Rebel: Le cahos (Chaos), from Les Élémens

Jean-Féry Rebel

BORN: Baptized on April 18, 1666. Paris, France

DIED: January 2, 1747. Paris

COMPOSED: 1737 or 1738; in the latter year Rebel attached it as the introduction to his 1737 “simphonie” Les Élémens. A note on the title: French spelling at the time was somewhat fluid; as a result, Rebel's manuscript reads Le cahos, rather than the more familiar modern spelling of Le chaos, and Les Elemens, without accents  

WORLD PREMIERE: March 17, 1738, at the Académie Royale de Musique (the Opéra) in the Palais Royal, Paris

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST­­—March 2016. Michael Tilson Thomas led at a SoundBox performance.These are the first subscription performances.  

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (doubling on piccolos), bassoon, drum, harpsichord, and strings

DURATION: About 6 mins

THE BACKSTORY Following two and a half centuries of slumbering as a footnote in specialized texts about the French Baroque, Jean-Féry Rebel has gained renewed attention during the past couple of decades. He is now recognized as a genuinely inventive figure from a time and place that valued both novelty and tradition. To situate him among some of the most famous French figures of his musical era, we might note that he was a generation younger than Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier; a few decades older than Jean-Philippe Rameau and Jean-Marie Leclair; and a near contemporary of François Couperin.

Like Couperin, he belonged to a musical dynasty, in his case one that spanned more than a century. His father, Jean Rebel, became a tenor in the French Royal Chapel in 1661, the year Louis XIV assumed personal control of the French government. Jean’s brother Robert was also on the court music staff, and one of Jean’s daughters, Anne-Renée, became a noted singer. She married the composer Michel-Richard de Lalande. Jean-Féry, born three years after Anne-Renée, is today the most famous of the Rebel clan. The eldest of his six children, François, continued in the family business, gaining fame as a violinist, theorbo-player, conductor, composer, and opera director.

Jean-Féry Rebel composed during the reigns of Louis XIV (who died in 1715) and Louis XV, although his work for the latter occurred during a regency since Louis XV took over in earnest only in 1743, after Rebel had retired. Louis XIV took keen personal interest in court music and dance, even performing sometimes in ballet productions. As with the other arts, he organized French music under a minutely regulated bureaucracy. Some 120 staff musicians were kept busy with musicmaking for the king, and the operations of these musiciens du roi were organized into clearly defined domains, most broadly through the divisions of the Musique de la Chambre (indoor chamber and orchestral music), Musique de l’Écurie (outdoor performance, including military music), and Musique de la Chapelle Royale (sacred music), plus a separate, lofty niche for the Académie Royale de la Musique (opera and ballet).

After studying violin and composition with Lully, Jean-Féry became involved with several of these departments. He and his son performed in the Chapelle Royale, for which he also wrote a half dozen Tenebrae services (now lost). He composed a single opera—the tragédie-lyrique Ulysse, which received five or six performances in 1703 and was not heard again until 2007. He played violin in the Opéra orchestra and in 1705 he became a violinist in Louis XIV’s vaunted orchestra Les 24 Violons du Roi, eventually ascending to the position of batteur de mesure (time-beater, i.e. conductor), a responsibility he also took on at the Opéra. In 1726 he succeeded his brother-in-law Lalande as Chamber Composer to the King. He was a pace-setter in chamber composition, being among the first French composers to write instrumental sonatas.

His most notable compositions, though, were in the domain of ballet. Staged sequences of courtly dances were a mainstay of court entertainment, usually presented as independent scenes within operas or other stage works. Among Rebel’s acclaimed dance music were a number of “choreographed symphonies,” including Les caractères de la danse (1715), Fantaisie (1729), Les plaisirs champêtres (1734), and, most remarkably, his final work, Les Élémens (or, as the composer rendered it in his manuscript, Les Elemens,1737–38).

Although scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were reshaping people’s worldview during Rebel’s lifetime, they did not entirely sweep away the age-old notion that the universe consisted of four elements—Earth, Water, Air, and Fire—that assumed their distinct characters as they grew out of the primordial stew of Chaos. Visual and stage artists often seized on the Four Elements as a subject, and in 1721 Rebel had even conducted an opéra-ballet on the subject, Les Élémens, by André Cardinal Destouches. Rebel turned to this theme for his own final work. It began as two separate pieces, with Les Élémens originally being a “symphony” of dances illustrating each of the four elements individually, also mixing in character pieces involving birdsongs and hunting-horns. It optionally culminated in a supplementary movement depicting L’amour (Love), that being a Baroque take on the classical idea of a fifth element (Quintessence or Ether) that rose above the physical elements and was inhabited by a divine or spiritual quality.

THE MUSIC Rebel wrote and premiered Le cahos (or in its more familiar spelling, Le chaos— Chaos) as a standalone piece but then decided to append it as a prologue to Les Élémens proper. He wrote a detailed explanation of this section for the published edition, here excerpted:

The introduction to this Symphony was drawn from nature: it was 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.

I have availed myself of some widely accepted conventions to depict each particular element of this confusion.

The bass expresses Earth by tied notes which are played in a shaking fashion. The flutes, with their rising and falling lines, imitate the flow and murmur of Water. Air is depicted by long-held notes followed by resolutions on the small flutes. Finally, the violins, with their lively, brilliant passages, represent the nimbleness of Fire.

These characteristics may be recognized, separate or intermingled, in whole or in part, in the various reprises that I have called Chaos, and which mark the efforts of the Elements to separate from each other. At the seventh appearance of Chaos these efforts diminish as order begins to assert itself.

This initial idea led me 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.

In his preliminary manuscript, Rebel began Le cahos with the instruments playing a D in unison, followed by a silence, suggesting some universal void even earlier than Chaos. He chose to eliminate that when the piece was published, such that Le cahos begins, just as he explained, with “all the notes in an octave played as a single sound.” By that he means that every step of the D minor scale (D–E–F–G–A–B-flat–C-sharp) is played simultaneously, yielding what is likely the first notated tone cluster in the history of music.—James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Christopher Hogwood leading the Academy of Ancient Music (L’Oiseau Lyre)