Tuesday, September 25, 8683

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) - Theory

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) - Hippolyte et Aricie: Act 4 Scene 1 Ah faut il


Jean-Philippe Rameau (September 25, 1683 - September 12, 1764) was one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the Baroque era. He replaced Jean-Baptiste Lully as the dominant composer of French opera and he is also considered the leading French author of music for the harpsichord of his time alongside François Couperin.

Little is known about Rameau's early years, and it was not until the 1720's that he won fame as a major theorist of music with his Treatise on Harmony (1722). He was almost 50 before he embarked on an operatic career. His debut Hippolyte et Aricie (1733) caused a great stir and was fiercely attacked for its revolutionary use of harmony by the supporters of Lully's style of music. Nevertheless, Rameau's pre-eminence in the field of French opera was soon acknowledged and he was later attacked as an "establishment" composer by those who favoured Italian opera during the controversy known as the Querelle des Bouffons in the 1750's.

Rameau's music had gone out of fashion by the end of the 1700's and it was not until the 20th Century that serious efforts were made to revive it.

Rameau he moved to Paris permanently in his 40's. He was a secretive man and even his wife knew nothing of his early life, which explains the scarcity of biographical information available.

Rameau was baptized on the day of his birth. 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 which Jean-Philippe was the seventh to be born. Rameau was taught music before he could read or write. He was educated at the Jesuit college at Godrans but he was not a good school pupil and disrupted classes with his singing, later claiming that his passion for opera had begun at the age of twelve.

Initially intended for the law, Rameau decided he wanted to be a musician and his father sent him to Italy, 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 he 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). This soon won him a great reputation and it was followed in 1726 by his Nouveau système de musique théorique.

He also published two more collections of harpsichord pieces in 1724 and 1729 or 1730.

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. None of the music has survived.

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 50 that Rameau decided to embark on the operatic career on which his fame as a composer mainly rests. He had already approached the writer Houdar de la Motte for a libretto in 1727, but nothing had come 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 1 October, 1733. It was immediately recognised 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 "Lullistes" and "Rameauneurs", fought a pamphlet war over the issue for the rest of the decade.

Just before this time, Rameau had made the acquaintance of the powerful financier Alexandre Le Riche de La Poupelinière who became his patron until 1753. La Pouplinière's mistress (and later 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 1730's 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). The reason for this interval in the composer's creative life is unknown, although it is possible he fell out with the authorities at the Académie royale de la musique.

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 a Spanish princess. 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.

1745 also saw the beginning of the bitter enmity between Rameau and

Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Though best known today as a thinker, Rousseau had ambitions to be a composer. He had written an opera, Les muses galantes, inspired by Rameau's Indes galantes, but Rameau had been unimpressed by this musical tribute. At the end of 1745, Voltaire and Rameau, who were busy on other works, commissioned Rousseau to turn La Princesse de Navarre into a new opera with linking recitative called Les fêtes de Ramire. Rousseau then claimed the two had stolen the credit for the words and music he had contributed, though musicologists have been able to identify almost nothing of the piece as Rousseau's work. Nevertheless, the embittered Rousseau nursed a grudge against Rameau for the rest of his life.

Rousseau was a major participant in the second great quarrel which 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.

In the mid-1750's Rameau criticised Rousseau's contributions to the musical articles in the Encyclopédie which led him into a quarrel with the leading philosophes d'Alembert and Diderot.

As a result, Rameau became a character in Diderot's - then unpublished - dialogue Le neveu de Rameau (Rameau's Nephew).

In 1753, La Pouplinière took a scheming musician, Jeanne-Thérèse Goermans, as his mistress.

The daughter of the harpsichord-maker Jacques Goermans, she went by the name of Madame de Saint-Aubin and her opportunistic husband pushed her into the arms of the rich financier.

She had La Pouplinière engage the services of the Bohemian composer

Johann Stamitz, which led to a breach between Rameau and his patron. However, Rameau no longer needed La Pouplinière's financial support and protection.

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 which he would leave every day, lost in thought, to take a solitary walk in the nearby gardens of the Palais-Royal or the Tuileries. Sometimes he would meet the young writer Chabanon, who noted down some of Rameau's disillusioned confidential remarks: "Day by day I'm acquiring more good taste, but I no longer have any genius" and "The imagination is worn out in my old head, it's not wise at this age wanting to practise arts that are nothing but imagination."

