Text of the booklet "Jean-Féry Rebel. Ballets Sans Paroles"
In 1711 Jean-FÎry Rebel published his orchestral Caprice. This piece immediately achieved great popularity among the Parisians and attracted attention of the celebrated FranÍoise PrÎvost who set her solo dance to the music of the Caprice. Her performances were so successful that soon after that each ballet dancer, making her debut, had to know Rebel’s Caprice.
The transformation of an instrumental piece into a dance was not an extraordinary occurrence for the French Baroque theatre. In this domain it was common to sing a Chaconne or to dance an aria, court performances envisaged vocal numbers together with dances. For that reason, the appearance of Rebel’s Caprice merits special attention: apparently this piece was the first ballet without singing. A year after the Caprice, another piece by the composer, the Boutade (fancy, whim, joke in French), was turned into a dance.
Subsequently, Rebel began composing instrumental suites, especially for ballet productions. He called them choreographed ‘symphonies’ and particularly they brought him fame (this album contains six of them). These are all works of a mature master, the composer of numerous instrumental pieces, arias, songs and the opera Ulysse. His very first choreographed ‘symphonies’ Rebel wrote when he was above forty, whereas Les ÎlÎmens, possibly his best work, was composed after his seventieth birthday.
Jean-FÎry Rebel was born into a family of a musician and grew up in the French court. He was a harpsichordist, a violinist and a conductor. At the age of eight he amazed the Sun King and Jean-Baptiste Lully with his performance on the violin. From 1699 Rebel was one of the 24 Violons du Roi, and, later, he directed the Orchestre de l’Academie Royale de Musique as well as numerous ballet performances. One of his sons, FranÍois Rebel, also became a famous musician – that is why Jean-FÎry Rebel is sometimes called le pĎre.
His choreographed ‘symphonies’ were at first an elite Parisian genre, they were performed during visits of the eminent guests as an example of the highest achievements in music. The symphony Les caractĎres de la danse was heard in Versailles by Emperor Peter the Great, who particularly at that time has been thinking about organizing balls in Russia, thus, by the irony of fate, Rebel has a certain connection to Russian culture.
Each of the dances deals exclusively with itself, rather than depicting a particular personage, so the suite becomes in fact a ballet about a ballet. Hence, the succession of court dances that vary in mood and tempo really performs the role of a libretto. All the dances, used by Rebel, were well-known. In music theory, they were even employed as examples to teach various types of tempo and metre. Thus, Michel L’Affilard in his treatise Principes trĎs faciles pour bien apprendre la musique (1694) writes that excellent illustrations of the triple-metred slow pieces could be found in the gentle sarabandes and arias. He mentions the chaconne and the minuet as examples of music in moderate tempo, whereas in describing fast pieces he brings to mind the passepied and the gigue.
In discussing metre and tempo, Baroque dances could be divided into the following categories:
Besides embodying different characters of dance, the music of several ‘symphonies’ recognizably depicts definite dramatic personages, if not literary plots. The most detailed description of a programmatic subject could be traced in Les ÎlÎmens (1737), which elaborates on one of the favourite themes of the Baroque period. It is a musical cosmogony, a ballet about the creation of the world.
The elements were danced on French stages in earlier times as well. The beginning of the 1730’s witnessed the emergence of such compositions as, for instance, the ballet about Demogorgon, which pertains to the grotesque trend of court performances, depicting the ‘dark side’ of the world. Among other dances, that ballet included a part, in which the four elements were introduced – air, fire, water and earth. In 1721 at the Academie Royale de Musique was premiered the opera-ballet, Les ÎlÎmens, by AndrÎ Cardinal Destouches and MichĎl Richard de Lalande.
All Rebel’s ‘symphonies’ are masterfully orchestrated, and in Les ÎlÎmens the timbre plays the leading role in the whole conception. However, not all manuscripts of Rebel’s music have been preserved, while the sources, available to us (for instance, the so-called ‘reduced scores’) present a large number of quandaries to the performer. At that time it was common to attract a buyer with the prospect that he could perform the suggested music at home with his friends, and that they would need only those particular instruments, that they know how to play. The brilliant orchestral Fantaisie (1729) the full score of which was supposed to include about eight various parts, was published in a reduced-score version: the number of parts in it fluctuates between two and four, moreover, frequently without any specifications of what part belongs to which instrument. The trumpet part consists of only one note in the entire composition(!), passingly written into the parts of the violins. At that the title page contains the following inscription: ‘This piece benefits greatly from being performed with double-bass, trumpets and timpani. Interested persons should address themselves to Mr. Lallemand, the Opera’s copyist, for parts.’
