Jean-Philippe Rameau

1683 1764

Jean-Philippe Rameau



Jean-Philippe Rameau was one of the premier French composers and music theorists of the late Baroque era. His keyboard music and operas where both widely respected and hugely popular, and hisTraité de l'harmonie (1722) is one of the most influential musical treatises of the 18th century.

Although Jean-Philippe’s father was an accomplished church organist with over four decades of experience, he was insistent that his son should follow a 'proper' profession and become a lawyer. This turned out not to be a good fit as Jean-Phillippe seemed to be lacking in many of the requisite skills, including ones as basic as correct spelling and grammar. Luckily, his dismal performance in school finally convinced his father, who allowed Jean Philippe to pursue a musical career from the age of eighteen.

As his first act as a free man and aspiring musician, Rameau travelled to Italy, hoping to spend some time there and, in his own words, “refine his taste.” However he never made it south of Milan and ended up returning early to France after only a few months. Following his return Rameau worked for several decades as an underrated and at times frustrated instrumentalist. He had several brief stints as a violinist and became organist at churches in Avignon, Clermont, Dijon and Lyon, almost always leaving before his contract was up.

During this time it appears that his goal was to travel to Paris, but a brief stay in the capital in 1706 failed to yield any significant contacts or job offers, even though Rameau had already published several of his mature works, including the harpsichord suite, Premier livre de pièces de clavecin (1706). By 1715 Rameau seemed to have given up most hope of resettling to Paris, and he somewhat unwisely signed a 29-year contract at the Clermont Cathedral.

Upon arriving in the capital, Rameau immediately began a more active and fulfilling composition schedule. His collection of works for harpsichord and accompanying fingering method,Pièces de clavecin avec une méthode sur la mécanique des doigts (1724), enjoyed great popularity. Soon after he made his first foray into theatrical works with his commission to write incidental music forL’Endriague, a comic opera. He took to the genre enthusiastically, and also married Marie-Louise Mangot, a nineteen year old opera singer with whom he would have four children. In 1733, Rameau collaborated with librettist Abbé Pellegrin to release his first and arguably greatest opera,Hippolyte et Aricie. The work bewildered audiences with its complexity and scale with one contemporary composer, André Campra, stating “there is enough music in this opera to make ten of them; this man will eclipse us all.” Even the great French philosopher Voltaire was at the premier and stated a similar sentiment, that Rameau “is a man who has the misfortune to know more music than Lully.”

Voltaire was not the only one to compare Rameau to Jean-Baptiste Lully, who up until this point was the greatest French opera composer. Even Rameau himself willingly admitted a stylistic indebtedness to his predecessor, stating so explicitly in the prefaces to his second opera,Les Indes Galantes (1735). Although preferences between the two composers was largely split and a matter of taste, Rameau’s richer orchestrations, more dissonant and intense harmonies and flair for drama have over time elevated his operatic works to an equal or greater status than Lully’s.

Throughout the 1750s Rameau reached a period of unprecedented productivity, composing more than one opera per year at times as well as numerous smaller works, includingLa Naissance d’Osiris to celebrate the 1754 birth of Louis Capet, who would grow up to become Louis XVI. By the end of this decade, his style fell out of fashion as the Classical period began to take over, but Rameau’s keyboard works and treatises continued to influence the next generations of composers.

Images courtesy of Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and public domain

It seems Rameau would have been fated to live out his life in the obscurity of provincial France if not for the remarkable fame (and controversy) that resulted from publishing hisTraité de l'harmonie (Treatise on Harmony) in 1722. In the work, Rameau laid out, in his characteristically obtuse and nonacademic prose, what he believed were the foundations of harmony. In Rameau’s view, where many of his forerunners had gone wrong was in basing “the rules of harmony on melody, instead of beginning with harmony, which comes first.”

Rameau preferred to come up with a system of harmony built off of the natural perfection of the harmonic series. He found this approach could explain most aspects of contemporary music, noting that “we well observe that the title of perfect cadence is attached only to a dominant that progresses to the main tone, because this dominant, which is naturally contained within the harmony of the main tone, seems, when it progresses to it, to return as if to its source.” By codifying these principles, Rameau laid the groundwork for most music theorists up until the 20th century.

The success of Traité de l'harmonie finally encouraged Rameau to follow his lifelong goal of moving to Paris. However, first he had to get out of the remaining two decades of his contract at Clermont. Since the authorities were initially unwilling to let him leave, Rameau had to resort to pulling out the stops of the organ to create the most unpleasant sound possible and playing wrenchingly dissonant chords during a church service. Having made his point, he was finally able to move to Paris to start the true phase of his career, at the age of forty.