Jean-Philippe Rameau


Jean-Philippe Rameau was a French composer and music theorist, born on September 25, 1683 in Dijon and died on September 12, 1764 in Paris.

Rameau”s lyrical works form the largest part of his musical contribution and mark the apogee of French classicism, whose canons opposed those of Italian music until late in the eighteenth century. In this field, the composer”s most famous creation is the opera-ballet Les Indes galantes (1735). This part of his output remained forgotten for almost two centuries, but has now been widely rediscovered. His works for harpsichord, on the other hand, have always been present in the repertoire: Le Tambourin, L”Entretien des Muses, Le Rappel des Oiseaux, La Poule, among other well-known pieces, were played in the 19th century (on the piano) on a par with those of Bach, Couperin or Scarlatti.

Rameau is considered one of the greatest French musicians and the first theorist of classical harmony: his treatises on harmony, despite certain imperfections, are still considered a reference.

In general, little is known about Rameau”s life, especially the first half, that is, the forty years preceding his final settlement in Paris around 1722. The man was secretive and even his wife knew nothing of his obscure years, hence the scarcity of biographical elements available.

Birth and childhood in Dijon

The seventh child of a family of eleven (he had five sisters and five brothers), he was baptized on September 25, 1683, the same day of his birth, in the collegiate church of Saint-Étienne in Dijon. His mother, Claudine de Martinécourt, was a notary”s daughter. His father, Jean Rameau, was organist at the church of Saint-Étienne in Dijon and, from 1690 to 1709, at the parish church of Notre-Dame in Dijon. He seems to be the first musician in the family, but his grandfather Antoine Rameau, churchwarden of the parish of Saint-Médard, may have been an organ blower by virtue of his office. Trained in music by his father, Jean-Philippe knows his notes even before he can read (this is not unusual at that time and is found in many musicians from father to son, cf. Couperin, Bach, Mozart). A student at the Jesuit college of Godrans, he did not stay there long: intelligent and lively, nothing interested him but music. These botched and quickly interrupted general studies are felt thereafter in a deficient written expression. His father wanted him to become a magistrate: he himself decided to become a musician. His youngest brother, Claude Rameau, who had a precocious talent for music, ended up practicing this profession as well.

Wandering youth

At the age of eighteen, his father sent him on the Grand Tour to Italy to perfect his musical education: he did not go further than Milan and nothing is known of this short stay: a few months later, he was back in France. A few months later, he returned to France. He later admitted that he regretted not having stayed longer in Italy, where “he could have perfected his taste”.

Until the age of forty, his life was made up of incessant moves, which are not well known: after his return to France, he would have been part of a troupe of itinerant musicians, as a violinist, playing on the roads of Languedoc and Provence and would have stayed in Montpellier. In this city, a certain Lacroix would have instructed him in figured bass and accompaniment. Nothing is known of this Lacroix, except for a few elements revealed in 1730 by the Mercure de France in which one reads:

“I know the man who says he taught you when you were about thirty. You know that he lives on Planche-Mibray Street next to a linen maid.”

and Rameau replied:

“I have always taken pleasure in publishing on occasion that M. Lacroix, of Montpellier, whose home you have marked, had given me a distinct knowledge of the rule of the octave at the age of twenty.”

In January 1702, he is found as interim organist at the cathedral of Avignon (while waiting for the new incumbent, Jean Gilles). On June 30, 1702, he signed a six-year contract for the position of organist at the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand.

First stay in Paris

The contract did not come to an end, since Rameau was in Paris in 1706, as the title page of his first harpsichord book proves, designating him as “organist to the Jesuits of the rue Saint-Jacques and the Pères de la Merci. In all likelihood, at this time, he frequented Louis Marchand, who had rented an apartment near the chapel of the Cordeliers, where the latter was titular organist. Moreover, Marchand was previously – in 1703 – organist of the Jesuits in the rue Saint-Jacques and Rameau is therefore his successor. Finally, the Livre de pièces de clavecin, Rameau”s first work, bears witness to the influence of his elder. In September 1706, he applied for the position of organist at the church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine-en-la-Cité left vacant by François d”Agincourt who was called to the cathedral of Rouen. Chosen by the jury, he finally refused the position which was given to Louis-Antoine Dornel. He was probably still in Paris in July 1708. It is notable that, after having served as organist for most of his career, he left no pieces for this instrument. Failing that, the 17 Magnificat that the young Balbastre left in manuscript (1750) may give an idea of the style that Rameau practiced on the organ.

Back to the Province

In 1709, Rameau returned to Dijon to take over his father”s position at the organ of the parish church of Notre-Dame on March 27. Here again the contract was for six years but did not run its course. In July 1713, Rameau was in Lyon as organist of the Jacobins church. He made a short stay in Dijon at the time of his father”s death in December 1714, attended the wedding of his brother Claude in January 1715 and returned to Lyon. He returned to Clermont-Ferrand in April, with a new contract at the cathedral, for a period of twenty-nine years. He stayed there for eight years, during which time he probably composed his motets and his first cantatas, and gathered the ideas that led to the publication in 1722 of his Traité de l”harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels. The frontispiece of the work designates him as “organist of the cathedral of Clermont”. This fundamental treatise, which establishes Rameau as a learned musician, had been on his mind since his youth. It aroused numerous echoes in scientific and musical circles, in France and beyond.

Final installation in Paris

Rameau returned to Paris, this time permanently, in 1722 or early 1723 at the latest, under conditions that remain obscure. It is not known where he lived at the time: in 1724 he published his second book of harpsichord pieces, which does not bear the composer”s address.

What is certain is that his musical activity turned towards the Fair, and that he collaborated with Alexis Piron, a poet from Dijon who had been established for some time in Paris, who wrote comedies or comic operas for the fairs of Saint-Germain (from February to Palm Sunday) and Saint-Laurent (from the end of July to Assumption Day). He wrote music, of which almost nothing remains, for the Endriague (1723), the Enlèvement d”Arlequin (1726), the Robe de dissension (1726). When he became an established and famous composer, Rameau still composed music for these popular shows: Les Courses de Tempé (1734), Les Jardins de l”Hymen (1744) and Le Procureur dupé sans le savoir (around 1758). It was for the Comédie Italienne that he wrote a piece that became famous, Les Sauvages, on the occasion of the exhibition of authentic North American Indian “savages” (written for the harpsichord and published in his third book in 1728, this rhythmic dance was later included in the last act of Les Indes galantes, whose action takes place in a forest in Louisiana). It was at the fair that he met Louis Fuzelier, who became the librettist.

On February 25, 1726, he marries in the church of Saint-Germain l”Auxerrois the young Marie-Louise Mangot who is nineteen years old (she is a good musician and singer and participates in the interpretation of some of her husband”s works. Together they will have two sons and two daughters. Despite the age difference and the difficult character of the musician, it seems that the household led a happy life. Her first son, Claude-François, was baptized on August 8, 1727 in the same church of Saint-Germain l”Auxerrois. The godfather was his brother, Claude Rameau, with whom he maintained a very good relationship throughout his life.

