Skip to main content
Select Source:

Rameau, Jean-Philippe (1683–1764)


RAMEAU, JEAN-PHILIPPE (16831764), French composer and theorist. For much of the reign of Louis XV (17151774), Rameau dominated the French musical scene: several of his contributions to the Opéra were the most successful of the time and continued to be performed long after his death. He was particularly favored by the court, and, as a "rationalist" thinker, he engaged vigorously in Enlightenment intellectual debates.

Son of an organist, Rameau early showed musical gifts. At eighteen he went to Italy for study, and on his return, he was appointed organist at the cathedral in Avignon and then in Clermont (1702). His surviving early compositions for the church, grands motets, and for the chamber, cantates and pieces for solo harpsichord, as well as later contributions in these genres and works for harpsichord and violin (or flute) and bass viol (or second violin), are popular with performers today.

After a brief stay in Paris (17061709), Rameau returned to Dijon (where he succeeded his father as cathedral organist) and then moved to Lyons before returning to Clermont in 1715. In 1722 he went back to Paris, where he published his second (1724) and third (1728) harpsichord books and his Traité de l'harmonie (1722; Treatise on harmony). He also held several posts as organist, but he was determined to conquer the operatic stage. After contributions (now lost) to several opéras-comiques for Fair theaters, Rameau made a stunning debutat the age of fiftyat the Académie Royale de Musique (the Opéra) with his Hippolyte et Aricie (1733). The public saw in it a direct challenge to the tragédie en musique as established by Jean-Baptiste Lully (16321687), whose works were still an important part of the Paris repertoire. Some, the "Lullistes," were askance; others, "Ramistes," or even more descriptively, ramoneurs, 'chimney sweeps', viewed Rameau's heightened emphasis on the drama and a more direct presentation of emotions as positive.

Not content with reorienting conceptions of this genre, in his next work for the Académie, the composer turned his attention to the other genre that had been popular there from the time of the Regency: the ballet (now generally referred to as opéra-ballet, as it includes both dancing and singing). In Les Indes galantes (1735) Rameau (with the librettist Louis Fuzelier, who was one of his collaborators at the Fair) adopted the typical structure of prologue and acts, or entrées, each of which explored a common theme, in this case the imagined customs of love and courtship, and appealed to the audience's interest in the exotic (Peru, Turkey, Persia). With its many revisions, including the addition of the act "Les sauvages" (set in the Americas and reflecting Rousseauesque Enlightenment views of the "noble savage"), it proved an enduring work. While magnificent and imaginative costumes and stage sets and impressive effects, such as the volcanic explosion in the act called "Les Incas de Pérou," certainly contributed to its success, Rameau's theatrical score surely takes pride of place.

Castor et Pollux (1737, revised 1754) differs from the great majority of tragédies en musique in that it celebrates not principally the relationship of two conventional lovers, but rather the strong bonds between brothers, each ready to sacrifice himself for the other. (This reflects a theme dear to Freemasons. Zoroastre [1749, revised 1756], among other Rameau works, also shows the influence of Freemasonry.) The choruses are unusually varied, from the people's religious dirge at Castor's death, "Que tout gémisse," to the deliberately unmelodic demons of "Brison tous nos fers." The divertissement in the Elysian Fields, featuring the Blessed Spirits in chorus and dance, achieved an appropriately ethereal quality admired by contemporaries and later by Gluck, as Orphée et Euridice (1744) makes clear. Castor et Pollux remained in the Opéra's repertory until 1785. In 1791, at the administration's request, Pierre Candeille undertook a new setting, which retained the best-loved pieces of Rameau's original, among them Télaïre's moving lament, "Tristes apprêts," though reorchestrated. In this guise, the Parisian public still heard some of Rameau's music until 1817.

The composer also broke conventional genre boundaries at the Académie Royale in works such as Platée, a ballet bouffon (1745 at court, 1749 in Paris), whose heroine, an ugly nymph (en travesti), with her frog followers, and hero, Jupiter, whose transformations include becoming an ass and an owl, are hardly the typical depictions of gods and demigods expected there. Rameau exploited the element of farce to the full and often showed himself a remarkable orchestrator (even requiring violinists to slide quarter tones to imitate an ass and oboists, deliberately out of tune, to represent croaking frogs). In all, he wrote or substantially revised about thirty works for the Paris Opéra in less than thirty yearsworks that constituted the core of the late baroque repertory there.

