Written by Mary Byrne, PhD
Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747)
Les Élémens, simphonie nouvelle (1737-8)
Jean-Féry Rebel announces himself on the title page of Les Élémens as Compositeur de Musique de la Chamber du Roy: composer to the King of France. His name may be unfamiliar today, but in his day his renown went far beyond the gates of Versailles. Jean-Féry, a second-generation musician at court, served Louis XIV and Louis XV as violinist with the Opéra, composer for stage and chamber, and sometimes-attaché to the Anjou royals in Spain. It is his music for dance that won him his greatest success.
Les Élémens, simphonie nouvelle is firmly established as Rebel’s last surviving work, but the music has an uncertain history. Here’s what we know: Rebel wrote an unquestioned masterpiece of tone painting with the simphonie nouvelle’s opening movement, Le Cahos. What we don’t know is when exactly Le Cahos was attached to the rest of the dance suite: sometime in Rebel’s lifetime, certainly, but probably not in the original.
How else should Rebel open the story of the four universal elements – earth, air, fire, and water – if not to present them rising out of Le Cahos: the chaos that reigned at the beginning of time? Rebel gives us chaos in the most marvellous way: all the notes of the minor scale, compacted into the tightest of spaces, sounded together as one grinding chord. From this bristling confusion emerge the elements. Earth is represented by sustained bass figures, water by flowing scales, air by hissing trills, and fire by upward surges. Each element vies for its place in the universe! It is only with the final chord of the movement that we become sure order has supplanted chaos. From here, Rebel grants each element its day through solo and duo dances of characteristic style. The first dances of the suite show each element in its original melodic and rhythmic character. In the later dances focus turns to various instrument groups on stage, leaving opportunity for individual virtuosic display before the suite is rounded out in full ensemble harmony.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935)
Tabula Rasa (1977)
Nothing in his youth suggested Arvo Pärt would attain the stature he now holds as of one of today’s greatest living composers. He had an absolutely common musical upbringing in his native Soviet Estonia. What sets Pärt on a path to high international esteem is his particularly bold and insatiable appetite for study, even of topics frowned upon by Soviet administration. Despite official restrictions, he studied both serial techniques and Gregorian chant, finding sources where he could. Serialism set him on a course toward the dreaded accusation of Formalism and chant aligned him too closely with Christianity, but neither became the final musical result. The resulting style was a composite which is at once both and neither. He called his new technique Tintinnabuli – so-called because the effect resembles the peeling of bells – using traditional triads, simple melodic lines, and complex relationships between all players to create its effect.
For this most captivating composition in Tintinnabuli-style Pärt chooses the title Tabula Rasa, meaning “blank slate.” From expectant emptiness, two solo violins appear, accompanied by string orchestra and a mystical tolling (produced by a piano which is “prepared” with metal screws inserted between the strings). The first movement Ludus (“Game”) uses pure blocks of sound – sometimes in motion, sometimes nearly stopped – interlocking with equally pure blocks of silence to write, erase, and rewrite the imagined slate. Blocks build one on the other, gradually expanding, gaining, and exploring the limits until erupting in sustained, penetrating ecstasy. The second movement Silencio unfolds with luscious extension and little perceptible action. The soloists and orchestra together suspend all sense of time, achieving not a quiet silence but the silence of sublime stillness.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)
Symphony No. 1 in D major, H. 663 (1775)
Emanuel Bach learned the musician’s craft at the elbow of his father, Johann Sebastian. As a young twenty-something he was taken into the service of Frederich II, the Great, of Prussia. The Prussian court in Berlin had a massive music establishment! The melomaniac king practiced his flute for hours every day and hosted concerts most evenings. Even so, the king’s keyboard player, Emanuel, was sadly neglected. Frustrated for thirty years, he finally left the court, after sticky negotiations, to fill the shoes of his late godfather Georg Philipp Telemann and lead the civic musical life of Hamburg. And so it came to pass that Emanuel Bach, now in his mid-50s, was finally able to compose freely.
Most of Bach’s eighteen symphonies were written in the last fifteen years of his career. These later works show an astounding blend of over-wrought baroque empfindsamkeit (unrestrained emotion), contemporary classicism, and Bach’s trademark quirky wit. He called this a Symphony in D major, but this is almost false advertising. The symphony is only barely in D major: your ear tells you where you are going, but you get dropped off somewhere else entirely. For that matter, Emanuel’s use of harmony would cause his father, whose music represents the rules of harmony, to roll over in his grave. Add to this that the symphony form of his day was expected to conform to a certain design – one which didn’t permit rogue cadenzas, elision between movements, unprepared changes of sentiment, and abrupt silences and halts. Bach does all these things amidst splendid sonorities of full, colourful orchestra. The work is rich, delicate, vibrant, shaded, spiky and slippery in rapid succession. In all, this is an Enlightenment symphony wearing the clothes of Romantic eccentric.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 96 in D major, Hob. I:96, “Miracle” (1791)
The story goes something like this: It is dark winter’s night (2 February 1795). Eager listeners crowd the parterre of King’s Theatre, London. The curious audience edges toward the stage to catch of glimpse of Joseph Haydn who is set to lead a performance of his new symphony (no. 96). The performance begins. The masses press themselves forward, vacating the back of the parterre. Suddenly, the massive chandelier crashes down on what otherwise would have been a crowded floor. No one was injured! It was a miracle!
It’s a true story, but not quite right in its telling! Symphony no. 96 had actually been premiered four years earlier. The Symphony that attends this story is Symphony no. 102. Years later, however, publishers would mistakenly make “Miracle” the moniker of no. 96 instead.
Haydn had London in the palm of his hand during this first extended visit. He was on leave from the family Esterházy, whose new prince had no patience for music. Haydn would write twelve monumental symphonies for London audiences, no. 96 being one of the first. The slow opening is lightness gradually shading into darkness, only to deliver directly into a luminous Allegro. Back and forth, light and dark, the movement sways. The genteel second movement alludes to Beethoven. Bright skies and heavy clouds taunt each other, until the final pastorale is cut-off by suspended trills and a quick snap of the strings. A heavy-booted Ländler with music-box Trio replaces the expected courtly minuet as the symphony’s third movement. The finale takes off at a breathless run and barely looks back. Pert jabs can’t even knock the movement off its feet. Only with a peculiar stop in the last few seconds does the music alter course, if only to set up for the final dash to the finish.