During these early years in Paris, Rameau continued his research and publishing activities with the publication of the Nouveau système de musique théorique (1726), which completed the treatise of 1722. Whereas the latter was the fruit of Cartesian and mathematical reflections, the new book makes an important place for considerations of a physical nature, Rameau having become acquainted with the work of the learned acoustician Joseph Sauveur, which supported and confirmed on an experimental level his own earlier theoretical considerations.

During this same period, he composed his last cantata: Le Berger fidèle (1727 or 1728), published his third and last harpsichord book (1728), and competed unsuccessfully for the position of organist at the church of Saint-Paul – a church which has now disappeared and which should not be confused with the church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis. Louis-Claude Daquin was preferred to him by the jury which included, among others, Jean-François Dandrieu. He finally thought of making a name for himself in the lyric theater by looking for a librettist who could collaborate with him.

Antoine Houdar de La Motte could have been this librettist. An established poet, he had been successful for many years in his collaboration with André Campra, André Cardinal Destouches and Marin Marais. On October 25, 1727, Rameau sent him a famous letter in which he tried to show him his qualities as a composer capable of faithfully translating into his music what the librettist expressed in his text. Houdar de la Motte does not, it seems, respond to the offer. However, he kept this letter, which was found in his papers after his death and published in the Mercure de France after Rameau”s death. But he probably considered that Rameau (then aged forty-four), if he had a reputation as a learned theorist, had not yet produced any major musical composition: a beggar among others, or a scholar who could only be boring? How can one guess that this abstract theorist, unsociable, dry and brittle, without a stable job, already old, who has composed almost nothing at a time when one composes young, quickly and a lot, will become a few years later the official musician of the kingdom, the “god of dance” and the undisputed glory of French music?

During the decade 1729-1739, Rameau, along with Alexis Piron and Louis Fuzelier, was among the guests of the Société du Caveau; several of its members (Charles Collé, Charles-Antoine Leclerc de La Bruère, Gentil-Bernard) would later become his librettists.

Serving La Pouplinière

It is in all likelihood through Piron that Rameau came into contact with the farmer-general Alexandre Le Riche de La Pouplinière, one of the richest men in France, an art lover who maintained around him a cenacle of artists of which he would soon become a member. The circumstances of the meeting between Rameau and his patron are not known, although it is assumed that it must have taken place before La Pouplinière”s exile to Provence following a gallant affair, an exile that must have lasted from 1727 to 1731. Piron was from Dijon, as was Rameau, who provided him with the music for some pieces for the Fair; he worked as secretary to Pierre Durey d”Harnoncourt, who was then receiver of the finances in Dijon. The latter was a close friend and pleasure companion of La Pouplinière: he introduced Piron to him and the latter undoubtedly spoke to him about Rameau, whose music and especially his treatises were beginning to emerge from anonymity.

This meeting determined Rameau”s life for more than twenty years and brought him into contact with several of his future librettists, including Voltaire and his future “bête-noire” in the person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As for Voltaire, his initial opinion of Rameau was rather negative, as he considered him pedantic, meticulous to the extreme and, in short, boring. However, he was soon captivated by Rameau”s music and, in recognition of his dual talent as a scholar and a composer of the highest order, coined the nickname “Euclid-Orpheus” for him.

It is assumed that, as early as 1731, Rameau conducted the private orchestra, of very high quality, financed by La Pouplinière. He kept this position (succeeded by Stamitz and then Gossec) for 22 years. He was also harpsichord teacher to Thérèse Des Hayes, La Pouplinière”s mistress from 1737 onwards, who finally married him in 1740. Madame de La Pouplinière came from a family of artists, linked by her mother to the wealthy banker Samuel Bernard, a good musician herself, and of a more reliable taste than her husband. She proved to be one of Rameau”s best allies before his separation from her husband in 1748, both of whom were very fickle.

In 1732, the Rameau”s have a second child, Marie-Louise, who is baptized on November 15.

Rameau played music at the parties given by La Pouplinière in his private mansions, first on rue Neuve des Petits-Champs, then, from 1739, in the Hôtel Villedo on rue de Richelieu; but also at those organized by some of the friends of the farmer-general, for example in 1733 for the marriage of the daughter of the financier Samuel Bernard, Bonne Félicité, to Mathieu-François Molé: On this occasion, he played the organ in the church of Saint-Eustache, the keyboards having been lent to him by its owner, and received 1,200 livres from the rich banker for his performance.

1733: Rameau is fifty years old. A theorist made famous by his treatises on harmony, he was also a talented musician, appreciated for his playing of the organ, harpsichord, violin and conducting. However, his work as a composer is limited to a few motets and cantatas and three collections of harpsichord pieces, the last two of which are noted for their innovative aspect. At this time, his contemporaries of about the same age, Vivaldi (five years older than him, who died in 1741), Telemann, Bach, and Handel, had already composed the bulk of a very important body of work. Rameau presents a very special case in the history of Baroque music: this “beginner composer” in his fifties possessed an accomplished craft that had not yet manifested itself on his preferred terrain, the operatic stage, where he soon eclipsed all his contemporaries.

Success at last: Hippolyte and Aricie

The abbot Simon-Joseph Pellegrin (a religious suspended a divinis by the archbishop of Paris for being too involved in the world of theater) frequents the house of La Pouplinière. There he met Rameau, who had already written, since 1714, several librettos for operas or opera-ballets. He was to provide him with the libretto for a musical tragedy, Hippolyte et Aricie, which immediately established the composer in the firmament of the French lyric scene. On this libretto, whose action is freely inspired by Jean Racine”s Phèdre and, beyond that, by the tragedies of Seneca (Phèdre) and Euripides (Hippolyte porte-couronne), Rameau puts into practice the reflections of almost a lifetime as to the rendering by music of all theatrical situations, of human passions and feelings, as he tried to have Houdar de la Motte argue, in vain. Of course, Hippolyte et Aricie also sacrifices to the particular requirements of tragedy in music, which gives an important place to chorus, dances and machinery effects. Paradoxically, the play associates a very learned and modern music with a form of lyrical spectacle which had known its great hours at the end of the previous century but which was then considered outdated.

The play was privately staged at La Pouplinière”s house in the spring of 1733. After rehearsals at the Royal Academy of Music in July, the first performance took place on October 1st. The play was disconcerting at first but finally a triumph. Conforming to Lully”s tradition in structure (a prologue and five acts), it musically surpassed anything that had been done before in this field. The old composer André Campra, who attended the performance, estimated that there was “enough music in this opera to make ten”, adding that “this man (Rameau) would eclipse them all”. Rameau had to rework the initial version, however, because the singers were unable to interpret some of his arias correctly, especially the “second trio of the Fates” whose rhythmic and harmonic audacity was unheard of at the time. The piece, therefore, leaves no one indifferent: Rameau is at the same time praised by those who are delighted by the beauty, science and originality of his music and criticized by those nostalgic for the style of Lully, who proclaim that true French music is being deviated from in favor of a bad Italianism. The opposition of the two camps is all the more surprising since, throughout his life, Rameau professed an unconditional respect for Lully that is not surprising. With 32 performances in 1733, this work definitively established Rameau in the first rank of French music; it would be performed three times at the Académie royale during the composer”s lifetime.

