Monday, February 24, 2014

Bizarre Baroque Program Music

My post yesterday provoked some interesting comments, one of which introduced me to a piece and a composer that I had not previously known. I might have read his name somewhere, but it must have been a long time ago. When I was an undergraduate student the series of volumes that were the most referenced for music history were published by Norton and included books on the renaissance by Gustav Reese and baroque by Manuel Bukofzer. These books sometimes had the feeling of being long-winded recitations of names and dates. But trying to research this composer, Jean-Féry Rebel (1666 - 1747), in the new Oxford History of Western Music made me appreciate the older books. Taruskin, in the new series, is brilliant, but in the interests of covering what he considers important features of music history, he doesn't hesitate to make room by leaving out what he considers minor figures.

In the comments yesterday I mentioned the big exception to my general view that music is rarely bound to any particular ideology. The exception is program music where the composer sets out to depict a set of events or moods or physical entities in music through mimesis of some kind. An example is Berlioz' depiction of an obsessive love in his Symphonie fantastique. "Program music" is the 19th century term for this and it fits pretty well. They thought of a lot of music, from Chopin's ballades to Richard Strauss' tone poems, as kinds of narratives where the "story" may be made evident by the composer, or, as in the case of Chopin, just remain in the background.

But there is an older version of this that is related to the way the ancient world viewed the arts: as imitations of nature. In the case of representational painting, this is pretty clear. But what about in the case of music? It was often thought to imitate, somehow, the flows and energies of the soul or spirit. But sometimes it was made to imitate the world in more obvious ways and the term for this was "madrigalism" from its frequent use to illustrate the text in madrigals. If a bird was mentioned, then birdsong was imitated and so on. I posted about madrigalism here.

So now let's get to that bizarre Baroque program music! This is a development of the madrigalism of the Renaissance, the Baroque just took it to greater lengths. One striking example is a piece by the great gamba composer Marin Marais that depicts an operation to remove a kidney stone! Yes, I kid you not. The piece is called "Tableau de l'opération de la taille" and here is a performance with the notations in the score read aloud:

The depiction is quite detailed as we view the instruments, witness the shivering of the patient and so on. One of my commentators responded with the piece by Rebel that I was unaware of, Les élémens, which depicts chaos in this manner:

Yes, a tone-cluster of all the notes of the scale!

UPDATE: I meant to put up a drawing of Rebel by Watteau:

Haydn in his The Creation oratorio also depicted chaos, but in a much less radical way:

Much tamer than Rebel! In Israel in Egypt, Handel sets the words "he gave them hailstones" like this:

Energetic certainly, but not particularly hailstoney. He could have been giving them sunshine or a brand new Lamborghini. But there was a tradition in opera and oratorio of the depiction of things like storms. Here is the storm scene from Marin Marais' Alcyone:

Now that's a bit stormier! Rameau's Les Indes galantes depicts a volcano in act 2, but alas, I can't seem to find it on YouTube. So let's end with a rondeau from the opera instead:

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