About this Piece
The Most Remarkable Music on this program, if not the entire 18th century, is found in Les élémens by Jean-Féry Rebel, long the leader of the elite Versailles orchestra called the 24 Violons du Roy. The opening Chaos, with tone clusters that would have been considered avant-garde in the 20th century, needs some explanation. For centuries, standard philosophy held that the world was made of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. In the 18th century, when the Biblical story of Creation was taken seriously as history by European intellectuals, it was understood that God created the world not from nothing, but from chaos, which consisted of the four elements in contention with each other. Creation was thus a process of making discord harmonious, a point that John Dryden made specific in his Song for St. Cecilia's Day, famous in a setting by Handel. Sixty years after Rebel, Haydn began The Creation with a depiction of chaos that seems pretty orderly in comparison to Rebel's.
"The introduction to this Symphony was natural; it was Chaos itself, this confusion which reigned between the Elements before the instant when, subject to invariable laws, they took their prescribed place in the order of nature," wrote Rebel in an introduction. "I dared to combine the confusion of the Elements with harmonic confusion. I tried to make heard all the sounds mingled together, or rather all the notes of the octave together in one chord."
Rebel said that he represented the elements through "the most commonly known devices" that is, musical figures that audiences of the time would have recognized as representing a given element: "The bass represents the Earth," he wrote, and "the flutes, by lines which move up and down, imitate the murmur of running Water; Air is depicted by long held notes followed by trills on the small flutes; finally the violins, by means of lively and brilliant music, represent the activity of Fire."
The piece is in seven sections, each beginning with a marking of "Chaos," "which show the efforts made by the Elements to shake each other off. In the 7th Chaos these efforts diminish as total order approaches."
From our vantage point, it is tempting to view Chaos as "modern" in conception, but Rebel would have thought such a label nonsensical. He was not attempting to point music in a new direction; he was just depicting chaos. If anyone had told him that some composers two centuries later would routinely write music that sounded like his Chaos, he would have laughed.
The other pieces in Les élémens, which were composed and danced a few months before Chaos was added to the suite, use some of the same devices: the score tells us that the first Loure depicts earth (the lower parts) and water (flutes), the following Chaconne depicts fire, the Ramage depicts air, and the violin/oboe part in the first Tambourin depicts water.
- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.