Rameau, Jean-Philippe (b Dijon, bapt. 25 Sept. 1683; d Paris, 12 Sept. 1764).
French composer and theorist. The son of an organist, he studied under his father and had a brief spell in Italy when he was about 18; he then may have played the violin with a theatrical troupe before taking positions as organist in Avignon, Clermont, and, in 1706, Paris. But in 1709 he left Paris to take on his father's former principal post at Notre Dame, Dijon. He next went to Lyons, about 1713, and back to Clermont in 1715, before settling on Paris in 1722.
The main reason for Rameau's going to the French capital was to supervise the publication of his Traité de l'harmonie, a large book with much original thinking about the nature of harmony; it was followed by several more theoretical works. Rameau had already published music for the harpsichord, and now issued more. He had also begun to compose music for the fair theatres in Paris, and to teach, and he found a valuable patron in Le Riche de la Pouplinière, who ran a private orchestra and in whose house Rameau and his wife (he married in 1726) had an apartment for several years. It was there that he alienated J. -J. Rousseau with his contemptuous comments on a score that Rousseau had submitted to him.
Rameau is now principally remembered as a stage composer, but it was not until he was 50 that he turned to opera in its various forms. His first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, was written and first performed in 1733: a profoundly original work with a wide emotional range. A stream of theatre works followed, starting with Les Indes galantes, an opéra-ballet (1735), and further tragédies, Castor et Pollux (1737, often regarded as his finest stage work) and Dardanus (1739), and continuing for 30 years, with as many works in a variety of genres, including divertissement, pastorale, pastorale lyrique and comédie lyrique. Particularly significant among them are the comedy Platée and the final tragédie, Les Boréades, written at the very end of his life (and not performed until the 20th century), a work still of great vitality but differing little in idiom from Hippolyte. Each act in Rameau's stage works contains a divertissement, a spectacular scene involving chorus and dance; in the tragédies these are usually integrated into the plot, but the opéras-ballets generally consist simply of a series of divertissements or entrées that may or may not be loosely linked in some way.
Rameau was a controversial figure in his day. His operas were not universally admired. He found himself under attack from several different directions: from the more conservative Lullistes, who deprecated anything that went beyond Lully's idiom, and from the pro-Italian group, led by Rousseau and the Encyclopedists, who found Rameau's music too complex and difficult to grasp. His originality however was widely recognized. His idiom is carefully worked out in accordance with his harmonic theories; every chord, every change of key, and every melodic progression has its particular expressive significance. His basic musical language in the tragédies which are the core of his output is similar to Lully's, with much arioso (a lyrical rather than declamatory style of recitative, occasionally relieved by an air or an ensemble in which a character muses on his or her predicament or discusses his or her situation).
Rameau's harmony is often unexpected and arresting, especially at moments of emotional stress, and his illustrative writing—portraying a character's state of mind, or a natural phenomenon—is highly imaginative and often deeply poetic. His dance music is striking for its orchestration and its boldness of line and rhythmic structure. Yet it is hard to avoid some sense, in many of his operas, that the music is at times cerebral in its conception. His instrumental music too (the harpsichord works, of which there are four books, mainly of dances or genre pieces, and the Pieces de clavecin en concerts for harpsichord with flute and viol) shows great originality in the handling of the idiom and has many vivid ideas, his church music rather less so. A character in a Diderot novel justly says that Rameau ‘is singular, brilliant, complex, learned, too learned sometimes’, which represents very fair comment.
Rameau himself saw his theoretical writings as the most important part of his work. He regarded music as a science, subject to immutable laws, but related it to the aesthetics of composition, which he felt should always aim to please the ear, to be expressive, and to move the emotions. His harmonic theories turn on the significance of the root-position chord, to which inversions (such as the 6-3 chord or the 6-4) maintain a harmonic link. He thus saw as the ‘fundamental bass’ a series of notes made up of the roots of each chord (irrespective of whether or not it was inverted) rather than the actual bass line. His writings on harmony have had, and still exercise, great influence, particularly on theorists of his own day and beyond, such as Tartini, Marpurg, Helmholtz, Riemann, and Hindemith.
Rameau was not a popular figure. He was seen as avaricious and insensitive in his social relations, taciturn, misanthropic, and argumentative. Friends and enemies alike seem to have been alienated by his frankness or rudeness. One contemporary said of him: ‘His whole heart and soul were in his harpsichord; once he had closed it, there was no one there’.
Wendy Thompson/Stanley Sadie
D. Foster, Jean-Philippe Rameau: A Guide to Research (New York, 1989)
J. R. Anthony, French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau (Portland, OR, enlarged 3/1997)
C. W. Dill, Monstrous Opera: Rameau and the Tragic Tradition (Princeton, NJ, 1998)