Well into the 20th century it was quite common that sons followed in their fathers' footsteps and took over the family business. The same happened in music, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many composers were the sons of musicians who also tendeed to be their first teacher. We know several dynasties of musicians and composers, such as the Bach family in Germany and the Hotteterres and Couperins in France. This disc is devoted to two members of another, albeit slightly smaller dynasty.
Today Jean-Fery is the only fairly well-known member of the Rebel family. He was the son of Jean Rebel (c.1636-1692), a singer who entered the royal chapel in 1661. In this capacity he took part in performances of several of Jean-Baptiste Lully's operas. Five of his children became musicians, among them Anne-Renée, also a singer, and Jean-Fery. He was educated as a violinist and harpsichordist who from the age of eight received lessons from Lully. In 1705 he was one of the violinists in the 24 Violons du Roi
and became batteur de mesure
in that ensemble as well as in the orchestra of the Opéra. Later he gradually gave up his positions in favour of his son François.
The latter became one of the most prominent composers for the theatre in the 18th century. He was educated as a violinist and theorbo player, and his first job was that of violinist in the orchestra of the Académie Royale, alongside his lifelong friend François Francoeur. Their young age - 13 and 15 respectively - resulted in their being called 'the little violins'. They would cooperate life-long and produced many operas. Until today it has been impossible to discern between the respective contributions to their collective theatre pieces. If asked about that they replied: "This piece is by both of us".
This disc sheds light on a widespread practice in the first half of the 18th century: the performance of large-scale pieces in pocket-size scoring in the salons
of society's upper echelons. This was the time of the Enlightenment, and part of it saw the expansion of the role of non-aristocratic people in music life. This also saw the birth of the chamber cantata for one or a couple of solo voices and a small number of instruments. In addition extracts from operas were performed, both arias and instrumental pieces. The Ensemble Les Surprises has followed this practice by selecting pieces from three stage works by François Rebel and François Francoeur: Scanderberg
(1735), Ballet de la paix
(1738) and Prince de Noisy
(1749). One could argue that one misses the dramatic context if arias are isolated from an opera, but it is very likely that in the time such concerts took place the audience had heard those pieces in the Opéra before and knew what they were about.
The selection includes arias of various kinds, from pieces about (unhappy) love to a storm scene (Que les vents les plus doux
). Obviously the latter makes a much stronger effect if performed with a larger orchestra as in the Opéra, but here it still makes a good impression, thanks to the excellent playing of the ensemble. The more intimate pieces come off even better, also due to the sensitive singing of Juliette Perret and Étienne Bazola. We not only hear arias but also instrumental movements, including the inevitable chaconne
. This was an element included in every opera, mostly in the last act somewhere towards the end. Such chaconnes belong to the most brilliant pieces of the French baroque.
The programme begins and closes with pieces by Jean-Fery. The first is Les Caractères de la danse,
a sequence of 14 movements in which the various dance forms of the time are on display. It is regrettable that the individual movements - which have to be played attacca
- are not listed in the booklet. These are, in order of appearance: prélude, courante, menuet, bourrée, chaconne, sarabande, gigue, rigaudon, passepied, gavotte, sonate, loure, musett and sonate. Le Tombeau de Monsieur de Lully
is a trio sonata from a set of seven published in 1712. Here Rebel pays tribute to the goût réuni
, the mixture of French and Italian styles. The form of the trio sonata was Italian - modelled after Corelli - and so was the scoring for two violins and basso continuo. Rebel constructed this piece as a kind of opera scene comprising short contrasting movements with character indications in French. Towards the end the piece includes tremolo passages before it closes with a return to the opening section where short motifs express sadness about the death of Lully, Rebel's main teacher. The incorporation of Italian elements is not without irony, considering that the (Italian-born) Lully vehemently opposed Italian influences all his life.
This is the debut disc of the Ensemble Les Surprises, and it is a very good one. The choice of repertoire is partly the result of Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas' research on François Rebel and François Francoeur for which he also received an award. In the early 18th century a programme like this took the form of a bouquet of pieces the audience had probably already heard in the Opéra. Today it works the other way round: it gives us the opportunity to become aquainted with music we have probably never heard before, and that goes in particular for the operas of Rebel and Francoeur. Their rediscovery is well-deserved. Very few are available complete on disc as yet. Those who are interested in their operas should investigate a recording of Zélindor
and of Pirame et Thisbé
(performed under the direction of Daniel Cuiller; Mirare, 2007). It would be great if this disc inspires more recordings of their oeuvre.
Johan van Veen