Rameau was also the court composer par excellence during the reign of Louis XV. He celebrated the king's victories (Le temple de la Gloire, 1745, and Naïs 1749), the marriages of his son and heir (La princesse de Navarre, 1745, and Les fêtes de l'Hymen et de l'Amour; ou Les dieux d'Egypte, 1747), and, in his Cantate pour le jour de la fête de Saint Louis (1730s), the king's name day. The concerts de la Reine, under the aegis, of course, of Queen Marie Leszczyńska, frequently featured his music, and yet, he also pleased the maîtresse en titre, Mme de Pompadour, by writing Les surprises de l'Amour (1748), which featured her as an operatic performer, for the Théâtre des Petits Cabinets. He was well rewarded: he was named compositeur de la chambre du Roi in 1745 and ennobled shortly before his death (1764).

As a theorist, Rameau revolutionized the concept of chords by establishing the primacy of the triad and seventh chords whose roots became the basse fondamentale and relating the myriad of other chordal formations recognized in earlier thorough-bass manuals to inversions of the basic types. He also offered a more rational approach to harmonic progression. Influenced by René Descartes's mechanistic model, Rameau emphasized the importance of dissonance and resolution, strong bass movements, often by perfect fifth, and a hierarchy of cadences crucial to the structure of tonal composition. In his writings, however, the "scientific" approach and what he called "the judgment of the ear" were complementary. Early in his career influential philosophes supported him; Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, for example, presented his ideas in a more readable form in Éléments de musique théorique et pratique selon les principes de M. Rameau (1752), but they later parted company. The Rousseau-Rameau aesthetic debate over the primacy of melody (choice of the Italophile Rousseau) or harmony (Rameau's position) enlivened the mid-century Querelle des Bouffons (on the superiority of Italian opera buffa or French tragédie en musique ). Nonetheless, Rameau's approach to chordal analysis, tonal definition, and other theoretical issues proved an enduring legacy.

See also Lully, Jean-Baptiste ; Music ; Opera ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques .


Bouissou, Sylvie, gen. ed. Jean-Philippe Rameau: Opera Omnia. Paris, 1996.

Christensen, Thomas. Rameau and Musical Thought in the Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Dill, Charles W. Monstrous Opera: Rameau and the Tragic Tradition. Princeton, 1998.

Foster, Donald H. Jean-Philippe Rameau: A Guide to Research. New York, 1989.

Green, Thomas R. Early Rameau Sources: Studies in the Origins and Dating of the Operas and Other Musical Works. Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1992.

Jacobi, Erwin R., ed. Jean-Philippe Rameau: The Complete Theoretical Writings. 6 vols. Rome, 19671972. Facsimiles of eighteenth-century editions.

La Gorce, Jérôme de. Jean-Philippe Rameau: Colloque international organisé par la Société Rameau, Dijon, 2124 septembre 1983. Paris, 1987.

Rice, Paul F. The Performing Arts at Fontainebleau from Louis XIV to Louis XVI. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1989.

Sadler, Graham, and Thomas Christensen. "Rameau, Jean-Philippe." In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. London, 2001.

Saint-Saëns, Camille, general ed. Jean-Philippe Rameau: Oeuvres complètes. 18 vols. Paris, 18951924. Reprint New York, 1968.

Verba, Cynthia. Music and the French Enlightenment: Reconstruction of a Dialogue, 17501764. Oxford, 1993.

M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Rameau, Jean-Philippe (1683–1764)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Rameau, Jean-Philippe (1683–1764)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (December 10, 2017).

