• LES ÉLÉMENTS. Tempêtes, Orages & Fêtes Marines 1674 – 1764
  • LES ÉLÉMENTS. Tempêtes, Orages & Fêtes Marines 1674 – 1764
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LES ÉLÉMENTS. Tempêtes, Orages & Fêtes Marines 1674 – 1764
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Reference: AVSA9914

  • Le Concert des Nations
  • Direcció: Jordi Savall

During the 18th century, European and, in particular, French musicians forged a speciality in the art of tone painting. Jean-Féry Rebel set out his intentions in his Foreword to the The Elements, writing: “the Air is ‘depicted’ by sustained notes followed by candenzas played on piccolos.” In this live recording of a concert performed at the Fontfroide Festival, our “musical painters” – Matthew Locke, Marin Marais, Georg Philipp Telemann, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Jean-Féry Rebel – speak for themselves.


During the 18th century, European and, in particular, French musicians forged a speciality in the art of tone painting. Jean-Féry Rebel set out his intentions in his Foreword to the The Elements, writing: “the Air is ‘depicted’ by sustained notes followed by candenzas played on piccolos.” In this live recording of a concert performed at the Fontfroide Festival, our “musical painters” – Matthew Locke, Marin Marais, Georg Philipp Telemann, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Jean-Féry Rebel – speak for themselves.

We symbolically begin the first part of this recording (CD1), with the extraordinary and striking “representation of chaos,” which Rebel included in his ballet The Elements in 1737. The first part of this descriptive and symbolic programme will be followed by incidental music composed by Matthew Locke for the play The Tempest, and concludes with one of the most famous, Antonio Vivaldi’s La Tempesta di mare (The Sea Tempest) in F major (RV 433, Op 10 No.1), composed for recorder and strings.

The second part of the concert (CD2) opens with some extracts from Marin Marais’s lyric tragedy Alcione, followed by Georg Philip Telemann’s famous Wassermusik Hamburger Ebb und Fluth Suite. The recording closes with a selection of storms, thunder rolls, earthquakes and Contredanses composed by Jean-Philippe Rameau for the operas Les Indes Galantes, Hippolyte et Aricie, Zoroastre and Les Boréades.

The extraordinary work published in 1737 with which this recording opens is a veritable symphonic poem. Rebel entitled it Les Elémens “simphonie nouvelle.” A summary of the programme and references to the instruments and harmonies to be used for certain descriptive purposes are clearly set out in the Foreword:

“The introduction of the Symphony was natural; it was chaos itself, that confusion which reigned among the Elements before the moment when, subject to invariable laws, they assumed the place prescribed for them within the natural order.
In order to describe each Element in turn within this confusion I have availed myself of the most widely accepted conventions. The Bass represents the Earth through tied notes quaveringly played; The Flutes imitate the flow and babble of Water by means of ascending and descending cantabile lines; the Air is depicted by sustained notes followed by candenzas played on piccolos; finally the Violins represent the activity of fire with their lively, brillant runs.
These distinctive characteristics of the Elements may be recognised, separate or merged together, in whole or in part, on their various appearances in that I call Chaos, each of which indicates the efforts made by the Elements to free themselves from one another. At the 7th appearance of Chaos these efforts diminish as order finally asserts itself.
This initial idea led me somewhat further. I have dared to undertake to link the idea of the confusion of the Elements with that confusion in harmony. I have risked beginning with all the notes sounding together, or rather all the notes of the scale played as a single sound. These notes then develop, rising in unison in the progression which is natural to them and after a dissonance, end in a perfect chord.
Finally, I thought that the chaos of harmony could be even better rendered if, in exploring the different forms of chaos on different strings, I could, without offending the ear, make the final note indecisive until it returned determined at the moment of resolution.”

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Matthew Locke was at Exeter, where he had been a chorister at the cathedral. Whilst there he learned to play the organ and became friends with Christopher Gibbons, whose uncle was the choirmaster. It is possible that he met the future Charles II in the Low Countries (1646-1648). During the Restoration, in 1661 he was Composer in ordinary to King Charles II, and, following his conversion to Catholicism, he also became organist to Catherine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II. With Christopher Gibbons he composed the music for James Shirley’s masque Cupid and Death (1653), arguably the most elaborate of the period. He also wrote most of the instrumental music for William Davenant’s play The Siege of Rhodes, performed in London at Rutland House in 1656, a work that is widely considered to be the first English opera. Locke set other dramatic works to music, including Thomas Shadwell’s Psyche (semi-opera, 1675), Davenant’s version of Macbeth (1663), and Shadwell’s adaptation of The Tempest (semi-opera, 1674). In the latter, Locke uses for the first time in English music indications such as diminuendo (“soft”) and crescendo (“louder by degrees”), and introduces string tremolos. With the exception of the descriptive Curtain Tune, the “Suite” that we have put together with a selection of various instrumental movements consists of intricate and richly scored dances and imaginative and intense harmonic accompaniments, all characterized by their freshness and lightness.

