without losing the edge necessary to sculpt the music and give a feverish interpretation. The singers of the Chœur de Chambre de Namur give a powerful and very committed performance, and one can only admire the beauty of the voices of the soloists chosen for this recording, the sopranos Sophie Junker, Judith Van Wanroij, the hautes-contre Matthias Vidal , Cyril Auvity, tenor Thibaut Lenaerts and baritone Alain Buet. I strongly recommend listening to this album in order to immerse yourself in the splendor of the court of the Sun King.

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