Recorded at Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur, Aix-en-Provence, France, July 16-17, 1989 and
August 8, 1992 Festival d'Aix-en-Provence (Direction Louis Erlo, Jean-Louis Pujol)
Erato CD 2292-45989-2 [original issue] and
Erato CD 06301-79392 [1997 re-release]
Reissued by Warner Classics as Apex CD 2564 61260-2
Anne Azéma, soprano
Jean Nirouet, counter-tenor
William Hite, tenor
Patrick Mason, baritone
THE AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL CHOIR
Richard Wistreich, conductor
Michel Laplenie, conductor
ENSEMBLE OF PROVENÇAL TAMBOURS
Maurice Guis, conductor
THE BOSTON CAMERATA
Robert Mealy, concertmaster
First violins (dessus de violons): Arthur Hock, Carla Moore, Katharyn Shaw
Second violins (haute-contre de violons): Scott Metcalfe, Cleland Kinloch
Earle, James Johnston
Violas (taille de violon): Patrick Jordan, Dana Maiben
Violoncelli (basses de violon): Emily Walhout, Viola de Hoog, Zon Eastes
Viola da gamba (viole de gambe): Carol Lewis
Organ: Frances Conover Fitch
Tambour: Marie-Ange Petit
Joel Cohen, director
The name of Jean Gilles, which had been forgotten for more than a century and
a half, emerged from obscurity in the 1950's, thanks largely to the rediscov
ery of his Messe des Morts. Yet this musician, whom his contemporaries
considered to be "a man no less to be recommended for the harmony of his musical
compositiosn than for that of his manner of living", enjoyed fame throughout the
whole of the 18th century.
Little is known of the all too short career of this composer who wrote
nothing but sacred music and who spent all his life in the south of France. He was
born in Tarascon on 8 January 1668 and began his musical life at the cathedral
of Saint-Sauveur in Aix-en-Provence as assistant to the maître de chapelle,
Guillaume Poitevin, to whose post he later succeeded. In 1695, he was summoned
to Agde and later to Avignon for a short stay. Finally, he settled in
Toulouse in 1697 where he was to hold the post of maître de chapelle at the
cathedral of Saint-Etienne until his untimely death on 5 February 1705. Gilles was
only 37 and it is reasonable to suppose that had he not been struck down so
young, he could well have gone on to secure an important appointment at the court
of Versailles. In 1752, in his Lettres sur les hommes célèbres du reègne de
Louis XV (Letters of famous men during the reign of Louis XV), Pierre-Louis
d'Aquin, son of the harpsichordist Louis-Claude Daquin, wrote: "Victim of death
when he was in the prime of life [Gilles] causes us to regret his loss through
those pieces of his which remain to us. Endowed with genius of exceptional
facility, he might even have replaced the great Lalande."
We do not know at what date and in what circumstances Gilles composed his
Messe des morts, but it is an established fact that it was well and truly thanks
to this work, one of the most-played pieces of sacred music in the 18h
century, that he came to fame after his death. As a commentator in the Sentiment
d'un harmonophile sur différents ouvrages de musique (Feelings of a music-love
concentrating various pieces of music) was to write in 1756, "of all the
Requiem masses, the one written by Gilles has always been looked upon as the best.".
Although it was published only in 1764 in an edition no doubt prepared by
Michel Corette, who added to it a Carillon, the Mass was used on the occasion of
many offficial funeral services. It was heard, for instance, in Paris in the
church of the Oratory on 27 September and 16 December 1764 during the memorial
services for Rameau, who had died on 12 September, and also at Versailles in
the royal and parish church of Notre Dame at the end of May 1774 during the
service of prayer for the rest of the soul of Louis XV, who had died on 10 May.
It featured in the repertoire of the Concert Spirituel from 1750 onwards
where it was always welcomed, according to the Mercure de France, "with
satisfaction in spite of its being from an earlier time and of the brilliance of the
works which have been written since.".
The Messe des morts, which is scored for soloists, five-voice choir and
instruments, opens with a funeral march whose solemn and steady rhythm is
maintained until the Introït. The tenor soloist announces the first verse, "Requiem
aeternam"; duet and choir reply in a series of joyful melisma in the "Et lux
perpetua", an evocation of everlasting peace. (These two themes, used by Gilles
as the foundation of the work, return time and time again as true leitmotivs.)
