Jean-Philippe Rameau (September 25, 1683–September 12, 1764) was one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the Baroque era, replacing Jean-Baptiste Lully as the dominant composer of French opera, and the leading French composer for the harpsichord of his time, alongside François Couperin, a truly multifaceted musician of his day. Rameau’s early years are particularly obscure. He was born on September 25, 1683, in Dijon, France. His father, Jean, worked as an organist in several churches around Dijon, and his mother, Claudine Demartinécourt, was the daughter of a notary. The couple had eleven children (five girls and six boys), of whom Jean-Philippe was the seventh. Rameau was taught music very early on by his father who was an organist in their hometown and Rameau’s only formal musical teacher. In fact, he was taught music before he could read or write and then educated at the Jesuit college at Godrans. Initially intended for the law, Rameau decided he wanted to be a musician, and his father sent him to Italy when he was eighteen, where he stayed for a short while in Milan. On his return, he worked as a violinist in travelling companies and then as an organist in provincial cathedrals before moving to Paris for the first time.
Here, in 1706, Rameau published his earliest known compositions, the harpsichord works that make up his first book of Pièces de clavecin, which show the influence of his friend Louis Marchand. In 1709, he moved back to Dijon to take over his father’s job as organist in the main church. The contract was for six years, but Rameau left before then and took up similar posts in Lyon and Clermont. During this period, he composed motets for church performance as well as secular cantatas. In 1722, he returned to Paris for good, and here he published his most important work of music theory, Traité de l’harmonie (Treatise on Harmony) whichsoon won him a great reputation and was followed in 1726 by his Nouveau système de musique théorique. In 1724 and 1729 (or 1730), he also published two more collections of harpsichord pieces. Rameau took his first tentative steps into composing stage music when the writer Alexis Piron asked him to provide songs for his popular comic plays written for the Paris Fairs. Four collaborations followed, beginning with L’endriague in 1723. On February 25, 1726, Rameau married the 19-year-old Marie-Louise Mangot, who came from a musical family from Lyon and was a good singer and instrumentalist. The couple would have four children, two boys and two girls, and the marriage is said to have been a happy one. In spite of his fame as a music theorist, Rameau had trouble finding a post as an organist in Paris.
It was not until he was approaching fifty that Rameau decided to embark on the operatic career on which his fame as a composer mainly rests. He had already approached writer Houdar de la Motte for a libretto in 1727, but nothing came of it; he was finally inspired to try his hand at the prestigious genre of tragédie en musique after seeing Montéclair’s Jephté in 1732. Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie premiered at the Académie Royale de Musique on October 1, 1733. It was immediately recognized as the most significant opera to appear in France since the death of Lully, but audiences were split over whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Some, such as the composer André Campra, were stunned by its originality and wealth of invention; others found its harmonic innovations discordant and saw the work as an attack on the French musical tradition. The two camps, the so-called Lullyistes and the Rameauneurs, fought a pamphlet war over the issue for the rest of the decade.
Just before this time, Rameau had made the acquaintance of powerful financier Alexandre Le Riche de La Poupelinière, who became his patron until 1753. La Pouplinière’s wife, Thérèse des Hayes, was Rameau’s pupil and a great admirer of his music. In 1731, Rameau became the conductor of La Pouplinière’s private orchestra, which was of an extremely high quality. He held the post for 22 years; he was succeeded by Johann Stamitz and then Gossec. La Pouplinière’s salon enabled Rameau to meet some of the leading cultural figures of the day, including Voltaire, who soon began collaborating with the composer. Their first project, the tragédie en musique Samson, was abandoned because an opera on a religious theme by Voltaire—a notorious critic of the Church—was likely to be banned by the authorities. Meanwhile, Rameau had introduced his new musical style into the lighter genre of the opéra-ballet with the highly successful Les Indes galantes. It was followed by two tragédies en musique, Castor et Pollux (1737) and Dardanus (1739), and another opéra-ballet, Les fêtes d’Hébé (also 1739). All these operas of the 1730s are among Rameau’s most highly regarded works. However, the composer followed them with six years of silence, in which the only work he produced was a new version of Dardanus (1744). Rameau and his family lodged at his various residences and belonged to the stimulating circle of writers, artists and musicians gathered around La Poupliniere. The rich musical resources – singers, players and dancers – of Paris were augmented by virtuoso clarinettists and horn players brought in from Germany and Bohemia, providing Rameau with a private forum. It was for this circle that the virtuoso Pièces de clavecin en concerts (1741) were composed.
The year 1745 was a watershed in Rameau’s career. He received several commissions from the court for works to celebrate the French victory at the Battle of Fontenoy and the marriage of the Dauphin to Infanta Maria Teresa Rafaela of Spain. Rameau produced his most important comic opera, Platée, as well as two collaborations with Voltaire: the opéra-ballet Le temple de la gloire and the comédie-ballet La princesse de Navarre. They gained Rameau official recognition; he was granted the title “Compositeur du Cabinet du Roi” and given a substantial pension. Soon, a second great quarrel erupted over Rameau’s work, the so-called Querelle des Bouffons of 1752–54, which pitted French tragédie en musique against Italian opera buffa. This time, Rameau was accused of being out of date and his music too complicated in comparison with the simplicity and “naturalness” of a work like Pergolesi’s La serva padrona. Rameau pursued his activities as a theorist and composer until his death. He lived with his wife and two of his children in his large suite of rooms in Rue des Bons-Enfants. Rameau composed prolifically in the late 1740s and early 1750s. After that, his rate of productivity dropped off, probably due to old age and ill health, although he was still able to write another comic opera, Les Paladins, in 1760. This was due to be followed by a final tragédie en musique, Les Boréades; but for unknown reasons, the opera was never produced. Four months before his death, Rameau was granted a patent of nobility by King Louis XV. Rameau died just before his 81st birthday in Paris on September 12, 1764, after suffering from a fever.
Rameau’s music is characterized by the exceptional technical knowledge of a composer who wanted above all to be renowned as a theorist of the art. He made tremendous contribution to the field of musical theory and particularly, Baroque composition. His works may be divided into four distinct groups, which differ greatly in importance. They are a few cantatas; a few motets for large chorus; some chamber pieces for solo harpsichord or harpsichord accompanied by other instruments; and, finally, his works for the stage, both opera and ballet, to which he dedicated the last thirty years of his career almost exclusively. Rameau’s music had gone out of fashion by the end of the 18th century, and it was not until the 20th that serious efforts were made to revive it. Today, he enjoys renewed appreciation with performances and recordings of his music ever more frequent.
My collection includes the following works by Jean Philippe Rameau:
Acante et Cephise, ou La Sympathie (1751).
Castor et Pollux (1737): Overture.
Dardanus (1739): Overture.
Hippolyte et Aricie (1733): Overture.
Le Temple de la Gloire (1745): Overture.
Les Fetes de l’Hymen et de l’Amour, ou Les Dieux d’Egypte: Overture.
Les Fetes de Polymnie (1745): Overture.
Les Indies Galantes (1735): Overture.
Les Paladins (1760): Overture.
Les Surprises de l’Amour (1748)–Prologue: Overture, and Act 1: Overture.
Les Talens Lyrique (Les Fetes d’Hebe, 1739): Overture.
Nais (1749): Overture.
Pigmalion (1748): Overture.
Platee (1745): Overture.
Zais (1748): Overture.
Zoroastre (1749): Overture.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources