Practicing the 72 Etudes Karnatiques by Jacques Charpentier

© Dr. Giusy Caruso, pianist & artist researcher

About the 72 Etudes Karnatiques



A two-year-stay in India, his collaboration with Alain Daniélou (1907-1994) and his studies with Olivier Messiaen, are all factors that spurred the composer Jacques Charpentier (1933 – 2017) to experiment with a Western use of Indian music. The result was a titanic work for piano, 72 Etudes Karnatiques published by Alphonse Leduc. This three-hour-long composition dedicated to Olivier Messiaen was written during a period of almost thirty years – between April 1957 and January 1985. Firstly propounded in 1550 by Raamamaatya and, then, structured in the 17th century by Ventakamakhi, Carnatic music is a musical tradition from South India, based on 72 fixed scales (ragas), which constitute the so-called Melakartha system. Each scale presents the octave divided into two equal tetrachords, a group of four notes, where the first tetrachord is fixed and the second is restructured by following the twelve chromatic degrees. The group of scales divided into two classes sum up to 72 modes: the first class consists of 36 modes, containing the interval of the perfect fourth, to which correspond the scales of the second class, made up of 36 relative modes that enclose the interval of the augmented fourth. Charpentier found the 72 Carnatic modes written in the Western notation at the Conservatory of Paris in the Music Dictionary, edited in 1913 by Albert Lavignac (Librairie Delagrave Charles). The Carnatic modes offered Charpentier an ideal and alternative musical material to develop his Western composition technique. He respected perfectly the Melakarta system by dividing his collection of etudes into 12 cycles where each cycle comprises six etudes based on the 72 Carnatic modes.

Charpentier’s manuscript of the 12 cycle from 72 Etudes Karnatiques                Partition de Jacques Charpentier

                                                                                                                                                    ph. Alain Machelidon

The Melakarta is subdivided into 12 cycles of 6 scales, named chakras, which have symbolic meanings related to the Vedic divinities:

Cycle 1. Indu: The Moon – as the earth has one moon

Cycle 2. Netra: Eyes – as we have two eyes

Cycle 3. Agni: Fire – as there are three types of fires stated in the Veda

Cycle 4. Veda: Veda – as the four original Hindu scriptures

Cycle 5. Baana: Arrow – as Kama, or cupid, believed to have arrows with five flowers

Cycle 6. Ritu: Seasons – as the six seasons in the Hindu calendar

Cycle 7. Rishi: Sages – as the seven Hindu sages (Rishis)

Cycle 8. Vasu: Vasu – as the eight celestial beings in nature (the sons of Ganga)

Cycle 9. Brahma: Brahma – as the nine cycles of the Universe

Cycle 10. Disi: Directions – as the ten directions

Cycle 11. Rudra: Rudras – as the set of eleven divine members of the class (Devas) headed by God Shiva

Cycle 12. Aditya: Aditya – as the twelve Suryas (sun divinities) in the cosmic universe according to the Brâhmana sacred texts

Among the Hindu divinities, the figure of Shiva Nataradja, the Indian God (or King) of Dance, is an impressive and recurrent character in many of Charpentier’s works, to whom he dedicated his third Symphony. Shiva and his divine dance embody the philosophical concept of creation, of birth and death, of the finite existence and immortality, of time and eternity.  Charpentier expresses the Indian idea of Shiva’s divine dance and the sense of movement in music by a frequent use of percussive sonorities and obstinate rhythms based on odd numbers. Actually, numerology is another source of inspiration for Charpentier as revealed by his recurrent use of a metric based on the odd numbers 5 – 7 – 13. Some rhythmical sections derive from an elaboration of the Hindustani decitalas, the rhythmical patterns from North India. Therefore, the 72 Etudes Karnatiques display a combination of the South Indian modes with the North Indian Hidustani rhythmical table written in Western notation. The chords, mostly clusters, appear as agglomeration of pitches taken from the notes of each Carnatic mode. Apart from a few polyphonic lines, the etudes reveal a strong horizontal way of composing as in Indian music. Charpentier often applies long pedals on the first note of the scale, the tonic one, which represents the Sun, where all the other notes are like the planets turning around it.  The melodic line is always shaped on large intervals occurring on all the register of the piano. The use of long chords or a few notes followed by moments of silence emphasize the timbre quality and the resonance of pitches. This process is a frequent feature in these etudes as an expression of a specific mystic conception: the vibrating power of creation in the infinite universe. By this expedient, the piano timbre recalls alternatively the resonance of bells and of percussive instruments in order to evoke both the destructive and reconstructive dimension of Shiva’s dance as well as the passion and resurrection of Christ. Charpentier gives, indeed, vital importance to the concepts of resonance as the vibration of energy, and silence as the breath of sound, quoting Sangita-Makaranda in his thesis Introduction à l’étude des lois de la Musique de l’Inde (1956).  The twelve cycles of etudes have different tempo, character and figuration. Some etudes are very fast, percussive and violent, while others are meditative with a long chant full of ornamentations. Some cycles show classical inheritance in their title, as the 8th Cycle Quasi una Sonata and the 9th cycle Miroirs, while the etude called Mayamalavagaula is dedicated to Chopin. The three cycles, number 2, 8 and 12 (L’Etoile), are meant to be played as a continuous movement without interruption. The last 72nd etude is conceived in the form of a “Star”. The performer has to play the five chords, located in the five spikes of the Star, using her own combination related to the different phrases written by the composer in each etude of this cycle. By leaving the interpreter free to perform all the sections of these last six etudes, Charpentier approaches a form of improvisation as in an Indian performance.



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