First operatic career (1733-1739)

For seven years, from 1733 to 1739, Rameau gave the full measure of his genius and seemed to want to make up for lost time by composing his most emblematic works: three lyric tragedies (after Hippolyte et Aricie, Castor et Pollux in 1737 and Dardanus in 1739) and two opera-ballets (Les Indes galantes in 1735 and Les Fêtes d”Hébé in 1739). This did not prevent him from continuing his theoretical work: in 1737, his treatise on Harmonic Generation took up and developed the previous treatises. The presentation, intended for the members of the Academy of Sciences, begins with the statement of twelve propositions and the description of seven experiments by which he intends to demonstrate that his theory is founded in law because it comes from nature, a theme dear to the intellectuals of the Enlightenment.

As early as 1733, Rameau and Voltaire considered collaborating on a sacred opera entitled Samson: the Abbé Pellegrin had had his greatest success in 1732 with a Jephté set to music by Montéclair, thus opening up what appeared to be a new avenue. Voltaire struggled to compose his libretto: the religious vein was not really his; setbacks occurred with his exile in 1734; Rameau himself, enthusiastic at the beginning, grew tired of waiting and no longer seemed very motivated; yet partial rehearsals took place. However, the mixture of genres, between the biblical story and the opera which calls for gallant intrigues, is not to everyone”s taste, especially the religious authorities. In 1736, the censors banned the work, which was never completed or, of course, performed. The libretto was not lost but published by Voltaire a few years later; Rameau”s music was probably reused in other works, without being identified.

This was not the case, however, since 1735 saw the birth of a new masterpiece, the opera-ballet Les Indes galantes, probably the best-known stage work, also the summit of the genre, in a prologue and four entries, on a libretto by Louis Fuzelier. Rameau”s first attempt at a musical tragedy was a masterpiece: the same is true of the lighter opera-ballet developed by André Campra in 1697 with Carnaval de Venise and Europe galante. The similarity of the titles leaves no room for surprise: Rameau exploits the same successful vein but seeks a little more exoticism in the very approximate Indies, which are in fact in Turkey, Persia, Peru or among the North American Indians. The tenuous plot of these little dramas serves above all to introduce a “grand spectacle” in which sumptuous costumes, sets, machinery, and especially dance play an essential role. Les Indes galantes symbolizes the carefree, refined era, devoted to the pleasures and gallantry of Louis XV and his court. The work was premiered at the Royal Academy of Music on August 23, 1735, and enjoyed increasing success. It includes a prologue and two entries. At the third performance, the entry Les Fleurs was added, then quickly reworked following criticism of the libretto, whose plot was particularly far-fetched; the fourth entry Les Sauvages was finally added on March 10, 1736: Rameau reused the dance of the American Indians that he had composed several years earlier and then transcribed into a harpsichord piece in his third book. Les Indes galantes was revived, in whole or in part, many times during the composer”s lifetime, and Rameau himself made a transcription for the harpsichord of the principal tunes.

Now famous, he can open a composition class in his home.

On October 24, 1737, the second tragédie lyrique, Castor et Pollux, was premiered on a libretto by Gentil-Bernard, who had also met at La Pouplinière. The libretto, which recounts the adventures of the divine twins in love with the same woman, is generally agreed to be one of the best that the composer has written (even if Gentil-Bernard”s talent does not deserve Voltaire”s dithyrambic appreciation of him). The music is admirable, though less daring than that of Hippolyte et Aricie – Rameau never again wrote arias comparable in boldness to the second trio of the Fates or to Theseus” monumental aria “Puissant maître des flots. But the work ends with an extraordinary divertissement, the Fête de l”Univers, after the heroes have been installed in the Immortals” abode.

One after the other in 1739, the Fêtes d”Hébé (second opera-ballet) was premiered on May 25, 1739, to a libretto by Montdorge, and Dardanus (third lyric tragedy) on November 19, 1739, to a libretto by Charles-Antoine Leclerc de La Bruère. If Rameau”s music is more and more sumptuous, the librettos become more and more poor: they have to be quickly reworked in order to hide the most glaring defects.

Les Fêtes d”Hébé was an immediate success, but the abbé Pellegrin was called in to improve the libretto (especially the second entry) after a few performances. The third entry (the Dance) is particularly appreciated for its haunting pastoral character – Rameau reuses, with orchestration, the famous Tambourin from the second harpsichord book, which contrasts with one of the most admirable musettes he composed, alternately played, sung and sung in chorus.

As for Dardanus, perhaps musically the richest of Rameau”s works, the piece was initially poorly received by the public, due to the implausibility of the libretto and the naivety of certain scenes: modified after a few performances, the opera was almost rewritten, in its last three acts, for a revival in 1744: it was almost a different work.

Seven years of silence

After these few years in which he produced masterpiece after masterpiece, Rameau mysteriously disappeared for six years from the opera scene and even almost from the music scene, except for a new version of Dardanus in 1744.

The reason for this sudden silence is not known (probably Rameau devoted himself to his function as conductor of La Pouplinière. No doubt he had already given up his function as organist (certainly by 1738 at the latest for the church of Sainte-Croix de la Bretonnerie). No theoretical writings either; all that remains of these few years are the Pièces de clavecin en concerts, Rameau”s only production in the field of chamber music, probably resulting from concerts organized at the farmer-general”s house.

His third child, Alexandre, was born in 1740 and was sponsored by La Pouplinière, but the child died before 1745. The last daughter, Marie-Alexandrine, was born in 1744. From that same year, Rameau and his family had an apartment in the palace of the farmer general on rue de Richelieu; they had it for twelve years, probably keeping their apartment on rue Saint-Honoré. They also spent every summer at the château de Passy, bought by La Pouplinière; Rameau played the organ there.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who arrived in Paris in 1741, was introduced to La Pouplinière by a cousin of Madame de La Pouplinière in 1744 or 1745. Although an admirer of Rameau, he was received without sympathy and with a certain contempt by the latter and he also alienated the mistress of the house, the composer”s best supporter. Rousseau was very proud of his invention of a cipher system for notating music, much simpler in his opinion than the traditional staff system. Rameau was quick to refute him, for practical reasons which the inventor was forced to admit. Having attended a performance of an opera, Les Muses galantes, at the farmer-general”s house, of which Rousseau presented himself as the author, Rameau accused him of plagiarism, having detected inequalities in musical quality between different parts of the work. The animosity that arose between the two men from this first contact would only grow in the years that followed.

