VIIC: Concerts Spirituel

The Concert spirituel,the Paris concert series that began in 1725 and became celebrated all over Europe, lasting until the French Revolution, was founded by the musicians of the Paris opéra, led by one of their number, André Philidor (son of the king's music librarian). Its title of Concert spirituelderived from the frustration of the musicians at the lack of opportunity to perform (and follow their gainful occupation) on the twenty-four days of religious festivals when the Opéra was closed. In order to lend legitimacy to the playing of instrumental music on these days, they included on the programs some of the large scale sacred cantatas for soloists, chorus and orchestra (grands motets) that were daily sung in the royal chapel at the king's mass. By doing so they justified the tag of "spirituel" and, more important, disarmed the potentially-critical clergy. Up to this time, this latter repertory would have only been heard by those at the court of Versailles, but suddenly these motets were brought before a wider public in the capital, alongside instrumental music, much of it in the then-fashionable Italian style.

The motivation, if not the solution to the problem, was exactly similar to that of Handel in creating his biblical oratorios to entertain the opera-loving public during the Lenten period when the theatres were closed in London.

Of all the many composers whose works were featured in the Concert spirituelfrom its foundation in March 1725 to its last days in 1790 (including Pergolesi and Mozart), the most popular was Michel-Richard de Lalande, first employed by Louis XIV in 1683, and then by Louis XV until the composer's death, a period of 43 years of music-making at the court. In all, Lalande's works clocked up more than 600 performances in the programs of the Concert spirituel.The next most-played composers were Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-72), and in the last years of the Concert,Joseph Haydn. In the fifteen months between the first concert and Lalande's death more than forty performances of fifteen of his grands motetsand other works took place in the series, and they continued to hold their place in the repertory for forty-five years after his death until finally displaced by Haydn's symphonies. Mondonville's works became popular in the 1740's, especially when the Concertwas under the direction of the composer Pancrace Royer, and when Mondonville succeeded Royer on the latter's death in 1755, the number of performances of Mondonville's works (not surprisingly), increased, alongside those of Lalande. The first Concert spirituel,in March 1725, was entirely devoted to Lalande's music, except for Corelli's well-known 'Christmas' concerto.

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