Musique de la Chapelle

Of the royal court’s three major music divisions, the Musique de la Chapelle was undoubtedly the most active, performing for the many weekly religious services.

Its origins can be traced back to the first Merovingian kings and, although it obviously adapted over the years to take into account the successive religious observances, its purpose evolved very little. After the French Revolution, it was the only one of the three divisions to rise from its ashes: under the Restoration (1815–30), musicians such as Cherubini, Lesueur and Plantade were still able to shine there. Placed under the administrative authority of the maître de chapelle (a highly-placed ecclesiastic, rather than a musician) and two – later four (16831761) – sous-maîtres, in charge of composing the music and conducting the performances, the Musique de la Chapelle comprised both clerics, for the singing of the plainchant, and secular musicians, for the performance of mass settings and motets. Among the instrumentalists, the organists enjoyed particular prestige. Only men were allowed to perform in the king’s chapel until the end of the seventeenth century, when women were also admitted.

The forces of the Musique de la Chapelle increased steadily over the centuries. Mass settings given from 1682 to 1710 in the chapel on the site of the Hercules Salon required only a small vocal ensemble with just a few instruments for accompaniment. But the move in 1710 to the large chapel we know today was accompanied by a considerable increase in forces until, around 1780, there were a hundred or so performers.

In the seventeenth century, the choir of the chapel sang in a five-part disposition that was unique in Europe. The same disposition also applied for some time to the orchestra, but it disappeared in the 1720s, while it was maintained for the choir until the Revolution. The dessus, including boy sopranos (the pages), falsettists, and later (from the reign of Louis XIV onwards) castrati and female sopranos, were supported by the hautes-contre (high tenors), tailles (tenors), basses-tailles (baritones) and basses. This ensemble permitted a complex polyphony that was used extensively throughout the seventeenth century and into the early years of the eighteenth in the grands motets, a genre practised by every sous-maître, from Robert and Du Mont to Giroust and Gauzargue. After the 1760s, four-part scoring gradually superseded the old disposition, and the orchestra was modernised: shortly before 1770, for instance, Blanchard introduced the horn and the clarinet into his works.

Like the Chambre, the Chapelle was capable of adapting to every eventuality. When accompanying the king on his travels, it would be reduced to no more than ten performers. At the other end of the scale, for great solemnities (coronations or weddings) musicians from the Chambre, the Écurie, the Académie royale de musique and occasional supernumeraries would be brought in, boosting its numbers to impressive forces of over a hundred performers.
[Benoît Dratwicki]