The Keys to a Baroque Emotional Treasure Chest

Gérard de Lairesse, Descente d’Orphée aux enfers (1662). Belgium, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Frederic Kiernan, The University of Melbourne 

One of the best but somewhat lesser-known composers of the French Baroque was the Parisian Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643–1704), whose compositional prowess has only comparatively recently received due recognition from scholars and performers of early music. Although he never held a position at the court of Louis XIV, who enforced a cultural monopoly in France almost without parallel in the early modern period, Charpentier was an inventive musician who achieved renown primarily through his prolific service as composer and haute-contre to Louis XIV’s cousin, Mademoiselle de Guise, in Paris. His 1686 opera La descente d’Orphée aux enfers (The Descent of Orpheus to the Underworld) will be performed for the first time in Australia next week, in a collaboration between CHE and staff and students from The University of Melbourne’s Early Music Studio, the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM). This opera will be performed for the public on 28 and 29 September; the performance is free, but opera enthusiasts are encouraged to reserve a place, and can do so here.

The opera represents one stage in a long history of musical dramatisations of the myth of Orpheus, one of the most significant figures in the reception of classical mythology in Western culture, who supposedly could charm all living things with his music. Indeed, the first ‘true’ opera, Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607), drew on the same material. Charpentier himself even wrote a chamber cantata entitled Orphée descendant aux enfers (H471) three years earlier – one of the most important French examples of the genre.

Traditionally, the mythical story of Orpheus is divided into three parts: the wedding celebrations of Orpheus and Eurydice, which are thwarted when Eurydice is bitten by a serpent; Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld to retrieve his lost bride, only to lose her when, against Pluto’s warning, he looks back to see if she is following; and, Orpheus’s grief-stricken lamentation and death at the hands of the Bacchantes. However, opera composers have tended not to set the final part to music, and the sources do not indicate that Charpentier was an exception, with the two-act La descente d’Orphée aux enfers ending at the happy reunion of the lovers. (The sources, however, do not bear Charpentier’s usual indications that his work was complete, such as the word ‘Fin’ with a final measure count, so a third act has perhaps been lost). It’s not known who wrote the libretto for Charpentier’s opera, but much of the text is drawn from the 10th book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the Orpheus myth is presented. In Charpentier’s original production at the Hôtel de Guise in Paris, the composer sang the role of Ixion, with François Anthoine singing Orpheus, and other members of the de Guise household filling the remaining roles.

‘Orpheus Before Pluto and Proserpina’ François Bourguignon Perrier (1590 – 1650), Paris, Musée du Louvre

Because of inequalities in the tempering systems used in the Baroque period, each key acquired its own unique intonation and therefore its own distinctive characteristics. These were often associated with specific emotional states, or affects, and plotting the key relationships in Baroque musical works can help map the music’s emotional trajectory, helping restore a layer of significance to the music’s construction that may otherwise be overlooked. Charpentier himself had much to say about this; in a short musical treatise entitled Règles des composition (c. 1692), he outlined the various affective associations of the keys (énergie des modes). For example, E-major was said to be ‘quarrelsome and garish’ (querelleux et criard), D-minor ‘solemn and devout’ (Grave et dévot) and B-flat minor ‘obscure and terrible’ (obscur et terrible).

music-notes-for-blog-pieceLa descente d’Orphée aux enfers opens in the key of A-major, described by Charpentier as ‘cheerful and pleasant’ (joyeux et champêtre), which sets the scene for the overture and the opening wedding celebrations of Orpheus and Eurydice. The ‘tender and plaintive’ (tendre et plaintif) key of A-minor marks an emotional shift as Eurydice is bitten by the serpent, along with a change to notation blanche (void quarter-, eighth-, and sixteenth-notes). The composer intensifies this sense of dread with a repeated descending melodic line in the bass, a gesture he also uses to highlight other references in the plot to death or loss. Eurydice is taken in death to the Underworld, and Orpheus’s impassioned motivation to rescue her is expressed in the ‘gay and warlike’ (gai et guerrier) key of C-major, as he plans to persuade Pluto to allow Eurydice to return. His appeal to Pluto ventures through the ‘serious and magnificent’ (sérieux et magnifique) key of G-minor, the ‘gently joyful’ (doucement joyeux) key of G-major, and concludes, in extreme anguish, in the solemn and devout key of D-minor. Pluto’s emotional capitulation is highlighted by the ‘merry and bellicose’ (joyeux et très guerrier) key of D-major, which lends weight to the argument that the opera was indeed intended to conclude at this point. Mapping the key changes in Charpentier’s little-known work, and situating them within his theoretical writing on their relationships to emotional states, unlocks an emotional configuration in the music unique to the composer’s seventeenth-century Parisian world.

Under the directorship of CHE Associate Artist Erin Helyard, with stage direction by CHE Deputy Director Jane Davidson and vocal training by the Early Music Studio’s director Stephen Grant, this exciting collaboration looks certain to provide an entertaining and insightful venture into the emotional mindset of one of the French Baroque’s musical masters.

 Frederic Kiernan is a PhD candidate in Musicology at The University of Melbourne and a Research Assistant at the Melbourne node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.


Cessac, Catherine. Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1995.

Charpentier, Marc-Antoine. La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers [H. 488], edited by Sébastien Daucé, Benoît Hartoin and William Christie. Paris: Les Éditions des Abesses, 2004.

Thompson, Shirley, ed. New Perspectives on Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.




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