Comédie et Tragédie
Lully – Marais – Rebel. Orchestral music for the theatre
Tempesta di Mare
Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra
Gwyn Roberts & Richard Stone, directors
Emlyn Ngai, concertmaster
The first volume of Comédie et Tragédie. Orchestral music for the theatre is devoted to music by Lully, Marais and Rebel and can be considered the ideal complement and development of another recording I had the pleasure to review for this blog, Molière à l’Opéra, where stage music was presented in its most elaborated expression, the comédie ballet, and the centre of the album was the Molière-Lully partnership. Comédie et Tragédie expands the subject of stage music, focusing on its use in the 17th and 18th centuries, when its great popularity soon separated it from the play for which it was originally composed and made it performed independently as orchestral suite.
To illustrate this process, Comédie et Tragédie opens with the most significant example of successful orchestral music, the suite from Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by Jean-Baptiste Lully, and continues adding two works composed by Jean-Féry Rebel (the symphonie nouvelle Les Élèments) and by Marin Marais (the suite from Alcyone).
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme was harshly criticized at the time of its premiere (1670) for the preponderance given to music to disadvantage of the text and was the last collaboration between Lully and Molière before the famous quarrel that put an end to their partnership. The success of play and music was anyway undisputable and until the end of the 18th century the famous Turkish march that opens the scene of the Cérémonie des Turcs served as a model for any composer who wanted to write oriental music. The New Grove stated that Lully introduced also «several chansons à boire, and the famous minuet to which Monsieur Jourdain learns to dance, already used the same year in Les amants magnifiques, would have been familiar to the first audiences. According to several sources, its tune was derived from a popular song, Margot sur la brune, which was being hummed as early as 1660, and it satirized the duchesse de Vitry, who had retired to the convent of the Assumption».
The symphonie nouvelle Les Élèments and its introductory movement Le Chaos were originally conceived by Rebel as two different works and they received their premiere separately in 1737 and 1738, but since then they have been published and played together. Le Chaos is one of the most remarkable pieces of the 18th century music because Rebel «used the most widely accepted conventions» to portray it. «The bass represents the earth with its notes tied together and played as tremors. The flutes imitate the flow and murmur of water with melodic lines which ascend and descend. The petites flûtes depict air with sustained notes followed by trills. Finally the violins’ quick, brilliant figures represent the activity of fire».
The tragédie en musique Alcyone (1706) represented the peak of Marais’s career and, despite the sporadic use of popular tunes, it distinguishes itself for its complexity and its contrapuntal skill. This complexity characterizes also the divertissements that later constitute the suite.
The ensemble Tempesta di Mare performs the three works with refinement and subtlety and the outcome is one of the most fine and enjoyable. Lully’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme opens the album with its pompous ouverture that reminds immediately of the conceitedness of the title role despite the separation of the music from the play and rather seems to reaffirm their closeness. This made me wonder if also in the 17th century the Suite was played with its original destination still in the performers’ minds or if they were not concerned about it anymore. The next pieces of the Suite soften the character of the ouverture, but are wonderfully performed, especially the famous Cérémonie des Turcs with its oriental suggestions.
Rebel’s Les Élèments – and Le Chaos in particular – are the real surprise of Comédie et Tragédie as the idea of the primordial disorder, that that existed before the creation of everything, is very well conveyed by the vivid sound of the orchestra that seems to have exhausted all its colours and resources to make this an effective piece. This makes so easy to be conquered by the initial, uneasy image of the chaos and later by the impression that some arcane forces are slowly working to produce something from the amorphous bulk of material. The next pieces of Les Élèments are less impressive in comparison to the first, but their amusing and refined style makes very difficult to ignore them and a lively piece as the Tambourins – for example – will stun the listener for sure.
Marais’s Alcyone, at last, is the most serious, although not grave, work of this collection. It is also the most elaborated composition among those present and its formal refinement is something that replaces the brilliance of the previous works. This Suite has a thoughtful character overall, while the rightly famous Tempête is another chance to savour the richness of the orchestral palette.
The variety of inspiration of the works, the excellence of Tempesta di Mare and the sample of music history are the ingredients of the first volume of Comédie et Tragédie and, since these all are precious and valuable qualities, there is the hope that also the second volume (released in 2016) will offer the same high standard and musical enjoyment.