In the score of Les ÎlÎmens we read: ‘This symphony could be performed at a concert by two violins, two flutes and bass. It is also possible to play it on the harpsichord’. However, the remarks in the score suggest the participation of bassoons, flutes, horns and oboes in various pieces. Moreover, the parts of trumpets and horns for the concluding piece of this suite have been preserved.
The string instruments, forming the basis of Rebel’s orchestra, comprise not only the violin family but also viols. Which instruments should be chosen for any particular movement, and especially which ones should perform the bass in the continuo group, could be sometimes determined by one single note, available on one instrument and not available on another (thus, in the Chaconne from Les ÎlÎmens the choice is made in favour of the basse de viole, a seven-stringed bass viol, which has the A of the contra octave). In addition, there also exists the problem of the so called parties, i.e. the middle voices, often missing in a published score (though they might have been present in the original manuscript).
Hence, one of the tasks of present-day performers is a reconstruction of the original intent of the composer, a subtle textual work, preceding the rehearsals. Sometimes, the modern ‘kapellmeister’ has to ‘become’ a Baroque master’s assistant, who should prepare the parts and fill in the middle voices in case they are dotted only in the beginning of the score (as they are in the reduced score of Les plaisirs champĐtres). The concertmaster is also supposed to apply the colla parte technique (literally ‘with the part’, i.e. the technique of doubling violins with oboes or flutes), as well as to distinguish the episodes to contain the petit chľur (the ‘small choir’, i.e. ensemble of solo instruments, contrasting to the tutti).
However, in his Les ÎlÎmens suite Rebel indicated in detail all the timbres. Having completed his suite, the composer decided to add an introductory movement Le Cahos (‘The Chaos’). He supplied it with a remarkable preface. Although relevant to Le Cahos, the comments on the orchestration could be applied to the entire composition: ‘The bass represents the Earth by its constrained notes, which are played in separate strokes. The flutes by the contour of the melody, which ascends and descends, imitate the flow and murmur of Water. Air is depicted by the extended notes, which are followed by cadenzas of piccolo. Finally, the violins with their fast and brilliant passages represent the vivacity of Fire. These figures make themselves recognizable, separate or conjunct, in a whole or in parts, in various recapitulations, which I call by the name Cahos and which express the efforts of the elements to free themselves from one another.’
Nevertheless, Rebel does not in the least overwhelm with conceptions, his symbolism is unobtrusive and it hardly contains a hidden implication. It is rather a charming timbral play with elegant hints, which are easy and pleasant to unravel. After Le Cahos, the Loure I presents the elements separately: at first the Earth appears (a droll melody in the strings), in its following statement it is adorned with phrases, played by the flute (the element of Water) and, finally, illuminated with flickers of Fire (fast passage in the violins and violas). This Loure is actually more than just an elegant dance, it is a miniature model of the construction of the universe.
In Rebel’s orchestral cycles, just as in the music of his contemporaries, there is always a piece either entirely without the thoroughbass or with a bass in a higher register. In Les ÎlÎmens it is Le ramage for two violins and recorder, and Les rossignols (‘The nightingales’) that sing with a voice of the transverse (‘German’) flute. Those graceful pieces with elegant rhythmic contours portray the element of Air.
The element of Water is introduced by the vigorous Tambourin and the charming Sicilienne (in this dance, written in minor, imitations resemble ripples in the water).
By adding Le Cahos to his score, Rebel gave the entire composition a subtitle ‘new symphony’ (‘simphonie nouvelle’). The novelty is, indeed, impressive: Le Cahos opens with a cluster, which occurs here probably for the first time in the history of European music. Rebel himself gives the following explanation: ‘I have dared to interpret the idea of the confusion of the elements as that of confusion of harmonies. I have hazarded to let the sounds be heard all at once or, in other words, to merge all the notes of the Octave into a single sound. These notes are elaborated then, rising up in a natural succession to the unison, and after the Dissonance, the perfect chord is heard.’
Thus, Rebel touched upon the harmony which would become customary to listeners only three hundred years after his death. However, is it really surprising to find harmonic innovations in the work of the brilliant composer, creator of a new genre, bold experimenter, whose music is still appealingly fresh and buoyant?
Grigori Lyzhov, Pavel Serbin, Anna Andrushkevich
Text of the booklet "Jean-Féry Rebel. Ballets Sans Paroles"