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The Versailles Collection: The Sun King's Paradise / Les Elemens' celebrates the music of the Parisian court at Versailles with music by the great Rebel and Marais. 'The Sun King's Paradise' was named The Observer's‘ Classical CD of the Week' and was awarded the Diapason d'Or.


What is it about this music that exerts such a particular fascination on musicians and listeners alike? Perhaps it is the fact that all French music of this time is directly connected to the human body - either through the voice or the movements of the dance. Or maybe it is the composers' constant awareness of and delight in instrumental sonority and colour. Marais suggesting the mixture of wind and string instruments in his trios as ‘fort agréeable'; De la Barre's preference for the theorbo with the flute ‘because it seems to me that the gut strings of the theorbo go better with the flute than the brass strings of the harpsichord'. This delight in subtle distinctions and love of timbre for its own sake is a source of pleasure in French music of our own time as well. We can draw a line from Rameau through Berlioz and Debussy and arrive at Messiaen and Boulez. But perhaps it is simply the feeling (which can be rare in other styles of early music) that the composers were actually in love with the instruments for which they wrote. Whatever the reason, after years of playing English, Italian and German programmes, it is a pleasure for us to relax into this music, which always rewards the performer as well as the listener. It's a feeling for us perhaps like that of a pianist finally playing Chopin.

One piece in our programme needs a special mention: Les Caractères de la Danse by Jean-Féry Rebel. Castil-Blaze tells us in his L'Académie Impériale de Musique: ‘He had written a caprice for the violin which gave infinite pleasure at the Concerts. Mlle. Prévost wanted to dance a step based on Rebel's brilliant solo. This novelty proved a marvellous success, the Caprice became the favourite step among amateurs and for half a century no ballerina found favour with the public without having first proven herself in this caprice.'

Rebel made the Symphonie de Danse his own in a number of works and often featured Mlle. Prévost, most notably in Les Caractères de la Danse. It uses the clever idea of creating a dance suite from a seamless montage of short bits; twelve seconds of Menuet, nineteen seconds of Chaconne and so on. After a relatively long Musette (over a minute) the work finishes with a furious presto entitled Sonate (a clever and appreciative dig at Italian violin pyrotechnics), and what Mlle. Prévost danced at this point is anyone's guess! Though it must have been spectacular as she was given the honour of performing it for Tsar Peter the Great, and inspired an eight-page poem in Mercure Galant:

‘The author has expressed in these verses what that inimitable ballerina Mlle. Prévost, who brought lustre to this felicitous musical caprice, expressed through her attitudes and by her steps, always brilliant, always varied...'

Les Caractères de la Danse is alone in our programme in having been created for public consumption. It is perhaps worth mentioning the Rebel's orchestral score does not survive. We prepared our version from the published short score, printed and sold for use at home, much like Liszt's piano arrangements of Beethoven Symphonies. (I'm still waiting to hear some brave harpsichordist attempt the famous ‘Le Cahos' from Les Elemens, as Rebel allows in his published short score of that work.) The rest of the music was played at court or in private salons. We get a glimpse of our musicians at work in a letter to Madame de Sévigné by her cousin, Philippe-Emmanuel de Coulanges; the occasion is the wedding of the Duc d'Albert and Mlle. de la Trémouille:

‘For fun, the young people danced to the songs as is currently popular at court; those who wished played (cards) and those who wanted to listened to the lovely concert given by Vizé (theorbo), Marais (viol), Descôteaux and Philibert (flutes); that took until midnight, when the wedding was celebrated in the chapel of the Hôtel de Créquy.'

I hope it is not too fanciful to suggest that our Suite in D might have been heard on this occasion. At the time of the wedding (1696) Marais' trios were hot off the press and the only ones in print in France. And one can easily imagine the effect of the final exquisite Symphonie: the dancers, pausing to catch their breath after all those menuets; the gamblers perhaps sensing for the first time the quality of dance band performing. © William Carter, 1999


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 enjoyed a long and productive career as one of Louis XIV favoured musicians. He was presented at court at the age of eight 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 Cahos. 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 foreward 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 Cahos 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 restrictions (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 Elemens, orchestral or otherwise, is in some measure an adaptation. But 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. And, in keeping with the theme of arrangement, we wanted to take up the challenge that Marais makes to purchasers of his 2nd Book 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 Agréable'.

Our Suite in a minor is drawn from various places: The Prélude and Rondeau from Book 5, The Fantaisie from Book 2, and the Tombeau (for his friend and mentor Pierre Meliton) and Chaconne from Book 1. The epic set of variations on Folies d'Espagne which close our programme are also from Book 2 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