Jean-Féry Rebel was born on April 18, 1666. His father Jean Rebel (1636-1692) was a singer with the Royal Chapel. Jean-Féry was only eight years old when Jean-Baptiste Lully noticed his prodigious gift for music. Lully taught the young Rebel how to play the violin and also gave him instruction in composition. Under the auspices of such a powerful musical protector, the career of Jean-Féry Rebel progressed rapidly. In 1699, he was appointed first violin at the Opéra and by 1705, he had become a member of the king’s Twenty-Four Violins. From 1718 to 1727 Rebel shared the post of Chamber composer with his brother-in law Delalande and in 1720, Rebel assumed the post of batteur de mesure (conductor) at the Royal Academy of Music.
Rebel published three books of sonatas and suites for violin. He composed a setting of Tenebrae Lessons (Leçons de ténébres) in collaboration with Delalande — now sadly lost — and wrote approximately twenty airs which were published between 1695 and 1708 in a variety of vocal collections (Receuils d’airs sérieux et à boire). Rebel composed only one tragédie lyrique — Ulysse. The work was premiered in 1703 but did not achieve the level of success enjoyed by his dance (ballet) music which was widely acclaimed. After a long career Jean-Féry Rebel died January 2, 1747.
At a time when the opéra comique and the tragédie lyrique dominated the French musical stage a new type of dance spectacle made its appearance circa 1720 — the ballet-pantomime (pantomimic ballet). Also called ballet d’action or ballet en action this new theatrical entertainment was completely distinct from the lyric based art forms mentioned above and relied solely on gesture and dance in order to narrate a story and portray emotions.
Rebel composed his first ballet, titled Caprice, in 1711. The work was danced by the illustrious Françoise Prévost (1680-1741). Danseuse seule (or prima ballerina) of the Paris Opera since 1705, La Prévost was admired as much for her exceptional technique as for her expressivity. One of her many admirers, the dancing master Pierre Rameau wrote in 1725: “all the advice which, after long meditation, we can offer in regard to our art is contained in a single one of her dances.” Françoise Prévost retired from the stage in 1730. Her daughter Anne married Jean-Féry Rebel’s son Francois in 1733.
The ballet Caprice consists of only two movements which, ironically, do not carry dance titles. The first movement, Gravement, is divided into two sections. The first is characterized by descending scales treated in imitation; the second makes use of ascending scales in long note values. The calm before the storm … In the second movement of the work, titled Vivement, energetic homorhythmic sections alternate with passages dominated by deafening double-stop tremolos played by the first violins.
The second of Rebel’s ballets Les Caractères de la Danse was premiered in Paris in 1715. The inspired interpretation of the work by Mlle Prévost contributed substantially to the immense success of the piece. Indeed the work enjoyed multiple revivals and was most notably reprised by two of Françoise Prévost’s most gifted students — Marie Sallé and Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo.
Marie Sallé (ca.1707-1756) was born into a theatrical milieu; her father directed a troupe of strolling players. She made her debut at the Comic Opera in 1718 and at the Royal Academy of Dance in 1721. She appeared on stage at the Paris Opera from 1727 to 1740 and also made several performance tours of London. It was in London, in 1727, that she first performed the solo, Les Caractères de la Danse, under the baton of Handel. Two years later she returned to France and on March 8, 1729, Marie Sallé and Antoine de Laval (1688-1767) revived Les Caractères in a rather audacious way by performing the work in street apparel and without masks. The presentation followed in the tradition of her Pygmalion (London 1734), in which she pushed the limits of theatrical norms by performing clad in a loose dress resembling a Greek tunic — without the ubiquitous wig or panniers (the wire and wooden structure that gave the dome shape to the hoop skirts of the period). Both presentations were a sensation! Many of Sallé’s performance innovations anticipated the practices of early 19th-century romantic ballet. The gracious dance style of Marie Sallé highlighted expressiveness over technical prowess. Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810) described the dancer in the following way: “Her physiognomy was noble, expressive and lively. Her voluptuous style of dance was underscored as much by finesse as by lightness. But it was not just through leaps or gambols that she touched the heart …”
Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo (1710-1770) was a performer of a completely different temperament. An exceptional technician, Camargo specialized in lively dances; her virtuosity and panache always dazzling the audience. She was the first female dancer to execute jumps (like the entrechat quatre) at the time performed only by the males of her profession. The height and extent of her jumps lead Marie-Anne to invent a type of ballet tight — modestly styled in the 18th century as “protective underwear” (caleçons de protection). La Camargo, as she was commonly called, made her debut at the Royal Academy of Music on May 5, 1726 in Les Caractères de la Danse. The performance garnered La Camargo immediate acclaim but also the jealousy of her former teacher, Françoise Prévost. Born in Brussels, the dancer became a naturalized French citizen in 1734. With the exception of the brief period between 1734 and 1740, Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo continued to dance until 1751.
