“I hazarded to make heard first all sound together.” Jean-Féry Rebel
Baroque Band’s season closes with one of the most strikingly original works of the Baroque repertoire, Rebel’s bold final work, the ballet Les Elemens. Complementing Rebel’s chaotic opening, the program also includes Handel’s grand Concerto Grosso Op 3 No 2 and Telemann’s Ouverture des nations anciens et modernes.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party Program Notes—Telemann, Rebel, Handel, Locatelli
By David Schrader, Baroque Band Harpsichordist and Board Member
“They were friends who did not meet frequently, yet it is known that Handel would, upon occasion, send plants to Telemann.”
Telemann was the most prolific composer of his day (he still holds that distinction in Guiness’ Book of World Records) and one of the most popular. His music, with its fluent melody and less complicated textures, shows the way to the classical era—Telemann was a far more popular composer than his contemporary, J. S. Bach, and this is well-shown in the city of Leipzig’s hope to obtain his services as the city’s “Cantor,” or music director. Telemann was the city council’s first choice for the job that fell, ultimately, to the third-place candidate, Bach! He has left us, in addition to his vast quantity of music, three autobiographies: the first of these was written in 1718 at the request of the composer, secretary, and general musical busybody, Johann Mattheson. The second is in the form of a letter to his colleague, Walther, and the third was finally published by Mattheson in his “Grundlage einer Ehren-Pforte,” which appeared in 1740.
Telemann showed himself to be a creature of the Age of Enlightenment by attending the University in Leipzig. His father had been a clergyman, indicating that education was prized by the Telemann family earlier than what was to become customary (Bach, in contrast, had no such formal education beyond what we would now call high school). Telemann began to study law at the University of Leipzig. His mother, after the passing of his father, was opposed to his making a career of music—Telemann arrived in Leipzig and concealed his musical talent until a room-mate discovered one of Telemann’s compositions and arranged to have it performed in the Thomaskirche (where Bach’s predecessor, Johann Kuhnau, was Cantor). The “genie was out of the bottle” at this point, and Telemann’s career took him to Sorau and then to Eisenach (the birthplace of Bach). After a short marriage (he married, then lost his wife to death after the birth their first daughter, in the space of about a year and a half), he accepted a position at Frankfurt am Main. He remarried in 1714 to Maria Katharina Textor, who bore him eight sons and two daughters.
“His duties as the Cantor for Hamburg tested his productivity—he was expected to compose two cantatas for each Sunday and one setting of the Passion each year.”
The two works by Telemann on this evening’s program are highly representative of his output for instruments: Musique de Table (Tafelmusik) was published in 1733, and included many subscribers from abroad (Telemann is famous for his “Paris Quartets”). The simplicity of Telemann’s music met with a more general popularity than the music of Bach, for example, who was often criticized for being too complicated and artificial. We hear this evening a combination of flutes and strings in witty and charming dialogue in the Suite in E Minor, as well as an Ouverture (understood to be a suite that begins with an ouverture). One commentator expressed the idea that Telemann’s instrumental music constituted “currents of fresh air” in German instrumental music. Telemann had a keen interest in programmatic music and in exotic ideas contained within those works (his familiarity with the work of Jonathan Swift resulted in a suite related to Gulliver’s Travels—the voyage to Lilliput used very, very small notes values, and the voyage to Brobdinag, as one might expect, employs very LARGE note values!).
In any event, Telemann’s great popularity in the eighteenth century is shown partially by the sheer numbers of works in various forms: We have something over two hundred cantatas by J. S. Bach—Telemann composed well over 1,500 of them! Against Bach’s two surviving, complete settings of the passion, Telemann has left posterity no less than 46.
Handel’s Concerti Grossi were inspired by similar works by Archangelo Corelli—along with the Brandenburg concertos of Bach, Handel’s Concertos represent the best of music for instrumental ensembles composed during the eighteenth century. Opus 6, #6, was finished on the 15th of October of 1739 and is scored for strings and continuo (two oboe parts would be added later, but it is the version for strings that we hear during the concert).
“The musical world was in the midst of change—the gallant style, with its simple and symmetrical phrasing, was becoming the most popular style of the day.”
If we continue to examine the musical activity of the first half of the eighteenth century, we come to the last work on tonight’s program, Les Elemens (The Elements). This work was composed in 1737—after a long and distinguished career as a violinist, harpsichordist, conductor and composer, Rebel was coaxed out of retirement by a Prince Carignan to write it. Les Elemens is, undoubtably Rebel’s most interesting work, particularly in regard to the first movement, which is a representation of chaos. The first sound heard is a simultaneous statement of all seven notes of the harmonic minor scale of D Minor, a formidable dissonance not only in the eighteenth century, but to our ears as well. The idea of the dissonance is that all of the those seven notes finally resolve to the single note, D, which represents the earth (pace Mendeleev, there were only four elements at this time: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water).
“Rebel composed in many different genres and was one of the first French composers to write sonatas.”
It is well to consider that Rebel lived into the era of the “Querelle des Buffons,” the War of the Buffoons, a journalistic and esthetic dispute over the merits of the French and the Italian styles. Le Cerf de la Vieville spoke well of Rebel’s contribution to French music: “Rebel truly has a part of the Italian genius and fire, but he has had the taste and the sense to temper them by the French wisdom and tenderness, and he has abstained from the frightening and monstrous cadenzas, which are the delight of the Italians.”