Rameau had composed prolifically in the late 1740's and the early 1750's. After that his rate of productivity dropped off, probably due to old age and ill health, though 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 and had to wait until the late 20th century for a full staging.

Rameau died on September 12, 1764 after suffering from a fever. He was buried in the church of St. Eustache, Paris the following day.

While the details of his biography are vague and fragmentary, Rameau’s personal and family life is almost completely obscure. Rameau’s music, so graceful and attractive, completely contradicts the man’s public image and what we know of his character, as described -or perhaps unfairly caricatured- by Diderot in Le neveu de Rameau. Throughout his life music was his consuming passion; it occupied his entire thinking; Philippe Beaussant calls him a monomaniac. Piron explained that: “His heart and soul were in his harpsichord; once he had shut its lid there was no one home.”

Physically, Rameau was tall and exceptionally thin, as can be seen by the sketches we have of him, including a famous portrait by Carmontelle. He had a “loud voice.” His speech was difficult to understand, just like his handwriting, which was never fluent. As a man he was secretive, solitary, irritable, proud of his own achievements (more as a theorist than as a composer), brusque with those who contradicted him and quick to anger. It is difficult to imagine him among the leading wits, including Voltaire -- to whom he bears more than a passing physical resemblance -- who frequented La Pouplinière’s salon: his music was his best passport and it made up for his lack of the social graces.

His enemies exaggerated his faults, for example his supposed miserliness. In fact, it seems that his thriftiness was the result of long years spent in obscurity, when his income was uncertain and scanty, rather than part of his character because he could also be generous. We know that he helped his nephew Jean-François when he came to Paris and also helped establish the career of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre in the capital. Furthermore, he gave his daughter Marie-Louise a considerable dowry when she became a Visitandine nun in 1750 and he paid a pension to one of his sisters when she became ill. Financial security came late to him, following the success of his stage works and the grant of a royal pension (a few months before his death he was also ennobled and made a knight of the Ordre de Saint-Michel). But he did not change his way of life, keeping his worn-out clothes, his single pair of shoes and his old furniture: after his death it was discovered that he only possessed one dilapidated single-keyboard harpsichord in his rooms in Rue des Bons-Enfants, yet he also had a bag containing 1691 gold louis.

Rameau’s music is characterised by the exceptional technical knowledge of a composer who wanted above all to be renowned as a theorist of the art. Nevertheless it is not solely addressed to the intelligence and Rameau himself claimed “I try to conceal art with art.” The paradox of this music was that it was new, using techniques never known before, but it took place within the framework of old-fashioned forms; Rameau appeared revolutionary to the Lullystes, disturbed by the complex harmony of his music, and reactionary to the “philosophes” who only paid attention to its content and who either would not or could not listen to the sound it made.

The incomprehension he received from his contemporaries stopped Rameau repeating such daring experiments as the second Trio des Parques in Hippolyte et Aricie, which he was forced to remove after a handful of performances because the singers were unable to interpret it correctly. So the greatest harmonist of his era went unrecognised at the very time that harmony - the “vertical” aspect of music - was taking precedence over counterpoint, which represented its “horizontal” aspect.

By the end of his life Rameau's music had come under attack in France from theorists who favoured Italian models. However, foreign composers working in the Italian tradition were increasingly looking towards Rameau as a way of reforming their own leading operatic genre, opera seria. Tommaso Traetta produced two operas setting translations of Rameau libretti which show the French composer's influence: Ippolito ed Aricia (1759) and I Tintaridi (based on Castor et Pollux, 1760).

Traetta had been advised by Count Francesco Algarotti, a leading proponent of reform according to French models. Algarotti was a major influence on the most important "reformist" composer, Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Gluck's three Italian reform operas of the 1760's, Orfeo ed Euridice, Alceste, and Paride ed Elena reveal a knowledge of Rameau's works.

Many of the operatic reforms advocated in the preface to Gluck's Alceste were already present in Rameau's works. Rameau had used accompanied recitative and the overture in his later operas reflected the action to come.

So when Gluck arrived in Paris in 1774 to produce a series of six French operas, he could be seen as continuing in the tradition of Rameau. Nevertheless, while Gluck's popularity survived the French Revolution, Rameau's did not. By the end of the 18th century his operas had vanished from the repertoire.

