André Campra, French Composer

André Campra, French Composer
André Campra, French Composer

In 17th and 18th Century France, there were an extraordinary number of men and women artists that emerged, making a name for themselves. They were poets, fabulists, painters, playwrights, actors, composers and writers. Some of the writers became the foundation for the L’Académie Française, which was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. The Académie is the most distinguished learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Freelance History Writer would like to take a look at some of these remarkable artists.

André Campra was most known for originating the new genre of “opéra-ballet” and for being the most significant opera composer between Jean-Baptiste Lully and Jean-Philippe Rameau. His works can be divided evenly into three categories: opera-ballet, sacred music and tragic. He combined characteristics of Italian music with French music.

Campra was born in late 1660 in Aix-en-Provence. His father was a surgeon and violinist from Italy and was André’s first music teacher. When he was fourteen, he joined the choir of the church of St. Sauveur and studied music with Guillaume Poitevin. Four years later he entered studies for the priesthood. He was reprimanded by his superiors when he was caught performing unapproved theatrical performances at secular theaters. He took orders for the priesthood in 1678 and became a chaplain three years later.

Campra was named music master at the church of St. Trophime in Arles and remained there for two years. He then took the same position at the Cathedral of St. Étienne in Toulouse where he stayed until he took a leave of absence in 1694. He moved on to the position of music master at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris which he held until 1700. He was a bit of a maverick when he introduced violins into sacred music at Notre Dame. Violins were considered “street instruments” at the time.

The music he had written during this period had mostly been sacred but he was ready to try his talents at dramatic music. In 1697 he presented “L’Europe galante”, a new invention he called “opera-ballet”. This presentation and “Vénus” in 1698 and “The Venetian Carnival” in 1699 were quite successful. He may have published some of these compositions under his brother Joseph’s name in order to maintain his position in the church. But after their success, he felt confident enough to support himself with secular music and left his post at Notre Dame.

 Score of André Campra's Ballet "L'Europe Galante", 1698
Score of André Campra’s Ballet “L’Europe Galante”, 1698

He wrote his first tragic opera “Hesione” in 1700 and this was followed by seven others. The most successful of these were “Tancrède” in 1702 and “Idomenée” in 1712. Campra was by this time the foremost writer of dramatic music and was granted a publishing monopoly. He was given a pension by King Louis XV in 1718. In 1706 he wrote his first book of secular cantatas which was followed by two other books in 1714 and 1728. In 1720, he returned to writing sacred music and was made master of the royal chapel and official composer and music director for the Prince of Conti, Louis-Armand de Bourbon. He also served as inspector general at the Royal Academy of Music from 1730.

Between this time and his retirement in 1742, he wrote a great deal of material for the royal chapel. He suffered from ill health and died at Versailles on June 29, 1744, aged eighty-three. In addition to his operas, he had composed more than twenty cantatas, over one hundred motets, songs and airs and many other sacred vocal works.

Hear Campra’s famous composition “Rigadoun”

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