"Rameau, Jean-Philippe (1683–1764)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from

Rameau, Jean-Philippe

Rameau, Jean-Philippe (b Dijon, 1683; d Paris, 1764). Fr. composer, harpsichordist, and organist. Self-taught in harmony and counterpoint. Visited It. 1701. Org., Clermont-Ferrand 1702–5, Paris 1705–8, Dijon 1709–14, Lyons 1714–15, and then Clermont-Ferrand again 1715–22, where he worked on his important Traité de l'harmonie, pubd. in Paris 1722, in which he set out the then novel doctrines of inversions of chords and principles of chord-progression. This was followed by other textbooks on harmony between 1726 and 1752, and by his dissertation on methods of acc. for hpd. and org. (1732). Settled in Paris 1722, teaching the hpd. and writing many works for the instr. In 1730 he came under the patronage of Le Riche de la Pouplinière. In 1733, at the age of 50, his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, met with no success, but he persevered and wrote over 20 operas and opera-ballets, incl. Castor et Pollux and Les Indes galantes. These works, though controversial because of their novel use of colourful orchestration, bold harmonies, and use of recit., est. Rameau as Lully's successor in the field of Fr. opera. His champions opposed those of Pergolesi in the Querelle des Bouffons. In 1745 he was appointed chamber mus. composer to the King. Prin. works:OPERAS AND OPERA-BALLETS: († = opera-ballet): Hippolyte et Aricie (1733, rev. 1742); Les Indes galantes (1735–6); Castor et Pollux (1737, rev. 1754); †Les Fêtes d'Hébé (1739); Dardanus (1739, rev. 1744 and 1760); †Les Fêtes de Polymnie (1745); Le Temple de la gloire (1745, rev. 1746); †PlatÅe (1745, rev. 1749); †La Princesse de Navarre (1745, rev. 1763); †Les Fêtes de l'Hymen et de l'Amour (1747); †Zaïs (1748); †Les Surprises de l'amour (1748, rev. 1757); †Pygmalion (1748); Nais (1749); Zoroastre (1749, rev. 1756); Acante et Céphise (1751); †La guirlande (1751); Daphne et Eglé (1753); Les Sybarites (1753); Lysis et Delia (1754); La Naissance d'Osiris (1754); Zéphire (1757); Nélée et Mithis (1757); Le Retour d'Astrée (1757); †Anacréon (1757); Les Paladins (1760); Les Boréades (Abaris) (1763).CANTATAS & SACRED WORKS: Thétis (1718); Aquilon et Orinthié (1719); Les Amants trahis (1721); Orphée (1721); L'Impatience (1715–22); Le Berger fidèle (1728); Pour la fête de St-Louis (1740); Deus Noster Refugium (before 1716); In Convertendo (1718); Quam dilecta (c.1720).CHAMBER MUSIC: 5 Pièces de clavecin en concert for hpd., va. da gamba, baroque vn. (1741); 5 Concerts for hpd., vn., fl. (1741).HARPSICHORD: (pubd. in 3 vols. of suites in Rameau's lifetime): 1. Prelude, 2. Allemande 1, 3. Allemande 2, 4. Courante, 5. Gigue, 6. Sarabande 1, 7. Sarabande 2, 8. La Vénétienne, 9. Gavotte, 10. Menuet, 11. Menuet en rondeau, 12. Allemande, 13. Courante, 14. Gigue en rondeau, 15. 2nd Gigue en rondeau, 16. Le Rappel des oiseaux, 17. Rigaudon 1, 18. Rigaudon 2, 19. Double, 20. Musette en rondeau, 21. Tambourin, 22. La Villageoise (rondeau), 23. Les Tendres Plaintes (rondeau), 24. Les Niais de Sologne, 25. Doubles 1 des Niais, 26. Doubles 2 des Niais, 27. Les Soupirs, 28. La Joyeuse, 29. L'Ollette (rondeau), 30. L'Entretien des Muses, 31. Les Tourbillons (rondeau), 32. Les Cyclopes (rondeau), 33. Le Lardon (menuet), 34. La Boiteuse, 35. Allemande, 36. Courante, 37. Sarabande, 38. Les Trois Mains, 39. Fanfarinette, 40. La Triomphante, 41. Gavotte (with 6 doubles), 42. Les Tricotets (rondeau), 43. L'Indifférente, 44. Menuet 1, 45. Menuet 2, 46. La Poule, 47. Les Triolets, 48. Les Sauvages, 49. L'Enharmonique, 50. L'Egyptienne, 51. La Dauphine, 52. La Laivri (rondeau), 53. L'Agaçante, 54. La Timide (rondeau), 55. La Timide (rondeau), 56. L'Indiscrète (rondeau).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Rameau, Jean-Philippe." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . 10 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Rameau, Jean-Philippe." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . (December 10, 2017).

"Rameau, Jean-Philippe." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved December 10, 2017 from