Rameau, Jean-Philippe (1683–1764)
RAMEAU, JEAN-PHILIPPE (1683–1764)
RAMEAU, JEAN-PHILIPPE (1683–1764), French composer and theorist. For much of the reign of Louis XV (1715–1774), 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 (1706–1709), 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 debut—at the age of fifty—at 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 (1632–1687), 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 years—works 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.
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, 1967–1972. Facsimiles of eighteenth-century editions.
La Gorce, Jérôme de. Jean-Philippe Rameau: Colloque international organisé par la Société Rameau, Dijon, 21–24 septembre 1983. Paris, 1987.
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, 1895–1924. Reprint New York, 1968.
Verba, Cynthia. Music and the French Enlightenment: Reconstruction of a Dialogue, 1750–1764. Oxford, 1993.
M. Elizabeth C. Bartlet
Rameau, Jean-Philippe , great French composer, organist, and music theorist; b. Dijon (baptized), Sept. 25, 1683; d. Paris, Sept. 12, 1764. His father was organist of St. Étienne in Dijon. He learned to play the harpsichord as a small child, and from age 10 to 14 attended the Jesuit Collège des Godrans in Dijon, where he took up singing and composing instead of concentrating on his academic studies. At 18 his father sent him to Milan, where he stayed for only a brief time before joining the orch. of a traveling French opera troupe as a violinist. In Jan. 1702 he received a temporary appointment as organist at Avignon Cathedral; in May 1702 he became organist at Clermont Cathedral. By 1706 he was in Paris, where he publ. his first Livre de pièces de clavecin; was active there as a church organist until 1708. He succeeded his father as organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Avignon in 1709, and then became organist to the Jacobins in Lyons in July 1713. He was organist at Clermont Cathedral from 1715 to 1723, where he wrote his famous Traité de l’harmonie (Paris, 1722). This epoch-making work, though little understood at the time, attracted considerable attention and roused opposition, so that when he settled definitely in Paris (1723) he was by no means unknown. The fact that he failed in 1727 in a competition for the position of organist at St.-Vincent-de-Paul did not injure his reputation, for it was generally known that Marchand (probably out of jealousy) had exerted his powerful influence in favor of Daquin, who was in every respect inferior to Rameau. In 1732 he became organist at Ste.-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie, and soon was recognized as the foremost organist in France. In 1726 appeared his Nouveau système de musique théorique, an introduction to the Traité. The leading ideas of his system of harmony are (1) chord-building by thirds; (2) the classification of a chord and all its inversions as one and the same, thus reducing the multiplicity of consonant and dissonant combinations to a fixed and limited number of root chords; and (3) his invention of a fundamental bass (basse fondamentale), which is an imaginary series of root tones forming the real basis of the varied chord progressions employed in a composition. The stir that these novel theories occasioned, and his reputation as the foremost French organist, by no means satisfied Rameau’s ambition; his ardent desire was to bring out a dramatic work at the Opéra. He had made a modest beginning with incidental music to Alexis Piron’s comedy L’Endriague in 1723. After contributing further incidental music to Piron’s comedies L’Enrôlement d’Arlequin (1726) and La Robe de dissension, ou Le Faux Prodigue (1726), he became music master to the wife of the “fermier-général” La Pouplinière; the latter obtained from Voltaire a libretto for Samson, which Rameau set to music; but it was rejected on account of its biblical subject. A second libretto, by Abbé Pellegrin, was accepted, and Hippolyte et Aricie was produced at the Opéra in 1733; its reception was cool, despite undeniable superiority over the operas of Lully and his following. Rameau considered abandoning composing any further works for the theater, but the persuasions of his friends, who also influenced public opinion in his favor, were effective; in 1735 he brought out the successful opéra-ballet Les Indes galantes, and in 1737 his masterpiece, Castor et Pollux, a work that for years held its own beside the operas of Gluck. A career of uninterrupted prosperity commenced. Rameau was recognized as the leading theorist of the time, and his instruction was eagerly sought. For the next 30 years his operas dominated the French stage. He was named Compositeur du cabinet du roy in 1745, and was ennobled 4 months before his death.