For most of the 19th century Rameau's music remained unplayed, known only by reputation. Hector Berlioz investigated Castor et Pollux and particularly admired the aria "Tristes apprêts," but "whereas the modern listener readily perceives the common ground with Berlioz's music, he himself was more conscious of the gap which separated them." French humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War brought about a change in Rameau's fortunes. As the Rameau biographer J.Malignon wrote: "...the German victory over France in 1870-71 was the grand occasion for digging up great heroes from the French past. Rameau, like so many others, was flung into the enemy's face to bolster our courage and our faith in the national destiny of France."

In 1894 composer Vincent d'Indy founded the Schola Cantorum to promote French national music. The society put on several revivals of works by Rameau. Among the audience was Claude Debussy, who especially cherished Castor et Pollux, which was revived in 1903: "Gluck's genius was deeply rooted in Rameau's works. (...) a detailed comparison allows us to affirm that Gluck could replace Rameau on the French stage only by assimilating the latter's beautiful works and making them his own." Camille Saint-Saëns (by editing and publishing the Pièces in 1895) and Paul Dukas were two other important French musicians who gave practical championship to Rameau's music in their day. But interest in Rameau petered out again and it was not until the late 20th century that a serious effort was made to revive his works. Over half of Rameau's operas have now been recorded, in particular by conductors such as John Eliot Gardiner, William Christie and Marc Minkowski.

Rameau's 1722 Treatise on Harmony initiated a revolution in music theory.

Rameau posited the discovery of the "fundamental law" of all musical harmony and composition. Rameau's methodology incorporated mathematics, commentary, analysis and a didacticism that was specifically intended to illuminate the structure and principles of music composition scientifically. He attempted to derive universal harmonic principles from natural causes.

Previous treatises on harmony had been purely practical; Rameau added a philosophical dimension.

The composer quickly rose to prominence in France as the "Isaac Newton of Music."

His fame subsequently spread throughout all Europe, and his Treatise became the definitive authority on music theory; forming the foundation for instruction in Western Music which persists to this day.

Further Reading:

Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin
Music in the Western World: A History in Documents
Jean-Philippe Rameau
Traite de l'harmonie: Preface (1722) (Pages 220-222)


[Heinichen's Circle of Fifths,
published in the year before his death...
Der General-Bass in der Composition]

Johann David Heinichen (April 17, 1683 - July 16, 1729) was a German Baroque composer and music theorist who brought the musical genius of Venice to the court of Augustus the Strong in Dresden. Although Heinichen's music is original, rhythmically exuberant and imaginative, it was inexplicably little known for a long time.

Johann David Heinichen was born in the small village of Crössuln, near Weissenfels. His father Michael Heinichen had studied music at the celebrated Thomasschule Leipzig associated with the Thomaskirche, served as cantor in Pegau and was pastor of the village church in Crössuln. Johann David also attended Thomasschule Leipzig.

There he studied music with Johann Schelle and later received organ and harpsichord lessons with

Johann Kuhnau. The future-composer Christoph Graupner was also a student of Kuhnau at the time.

Heinichen enrolled in 1702 to study law at the University of Leipzig and in 1705-6 qualified as a lawyer (in the early 18th century the law was a favored route for composers; Kuhnau, Graupner and Georg Philipp Telemann were also lawyers). Heinichen practiced law in Weissenfels until 1709.

However, Heinichen maintained his interest in music and was concurrently composing operas. In 1710, he published the first edition of his major treatise on the thoroughbass. He went to Italy and spent seven formative years there, mostly in Venice.

In 1717, Heinichen became a colleague of Johann Sebastian Bach at the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, then went on to be Kapellmeister to the Elector of Saxony. His pupils included Johann Georg Pisendel. In 1721, Heinichen married in Weissenfels and the birth of his only child is recorded in January 1723. In his final years Heinichen's health suffered greatly and on the afternoon of 16th July 1729, he was buried in the Johannes cemetery after contracting tuberculosis.

His music is enjoying a resurgence of popularity, with some of his masses and his final work, a Magnificat, now receiving some attention in the recording world.

Further Reading:

Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin
Music in the Western World: A History in Documents
Johann David Heinichen
Der-General Bass in der Composition (1728)

[8685 G.F. Handel / 8683 Rameau / 8682 Mouret]