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Marais & Rebel: Les élémens

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Recording details: May 2003
St Andrew's Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: January 2005
Total duration: 69 minutes 23 seconds

The Palladian Ensemble, Pamela Thorby, Rodolfo Richter and William Carter powerful performance of French baroque composers Rebel and Marais whose foremost common trait is to have been students of Jean-Baptiste Lully, composer at the court of Louis XIV of France.


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The thunderous dissonance which opens ‘Les Elemens’ is probably the most shocking and original single bar of music composed up to that time. How much more extraordinary to reflect that it was written by a 71 year old pensioner whose music had been previously praised for its ‘Wisdom, Taste and Tenderness’ and its avoidance of the ‘Frightening and Monstrous’!

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747) enjoyed a long and productive career as one of Louis XIV favoured musicians. He was presented at court at the age of 8 by his father, a royal musician, where he reportedly astonished the King with his virtuosity on the violin. He was encouraged by Lully and rose through the ranks to eventually direct the 24 Violons du Roy. When he stepped down from conducting the Concert Spirituel in 1735 he had a long series of successful instrumental works and ballet scores to look back on (although his one Opera; Ulysse, was a failure). However, he was soon tempted out of retirement by Prince Carignan to write the score that has become his most famous: ‘Les Elemens’. The work was premiered in 1737 without the opening movement Le chaos. The “Mercure de France” reported,

‘On the 27th of September the Royal Academy of Music played, after the Opera ‘Cadmus’ a new symphonic work, by Mr. Rebel Senior (Rebel’s son was also a prominent musician) entitled ‘The Elements’, danced by Mlles. Salle and Mariette and by Ms. Dumoulin, Dupre, Malter and Javilliers. This Divertissement, which was perfectly executed, and much applauded, is adorned with a set which characterized the Elements and made a very grand effect.’

The same journal in 1738 tells us:

‘On the 17th and 22nd of March there were performances of ‘Chaos’ by M. Rebel Senior, the which, in the judgment of the greatest Connoisseurs, is one of the most beautiful symphonic works in this genre…a pure symphony without dance or pantomime.’

Rebel’s foreword to the work gives us a glimpse of his thoughts:

‘The introduction to this work is Chaos itself; that confusion which reigned among the Elements before the moment when, subject to immutable laws, they assumed their prescribed places within the natural order. This initial idea led me somewhat further. I have dared to link the idea of the confusion of the Elements with that of confusion in Harmony. I have risked opening with all the notes sounding together, or rather, all the notes in an octave played as a single sound. To designate, in this confusion, each particular element, I have availed myself of some widely accepted conventions. The bass expresses Earth by tied notes which are played jerkily. The flutes, with their rising and falling line, imitate the flow and murmur of Water. Air is depicted by pauses followed by cadenzas on the small flutes, and finally the violins, with their liveliness and brilliance represent the activity of Fire. These characteristics may be recognized, separate or intermingled, in whole or in part, in the diverse reprises that I have called Chaos, and which mark the efforts of the Elements to get free of each other. At the 7th appearance of Chaos these efforts diminish as order begins to assert itself…’

The suite which follows Chaos is filled with imaginative touches. In the opening Air, the violin and bass heavily portray Earth while the flute (or in this case, recorder) imitates the flow of Water over the top. Fire is the subtitle of the brilliant duple time Chaconne which follows, and Air is portrayed in the next two movements; Ramage (warbling) and Rossignols (Nightingales). Rebel then relaxes his programmatic strictures (at the request of his dancers?) and gives us a Loure with hunting calls, two rustic Tambourins, a beautiful canonic Sicilienne, and a final brilliant Caprice. So why make an arrangement for 4 players of a large scale symphonic work?

Sadly, Rebel’s full score doesn’t survive and every performance of Les éléments, orchestral or otherwise, is in some measure an adaptation. Interestingly this doesn’t necessarily work against his intentions. What does survive is a short score which he published shortly after the premiere (this was the most common way to disseminate orchestral music at the time); 1 or 2 treble lines and a figured bass with occasional indications of scoring, which was intended for use in the home. By publishing the work in this format Rebel was opening up the possibility of performances by forces as intimate as ours, and indeed the score contains helpful advice on how to adjust certain movements so that they can even be performed by a single flute and harpsichord.

It seems natural to us to pair Rebel with his friend and colleague at court; Marin Marais (1656-1728). In keeping with the theme of arrangement, we wanted to take up the challenge that Marais makes to purchasers of his 2nd book of Pièces de violes; ‘I have taken care in composing these works to make them suitable for performance upon all sorts of instruments; the Organ, Harpsichord, Theorbo, Lute, Violin, Flute (he expands this list in his 3rd book to include the Guitar and Recorder), and I dare to flatter myself that I have succeeded…’ (I’d love to hear some Marais played on a large French Baroque Organ!) Marais also comments that in making arrangements he finds the combination of string and wind instruments particularly successful; ‘Fort Agreable’.

Our Suite in A minor is drawn from various places: The Prélude from 3rd book and Rondeau from 5th book, The Fantasie from 2nd book, and the Tombeau (for his friend and mentor Pierre Meliton) and Chaconne from 1st book. The epic set of variations on ‘La Folia’ which close our programme are also from the 2nd book although they exist in a manuscript version which would place them among his earliest works. All scholarship aside though, at the end of the day, the only reason to make an arrangement of a piece of music (or indeed, to play music at all) is that you love it and think you can make it sound good. We certainly love this music and can only hope that you will enjoy listening as much as we did playing!

William Carter © 2003

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