There follows a verse from Psalm 64, "Te decet humnus, Deus in Sion", sung
to an almost choreographic rhythm by the soprano, then as a duet interspersed
with short instrumental ritornellos. The Introït draws to a close with the
full choir singing in unison "Exaudi orationem meam".
The liturgical text of the Kyrie led Gilles inevitably to a tripartite
composition in ascending forces. It begins with a recitative by the tenor which
once again is reminiscent of a dance rhythm (Kyrie I); it is followed by a duet
for counter-tenor and tenor in dialogue with the accompanying instruments (
Christe), and comes to a close with a powerful non-contrapuntal chorus (Kyrie II).
The first verse of the Graduel, "Requiem aeternum", bears more than a little
resemblance to the Introit. It is followed by a great chorus for peace taken
from Psalm 111, "In memorial aeterna", an exaltation of the happiness of the
righeous and the believers. In accordance with the custom of his time, Gilles
omitted the terrible words of the Dies Irae; nevertheless, with an admirable
sense of lyricism, he organized the Offertoire in three sections, each one of
which is filled with evocative melodic patterns. After a fugal quartet
movement introduced by a bass recitative on "Domine Jesu Christe", there is a duet
for soprano and counter-tenor, "Sed signifer sanctus", subsequetly taken up the
the choir; the section comes to an end with a moving recitation for tenor
followed by a devout chorus for full choir.
The Sanctus is centred around two great episodes: The Sanctus in which the
fervor of the soloist and the duettists contrasts with the joy of the "Osanna"
sung by the choir and the Benedictus which is set in a mood of contemplation.
The same type of contrast is to be observed in the two parts of the Agnust Dei
In the Post-Communion, Gilles brings back elements of the Introïtand the
Graduel with a few slight modifications, all of which leads into the great fugal
chorus which brings his Requiem to an end in an overall feeling of peace.
Notes (in French) by Adelaïde de Place
Translated into English by John Sidgwick
1. Requiem aeternam - 4:01
2. Introit - 15:20
3. Kyrie - 2:21
4. Graduel - 4:21
5. Absolve Domine - 2:31
6. Dies Irae - 7:57
7. Offertorium - 10:37
8. Vere Dignum - 1:54
9. Sanctus - 4:15
10. Qui Lazarum - 2:36
11. Agnus Dei - 5"21
12. Post Communion - 5:11
Total: 1 hr 06 min
Jean Gilles' Messe des Morts (Requiem Mass) was one of the most famous and frequently-heard works of eighteenth-century France, both in the south, where Gilles lived and worked (born in Tarascon in 1668, he was in the employ of the Aix cathedral from 1679 to 1695) and in the North. "There is hardly a funeral service with music today where Gilles' Mass is not performed," wrote one mid-century observer. Jean Gilles himself, the musicians Pancrace Royer and Jean-Philippe Rameau, and many great dignitaries, including Louis XV, were laid to rest to the sounds of this music. On socio-historical grounds alone, this work would merit a place in textbooks and reference works.
But Gilles' Messe des Morts is much more than a historical curiosity; it is a major monument of spirituality in baroque Europe, and one of the most beautiful and compelling choral works in the entire history of French music. Gilles, like other composers of the Franco-Provençal school managed to combine elements of the Paris/Versailles court style -- elegance, refinement, transparency -- with some more typically Mediterannean traits of melodic grace, exteriorized gesture, and emotional intensity.
Gilles' style in fact owes as much to an Italianate penchant for text-painting and theatricality as it does to French rationality. The image of the Introit is that of a funeral procession -- as the violins (and later, the tenor soloist) enter with the melodic element, the idea of eternal rest is suggested by the long-held notes painting the word "Aeternam." Movement and repose are magically combined with the simplest of means.
The well-known "drum" rhythm of the Introit has been much discussed; not remarked on so far, to the best of my knowledge, is this musical image's antecedent in lived reality. Gilles' imaginative evocation of a procession refers, I believe, to an actual Provençal custom. In Provence, prior to its burial, the corpse of a wealthy or noble personnage was generally given a tour de ville (procession around town). The newly-deceased, open-faced in his coffin, accompanied by music, was promenaded around the principal streets and squares of his city; testaments often give the precise, posthumous itinerary desired by the dying soul. (This practice is discussed in Michel Vovelle's 1978 study, Pieté baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe siècle). Gilles' imaginary mise en scène continues in the hearers' minds, and within the church walls, the actual procession on the city streets.
