Charpentier was born in an aristocratic France where music was predominantly heard in the church and stylistically influenced by Italian and German models. Well-to-do Charpentier found himself studying law in Paris and eventually music in Rome. There he was spotted by the composer Giacomo Carissimi, who became his mentor. Back in France, Charpentier spent 17 years as court composer to Marie de Lorraine before working in a similar post for the Dauphin, son of Louis XIV and then as music master for the Jesuit order in Paris. Eventually he directed music at the Saint-Chapelle, the gothic chapel at the Palais de Justice.
Charpentier dabbled in theatrical music, but the vast majority of his music was written for the Catholic church: motets (often ‘grand’ motets for huge forces), masses, cantatas and oratorios. In fact it was Charpentier who introduced the Latin oratorio – a large-scale setting of a biblical text for voices and orchestra – to France. This was a field the composer excelled in, often giving a prominent role to the chorus and sometimes writing for double chorus to increase dramatic effect. That drama, always born of the text, was pioneered by Charpentier and breathed new life into sacred music in France.
If it hadn’t been for the pre-eminent French composer of the day, Lully, Charpentier might have got higher profile employment. Charpentier and Lully were famously opposed, and Lully – as the court compser – saw to it that Charpentier was given much notable court employment. Not much is known about Charpentier’s character, but a small glimpse of autobiography is included in his own cantata Epitaphium Carpentarij, in which a character of his own name proclaims, ‘I was a musician, considered good by the good ones…and since those who scorned me were more numerous than whose who lauded me, music became to me a small honour and a heavy burden.’