On 18 February 1706, the opera (or tragédie en musique), Alcyone was given its first performance at the Palais Royal in Paris. The public response was immediately enthusiastic. It was to be Marin Marais’s greatest triumph. The composer, aged fifty, was at the height of his career. He had just replaced André Campra as “conducteur” at the Paris Opera, beating time for the numerous performers who were called upon to play in the pit or appear on stage.
Before honouring his new position with the performance of Alcyone, the former pupil of Sainte-Colombe had made a name for himself as a bass viol player quite early on, in 1676. His talents as an instrumentalist earned him a place in the Opera orchestra and in the Musique du Roi, and he took part in the grandiose performances of the operas of Lully, whose protégé he became. He soon began to compose not only numerous pieces for the bass viol, but also operas: an Idylle dramatique, performed in concert in the apartments of Versailles in 1686; then, in 1693, Alcide, written in collaboration with the son of the great Lully, Louis; Ariane et Bacchus in 1696; Alcyone, ten years later; and Sémélé, whose failure in 1709 led him to give up composing for the stage. He subsequently made a number of alterations to Alcyone for its revival in 1719. After his death in 1728, the opera was restaged in 1730, 1741, 1756, 1757 and 1771, which shows how popular the work was.
Alcyone, like Alcide, Ariane et Bacchus and Sémélé, follows in the tradition of Lully. It is a tragédie en musique in five acts and a prologue. The librettist, Antoine Houdar de la Motte, took his inspiration from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on which he relies heavily for his description of several episodes, notably the moving storm scene in Act Four.
After a pastoral scene, during which Apollo, accompanied by the Muses, naiads and dryads, shepherds and shepherdesses, celebrates the glory of Louis XIV, the opera proper begins. The wedding ceremony of Alcyone, daughter of Æolus, and Ceyx, King of Trachis, with whom she is in love, is first of all disrupted by the Furies, who ascend from Hades to the sound of thunder. Then, at the entrance to the cave where Phorbas the magician works his evil spells, the latter announces to the hapless husband that he will lose the woman he loves and he himself will perish, unless he repairs to Claros to consult with Apollo. Following this advice, which is in fact intended to “hasten the misfortunes he hopes to avoid”, the king embarks at the port of Trachis, which provides an excuse for a picturesque divertissement with a sailors’ dance. After Ceyx’s departure, Alcyone faints with sorrow. Disconsolate, she offers up a sacrifice in the Temple of Juno, in the hope of obtaining heavenly assistance. It is then that Sleep appears, “on a bed of poppies, surrounded by mists”.
Through the agency of Dreams, he shows Alcyone “a stormy sea, where a ship is sinking”. From amongst the sailors, Morpheus appears in the shape of Ceyx and addresses a moving appeal to Alcyone before being swallowed up by the waves. This nightmare wakens her with a jolt. In desperation, she tries to kill herself, but Phosphorus, her husband’s father, descends in his star and announces to her that his son is to return. In the dawn light, she sees Ceyx, whom she thought was lost for ever, lying on the turf, apparently lifeless. Believing him dead, she stabs herself with his sword. But Neptune immediately rises out of the sea and brings the lovers back to life, entrusting them with the task of calming the waves. This happy outcome gives rise to a sumptuous divertissement performed by the gods of the sea.
As in the other tragedies en musique of the time, the purely orchestral parts play an important role in Alcyone. Himself an instrumentalist, Marais paid particular attention to the instruments, bringing them to a hitherto unequalled refinement, as can be seen from the pieces chosen for this recording.
Following the example of the suites that circulated in Europe at that time, the dances from the prologue and those from the divertissements in each act have been brought together here, preceded by the traditional ouverture a la française. The overture to Alcyone contains a certain pathos. From the first bars, after an impressive melodic leap of an octave in the upper part, an intensely dramatic and very dissonant third inversion of the seventh chord is heard in the sombre key of D minor. This forcefulness is also to be found in the equally serious final movement, with its panting rhythm, initially broken by long pauses, before the bass accelerates towards the final cadence. Between these two theatrical sections, in the second part Marais demonstrates all his skill and panache as a composer of instrumental music in his treatment of each of the five intricately written voices
The dances also follow the Lullian tradition: gigues, sarabandes, passepieds, minuets. One of the minuets is intended to serve as an interlude – in other words, played while the sets are being changed in full view of the audience. In the chaconne at the end of the last act, Marais shows himself to be by no means inferior to his illustrious precursor, creating ingenious variations both in the rhythm and the melody. These episodes, in five or three parts, are sometimes wonderfully serene in atmosphere, sometimes gently melancholy, and sometimes astonishingly poetical.