From the beginning of his dramatic career Rameau roused opposition, and at the same time found ardent admirers. The first war of words was waged between the “Lullistes” and the “Ramistes.” This had scarcely been ended by a triumphant revival of Pygmalion in 1751 when the production of Pergolesi’s La Serva padrona (1752) caused a more prolonged and bitter controversy between the adherents of Rameau and the “Encyclopédistes,” a struggle known as “La Guerre des Bouffons,” in which Rameau participated by writing numerous essays defending his position. Practically the same charges were made against him as would be made a century later against Wagner: unintelligible harmony, lack of melody, preponderance of discords, noisy instrumentation, etc. But when 25 years later the war between Gluckists and Piccinnists was raging, Rameau’s works were praised as models of beauty and perfection. It is a matter for regret that Rameau was indifferent to the quality of his librettos; he relied so much upon his musical inspiration that he never could be brought to a realization of the importance of a good text; hence the inequality of his operas. Nevertheless, his operas mark a decided advance over Lully’s in musical characterization, expressive melody, richness of harmony, variety of modulation, and expert and original instrumentation. The so-called complete edition of Rameau’s works, ed. by Saint-Saëns and C. Malherbe (after the latter’s death continued by M. Emmanuel and M. Teneo), was never completed (18 vols., Paris, 1895–1924). A new critical edition, under the joint auspices of the Association pour la Publication des Oeuvres de Rameau in Paris and the Broude Trust of N.Y., with N. Zaslaw as general ed. and F. Lesure as managing ed., began publishing in 1983. For a complete edition of his Writings, see E. Jacobi, ed., Jean-Philippe Rameau: Complete Theoretical Writings (Rome, 1967–72).
(all publ. in Paris): Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels (1722; Eng. tr., 1737; modem ed. in Eng. tr. by P. Gossett, 1971); Nouveau système de musique théorique (1726); Dissertation sur les différentes méthodes d’accompagnement pour le clavecin ou pour l’orgue (1732); Génération harmonique ou Traité de musique théorique et pratique (1737; modem ed. in Eng. tr. by D. Hayes in Rameau’s “Génération harmonique,” diss., Stanford Univ., 1974); Mémoire où l’on expose les fondements du Système de musique théorique et pratique de M. Rameau (1749); Démonstration du principe de l’harmonie (1750); Nouvelles réflexions de M. Rameau sur sa Démonstration du principe de l’harmonie (1752); Observations sur notre instinct pour la musique (1754); Erreurs sur la musique dans l’Encyclopédie (1755–56); Suite des erreurs sur la musique dans l’Encyclopédie (1756); Prospectus, où l’on propose au public, par voye de souscription, un code de musique pratique, composé de sept méthodes (1757); Réponse de M. Rameau à MM. les éditeurs de l’Encyclopédie (1757); Nouvelles réflexions sur le principe sonore (1758–59); Code de musique pratique, ou Méthodes pour apprendre la musique … avec de nouvelles réflexions sur le principe sonore (1760); Lettre à M. d’Alembert sur ses opinions en musique (1760); Origine des sciences, suivie d’une controverse sur le même sujet (1762); also Vérités intéressantes (unfinished MS).
DRAMATIC (all first perf. at the Paris Opéra unless otherwise given): Opera: Samson, tragédie en musique (1733; not perf.; not extant); Hippolyte et Aricie, tragèdie en musique (Oct. 1, 1733); Les Indes galantes, opéra-ballet (Aug. 23, 1735); Castor et Pollux, tragédie en musique (Oct. 24, 1737); Les Fêtes d’Hébé (Les Talents lyriques), opéra-ballet (May 21, 1739); Dardanus, tragédie en musique (Nov. 19, 1739); La Princesse de Navarre, comédie-ballet (Versailles, Feb. 23, 1745); Platée (ou Junon jalouse), comédie-lyrique (Versailles, March 31, 1745); Les Fêtes de Polymnie, opéra-ballet (Oct. 12, 1745); Le Temple de la gloire, opéra-ballet (Versailles, Nov. 27, 1745); Les Fêtes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les Dieux d’Egypte, ballet-héroïque (Versailles, March 15, 1747); Zaïs, ballet-héroïque (Feb. 29, 1748); Pygmalion, acte de ballet (Aug. 27, 1748); Les Surprises de l’Amour, divertissement (Versailles, Nov. 27, 1748); Naïs, pastorale- héroïque (April 22, 1749); Zoroastre, tragédie en musique (Dec. 5, 1749); Linus, tragédie en musique (not perf.; greater portion of music not extant); La Guirlande, ou Les Fleurs enchantées, acte de ballet (Sept. 21, 1751); Acante et Céphise, ou La Sympathie, pastorale-héroïque (Nov. 18, 1751); Daphnis et Eglé, pastorale-héroïque (Fontainebleau, Oct. 30, 1753); Lysis et Délie, pastorale (1753; not perf.; music not extant); Les Sybarites, acte de ballet (Fontainebleau, Nov. 13, 1753); La Naissance d’Osiris, ou La Fête Familie, acte de ballet (Fontainebleau, Oct. 12, 1754); Anacréon, acte de ballet (Fontainebleau, Oct. 23, 1754; rev. version to different text, May 31, 1757); Le Procureur dupé sans le savoir, opéra-comique en vaudevilles (private perf., 1758 or 1759; music not extant); Les Paladins, comédie-ballet (Feb. 12, 1760); Abaris, ou Les Boréades, tragédie lyrique (first perf. in concert form in London, April 19, 1975; first stage perf. in Aix-en-Provence, July 21, 1982). Ballet: Nélée et Myrthis (Les Beaux Jours de l’amour), Zéphyre (Les Nymphes de Diane), and Io (none publicly performed). OTHER: He also contributed music, in collaboration with others, to the following comedies by A. Piron; L’Endriague (Feb. 3, 1723); L’Enrôlement d’Arlequin (Feb. 1726); La Robe de dissension, ou Le Faux Prodigue (Sept. 7, 1726); Les Jardins de l’Hymen, ou La Rose (1726; March 5, 1744); Les Courses de Tempé (Aug. 30, 1734); also the intermède en musique Aruéris (Dec. 15, 1762). VOCAL: Secular Cantatas: Thétis (1718); Aquilon et Orinthie (1719); Les Amants trahis (1721); Orphée (1721); L’Impatience (1715–21); Le Berger fidèle (1728); Cantate pour la fête de Saint Louis (c. 1740). Sacred Voca1: 4 Psalm settings for Soloists, Chorus, and Instrumental Ensemble: Deus noster refugium (c. 1716), In convertendo (c. 1718), Quam dilecta (c. 1720), and Laboravi (pubi, in Traité de l’harmonie, 1722). KEYBOARD: Premier livre de pièces de clavecin (1706); Pièces de clavecin avec une méthode sur la mécanique des doigts (1724; rev. 1731, as Pièces de clavecin avec une table pour les agréments); Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin (c. 1728); Cinq pièces pour clavecin seul, extraites des Pièces de clavecin en concerts (1741); Pièces de clavecin en concerts for Harpsichord, Violin or Flute, and Viol or Violin (1741; 2nd ed., 1752).
