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Marc-Antoine Charpentier was, next to Lully, the most remarkable figure in late seventeenth-century French musical life, with a prolific output of sacred and secular music.
As a young man, he studied in Rome with Carissimi, acquiring valuable first-hand experience of opera and oratorio - both relatively new forms at that time. On returning to his native Paris, he put these skills to effective use, composing seventeen operas and a large quantity of church music, and bringing the dramatic oratorio to France for the first time, giving it a special French character.
The Te Deum, which dates from about 1692, was probably written for the great Jesuit church of St. Paul in Rue St. Antoine, when he was Maitre de Musique there. Its brilliance and powerful dramatic impact suggest that it must have been written in celebration of some special occasion, such as the recent French victory at Steinkerque on August 3rd, 1692.
The powerful effect of the Te Deum is achieved by a variety of means. Firstly, Charpentier uses a much larger instrumental band than any previous French composer of church music. Secondly, he exploits to its fullest advantage the customary Baroque technique of contrasting full orchestral and choral forces with solo voices accompanied by just a few instruments. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Charpentier has a remarkable ability to fuse the conflicting elements of drama and devotion into a unified whole, coupled with an instinctive feel for ceremonial brilliance. These are the qualities that strike one most in this wonderful work, and it seems extraordinary that it is not more widely performed.
Those of you who watch the Eurovision Song Contest will recognise the theme from the opening prelude, which for many years has been the signature tune for that competition.