Personalities | Jean-Philippe Rameau | Late Baroque | Opera

1683–1764, French

A respected theorist and composer of keyboard music, Rameau did not compose his first opera until he was 50 years old. Consistently adventurous in his operas, he equally inspired passionate admiration and hostility from Parisian audiences and was a comparably powerful figure between the 1730s and 1750s.

The Wanderlust Years

Rameau was born at Dijon in 1683. Little is known about his early life, but he was presumably taught music by his organist father, and attended a Jesuit college in his teens. He visited northern Italy when he was about 18 years old. Rameau’s first musical job was as a violinist with a theatrical troupe that performed throughout Provence and Languedoc. In January 1702, he was appointed temporary maître de musique at the Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms in Avignon, but he quickly found a longer-term job at Clermont Cathedral. Rameau’s wanderlust continued, and by 1706 he arrived in Paris, where his Premier livre de pieces de clavecin was published in the same year.

Rameau succeeded his father as organist at Dijon’s Notre Dame in 1709, but probably moved to Lyons before 1713, where he provided church music for several establishments. In 1715, Rameau returned to his old job at Clermont Cathedral, where he stayed for seven years before settling in Paris in the summer of 1722. Rameau was at first unknown in Paris, but, when he was almost 40 years old, he won acclaim as a writer due to his Traité de l’harmonie (‘Treatise on Harmony’, 1722). This was followed by Nouveau systéme de musique théorique (‘New System of Music Theory’, 1726), and more controversially received theoretical writings about music throughout his life.

First Opera in his Fifties

By the late 1720s, Rameau had provided incidental music for several Parisian plays, although most of his notable compositional activities up to this point were devoted to keyboard music. From at least 1727 it was Rameau’s expressed ambition to compose operas. Performances of Michel Pignolet de Montéclair’s Jepthé (1732) had a profound effect on him, and he was subsequently spurred into creating Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) when he was 50 years old. Rameau’s first opera caused a controversial storm, with reactions sharply divided between excited admiration and conservative disgust. For decades, French opera had remained firmly under the influence of the late Lully, and Hippolyte et Aricie generated a passionate public dispute between the so-called Lullistes and Ramistes. The debate was heightened by Rameau’s masterpieces Les indes galantes (‘The Gallant Indians’, 1735), Castor et Pollux (1737) and Dardanus (1739). Nevertheless, most of Rameau’s operas during this period were tremendously successful.

A Controversial Career

Voltaire claimed that Rameau said, ‘Lully needs actors but I need singers’, and this emphasis on the musical content in his operas was ably supported by fine singers including his wife Marie-Louise Mangot, the high-tenor Pierre de Jélyotte and soprano Marie Fel. While Rameau concentrated increasingly on his operatic career, he worked less...

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