Jean-Féry Rebel’s revolutionary “Les Élémens” still stands, nearly three centuries after its composition, as man’s supreme artistic attempt to imagine chaos and creation, and the beginning of time itself.

Jean-Féry Rebel

The Ancient Greeks held three notions about the nature of the universe that held sway for centuries over Western scientific and religious thought. The first was that the world was composed of basic elements. Some named five—earth, fire, air, water, and ether—but the last was excluded from the theory of Empedocles, whose formulation was adopted by most later Ancient philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle. The second important Ancient concept was that a state of chaos preceded the creation of the universe. “Verily at the first Chaos came to be,” the poet Hesiod wrote in his Theogeny, “but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of all.”

The third influential idea was that the sun, moon, stars, and planets revolved around the Earth in proportions that reflected musical intervals, a theory articulated by the philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras. (It was even said that Pythagoras himself could actually hear this celestial music.) This notion of a “Music of the Spheres,” or “Musica Universalis,” was adopted by medieval thinkers, finding its way into the classical quadrivium, and was developed further by scientists during the Renaissance, even as heliocentrism replaced geocentrism. In his Harmony of the World (1619), astronomer Johannes Kepler relied upon the theory of the intrinsic relationship between music and nature when formulating his laws of planetary motion.

In 1687, the English poet John Dryden composed “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day,” in honor of the patron saint of music. Reflecting the ideas of the Ancients about a primordial state of chaos and creation as music itself, Dryden described the creation of the world as the arrangement of nature’s “jarring atoms” into a “Heav’nly harmony” by a “tuneful voice… heard from high”:

From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
Arise ye more than dead.
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And music’s pow’r obey.
From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in man.

Dryden’s poem would be set to music by the German-born (but Anglicized) composer, Georg Friedrich Händel, in 1739. But a mere two years prior to Handel’s rather conventional cantata appeared a most remarkable piece of music by the French Baroque composer, Jean-Féry Rebel (1666–1747), Les Élémens (The Elements). Rebel began his “new symphony” as a dance suite, to which he appended a revolutionary six-minute movement, called “Chaos,” which employs  the technique of musical dissonance (until then nearly unknown in music) to depict the disorder that preceded creation. One might easily mistake this movement for the atonal work of an avant-garde, twentieth-century composer; yet it is the shockingly original work of a seventy-one-year old, Baroque composer whose previous compositions had been lauded for their “taste and tenderness” and their eschewal of the “frightening and monstrous.” Rebel himself described “Chaos” this way:

“The introduction to this Symphony is Chaos itself; that confusion which reigned among the Elements before the moment when, subject to immutable laws, they assumed their prescribed places within the natural order. This initial idea led me somewhat further. I have dared to link the idea of the confusion of the Elements with that of confusion in Harmony. I have risked opening with all the notes sounding together, or rather, all the notes in an octave played as a single sound. To designate, in this confusion, each particular element, I have availed myself of some widely accepted conventions. The bass expresses Earth by tied notes which are played jerkily. The flutes, with their rising and falling line, imitate the flow and murmur of Water. Air is depicted by pauses followed by cadenzas on the small flutes, and finally the violins, with their liveliness and brilliance represent the activity of Fire. These characteristics may be recognized, separate or intermingled, in whole or in part, in the diverse reprises that I have called Chaos, and which mark the efforts of the Elements to get free of each other. At the 7th appearance of Chaos these efforts diminish as order begins to assert itself.”

Following “Chaos,” there are three movements in which the elements of earth, water, fire, and air are characterized; bird calls are depicted by Rebel in the fourth section, “Ramage,” and as well as in a fifth movement, “Rossignols”; the second half of the ten sections of Les Élémens  is a series of dance numbers, whose sequence is sometimes varied in modern performances. Though dances following a depiction of chaos and creation may seem incongruous, is not dancing an expression of joy? Indeed, the listener finds himself when hearing Rebel’s lively dances imagining all creatures great and small celebrating the newly-fashioned wonders around them.

This is how Rebel organized the sections of Les Élémens:

1. Le Cahos
2. Air pour les Violins: La Terre Et L’Eau [Earth and Water]
3. Chaconne: Le Feu [Fire]
4. Ramage [Bird Songs]: L’air
5. Rossignols [Nightingales]
6. Loure – La Chasse
7. Tambourins I & II
8. Sicilienne
9. Rondeau: Air Pour L’Amour
10. Caprice

Though we know that Rebel orchestrated Les Élémens for a band of some fifty players, his orchestration does not survive; we have only his arrangements for reduced sets of instruments. Therefore, modern performers are given some space to be creative in terms of the way they orchestrate Les Élémens. This almost mandates that a connoisseur of the work collect the interpretations of several conductors (see recommended recordings below).

Where Dryden’s poem mentions a “Creator,” Rebel’s suite does not seem to require a Christian God. Some sixty years after Les Élémens, however, the Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn fused the ancient idea of the elements and a primordial state of chaos with the Christian creation myth in his oratorio, The Creation. In so doing, Haydn remained faithful to the Biblical account in Genesis, which suggests that God created the earth—if not the universe—not out of nothingness, but that He instead that organized it out of elemental formlessness:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void.

In addition to Scripture, Haydn also drew on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Haydn’s “Chaos,” which opens his oratorio, was clearly influenced by Rebel’s “Chaos” in its use of dissonance as well as in its general mood and character (not to mention its nearly-identical length). Though musically impressive in its own right, it is in fact tamer than the French composer’s realization.

Genesis also tell us that

and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The idea of a Creator moving across pre-existent waters found its way, in pagan form, in the nineteenth-century Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius would draw on this mythology in many of his works, including his ten-minute tone poem for soprano and orchestra, Luonnotar (Daughter of Nature) whose eponymous goddess-creator—also called “Ilmatar,” or “female air spirit”—creates the moon and stars. Here again, a chaotic, or at least incomplete world, precedes the creation of the heavens.

It was the Kalevala that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien in his imagining of Middle-Earth. In many ways, Tolkien Christianized the paganism of the Kalevala. This is perhaps most obvious in the creation myth that appears in The Silmarillion; here Tolkien not only, as Brad Birzer says, “sanctifies” the pagan story of the creation of the world by positing a Creator, as did Haydn, but he also embraces the Ancient idea that creation was itself music, as did Rebel. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion begins with Ilúvatar, the Creator, giving to his first-created beings, the Ainur, a “mighty” musical theme:

Then Ilúvatar said to them: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music…. Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

Tolkien’s powerful description cries out for a musical realization, which some have attempted. Yet Rebel’s Les Élémens still stands, nearly three centuries later, as man’s supreme artistic attempt to imagine chaos and creation, and the beginning of time itself.

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The featured image (detail) is courtesy of Pixabay. The top image of Jean-Féry Rebel was drawn by Jean Moyreau (after Jean-Antoine Watteau) between 1710 and 1762; it is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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