Terpsichore, the new album from Le Concert des Nations led by Jordi Savall, offers early 18th-century dance suites by George Philipp Telemann and the less well-known French composer Jean-Féry Rebel. The music is wonderful to listen to and – especially in the case of Rebel – fascinating to learn about.
So much familiar baroque and classical music takes ostensible dance forms. But we know that these notations are merely suggestive. We may be aware on some level that minuets and sarabandes are (or were) dances. But no one expects to see a ballroom full of bluebloods dancing to Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz or a Gigue (“jig”) from one of Bach’s French Suites. The titles simply indicate a piece of pure music’s time signature, rhythm, and perhaps mood.
But there was a time when such pieces were written specifically to be danced to, sometimes by popular professional dancers who appeared before large audiences. While ravishing viewers with their choreography and costumes, they popularized the music as well. Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747) composed suites of short pieces meant for the stage in this way. With Terpsichore, Jordi Savall brings Rebel out of relative obscurity.
Though best known as a master of the viola da gamba, Savall has always been a scholar and pedagogue, with an infectious enthusiasm for ancient music. I never fail to learn something significant about music history from his recordings. Gaining familiarity with ancient composers, forms, and milieus deepens one’s appreciation for music from particular times and places, and helps place it on the continuum with music of all regions and eras.
The liner notes by Catherine Cessac recount that Rebel (1666-1747) was part of a renowned musical family connected with the French court, a violin virtuoso, and a disciple of Lully. After writing numerous sonatas he created one unsuccessful “musical tragedy” (i.e. opera) and then progressed to “highly original instrumental pieces in which dance was liberated from the sung action” – in other words, music written purely for the sake of dance. Cessac also refers to these as “choreographed symphonies.” Unlike ballets, they don’t tell stories; they exist to accompany dance-for-dance’s-sake.
The album opens with two such suites, La Terpsichore (1720) and Les Caractères de la Dance (1715). The musicians play the brief component dances (most are well under a minute) by flowing one into the next with extraordinary ease. (Caveat: While the CD plays perfectly, I found that the flow from track to track makes ripping tracks off the CD problematic.)
Les Caractères de la Dance was choreographed variously by the most celebrated dancers of early-18th-century France. Most of its movements are dances explicitly named as such: Gavotte, Gigue, Sarabande, Bourrée, Passepied, and so forth, along with less-familiar types like Loure (a “slow gigue,” apparently not a contradiction in terms) and Rigaudon.
Rebel brilliantly worked a dozen or so of these different dances into under nine minutes. Pickup notes to the Courante flow from the skirts of the Prélude. Out of the heavy tread of a majestic Bourré tiptoes a delicate Chaconne, whose final chord shifts to minor to begin a Sarabande. Time and tempo shifts take place just as smoothly.
In case you’ve forgotten your Muses (I sure had), Terpsichore was the Greek goddess of choral song and dancing. In the suite named for her, Rebel uses abstract notations for some pieces, such as “Vite,” “Grave,” and “Gay,” but dance forms appear as well, with two Siciliennes and a Gigue.
The performances feature estimable work from the handful of woodwinds as well as the more numerous strings. This is lively music full of emotion, drama, celebration. Never fear: You needn’t study the titles and cross-reference them with images from ballroom scenes in TCM costume dramas to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy these wonderful renditions. There is something to be said, though, for learning about the famous dancers who popularized these pieces and the circumstances under which people saw them.
Les Plaisirs Champêtres (“Garden Party Pleasures”) premiered at the opera house in 1734 and was performed there every year until 1741. This later work has a more stately air overall, with longer dances. To my ear, they look forward to Handel’s celebratory suites. The dainty Passepied, its airy flutes spiraling with a solo violin, is remarkably lovely.
The 1729 Fantaisie rounds out the Rebel selections, with its gracious “Mineur” movement, chirping “Tambourin,” recurring Chaconne, and Loure that sounds like it wants to become a fugue.
Telemann, though German, loved the evolving French dance music tradition and wrote much music in that vein. Savall has selected two representative “Ouverture-Suites à la française.” In the first, La Bizarre, named (I have read) for textural oddities in the Ouverture, Telemann indulged in somewhat more extended compositions while retaining many dance forms. These include Courante, Gavotte, Menuet, and Branle, an ancient chain dance, here suggested by looping violin melodies accompanied by guitar.
Ornamental scales lift the gentle Sarabande. The “Fantaisie” gallops forthrightly into the sunset. The suite finishes with “Rossignol,” a speedy movement named for the nightingale.
In the other Ouverture-Suite Telemann stayed mostly away from the most common dance forms, but without going abstract. The titles include “Badinage” and “Flaterie.” Somewhat longer, these pieces, like those in La Bizarre, are spacious and fully realized. As with the whole album, the orchestra maintains historical accuracy while infusing the music with contemporary energy.
Terpsichore is released by Alla Vox and available in hybrid SACD and digital form. I recommend purchasing the physical disc for its smooth track-to-track flow and for the lavish six-language booklet it comes with.