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About this Piece

Composed: 1764
Length: TBD c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (= piccolos), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, percussion (tambourine, wind machine), strings, and continuo
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Eighteenth-century Parisian operas were full of instrumental music, because the French were inordinately fond of ballet and spectacle in their operas, and didn’t much care how slowly the story moved. Les Boréades, Rameau’s last opera, is fairly typical in that dances and instrumental airs (not all of which are on this program) take about a fourth of its roughly three-hour length. Early in Rameau’s late-blooming stage career (he was 50 when his first opera was staged) he realized that he could excerpt the instrumental music into suites for use outside the opera house; indeed, he remarked in the preface to the published suites from his 1735 opera Les Indes galantes that the public seemed to like the orchestra sections much more than the rest of the opera.

He never got a chance to put together a suite from Les Boréades, or to find out whether the Parisian public liked it. As rehearsals for the premiere started in 1764, Rameau died at the age of 80, and the opera was literally shelved. Its first performances were not until two centuries later, by which time the original cast was no longer available. Neither were Rameau’s thoughts about matters of orchestration and the final changes and corrections that he would normally have made in the course of rehearsals, which means that modern performers and editors have many decisions to make about performing Les Boréades.

French baroque opera concerned itself not with anything resembling real life, but rather with stories from classical mythology, which not only presented lots of opportunities for splashy supernatural stage effects, but ensured that there would be no problems with stepping on political toes in the repressive ancien regime (though it was not unusual for an opera to have an extended prologue praising the king and referring to some current event). Les Boréades is set in ancient Bactria, where the queen is required to choose a husband from the descendants of Boreas, the god of the north wind. Instead, she chooses to marry a mysterious foreigner, greatly angering Boreas and threatening a tragic ending, until Apollo shows up and reveals that the foreigner is Apollo’s son, which trumps Boreas in the godhead department and settles the marriage eligibility question.

The dances and airs work perfectly well out of context of the opera, but it is not surprising that some of the instrumental music represents the wind in one way or another. In the Ouverture and the energetic entr’acte Suite des Vents, rushing scales in the strings bear some resemblance to the way Vivaldi rendered the wind in the “Four Seasons.” Rameau could scarcely have been unaware of those four concertos: they had been performed fairly often in Paris as early as 1728 and published in a Parisian edition. Even in France, where the establishment view was that Italian music was artistically crude and politically suspect, Vivaldi was as unavoidable an influence as Wagner would be in the 19th century.

The horn calls in the second and third parts of the Ouverture serve to set up the first scene, which is a hunt. Rameau is thought to be the first French composer to use clarinets, and the pairing of clarinets with horns in the overture’s minuet middle section is a Rameau trademark, and perhaps because of Rameau, in the later 18th century that combination became a sort of cliché shorthand for “hunting scene.” In the Gavotte for the Hours and Zephyrs, Rameau depicts the gentle west wind with a light orchestral texture led by the piccolo, another instrument that was a characteristic color in his palette.

Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.