It should be pointed out that this fondness for descriptions of nature is very often found in the 18th century Italian repertoire, as for example in Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and his famous La Tempesta di mare, brilliantly performed by Pierre Hamon, which concludes the first part of this recording.


Marin Marais wrote four lyric tragedies, including the highly successful Alcione in 1706. In this opera, Marin Marais gives unprecedented importance to the instruments in the “tempest,” the popularity of which explains its subsequent reappraisal and imitation. In his commentary published in 1723 in Le Parnasse françois…des poètes et des musiciens, Evrard Titon du Tillet writes:

“At this point, one must mention the tempest in this Opera, which has earned the praise of all connoisseurs, and which has achieved such a prodigious effect. Marais conceived his tempest, not only on the basis of the usual Bassoons and Basses de Violons, but also on Drums stretched with loosely fitting heads to create a muffled sound, which continually rumble, producing a heavy, gloomy sound which, together with the high-pitched shrill range of the Violins and the Oboes, together effectively convey all the fury and the full horror of a wild sea and the whistling and moaning of a raging wind – in short, the impression of a real storm at sea.”

At this point, we must mention another great tone painter, Georg Philipp Telemann, who in his Watermusic entitled “Hamburg’s Ebb and Flow” (composed to mark the centenary of the founding of Hamburg’s Admiralitäts-Kollegium in 1723), evoked all the mystery of the ancient mythologies of the watery realm. Telemann is another magician who conveys in his music (written in the purest French style) the fury of an ocean inhabited by mythical creatures: the beautiful sleeping Thetis, lulled by the sweet sound of the flutes (Sarabande) and awakened by the joyful strains of a dancing Bourrée, the plaintive Loure of Neptune in love, the irrepressible joy of the Naiads (Gavotte), the antics of the Tritons (Harlequinades), the swirling waters of a sea whipped by the winds of an unbridled Aeolus, followed by the evocation of a reassuring Zephir (Minuet). And after the ebb and flow of the untamed tide suggested by the string instruments (Gigue, Ebbe und Fluth), the sailors’ “Canarie” finally expresses the merry celebration of the end of a journey that is full of surprises.

In most of the operas, the instrumental music plays with rhythms (often in dances), contrasts and dissonances to portray the gaiety of the marine festivals, the panic caused by the cataclysmic events and, finally, a return to order in the natural world. The imposing shipwreck scene from Marin Marais’s opera Alcione went down in history, becoming the model for a genre and an orchestral style which, thirty years later, reached its apogee thanks to Rameau, as we can appreciate when listening to the Storms and the Zéphirs that blow in Les Indes Galantes and the rumbling Thunder in Hippolyte et Aricie. Several “descriptive symphonies” are to be found in Rameau’s last masterpiece, Les Boréades, in which the deity Boreas, master of the winds, plays a pivotal role in the intrigue. This last great opera by Rameau, written shortly before his death, was not performed in its own day; indeed, it was not finally staged until 1983.

Predictably, the critics eventually deplored these techniques of tone painting, dismissing them as muddled dissonance and outmoded harmonic chaos. The storms, tempests and quaking earth scenes became the butt of their sarcastic jibes. Nevertheless, the mode survived well into the 18th century and traces of it are even to be found at the beginning of the 19th century.

These strikingly attractive and suggestive themes are still relevant today. The fact is that the Earth is in danger. And the Earth’s principal enemy is Man, who has long been participating in its destruction. The planet is the so often the victim of aggression that we are beginning to suffer the consequences. Fortunately, many countries are taking action, among other things, to reduce the hole in the ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s harmful rays. There finally seems to be a growing awareness among the political leaders of the world that there is an urgent need to establish and maintain control mechanisms to bring about an effective reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions that are destroying the ozone layer. Let us hope that these objectives really will be achieved and sustained! It is not too late to save the planet through cooperation, investment and our common resolve. As music, with its “tempests and its storms” remind us, the Earth will be what we make of it!

Bellaterra, 1 October, 2015
Translated by Jacqueline Minett