Personalities | Jean-Philippe Rameau | Late Baroque | Classical

(Zhan Fi-lep’ Ra-mo’) 1683–1764
French composer and theorist

Rameau was born in Dijon, where he was first taught music by his father. During his early years he held organist’s posts in several places, including Avignon and Clermont-Ferrand, Paris (where he published his first harpsichord pieces in 1706), Dijon (1709), Lyons (c. 1713), and once more at Clermont-Ferrand (1715).

He finally settled in Paris in 1722. In the same year he published his first theoretical work, Traité de l’harmonie (‘Treatise on Harmony’). Other treatises followed, and he produced further collections of harpsichord pieces in 1724 and c. 1729. During this period he also wrote chamber cantatas and music for the Parisian fair theatres (comic stage shows).

His first, controversial tragédie lyrique, Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), was followed by Castor et Pollux (1737) and Dardanus (1739). Rameau also produced two opéra-ballets during this decade, Les indes galantes (‘The Gallant Indians’, 1735) and Les fetes d’Hébé (‘The Festival of Summer’, 1739). This type of entertainment, developed by André Campra (1660–1744), placed great emphasis on spectacle and dance, allowing Rameau scope to demonstrate his outstanding talent as an orchestrator. Among the many original and musically satisfying products of later years are a bitter­­-sweet comédie-lyrique, Platée (1745), an acte de ballet, Pigmalion (1748), and a tragédie lyrique, Zoroastre (1749).

Composer of Opera

Although Rameau considered his theoretical writings to be his most important contribution to music, he is now recognized first and foremost as an innovative and brilliant composer for the stage. His first three operas, Hippolyte et Aricie, Castor et Pollux and Dardanus, preserve Lully’s pattern of a prologue and five acts; essentially, the Lullian formula of the tragédie lyrique had not changed over the preceding half-century. But in the remaining two, Zoroastre and Les Boréades (‘The Sons of Boreas’, 1760), Rameau broke with tradition by omitting the prologue – which customarily had nothing to do with the plot. He was musically more imaginative than his predecessors, with a technique that enabled him to express emotions and evoke atmosphere by means of rich and varied harmonics. Such originality, however, did not endear his operas to Lully’s followers.

Light Entertainment

As well as writing serious opera, Rameau proved himself highly skilled in composing lighter entertainment of a kind that was enjoying ever-increasing popularity, both in court circles and in Parisian society. This was opéra-ballet, which typically consisted of a prologue and three to five acts or entrées, but without a continuous plot. In Rameau’s hands, the form was given an unparalleled luxuriousness of orchestral colour and spectacle. In Les indes galantes and Les fêtes d’Hébé – which might almost be regarded as antecedents of the twentieth-century revue – and in various related forms, such as acte de ballet (Pigmalion), and pastorale héroïque (Zaïs, 1748; Naïs, 1749), Rameau’s imaginative concept of orchestral colour and intuitive feeling for dance reached full fruition.

Recommended Recording:
Hippolyte et...

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