Second operatic career

Rameau reappeared on the opera stage in 1745 and that year almost monopolized it with five new works. La Princesse de Navarre, a comedy-ballet with a libretto by Voltaire, was performed at Versailles on February 23 for the wedding of the Dauphin. Platée, a lyrical comedy in a new style, was premiered at Versailles on March 31; in the comic register, it is the masterpiece of Rameau who even bought the rights to the libretto in order to adapt it to his needs.

Les Fêtes de Polymnie, an opera-ballet, was premiered in Paris on October 12, with a libretto by Louis de Cahusac, a librettist he had met at La Pouplinière”s. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration that would only end with the death of the poet in 1759. Le Temple de la Gloire, an opera-ballet with a libretto by Voltaire, was performed at Versailles on November 27. Finally, Les Fêtes de Ramire, a ballet act, was performed at Versailles on December 22.

Rameau became one of the official musicians of the court: he was appointed “Composer of the Music of His Majesty”s Chamber” on May 4, 1745, and received an annual pension of 2,000 livres “to enjoy and be paid for his life.

Les Fêtes de Ramire is a work of pure entertainment that is to reuse the music of La Princesse de Navarre on a minimal libretto written by Voltaire. Rameau being busy with the Temple of Glory, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is entrusted with the musical adaptation but does not manage to finish the work in time; Rameau, quite irritated, is thus obliged to do it himself at the cost of Rousseau”s humiliation; this new incident degrades a little more the already very bitter relations.

After the “fireworks” of 1745, the composer”s rate of production slowed down, but Rameau produced for the stage, more or less regularly, until the end of his life, without abandoning his theoretical research or, soon, his polemical and pamphlet activities: Thus, he composed in 1747 Les Fêtes de l”Hymen et de l”Amour and, that same year, his last work for the harpsichord, an isolated piece, La Dauphine; in 1748, the pastoral Zaïs, the ballet act Pygmalion, the opera-ballet Les Surprises de l”amour ; in 1749, the pastoral Naïs, and the lyric tragedy Zoroastre where he innovated by suppressing the prologue which was replaced by a simple overture; finally in 1751, the ballet act La Guirlande and the pastoral Acanthe et Céphise.

It was probably during this period that he came into contact with d”Alembert, who was interested in the musician”s scientific approach to his art. He encouraged Rameau to present the results of his work to the Académie des Sciences: in 1750, perhaps with the help of Diderot, he published his treatise entitled Démonstration du principe de l”harmonie, which is considered the best written of all his theoretical works. D”Alembert praised Rameau, and in 1752 he wrote the Elements of theoretical and practical music according to the principles of M. Rameau, and retouched in his favor some articles of the Encyclopedia written by Rousseau. But their paths diverged a few years later when the philosopher-mathematician became aware of the errors in Rameau”s thinking concerning the relationship between pure and experimental sciences. For the time being, Rameau also sought the approval of the greatest mathematicians for his work, which would be the occasion for exchanges of letters with Jean Bernoulli and Leonhard Euler.

In 1748, La Pouplinière and his wife separated: Rameau lost in his patron his most faithful ally. His prodigious activity, which left little room for competition, annoyed many and certainly played a role in the attacks he suffered during the famous Querelle des Bouffons. But age has not made him more flexible, nor less attached to his ideas…

To understand the occurrence of the Querelle des Bouffons, one must remember that around 1750, France was, musically speaking, very isolated from the rest of Europe, which had long since accepted the supremacy of Italian music. In Germany, in Austria, in England, in the Netherlands, in the Iberian Peninsula, Italian music had swept away or at least assimilated the local traditions. Only France is still a bastion of resistance to this hegemony. The symbol of this resistance is Lully”s tragédie en musique – now symbolized by the old Rameau – while the attraction of Italian music has long been felt in the practice of instrumental music. The antagonism that arose between Rameau and Rousseau – personal enmity coupled with completely opposite conceptions of music – also personified this confrontation, which gave rise to a veritable verbal, epistolary, and even physical outburst between the “King”s Corner” (the supporters of the French tradition) and the “Queen”s Corner” (those of Italian music).

The Jesters” quarrel

At the beginning of 1752, Friedrich Melchior Grimm, a German journalist and critic living in Paris, had already criticized the French style in his Lettre sur Omphale following the revival of this lyric tragedy composed at the beginning of the century by André Cardinal Destouches, proclaiming the superiority of Italian dramatic music. Rameau was not the target of this pamphlet, Grimm having at that time a high opinion of Rameau as a musician.

On August 1, 1752, an Italian touring company set up shop at the Royal Academy of Music to give performances of intermezzos and opera buffas. They began with the performance of La serva padrona (The Maid Mistress) by Pergolesi. The same work had already been given in Paris in 1746, without attracting any attention. This time, a scandal broke out: the intrusion into the temple of French music of these “buffoons” divided the Parisian musical intelligentsia into two clans. Between the supporters of the tragédie lyrique, royal representative of the French style, and the sympathizers of the opéra-bouffe, truculent defender of the Italian music, a real pamphleteer”s quarrel is born which will animate the musical, literary and philosophical circles of the French capital until 1754.

In fact, the Querelle des Bouffons, unleashed under a musical pretext, is, well beyond, the confrontation of two aesthetic, cultural and, finally, political ideals that are definitely incompatible: classicism, associated with the image of the absolute power of Louis XIV, opposed to the spirit of the Enlightenment. Rameau”s music, so refined (so learned, therefore the product of a contested culture), was put “in the same bag” as the theatrical plays that served as a mold and argument, with their paraphernalia of mythology, marvels, and machines, to which the philosophers wanted to oppose the simplicity, naturalness, and spontaneity of Italian opera buffa, which was characterized by a music that gave primacy to the melody.

The Queen”s corner gathers the Encyclopedists, with Rousseau, Grimm, Diderot, d”Holbach, later d”Alembert; the critics focus on Rameau, the main representative of the King”s corner. A considerable number of libels and articles (more than sixty) were exchanged, the most virulent coming from Grimm (Le petit prophète de Boehmischbroda) and Rousseau (Lettre sur la musique française where he even denies the possibility of French music) and Rameau is not left out (Observation sur notre instinct pour la musique), who will continue to throw his lines long after the Querelle has calmed down: Les erreurs sur la musique dans l”Encyclopédie (1755), Suite des erreurs (1756), Réponse à MM. les éditeurs de l”Encyclopédie (1757). There is even a duel between Ballot de Sauvot, librettist and admirer of the composer, and the Italian castrato Caffarelli, who is injured. The Querelle eventually died out, an edict of May 1754 having driven the Italian buffoons out of France; but lyrical tragedy and related forms had received such blows that their time was over.