BIOGRAPHICAL: C. Poisot, Notice biographique sur J. P. R. (Paris, 1864); T. Nisard, Monographie de J. P. R. (Paris, 1867); R. Garraud, R. (Paris, 1876); H. Grigne, R. (Dijon, 1876); A. Pougin, R. (Paris, 1876); L. de La Laurencie, R. (Paris, 1908); L. Laloy, R. (Paris, 1908); Y. Tiénot, J. P. R.: Esquisse biographique, suivie d’un tableau chronologique comprenant une liste complète des oeuvres de R. (Paris, 1954); H. Charlier, J. P. R. (Lyons, 1955); P. Berthier, Réflexions sur l’art et la vie de J. P. R. (1683–1764) (Paris, 1957); C. Girdlestone, J. P. R.: His Life and Work (London, 1957; 2nd ed., rev., 1969); J. Malignon, R. (Paris, 1960); C. Kintzler,J. P. R.: Splendeur et naufrage de l’esthétique du plaisir à l’ge classique (Paris, 1983). WORKS: G. Graf, J. P. R. in seiner Oper Hippolyte et Aricie: Eine musikkritische Würdigung (Wädenswil, 1927); P.-M. Masson, L’Opéra de R. (Paris, 1930); Z. Klitenic, The Clavecin Works of J. P. R. (diss., Univ. of Pa., 1955); E. Ahnell, The Concept of Tonality in the Operas of J. P. R. (diss., Univ. of 111., 1958); G. Seefrid, Die Airs de danse in den Bühnenwerken von J. P. R. (Wiesbaden, 1969); M. Terey-Smith, J. P. R.: “Abaris ou les Boréades”: A Critical Edition (diss., Eastman School of Music, 1971); J. Anthony, French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to R. (London, 1973; 2nd ed., rev., 1978); M. Cyrs, R.’s “Les fêtes d’Hébé” (diss., Univ. of Calif., Berkeley, 1975); P. Rice, The Fontainebleau Operas of J. P. R.: A Critical Study (diss., Univ. of Victoria, Canada, 1981); R. Klingsporn, J. P. R.s Opern im äesthetischen Diskurs ihrer Zeit: Opernkomponistion, Musikanschauung und Opernpublikum in Paris 1733–1753 (Stuttgart, 1996); C. Dill, Monstrous Opera: R. and the Tragic Tradition (Princeton, 1998). THEORIES: P. Estève, Nouvelle découverte du principe de l’harmonie, avec un examen de ce que M. R. a publié sous le titre de Démonstration de ce principe (Paris, 1752); J. Le Rond d’Alembert, Éléments de musique théorique et pratique selon les principes de M. R. (Paris, 1752; 2nd ed., 1762); F. Marpurg, Versuch über die musikalische Temperatur, nebst einem Anhang über den R.- und Kirnbergerschen Grundbass (Breslau, 1776); M. Keane, The Theoretical Writings of J. P. R. (diss., Catholic Univ. of America, 1961); J. Krehbiel, Harmonic Principles of J. P. R. and His Contemporaries (diss., Ind. Univ., 1964); D. Hayes, R.’s “Génération harmonique ou Traité de musique théorique et pratique” (diss., Stanford Univ., 1974); E. Verba, A Hierarchic Interpretation of the Theories and Music of J. P. R. (diss., Univ. of Chicago, 1979); E. Haeringer, L’esthétique de l’opéra en France au temps de J. P. R. (Oxford, 1990); T. Christensen, R. and Musical Thought in the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1993).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire