French Cantatas for Winter Winds: Discover Boismortier’s Four Seasons

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The North Wind attempts to blow the traveler's cloak off him. Illustration by Milo Winter from The Aesop for Children (1919).
The North Wind attempts to blow the traveler’s cloak off him. Illustration by Milo Winter from The Aesop for Children (1919).

People frequently declare our time the Social Era. You’ve heard that term before, haven’t you? We won’t find naming winter storms among Nilofer Merchant’s new Rules for the Social Era, but lately our human tendency to personify everything inanimate has been applied in yet another way.

We’re far from the only culture with this tendency to look at the world around us and create characters. Every culture has! If we look back in time, the wind and weather provide good examples. (Pssst! Would you like to add a word to your vocabulary? There’s a term for making characters of wind and weather. Doing this is called physitheism.)

I hope that crazy word didn’t blow you away! It is pretty abstract, and might leave you groping for examples. So what were some of these breezy, gusty epithets, and how far back in history do they go?

Nearly 3000 years ago, the Odyssey mentions Aeolus as the Keeper of the Winds. We still have the word “aeolian” in our vocabulary, don’t we? Meteorologists and geologists refer to wind-driven processes this way. Then there was Astraeus, described in Hesiod’s Theogony as the father of the winds. And might you wonder whether his blustery “children” had names?

Astraeus was the father of the Four Winds, each associated not only with a direction but a season. Boreas, the North Wind, was the cold breath of winter, and this brings us to who else but Aesop next?

Boreas, engraving in The Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, volume III (London 1794). This relief is on the Tower of the Winds in Athens.
Boreas, engraving in The Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated by James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, volume III (London 1794). This relief is on the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

In ancient times, the story we know today as Aesop’s fable of “The North Wind and the Sun” was more specific than that. It was the tale of Helios and Boreas. That’s right: the wind and the sun were characters who had names, and what we may not realize is that those names persisted through the centuries very close to our own time. In the famous French translation of Aesop by Jean de La Fontaine, it was under the title Phébus et Borée that it appeared in his collected Fables (1668-94). More than a century later, the characters are Phebus and Boreas in the 1809 English translation by Sir Brooke Boothby:

Phebus and Boreas from on high

Upon the road a traveler spy,

Wearing a cloak for fear of rain.

Says Boreas, “his precaution’s vain

‘Gainst me, I’ll show you for a joke

How soon I’ll make him quit his cloak.”

Although we no longer personify the source of winter, during the winter season of 2012–13, media outlet The Weather Channel began to name winter storms. They generated a list of names from A to Z–often quite strange ones–but the process duplicated how we have long announced and kept track of tropical storms and hurricanes.

Not everyone approved. Do you? Although a long tradition in meteorology has named tropical storms, there are valid reasons winter storms in temperate regions differ from them fundamentally.

In February 2013, National Weather Service spokesperson Susan Buchanan said, “The National Weather Service does not name winter storms because a winter storm’s impact can vary from one location to another, and storms can weaken and redevelop, making it difficult to define where one ends and another begins.”

Across the Atlantic in Great Britain, England’s Met Office and the Irish National Meteorological Service, Met Éireann, do name winter storms. Derrick Ryall, head of public weather services at the Met Office, said: “Naming storms has been proved to raise awareness of severe weather in the UK, crucially prompting people to take action to prevent harm to themselves or their property.”

In North America, maybe wintry weather is more variable, less homogenous, and less suited to being named. But it is cognitively easier to prepare to face an enemy we can name rather than an entity as abstract as a storm.

Regardless of what side you’re on, we all confront the impersonal side of winter as poet Edward Cummings put it so memorably in ViVa: “The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches.”

Amidst this swirl of perspectives–and perhaps a few flurries–it’s that naming of storms and winds as well as the falling of snow that you might think about while listening to Boismortier’s cantatas about the seasons. They’re very “social” in the sense that you’ll encounter lines such as

In vain Boreas armed with frost and ice . . .

En vain Borée armé de frimas et de glace . . .

Boreas is, of course, the winter wind personified.

title page of cantatas based on The Seasons by French composer Louis LemaireJust before Scottish author James Thomson began his epic poem The Seasons written in blank verse, two French composers published seasonal sets of cantatas. The year was 1724. One of them, Louis Lemaire (1693–c. 1750) is largely forgotten today. The other, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (1689–1755), is nearly as popular as he ever was–and far more accessible due to technology that didn’t exist during his life!

There are three recordings of his set, and all of them use instruments from Boismortier’s time.

Just as we’re likely to meet the winds Boreas, Euros, Notus, and Zephyrus, each cantata has a different voice and instrumentation, so they’re as varied as the seasons they portray. Winter is the longest one by far, so the set is especially apt to hear around December, January, and February. Here’s the format:

 

Le Printemps (Spring)

for soprano, violin or flute, and basso continuo

 

L´Été (Summer)

for tenor and basso continuo

 

L’Automne (Autumn)

for bass, flute or violin, and basso continuo

 

L’Hyver (Winter)

for soprano, flute, two violins, viola da gamba and basso continuo

 

Let’s face it: the shortest and coldest days may be better for staying inside where it’s lighted and warm, and frozen soil may leave us with no options but not to dig, so . . . you might dig into these!

The cover of the first recording of The Four Seasons by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier.The first recording, Le Chant du Monde 278 817, came out in 1986, so it’s available now only in used copies. The singers are

soprano Agnès Mellon

soprano Isabelle Poulenard

tenor Ian Honeyman

baritone Gregory Reinhart

The cover of Boismortier's Four Seasons recorded by the Canadian Broadcasting Company.The second recording, made in 1997, was produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Musica Viva 1098 has the Arion Ensemble with

soprano Isabelle Desrochers

tenor Hervé Lamy

baritone Max van Egmond

cover of The Seasons by Boismortier recorded by ensemble Les Festes Venetiennes The most recent recording was made in 1998 by an ensemble called The Venetian FestivitiesThe group takes its name from the popular opera-ballet by André Camprathe label takes its name from a piece by Mozart, K 617, and the release number is 88. We hear

soprano Valerie Gabail

tenor Jean-François Novelli

bass Arnaud Marzorati

tip: If you don’t speak French, worry not! The text is usually included in the booklet.

There’s one more composer–not French, but working in France at this same time–that you should know about . . . because . . . Can you guess why?

four oval panels showing the seasons painted by WatteauAround 1715, Jean-Pierre Crozat, one of the wealthiest merchants in France, had four oval panels in his dining room painted on the theme of the seasons by Antoine Watteau. This effort seems to have prompted three musical renditions: the two mentioned here, and one by an Italian immigrant named Giovanni Antonio Guido. Look up his set on Divine Art because it’s well worth having.

Accompany the music with this parting thought from the Book of Genesis: “As long as the earth endures, planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”

 

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