This kind of pictorialism, naïve perhaps but telling, pervades Gilles' music. Elsewhere in the Introit, perpetual light is depicted by rapid, ascending eighth notes, as in innumerable Italian madrigals of earlier generations. Later, in the Offertoire, the soul's fall into darkness is symbolised by descending vocal lines for the lowest male voice; fear before the "lion's mouth" is suggested by a tiny, wailing motif in the flutes. The Agnus Dei, pervaded by its carillon motifs, brings us back to the the tour de ville; in Provence and elsewhere, when a prominent citizen's coffin passed by, all the bells of the churches and convents would ring out.
Yet if Gilles' music is gestural, overtly emotional, and even at times almost sentimental, it is also contained, centered, and consoling. The light, airy rhythms we hear so often in the course of the mass (for instance, the Sanctus angels of Isaiah's vision performing a stately, heavenly dance to the words "Hosanna in excelsis") and the natural, unforced harmonic language -- these traits lend a serenity and a sense of acceptance to our contemplation of these solemn texts. Death in this vision of things is sorrowful but not tragic, one episode in a larger chain of existence. Gilles' Mass, in its dimension of composure, is more truly "religious," more rooted in a deep sense of cosmic order, than many symphonic Requiems (Berlioz, Brahms, et alia) of more recent vintage. No wonder this work symbolised things eternal for so many French people of the old order.
The notion of "authenticity" was completely foreign to earlier times, and Gilles' Messe des Morts underwent numerous revisions and even recompositions by other hands during the course of the eighteenth century. The manuscript of the mass as performed at Rameau's burial service, for example, contains parts for clarinets, bassoons, horns, and drums; harmonies and phrase lengths are freely altered, and entire movements are inserted from other sources. To complicate matters still further, no manuscript source exists from the composer's hand, only later copies.
Our performance of this work, based on the modern edition of John Hajdu, reverts to the oldest surviving manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale Vm1.1345 bis) copied in Toulouse around 1731. We have added to this source a part for solo baroque tambour, in keeping with the well-documented tradition of drum participation in eighteenth-century performances of this music. The four Provençal tambours also participate in the ceremony (as they likely did in the eighteenth-century Midi) as a prolongation of the tour de ville evoked in Gilles' Introit.
The Gregorian chants are interpreted by the Ensemble Sagittarius according to their appropriate place in the Requiem liturgy. We are not certain in every aspect as to how Gregorian chant may have been sing in seventeenth century Provence and Languedoc. But comparison of the now- standard Solesmes readings of the melodies with old Provençal prints yields some surprises: the Dies Irae, for instance, seems to have been performed in the Midi with rhythmic articulations recalling sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian music. Our aim, by reintegrating Gilles' polyphony, performed on baroque instruments, with the chant melodies, is to better indicate the overall temporal proportions, and the meditative scope, of the funeral mass, The ceremony as thus reconstituted adds gives an added dimension of spaciousness and breadth to Gilles' music and deepens our relationship to the texts.
We can never recreate every dimension of a composer's time and place, but we can learn so much by trying! It is easy to go a bit too far -- for example, recent attempts to pronounce Gilles' Latin the "French" way seem excessively Parisian-ethnocentric, an example of mistaken historicity. For choirsingers in Aix and Toulouse, French was at best a second language, and the vowel sounds of the Provençal/Occitan language would have been very different from those of the "foreign" French tongue. Until we learn more about the pronunciation of Latin in the South, il est urgent de ne rien faire. We have used Roman Latin pronunciations in these performances.
On the other hand, the chance to hear the Requiem chants, the drum tatoos, and Gilles' music in acoustics of the the Aix-en-Provence cathedral, the very church where the composer learned to sing and to compose, may well add something important to our experience. Prepared from an edition by an American scholar, performed by a cast of French, Dutch, American, and English musicians, Gilles's Messe des Morts sounds forth in this special place in a special way.
-- Joël Cohen