This month marks the 250th death anniversary of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1784), one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the Baroque period. He was the successor to Jean-Baptiste Lully as the leading composer of French opera, and like his contemporary compatriot François Couperin, a great French composer for his instrument, the harpsichord.
His Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels (Treatise on Harmony reduced to its natural principles) of 1722 earned him great fame as a music theorist, but it is as an operatic composer and composer for the harpsichord that he is chiefly remembered today.
Very little is known of his early life. The son (seventh of eleven children) of an organist in the main church in Dijon, he was taught music before he could read or write, and he later would claim that his passion for opera began when he was twelve. He was educated to be a magistrate, but took to music precociously, soon mastering the harpsichord, organ and violin, and teaching himself the elements of harmony and composition.
In his watershed Treatise on Harmony, he set forth for the first time the law of inversion in chords, evolved the system of chord-building by thirds (with the common chord as basis), and established a principle of chord progression by a “fundamental bass” not identical with the real bass of the music. His initial work did have flaws, which he amended and developed in subsequent publications. Rameau’s work stood out from previous treatises on harmony because he added a philosophical dimension in addition to the purely practical aspects of the subject, earning for himself the title “Isaac Newton of Music”.
Rameau was almost fifty when he made his operatic debut with Hippolye et Aricie. It generated great controversy for its revolutionary use of harmony and was lambasted by the supporters of Lully. It sparked off a pamphlet war between the ‘Lullyistes’ and the ‘Rameauneurs’. The latter was a pun on the word “ramoneur”, which meant chimney-sweep. But Rameau eventually won the day, and was in turn attacked in his own later life as an “establishment” composer.
The Querelle des Bouffons was the tussle of rival musical philosophies that raged in Paris in the 1750s, pitting French tragédie en musique against Italian opera buffa. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is known to us today as a philosopher, but he also fancied himself as a composer. He had written an opera, Les muses galantes (inspired by Rameau’s Indes galantes), but failed to impress Rameau with this musical tribute. In 1745, Voltaire (who was Rameau’s close friend and collaborator on many productions) and Rameau, who were busy on other works, commissioned Rousseau to turn La Princesse de Navarre into a new opera. Rousseau then claimed the two had usurped the credit for the words and music he had contributed, though most musicologists believe that the claim was spurious. Nevertheless, Rousseau held a life-long grudge against Rameau over this.
The Querelle des Bouffons had Rousseau and others in favour of Italian opera; and in one of life’s supreme ironies, the Lullyistes and Rameauneurs united in their support of French opera. The controversy did however help to steer the course of opera in a new direction, in favour of simplicity, something much after Gluck’s heart as well, as we have seen a few weeks ago. Indeed, Gluck’s three ‘reform’ operas of the 1760s betray an intimate knowledge of Rameau’s works. So when Gluck came to Paris in 1774 to produce a series of French operas it could be regarded as a continuation in the tradition of Rameau. Sadly, while Gluck grew in popularity, Rameau’s star soon waned, and interest in his music has only been revived in the latter part of the 20th century.
Rameau’s other operas especially his masterpieces Castor et Pollux and others were very successful, even though they were too often constrained by poor libretti. In 1745, he was appointed composer of the King’s chamber music. He was about to receive a patent of nobility before his death in 1784. Despite amassing wealth, he lived a simple life, and upon his death, his personal effects included worn-out clothes, his single pair of shoes, and a derelict single-keyboard harpsichord.
Rameau was an innovator not only in the theory but also the practice of harmony. His bold modulations and his varied part-writing are a significant step forward over his predecessors. He was one of the first to exploit the tone-colour resources of the orchestra, and by expanding the structure of the overture he pointed the way to the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart.
The music of Rameau made a dramatic impact on my life, through the Soweto Buskaid String Ensemble at the BBC Proms 2007 at the Royal Albert Hall London. Their programme highlighted the dance music of Rameau from his operas and ballets. Indeed, danced interludes were obligatory in Rameau’s operas, even his tragic ones. He is hailed by German scholar H.W. von Walthershausen as “the greatest ballet composer of all times.” Excerpts of dance music from his operas (Dardanus; Hippolyte et Aricie; Castor et Pollux; Naïs; Les Boréades) and his ballets (Zaïs; Les fêtes d’Hébé; Platée) were played and danced to on the Soweto Buskaid programme, a feast for the ears and eyes. I went to the concert as I was intrigued that the ensemble featured disadvantaged children who had been taught to play to such a high standard. This concert (and that of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Orchestra, also comprising disadvantaged youth) was the decisive influence that led to the eventual creation of Child’s Play India Foundation www.childsplayindia.org. The poise, confidence and high standard of playing of the music of Rameau by those young boys and girls from Soweto had a profound effect on me. In that sense, the music of Rameau quite literally changed the course of my life, and I hope through Child’s Play it will touch the lives of so many others.
(An edited version of this article was published on 7 September 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)