Only Rameau, who would retain all his prestige as an official court composer to the end, would still dare to write in this now outmoded style. In 1753 he composed the heroic pastoral Daphnis et Églé, a new lyric tragedy (Linus), the pastoral Lysis and Délie (the latter two were not performed and their music is lost), and the ballet act Les Sybarites.1754 saw the composition of two more ballet acts: La Naissance d”Osiris (to celebrate the birth of the future Louis XVI) and Anacréon, as well as a new version of Castor et Pollux.

Last years

In 1753, La Pouplinière took as his mistress a scheming musician, Jeanne-Thérèse Goermans, daughter of the harpsichord maker Jacques Goermans. The woman who calls herself Madame de Saint-Aubin is married to a profiteer who pushes her into the arms of the rich financier. She makes the vacuum around her, while La Pouplinière hires Johann Stamitz: it is the rupture with Rameau who, moreover, does not need the financial support of his former friend and protector.

Rameau continued his activities as a theorist and composer until his death. He lived with his wife and two children in his large apartment in the rue des Bons-Enfants from where he went every day, lost in thought, to take his solitary walk in the nearby gardens of the Palais-Royal or the Tuileries. There he sometimes met the young Chabanon who later wrote his eulogy and who collected some of his rare disillusioned confidences:

“Day by day I acquire taste, but I have no more genius…” and again “Imagination is worn out in my old head, and one is not wise when one wants to work at this age in the arts which are entirely of imagination…. “

His plays continued to be performed, sometimes out of deference to the old composer: in 1756, a second version of Zoroastre; in 1757, Anacréon, a new entry added to Surprises de l”amour; and in 1760, Les Paladins, a comedy-ballet in a renewed style, while he continued to settle his accounts, in writing, with the Encyclopedia and the philosophers.

On May 11, 1761, he was admitted to the Academy of Dijon, his native city; this honor was particularly important to him.

His last writings, in particular L”Origine des sciences, are marked by his obsession to make harmony the reference of any science, suitable to support the opinion of Grimm who comes to speak about “drivel” of “old man”.

Nevertheless, Rameau – who was ennobled in the spring of 1764 – kept his wits about him and composed, at more than eighty years of age, his last tragedy in music, Les Boréades, a work of great novelty, but of a novelty that was no longer in the direction that music was then taking. Rehearsals began in the early summer of 1764, but the piece was not performed: Rameau died of a “putrid fever” on September 12, 1764. Les Boréades would wait more than two centuries for its triumphant premiere in Aix-en-Provence in 1982.

The great musician was buried the next day, September 13, 1764, in the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, where there is a commemorative plaque.

Several ceremonies of homage take place, in the following days, in Paris, Orleans, Marseille, Dijon, Rouen. Eulogies will be published by the Mercure de France, and written by Chabanon and Maret. His stage music continued, like that of Lully, to be performed until the end of the Ancien Régime, then disappeared from the repertoire for more than a century.

Just as his biography is imprecise and fragmentary, Rameau”s personal and family life is almost completely opaque: in this genius musician and theorist, everything disappears behind the musical and theoretical work. Rameau”s music, at times so graceful and lively, is in perfect contrast to the man”s outward appearance and to what we know of his character, described in a caricatured and perhaps outrageous manner by Diderot in Rameau”s Nephew. All his life he was only interested in music, with passion and, sometimes, with anger, even aggressiveness; it occupied all his thoughts; Philippe Beaussant even speaks of monomania. Piron explains that “All his soul and his mind were in his harpsichord; when he had closed it, there was nobody left in the house”.

Physically, Rameau was tall and very thin: the sketches we have of him, notably one by Carmontelle which shows him in front of his harpsichord, depict him as a sort of stile with endless legs. He had “a big voice”. His elocution was difficult, as was his written expression which was never fluid.

The man was at once secretive, solitary, grumpy, full of himself (more proud of himself as a theorist than as a musician) and brittle with his opponents, easily carried away. It is hard to imagine him evolving in the midst of the fine minds – including Voltaire, with whom he had a certain physical resemblance – who frequented the residence of La Pouplinière: his music was his best ambassador in the absence of more worldly qualities.

His “enemies” – to understand: those who did not share his ideas on music or acoustic theory – amplified his faults, for example his supposed avarice. In fact, it seems that his preoccupation with economy is the consequence of a long obscure career, with minimal and uncertain incomes, more than a trait of character because he knew how to be generous: we know that he helped his nephew Jean-François who came to Paris, his young colleague from Dijon Claude Balbastre who also “went up” to Paris, well endowed his daughter Marie-Louise in 1750 when she entered religion at the Visitandines, and paid in a very punctual way a pension to one of his sisters who had become invalid. He had become financially well off with the success of his lyrical works and the granting of a pension by the king (a few months before his death, he was even ennobled and made a knight in the Order of Saint-Michel). But he had not changed his lifestyle, keeping his worn-out clothes, his only pair of shoes, his dilapidated furniture; at his death, in the ten-room apartment he occupied on rue des Bons-Enfants with his wife and son, he had at his disposal only a harpsichord with a single keyboard, in poor condition; but a bag containing 1691 gold louis was found in his belongings.

A trait of character found in other members of his family is a certain instability: he settled in Paris around the age of forty after a phase of wandering and having held numerous positions in various cities: Avignon, perhaps Montpellier, Clermont-Ferrand, Paris, Dijon, Lyon, again Clermont-Ferrand and then Paris. Even in the capital, he often changed residence, in turn rue des Petits-Champs (1726), rue des Deux-Boules (1727), rue de Richelieu (1731), rue du Chantre (1732), rue des Bons-Enfants (1733), rue Saint-Thomas du Louvre (1744), rue Saint-Honoré (1745), rue de Richelieu chez La Pouplinière (1746), and finally rue des Bons-Enfants again (1752). The cause of these successive moves is not known.

We cannot end this biographical sketch without mentioning an important characteristic of Jean-Philippe Rameau”s personality, which was expressed throughout his career by his predilection for comic subjects: wit, which was indispensable when one prided oneself on working at the Court of Versailles. Thus, on the very day of his death, when he was given the last rites, he would have found nothing more serious to say to the priest than to ask him not to sing so off-key…

With his wife Marie-Louise Mangot, Rameau has four children:

After Rameau”s death, his wife left the apartment in the rue des Bons-Enfants in Paris and went to live with her son-in-law in Andrésy; she died there in 1785 and is buried there.

The names of the last two children are a tribute to the farmer-general Alexandre de La Pouplinière, Rameau”s patron, thanks to whom he was able to begin his career as a lyric composer.

Jean-Philippe has a younger brother, Claude, also a musician (much less famous). The latter has two sons, musicians like him but with the existence of “failures”: Lazare Rameau and Jean-François Rameau (it is the latter who inspires Diderot the material of his book Le Neveu de Rameau).