In the march for the shepherds and shepherdesses in the prologue, the composer further enriches Lully’s models, heralding the masterpieces of Jean-Philippe Rameau. While he has recourse to the trio of reed instruments which had become traditional, oboes and bassoons to bring out the pastoral character of this entrance, he also imitates the musette with delightful dissonances on a tonic pedal and a delicate transition from minor to major, during which the orchestra takes on a fragile, hesitant quality. The work truly foreshadows the world of the fetes galantes of the Regency and the reign of Louis XV.
In order to pander to the tastes of his contemporaries, Marais not only gives in to the fashion for bergerie (pastoral subjects), but he also slips catchy tunes into several of his dances, which are then repeated immediately afterwards by one of the soloists and usually by the chorus. Instances of this are to be found in the prologue, with two minuets entrusted to shepherds; in the first act, with the sarabande for the Æolians and Ceyx’s courtiers, and, finally, in the third act, with the famous sailors’ march, which was the subject of several instrumental transcriptions before crossing the Channel and becoming widely known in Britain in the19th century in an English version: an old tune with new words. These tunes are so catchy, in fact, that we cannot help wondering if they were already widespread in Marais’s day, and were borrowed from a popular repertory when the opera was created.
Other exclusively orchestral pieces, this time unrelated to the ballet, are much more complex. The prelude and ritornello at the beginning of the third and final acts, respectively, are quite remarkable. The former serves as an introduction to one of the finest arias in the score: Peleus’s Oh Mer, dont le calme infidèle (“O sea, whose inconstant calm”). Through the use of long note values and dissonances, Marais manages to depict the feelings of sadness mingled with serenity inspired by the words. The ritornello is perhaps even more surprising because of the impression of intimacy that it creates. Written as a trio, as if conceived as chamber music, this meditative, very inward-looking piece comprises a single theme developed in the three parts, its melodic line seeming to express Alcyone’s helplessness and solitude.
The descriptive “symphonies” composed for Alcyone are in striking contrast to this ritornello: they harness all the means the orchestra of the time had at its disposal in order to impress by their forcefulness. The Symphonie du Sommeil (symphony of Sleep) in Act IV is inspired by the one in Lully’s Atys: the flutes still play at a third and are shown to great advantage, as is the bass, which introduces an expressive movement, softly accompanied by the other strings. Despite the use of triple time, Marais moves away from the model bequeathed by his predecessor: unlike Atys, his composition is no longer reminiscent of the Italian “sommeils” of Rossi or Cavalli, but takes on a very French elegance, thanks to the melodic pattern of the upper parts, which is more polished and delicately enhanced with ornamentations.
After the restfulness of Sleep comes the famous storm. It was such a success that it was reported after the first performance of Alcyone that without it “this new opera would have [met with] the same fate as the ship”! An exaggeration, of course, but it must be recognized that Marais spared no effort in describing this natural phenomenon. He added a double bass to his orchestra, the first one to be found in the score of a French opera. He got “small slack-headed drums” to roll “continuously” in order to provide “a muffled, sinister noise, which, with the high, piercing notes played on the E string of the violins and on the oboes”, was capable of reproducing “all the fury of a rough sea and a furious wind roaring and whistling”. But it was not the first time these percussions had been used for such imitative pieces. Pascal Collasse had already used them in 1689 in his musical tragedy Thétis et Pélée. His storm, with its fast runs, is just as evocative of the violence of blustering winds, but it did not create as much of a stir as that of Alcyone. Marais gave greater density to the basses, spreading them over several staves, thus increasing the dramatic character of his portrait in sound. Other composers would soon follow his example. Moreover, it soon gave rise in the operatic repertoire to earthquakes, storms and “infernal noise.”
Whilst carrying on the great traditions of Lully, Alcyone thus paved the way for other creations in the privileged field of French opera
JÉRÔME DE LA GORCETranslated by Mary Pardoe