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Learn About French Composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau was born on the 25th of September 1683 in Dijon, France. He is considered a salient music theorist and composer of the 17th and 18th centuries. He duly took the crown jewel of French music from Jean-Baptiste Lully, emerging as supreme talent in the French opera circle. He is also duly considered a master among French composers who worked with the harpsichord.

Jean Philippe Rameau composing (portrate)

Early Life

Any specific details of Rameau's early life are quite obscure, especially the years before he settled in Paris. Also, the scarcity of any biographical information further proves that he was indeed a secretive personality. He was the seventh child of Jean and Claudine Demartinécourt and was given music lessons before he learned to write.

He went to the Jesuit college but had a reputation for being a weak student who regularly disrupted lessons through his singing. Although his father wanted him to study law, he decided to pursue music. So, he was subsequently sent to Milan, Italy to study music. Upon his return, he joined traveling music companies, performing as an organist and violinist, especially in provincial cathedrals. In 1706, he started publishing his compositions, mainly harpsichord works that instantly propelled him to fame.

In 1709, he came back home to Dijon and took over as the organist in the local church, a post that his father used to hold. He was given a 6-year contract but soon left for similar posts in Clermont-Ferrand and Lyon. He produced numerous secular cantatas and motets during this period. In 1722, he finally settled in Paris and continued to work on musical theory. The “Traité de l'harmonie” was soon crafted, followed by the “Nouveau système de musique théorique” in 1726. He also published multiple harpsichord pieces in the later years of the 1720s.


Jean Philippe Rameau playing violin (Portrate)

Rameau's music can be characterized by his exceptional and vast technical knowledge. He was more interested in being a musical theorist than just a musical composer. Rameau himself had famously claimed that he tried to mask art with art. His musical paradox offered fresh, new techniques, albeit keeping the orthodox framework intact. He was heralded as a musical revolutionary, especially by the “Lullyistes,” while the “Philosophes": considered him as reactionary - someone who only concentrated on the content, instead of the music. This criticism that Rameau’s music is somewhat incomprehensible prevented him from continuing with his experiments. This was evident in his “Trio des Parques,” which was redacted after the singers failed to properly execute it and were even unwilling to perform it owing to the musical complexity.

Jean-Philippe Rameau's music can be segregated into four sets of distinct groups. His operatic works, solo and collaborative harpsichord pieces, and a few motets and cantatas, differ greatly in importance. He had dedicated almost 30 years of his life to his work on stage. Like his contemporaries, he often repeated melodies that proved successful but always adapted them meticulously. There are numerous examples of such rework, like “the Tambourin,” “the Musette,” “L'Entretien des Muses,” “Les Fêtes d'Hébé” etc.

Rameau was also a visionary of harpsichord music with François Couperin. Both composers broke away from the style adopted by the first generation French harpsichordists, who generally adhered to the standard form of musical suites. His first book on harpsichord music enhanced the traditional French suite through the following pieces - “L'entretien des Muses,” “Les tendres plaintes,” and “Le rappel des oiseaux.” In the 1730s, he shifted to the French Baroque opera, which was arguably more varied and enhanced than the contemporary Italian works.

His usage of interludes in dance music, which is often considered obligatory, also allowed him to freely utilize his idiosyncratic sense of choreography, melody, and rhythm. His work on choruses was termed as “excellent” by his contemporaries, including the great Padre Martini. Rameau was a master harmonist and was impeccable at composing lavish choruses. His choruses comprised all forms, whether polyphonic, monodic, or distributed for orchestra. His Arias were less frequent, while his recitative work was much closer to “arioso,” or solo vocal compositions.

His Best Works

Gavotte Variée

The original version of this piece starts off the lyrics in the middle, crafting a “half-measure” upbeat. However, earlier versions used a downbeat, and so does Rameau. He created his gavottes to begin on the downbeat and set the piece for keyboard in “A minor.”

Les Cyclopes 

“Les Cyclopes” is the 8th piece from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Suite in D major.” The piece is inspired by Homer’s epic Odyssey and further focuses on a race between the one-eyed giants in the poem.

Les Indes Galantes 

Jean-Philippe Rameau crafted this French opera in collaboration with Louis Fuzelier, who created the libretto. It eventually transitions into an “opéra-ballet” with four acts and an allegorical prologue. The four acts have distinct plots but share the same theme - Love portrayed in exotic places (North America, Persia, Peru, and The Ottoman Empire). The final act, titled “Les sauvages,” offers the best work, “Danse des Sauvages,” which is also the most famous.

Castor Et Pollux

“Castor and Pollux,” also known as “Castor et Pollux” is another famous opera by Rameau. It was first performed at the “Palais-Royal” in the French capital of Paris on the 24th of October, 1737. Pierre-Joseph-Justin Bernard was the librettist, who subsequently became famous for this work. This was Rameau’s third opera and also the second time he had utilized the “tragédie en musique” format. In 1754, the composer made substantial alterations and incorporated new material to revive the opera.  There’s still a prevalent musical debate about which qualifies as the superior version.

Hippolyte Et Aricie

“Hippolytus and Aricia” is Jean-Philippe Rameau’s first oper. It also premiered at the “Palais-Royal” on the 1st of October, 1733, albeit under great controversy. Abbé Simon-Joseph Pellegrin wrote the libretto in French, which was inspired by “Phèdre,” a French tragedy by Jean Racine. This piece follows the conventional road, offering an allegorical prologue in a “tragédie en musique” form, which is subsequently followed by five acts.

Musical Revolutionary

Cover of Traite book by Jean Philippe Rameau

During his last years, Rameau focused more on theoretical treatises, corresponding with Johann Matthesonand Giovanni Battista Martini regularly, and the theories crafted still shapes the base of “tonal harmony: in modern music. Rameau passed away on the 12th of September, 1764, from fever, only 13 days before turning 81. More than 1500 people were present at his memorial service at the “Pères de l'Oratoire,” while almost 200 musicians performed compositions from his operas.

It is often portrayed that Rameau's operas somewhat lack in potential, nuance, and inherent dramatic weight. However, in reality, his operas have successfully explored mythological and dark themes with sincerity and depth of expression. The so-called “modern” productions often utilize the grandeur and elegance of Rameau's dramatic music while neglecting his explosive and daring storylines. Rameau was way ahead of his contemporaries in his usage of orchestration and harmony, and his understanding of harmonic prospects was outstanding. He was one of the foremost impressionists to explore sonorous string and its texture in music. His style was a bit inspired by the Italian techniques of the 18th century, like his usage of a full orchestra in the recitative. He further enhanced these innovations, leaving his mark on baroque music. Modern orchestras are again embracing the baroque era, and Rameau is the French specialist guiding them in period performances. His music is intricate, even orchestrally, and may come around as baffling, with the extravagant changes in tempo and mood. However, one thing is pristine, Rameau's works deserve reappraisal, and he was truly one of a kind.



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