Rameau composed in almost every genre in vogue in France at the time. Nevertheless, not all are equal in his output. In particular, it is worth noting that he devoted himself almost exclusively to lyrical music (in its various facets) during the last thirty years of his career, apart from his theoretical works.

Curiously – and in contrast to the composers of the German school – he left no compositions for organ, although he practiced this instrument for most of his musical life.

The musical production includes 76 works, including:

It turns out that we have lost the music of a number of works by Rameau. In particular, nothing remains of the music he composed for the Saint-Germain fair.

Like most of his contemporaries, he often reused certain particularly successful or popular arias, but never without meticulous adaptation: these are not simple transcriptions. These transfers are numerous: in the Fêtes d”Hébé we find three pieces (Entretien des Muses, Musette and Tambourin) taken from the harpsichord book of 1724 and an aria from the cantata Le Berger fidèle; or another Tambourin passes successively from Castor et Pollux to the Pièces en concert and then to the second version of Dardanus; other examples abound. Moreover, there are no reports of borrowings from other musicians, at most influences at the beginning of his career (we know, for example, that his exact contemporary Handel used and even abused borrowings from other musicians).

The famous Hymne à la nuit (brought back into the spotlight by the film Les Choristes) is not, in this form, by Rameau. It is an adaptation for choirs by Joseph Noyon and E. Sciortino of a chorus of priestesses present in Act I (scene 3) of Hippolyte et Aricie in the first version of 1733.

Sylvie Bouissou, a leading expert on Rameau, assured in October 2014 that he was the author of the famous canon known for two centuries as Frère Jacques.


For more than forty years, Rameau was a professional organist in the service of religious institutions, both parish and convent, yet his production of sacred music is very limited, not to mention his non-existent organ work.

Obviously, this was not his favorite field, but at most it was an important source of income. The rare religious compositions of this genius are, however, remarkable and compare favorably with those of specialists in the genre.

The works that can be attributed to him with certainty or almost are four in number:

Other motets are of doubtful attribution: Diligam te (Ps. 17) and Inclina Domine (Ps. 85).


At the very beginning of the 18th century, a new genre appeared, which was very successful: the French cantata, a secular form that was derived from the Italian cantata. It was created around 1700 by the poet Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, in association with composers such as Jean-Baptiste Morin and Nicolas Bernier, close to the Duke of Orleans Philippe II (future regent of France). It should be noted that this literary and musical form is unrelated to the Germanic cantata (often linked to the Lutheran religion, like those of Johann Sebastian Bach). The famous Café Laurent played an important role in the development of this new genre. What came to be known as the “cantate françoise” was immediately adopted by several renowned musicians, such as Montéclair, Campra, Clérambault, and many others.

The cantatas are Rameau”s first contact with lyrical music, requiring reduced means and therefore accessible to a musician who was still unknown. Musicologists must confine themselves to hypotheses concerning the dates and circumstances of composition. The librettists remain unknown.

The cantatas attributed with certainty to Rameau that have come down to us are seven in number (the dates are estimates):

The common theme of these cantatas is love and the various feelings it arouses.

Rameau”s first biographer, Hugues Maret, mentions two cantatas that were composed in Clermont-Ferrand and are now lost: Médée and L”Absence.

Instrumental music

Rameau, along with François Couperin, was one of the two leaders of the French harpsichord school in the 18th century. The two musicians clearly differed from the first generation of harpsichordists, who cast their compositions in the relatively rigid mold of the classical suite. This genre reached its peak during the decade 1700-1710 with the successive publications of collections by Louis Marchand, Gaspard Le Roux, Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, Jean-François Dandrieu, Élisabeth Jacquet, Charles Dieupart, and Nicolas Siret.

But the two men have a very different style and in no way can Rameau be considered the heir of his elder. They seem to ignore each other (Couperin was one of the official musicians of the Court while Rameau was still an unknown: his fame would come the same year Couperin died). Moreover, Rameau published his first book as early as 1706, whereas François Couperin, who was fifteen years older, waited until 1713 to publish his first orders. Rameau”s pieces seem to be less conceived for the harpsichord than Couperin”s; they give less importance to ornamentation and are much better suited to a piano performance. Given the volume of their respective contributions, Rameau”s music is perhaps more varied: it includes pieces in the pure tradition of the French suite, imitative pieces (Le Rappel des Oiseaux, la Poule) and of character (Les tendres Plaintes, L”entretien des Muses), pieces of pure virtuosity (Les Tourbillons, Les trois Mains), pieces in which the research of the theorist and the innovator in the field of interpretation is discovered (L”Enharmonique, Les Cyclopes), whose influence on Daquin, Royer, Duphly is evident. The pieces are grouped by key.

Rameau”s three collections were published in 1706, 1724 and 1728 respectively. After this date, he composed only one isolated piece for solo harpsichord: La Dauphine (1747). Another piece, Les petits marteaux, is dubiously attributed to him.

He also transcribed for the harpsichord a number of pieces from the Indes galantes and especially five pieces from the Pièces de clavecin en concerts.

During his semi-retirement from 1740 to 1744, he wrote Pièces de clavecin en concerts (1741). This is the only collection of chamber music that Rameau left to posterity. Taking up a formula successfully used by Mondonville a few years earlier, the Pièces en concert differ from the sonatas for three in that the harpsichord does not simply provide the basso continuo accompaniment to the melodic instruments (violin, flute, viola) but “concertizes” with them on an equal footing.

Rameau asserts, moreover, that these pieces are just as satisfactory performed on the harpsichord alone; this last assertion is not very convincing, since he takes the precaution, in spite of everything, of transcribing four of them: those where the parts of the missing instruments would be the most lacking.

There is a transcription for string sextet (Concerts en sextuor) which he probably did not write.

Lyrical and stage works

From 1733 onwards, Rameau devoted himself almost exclusively to lyrical music: the foregoing was therefore only a long preparation; strengthened by theoretical and aesthetic principles from which nothing could ever depart, he devoted himself to the complete spectacle that is the French lyrical theater. From a strictly musical point of view, it is richer and more varied than contemporary Italian opera, notably through the place given to choruses and dances, but also through the musical continuity that arises from the respective relationships between the recitative and the arias. Another essential difference is that while Italian opera gives the largest place to female sopranos and castrati, French opera ignores this fashion.

In the Italian opera contemporary to Rameau (the opera seria), the vocal part consists essentially of sung parts in which the music (the melody) is king (arias da capo, duets, trios, etc.) and spoken parts or almost (the recitativo secco). It is during the latter that the action progresses – if it interests the spectator, who is waiting for the next aria; on the contrary, the text of the aria is almost entirely erased behind the music, which aims above all to highlight the virtuosity of the singer.

