The two most prominent musicians in France in the third quarter of the 17th century were Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marc-Antoine Charpentier, whose careers were closely intertwined—although in ways that one might not have expected. Musicians in that time were sharply divided between those who favored the influences of the Italian monodic style, as exemplified by the cantatas and oratorios of Carissimi and Rossi and by the operas of Cesti and Cavalli, and those who sought a truly French style purified of foreign influences. It was a stylistic antagonism that extended from the reign of Louis XIV well into the next century, right up to the time of the Revolution.

This was closely linked with political and dynastic circumstances. Louis XIV’s grandfather Henry IV married Marie de Medici from Florence, who surrounded herself in Paris with artists and musicians from her homeland. When Henry was assassinated while his son was still a child, Marie contrived to have herself made regent, which gave added power and prestige to her Italian followers; and even when her son Louis XIII (of Three Musketeers fame) reached his majority, she continued to wield serious influence. Shortly after Marie’s death, another Italian became preeminent in France, Cardinal Mazarin (who was born Giulio Mazzarini). Mazarin, prime minister during Louis XIV’s boyhood, was virtual ruler of France, during which time Italian influence on French music persisted. He continued the policies of his predecessor, Cardinal Richelieu, of making France unified internally and powerful internationally; but these political goals apparently were not translated into musical or artistic terms.

All this changed decisively in 1661, when Mazarin died and Louis assumed the reins of political power himself. Italian musicians and musical style lost their influence, and Louis encouraged the development of an indigenous French style of music, which was based on dance rather than on speech and poesy like the Italian. Ironically, the musician who made himself into the very embodiment of this new French style was Florentine by birth, Giovanni Batista Lulli. He came to France as a dancer and singer to a ducal household, changed his name to Jean-Baptiste Lully, then studied violin-playing and composition from French masters. He entered Louis’ service in 1653, having met the young King and danced with him only a few weeks previously; Louis was passionately fond of dancing, and must have been impressed by Lully. When his master took over the rule of France, Lully became the paramount musician in France. And, just as European monarchs competed to emulate Louis’s style of autocratic rule, Lully’s musical innovations became the model for musicians in England and Germany as well as in France.

The irony is compounded by the fact that Lully’s foremost rival and the chief proponent of Italianate style in France was French-born Marc-Antoine Charpentier. He spent three years in Rome, studying under Carissimi, before returning to France. There he found his ambitions for composing opera were blocked by Lully, who had acquired a monopoly on operatic productions. The greater part of his output, therefore, was music for the church: masses, psalms, motets, and oratorios. In them he blended the Italian characteristics—sensitivity to word-setting and text-painting, and the concertato style—with French—a declamatory style derived from Lully, a taste for grandeur, and his own special consciousness of color possibilities.

Jean-Fery Rebel belongs to a younger generation of musicians. His father was a singer in Lully’s operatic productions. He was himself a student of Lully, and some years after Lully’s death held his positions as leader of the 24 violons du Roi. Whereas both Lully and Charpentier were primarily involved in producing vocal music, operas and church music, Rebel spent the greater part of his career in instrumental music, playing in and later directing orchestral ensembles and concerts. The last phase of his composing career was devoted to “symphonies” to be played with the dancers of the Academie Royale, of which he was the director. Les Élémens was the last of these, produced after his retirement in his 70’s.

In 1664, Lully began a seven-year collaboration with the playwright Molière in producing a series of comedies-ballets, which was the first phase in Lully’s creation of French opera. He achieved this not, as did the Italians, by marrying music to tragic drama, but by building on a long French tradition of “court ballets” and infusing that genre with a dramatic plot and sung text. The last of these collaborations with Molière was Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, from which a suite is drawn consisting of the ouverture and eight dance-numbers. The French overture, which was one of Lully’s most important creations, and which influenced the rest of European music for over a century to come, opens with a majestic section of processional character and is succeeded by a quicker, lighter section in imitative texture. Seven dances in various rhythms and meters follow, and the suite is concluded with a chaconne, a large-scale ensemble dance based on a repeating bass-line. (Another irony: when Lully decided in 1672 that working with Molière was no longer to his advantage, the playwright then sought out Charpentier as his collaborator, which relationship continued until Molière’s death.)

Charpentier’s setting of the Te deum was composed sometime in the early 1690’s, while he was maitre de musique at the Jesuit church in Paris, St. Louis. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Te deum, a medieval song of praise to God, was generally sung at times of national importance: it is likely, therefore, that Charpentier composed this setting (it is one of six that he made and of four that survive) to celebrate the French victory at the battle of Steinkerk in 1692, a supposition made all the more likely by the prominence of the trumpets. These are heard right from the beginning, in an instrumental prelude in the form of a marche-en-rondeau. Nine sections follow, in which the full ensemble alternates with all manner of combinations of eight vocal soloists and instrumental soloists from the orchestra. Charpentier combined the concertato style of the religious music that he heard and studied in Rome with a rhythmic style based on Lully’s operas and ballets. Although the musical score as it comes down to us has parts for two trumpets, musicologist Charles Brewer has conjectured that there were originally parts for four; tonight’s performance uses his reconstruction of the third and fourth trumpet parts, for the first time.

Rebel’s Les Élémens is one of the most startlingly original works of the entire 18th century. It is the last of a series of “symphonies” which he composed in the last period of his career, to be choreographed by the dancers of the Academie Royale—in fact, he was persuaded to come out of retirement in 1737 to compose this his final work. It is divided into two parts, which were apparently written at slightly different times (but within the space of the year). The first to be composed but the last to be heard in performance is a suite of dances depicting the elements—not the elements as modem chemistry knows them, numbering upwards of one hundred four, but the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire, a concept that went back as far as the time of Aristotle in ancient Greece. Rebel represents each of the four with musical motives, which are labeled in his score: earth is a set of two or three repeated D’s; water is a moderately slow scale, usually descending but also sometimes ascending, with the notes grouped into pairs; fire is a rapidly ascending scale, sometimes just a few notes in context of jerky rhythms, sometimes covering an entire octave; and air by long, high trilled notes, usually played by the flutes. These movements would naturally have been danced.

However, before them is heard an instrumental movement depicting Chaos, before the world was given order and shape. It begins with a most graphic depiction of chaos, the full orchestra playing all the notes of a D-minor scale simultaneously. This chaotic music re-appears seven times, each time a little less strongly, and with the motives of the four elements gradually taking over the musical texture more and more, until the movement ends on the single pitch D, which represents the complete ordering of the world. This piece is startling not only because of the unprecedented harmonies. In it Rebel took the pictorial writing as practiced by Vivaldi in his Four Seasons (a work that was immensely popular in Paris) and advanced it to the furthest degree possible in his time, farther than any other composer before Stravinsky or Ives. It is also remarkable for not being laid out in any form that was known or practiced at the time: it is the first tone-poem, presaging Liszt‘s innovations in this direction by a century.

©2001 Daniel Pyle