Voltaire, who admired both Camargo and Sallé, dedicated the following verses to the dancers:
Ah! Camargo how brilliant you are! But Sallé, great gods, is ravishing! How light your steps; but how sweet are hers! You are fresh; she is inimitable Nymphs jump like you, But the Graces dance like her!
Les Caractères de la Danse is a unique composition. It opens with a gracious Prelude after which ensues an uninterrupted suite of condensed dance movements — the most popular of the period. Curiously, Rebel inserts a Sonate between the Gavotte and the Loure. The work concludes with another Sonate. The two Sonates, containing virtuostic elements, are written in Italian style.
Composed in 1720, the ballet La Terpichore as its title suggests was composed in honour of Terpichore, the muse of dance. Rebel dedicated the work to the wife of John Law (1671-1729), the Scottish financier who held the post of Controller General of Finances (Surintendant de Finances). Terpichore opens with an agitated tutti, titled picturesquely Bruit (Noise) by Rebel. Bruit gives way to a section not unlike the fast movement of a concerto which is followed in turn by two Siciliennes composed in rondeau form. The ballet concludes with a Gigue (a dance of English origin) titled Langloise. A gallant allusion to the dedicatee? The last movements of the work are written in concert grosso style. In the score Rebel gallicizes the Italian terms tutti (tous) and concertino (petit choeur).
The Fantaisie was composed in 1729. The introductory Grave is followed by an unusually long Chaconne. Two variations containing several measures for trumpet (underscoring a martial affect) frame a central episode of bucolic allure where the flute is highlighted. After an elegant Loure and a rhythmic Tambourin, which makes use of German or transverse flutes and small flutes (recorders) in addition to the strings, the ballet closes with a second Chaconne that restates material presented in the first.
With the exception of the central majestic Chaconne, it is the bucolic universe of the shepherd that is evoked by Rebel in the dances forming the ballet Les Plaisirs champêtre, of 1734. The warm sonorities of oboes, bassoons and flutes are combined with the strings throughout the work. Like the Fantaisie, few details are known about the performance context of Les Plaisirs.
Jean-Féry Rebel was more that seventy years old when he composed his last work, the ballet Les Elemens (1737). The work begins with one of the most strikingly original works of the Baroque repertoire — Chaos (Chaos). Aware of the boldness of the piece, Rebel added an Avertissement to the printed score (dedicated to the Prince de Carignan) in which he explained in great detail the compositional ideology and inspiration behind the work.
According to Rebel Chaos is “that confusion which reigned among the elements before the moment, when subjected to invariable laws, they took their ordained places in the order of nature.” Rebel goes on to describe how he undertook to represent chaos musically: “I dared to undertake to link the idea of the confusion of the elements with that of confusion in harmony. I hazarded to make heard first all sound together or rather all of the notes of the octave united as a single sound.” Thus was born the first tone cluster in the history of Western art music! The chaos theme returns seven times throughout the movement and each time it appears the struggle between the elements further diminishes in intensity. Chaos concludes with a perfect consonance — an octave. Throughout the movement each of the elements is represented by a distinct musical idea: Earth by slurred bass notes; Water by ascending and descending flute cascades; Air by long sustained notes at the piccolos that conclude with trills; Fire by bravura violin passages.
The first movements of the suite Les Elemens can be described in the following way: Air pour les violons (Earth); Air pour les flûtes plus the first Tambourin (Water); Chaconne (Fire); Ramage (Air). Standard dance movements follow the movement Les Rossignols.
Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Elemens exemplifies the aesthetic ideal of the Baroque, that which lies at the heart of all arts including music — the perfect imitation of nature.
Copyright Mario Lord, 2006. Translated by Ilene McKenna.