Nothing of the sort in the French tradition: since Lully, the text must remain comprehensible, which limits certain procedures such as vocalizations, which are reserved for certain privileged words, such as “gloire” and “victoire” – in this sense, and at least in its spirit, the lyric art of Lully to Rameau is closer to the ideal of Monteverdi, the music must in principle serve the text – a paradox when one compares Rameau”s science of music to the paucity of his libretti. A subtle balance is struck between the more or less musical parts, melodic recitative on the one hand, arias often closer to the arioso on the other, and virtuoso ariettes of a more Italian style. This continuous musicality thus also prefigures the Wagnerian drama more than Gluck”s “reformed” opera which will appear at the end of the century.

We can distinguish in the French lyrical score five essential components:

During the first part of his operatic career (1733-1739) Rameau wrote his great masterpieces for the Royal Academy of Music: three tragedies in music and two opera-ballets which still make up his repertoire. After the interruption of 1740 to 1744, he became one of the official musicians of the court and composed essentially in the register of entertainment pieces with a preponderant part to dance, sensuality, and an idealized pastoral character before returning, at the end of his life, to great theatrical compositions in a renewed style (Les Paladins, Les Boréades).

Unlike Lully, who collaborated closely with Philippe Quinault for most of his lyrical works, Rameau rarely worked with the same librettist. He was very demanding and ill-tempered and was not able to maintain long collaborations with his various librettists, with the exception of Louis de Cahusac.

Many Rameau scholars regret that the collaboration with Houdar de la Motte could not take place or that the project of Samson in collaboration with Voltaire did not succeed, for Rameau could only work with second-rate writers. He met most of them at La Pouplinière”s, at the Société du Caveau or at the Count de Livry”s, all places where joyful meetings of fine minds were held.

None of them has been able to produce a text that is equal to his music; the plots are often convoluted and of a naivety and

Works for the fair

Rameau also composed the music of several comic shows, on texts by Piron, for the fairs of Saint-Germain or Saint-Laurent (in Paris), of which all the music is lost:

This type of fairground performance is considered to be the origin of comic opera.

Theories on harmony

Despite his success as a composer, Rameau attributed even more importance to his theoretical work: in 1764, in his Éloge de M. Rameau, Chabanon wrote: “He was heard to say that he regretted the time he had given to composition, since it was lost in the search for the principles of his Art.

The musical theory elaborated by Rameau preoccupied him throughout his career, one could say his life: the ideas exposed in his Traité de l”harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels published in 1722 while he was still organist of the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand, which established him as the greatest theorist of his time, were already in the process of maturation many years before his departure from that city.

Of course, the ancients, from the Greeks onwards, through musicians and scientists such as Zarlino, Descartes, Mersenne, Kircher, Huyghens, whom he does not fail to mention, had made the link between mathematical proportions and the sounds generated by vibrating strings or sound pipes. But the conclusions they drew remained elementary in their application to music and only led to notions and a multitude of rules tainted by empiricism.

A systematic mind, Rameau, following Descartes, whose Discourse on Method and Compendium Musicæ he had read, wanted to free himself from the principle of authority, and if he could not free himself from presuppositions, he was driven by the will to make music not only an art, which it already was, but a deductive science like mathematics. Doesn”t he affirm:

“Led from my earliest youth by a mathematical instinct into the study of an Art for which I found myself destined, and which has occupied me all my life only, I wanted to know the true principle, as the only one capable of guiding me with certainty, without regard to habits or received rules.”

– Demonstration of the principle of harmony, page 110

When he acknowledged in 1730 that he had learned from M. Lacroix, of Montpellier, the rule of the octave at the age of twenty, he hastened to add “there is a long way from there to the fundamental bass, of which no one can boast of having given me the slightest notion.

His first approach (he starts from the principle that “the string is to the string what the sound is to the sound” – that is to say, just as a given string contains twice the length of a string of half its length, so the low-pitched sound produced by the former “contains” twice the higher-pitched sound produced by the latter. One senses the unconscious presupposition of such an idea (what precisely does the verb “to contain” mean?), but the conclusions he drew were to confirm him in this way, all the more so since, before 1726, he became aware of Joseph Sauveur”s work on harmonic sounds, which corroborated them in a providential way. Indeed, this author demonstrates that when a vibrating string or a sounding pipe – a “sounding body” – emits a sound, it also emits, albeit in a much weaker way, its third and fifth harmonics, which musicians call twelfth and seventeenth diatonic degrees. Even if the finesse of our hearing does not allow us to identify them distinctly, a very simple physical device allows us to visualize the effect – an important detail for the deaf Savior. It is the irruption of physics in the field previously shared by mathematics and musicians.

Armed with this fact of experience and the principle of the identity of octaves (“which are only replicas”), Rameau drew the conclusion of the “natural” character of the perfect major chord and then, by an analogy that seems obvious although physically unfounded, that of the perfect minor chord. From this discovery were born the concepts of fundamental bass, consonances and dissonances, chord inversions and their reasoned nomenclature, and modulation, which form the basis of classical tonal harmony. Only afterwards come the practical questions concerning temperament, the rules of composition, melody, and the principles of accompaniment. All this appears essential to Rameau because, previously a musician”s process, harmony becomes a natural principle: it is the quintessence of music; as soon as a sound is emitted, harmony is present; the melody, on the other hand, is born only afterwards, and the successive intervals will have to conform to the harmony initiated and dictated by the fundamental bass (the “compass of the ear”). The psycho-physiological aspect is not, in fact, absent from Rameau”s theory: it is particularly developed in the Observations sur notre instinct pour la musique et sur son principe, a pamphlet he published in 1754 in indirect response to Rousseau”s Lettre sur la musique française. The natural character of harmony, materialized by the fundamental bass, is such that it marks in an unconscious way our instinct for music:

“… for a little experience, one finds of oneself the fundamental bass of all the rests of a song, according to the explanation given in our New System (which still proves well the empire of the principle in all its products, since in this case the walk of these products recalls to the ear that of the principle which determined it and consequently suggested it to the composer.

“This last experience, in which instinct alone acts, as in the preceding ones, proves that melody has no other principle than the harmony rendered by the body of sound: a principle with which the ear is so preoccupied, without our thinking about it, that it alone is sufficient to make us immediately find the background of harmony on which this melody depends. (…) Also, we find a quantity of musicians who are capable of accompanying with their ears a song that they are hearing for the first time.

“This guide for the ear is none other than the harmony of a first sound body, of which it is not so much struck as it senses everything that can follow this harmony and lead back to it; and this everything consists simply in the fifth for the less experienced, and in the third again when experience has made greater progress.

“So many principles emanating from a single person! Do I need to remind you of them, gentlemen? From the mere resonance of the sound body, you have just seen the birth of harmony, the fundamental bass, the mode, its relations in its adjuncts, the order or diatonic genre from which the least natural degrees of the voice are formed, the major genre, and the minor, almost all the melody, the double use, fruitful source of one of the most beautiful varieties, the rests, or cadences, the link which, alone, can put on the ways of an infinity of relations and successions, even the necessity of a temperament, (… ) without speaking of the minor mode, nor of the dissonance always emanating from the same principle, nor of the product of the fivefold proportion (…) “.

“On the other hand, with harmony are born proportions, and with melody, progressions, so that these first mathematical principles, find themselves here their physical principle in nature.”

“Thus, this constant order, which had been recognized as such only in consequence of an infinity of operations and combinations, precedes here all combinations, and all human operations, and presents itself, from the first resonance of the sounding body, such as nature requires: thus, what was only an indication becomes a principle, and the organ, without the help of the mind, experiences here what the mind had discovered without the mediation of the organ; and it must be, in my opinion, a discovery agreeable to the learned, who conduct themselves by metaphysical lights, that a phenomenon in which nature fully justifies and grounds abstract principles.  “

Treatises and other writings

The works in which Rameau expounds his theory of music are essentially four in number:

But his participation in the reflections of scientific, aesthetic or philosophical nature of his time led him to write many other writings in the form of books, letters, pamphlets, etc. of which we can quote:

Rameau”s music is characterized by the exceptional science of this composer who wanted to be above all a theorist of his art. However, it does not only address the intelligence and Rameau knew how to ideally implement his design when he says “I seek to hide art by art itself”.

The paradox of this music is that it is new, in the implementation of previously non-existent procedures, but that it is concretized in outdated forms; Rameau seems revolutionary to the Lullysts who are baffled by the complex harmony that it deploys, and reactionary to the philosophers who only evaluate its container and are unable or unwilling to listen to it. The incomprehension he suffered from his contemporaries prevented him from renewing certain boldnesses such as the second trio of the Parques in Hippolyte et Aricie, which he had to withdraw after the first performances because the singers could not interpret it correctly. Thus, the greatest harmonist of his time is not well known, even though harmony – the “vertical” aspect of music – definitely takes precedence over counterpoint, which represents its “horizontal” aspect.

The fates of Rameau and Bach, two giants of 18th-century musical science, can only be compared. In this respect, the year 1722, which saw the simultaneous publication of the Traité de l”Harmonie and the first cycle of the Well-Tempered Clavier, is highly symbolic. French musicians at the end of the 19th century were not mistaken, in the midst of Germanic musical hegemony, when they saw in Rameau the only French musician who could be compared to Bach, which allowed for the progressive rediscovery of his work.

From his death to the Revolution

Rameau”s works were performed almost until the end of the Ancien Régime. Not all of them were published, but many manuscripts, autograph or not, were collected by Jacques Joseph Marie Decroix. His heirs donated the exceptional collection to the Bibliothèque nationale.

The Querelle des Bouffons remains famous, with the attacks suffered by Rameau from the supporters of Italian opera buffa. It is less known, however, that some foreign musicians trained in the Italian tradition saw in Rameau”s music, towards the end of his life, a possible model for the reform of the opera seria. Thus Tommaso Traetta composed two operas directly inspired by Rameau”s music, Ippolito ed Aricia (1759) and I Tintaridi (after Castor and Pollux, 1760), after having had their librettos translated. Traetta was advised by Count Francesco Algarotti, one of the most ardent supporters of a reform of the opera seria according to the French model; he will have a very important influence on the one to whom the title of reformer of the opera is generally attributed, Christoph Willibald Gluck. Three of Gluck”s “reformed” Italian operas (e.g., Orfeo and the first version of Castor and Pollux, dating from 1737) both begin with the funeral scene of one of the main characters, who is to return to life in the rest of the action. Many of the reforms claimed in the preface to Alceste were already being practiced by Rameau: he used accompanied recitative; the overture of his later compositions is linked to the action that follows. Thus, when Gluck arrived in Paris in 1774 to compose six French operas, he could be considered to be continuing Rameau”s tradition.

However, if Gluck”s popularity continued after the French Revolution, this was not the case for Rameau. At the end of the 18th century, his works disappeared from the repertoire for many years. During the Revolution, he was no longer understood.

Nineteenth century

For most of the 19th century, Rameau”s music remained forgotten and ignored, even though his name retained all its prestige: a street in Paris was dedicated to him in 1806.

Rameau”s music is no longer played, or perhaps a few fragments, a few harpsichord pieces (usually on the piano). However, the musician was not forgotten: his statue was chosen to be one of the four that adorned the great hallway of the Paris Opera designed in 1861 by Charles Garnier; in 1880, Dijon also paid tribute to him with the inauguration of a statue.

Hector Berlioz studied Castor et Pollux; he particularly admired Télaïre”s aria “Tristes apprêts”, but “where the modern listener easily identifies the similarities with Rameau”s music, he himself is clearly aware of the gap that separates them.

Unexpectedly, it was the French defeat in the 1870 war that allowed Rameau”s music to resurface from the past: the humiliation felt on this occasion led some musicians to search the national heritage for French composers who could compete with the Germanic composers whose hegemony was then complete in Europe: Rameau was considered to be of equal strength to his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach and his work was studied again, with the sources collected by Decroix. In 1883, the Société des compositeurs de musique honored the musician by placing a commemorative plaque in the church of Saint-Eustache on the occasion of the second centenary of his birth.

It is from the 1890s that the movement accelerates a little, with the foundation of the Schola Cantorum intended to promote French music then, in 1895, Charles Bordes, Vincent d”Indy and Camille Saint-Saëns undertake the edition of the complete works, a project which will not go to its end but ends in 1918 with the edition of 18 volumes.

Twentieth century

It was at the very beginning of the 20th century that complete works were performed in concert for the first time: in June 1903, La Guirlande, a charming and unpretentious work, was performed at the Schola Cantorum. One of the listeners was Claude Debussy, who was enthusiastic and exclaimed: “Long live Rameau, long live Gluck”. The Paris Opera followed in 1908 with Hippolyte et Aricie: it was a semi-failure; the work attracted only a limited audience and was only performed a few times. Castor et Pollux – which had not been performed there since 1784 – was chosen in 1918 for the reopening of the Opéra after the war, but public interest in Rameau”s music slowly increased.

This movement of rediscovery did not really accelerate until the 1950s (1952: revival of Les Indes galantes at the Opéra, 1956: Platée at the Festival d”Aix-en-Provence, 1957: Les Indes galantes was chosen for the reopening of the royal opera in Versailles). Jean Malignon, in his book written at the end of the 1950s, testifies to the fact that no one at that time knew Rameau for having heard his essential compositions.

Since then, Rameau”s work has benefited fully from the return of early music. Most of his operatic works, once considered unplayable (as were many of the operas of his time), now have a quality discography by the most prestigious baroque ensembles. All his great works have been revived, and still enjoy great success, notably Les Indes galantes. Finally, the first (sic) performance of his last lyrical tragedy, Les Boréades, even took place in 1982 at the Aix-en-Provence festival (rehearsals had been interrupted by the composer”s death in 1764).

About Rameau

Named in his honor are:

External links


  1. Jean-Philippe Rameau
  2. Jean-Philippe Rameau