Jean-Philippe Rameau, classical music composer

Jean-Philippe Rameau image

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Biography

Though he was one of the most prominent French musicians during the Baroque period, little is actually known of Jean-Philippe Rameau's early life. He was born on September 25, 1683 in Dijon, the seventh of eleven children of Jean, an organist, and Claudine Demartinécourt, the daughter of a notary. Rameau had a musical upbringing and was taught music before reading and writing. When he decided that he wished to pursue music as a career, his father sent him to study in Milan. Upon returning to France, he spent some time travelling with companies as a violinist and then later as an organist in provincial cathedrals. Around 1706, Rameau moved to Paris where he published his first known compositions: a set of works for the harpsichord. His stay in the French capital, however, was relatively brief and he returned to Dijon in 1709. He initially took over his father's position as organist in the main church but later moved on to similar positions in Lyon and Clermont.

In 1722, Rameau returned to Paris where he remained for the remainder of his life. The same year he published his influential Traité de l'harmonie (Treatise on Harmony). In its pages, he posited the idea of the "fundamental bass," a revolutionary idea at the time and one that would eventually come to dominate theoretical thought of the succeeding century. Though the book won Rameau much fame as a music theorist, his ideas were not universally received outside of France, particularly in Germany. C.P.E. Bach, who also produced an influential theoretical text (namely, Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), remarked on one occasion that his, and his father's teachings and ideas were wholly opposed to those of Rameau. Though Friedrich Marpurg helped Rameau's ideas to gain traction in Germany, it was nevertheless Bach's teachings that held prominent sway over German composers until the early Romantic period. Yet, with the advent of the didactic theoretical text of the 19th century, Rameau's idea of the "fundamental bass" became the cornerstone of modern music theory.

As a composer, Rameau's fame largely rests on his operas, a genre which he did not attempt until he was fifty years old. His first excursion into stage music was a collaboration with the writer Alexis Piron to provide songs for the author's popular comic plays. Four other similar collaborations followed, though none of the music has survived. In 1733, Rameau premiered his first opera: Hippolyte et Aricie. The opera was immediately recognized as a great achievement and considered the most important French opera to appear since the death of Lully. However, not all viewed the work so favorably. While some regarded Rameau's work as inventive and original, others were appalled by his harmonic innovations and saw the opera as an attack against French tradition. A pamphlet war, lasting the remainder of the decade, broke out between the supporters of Rameau, known as the Rameauneurs, and those of Lully, or the Lullyistes.

Rameau continued to produce operas throughout the 1730s, all of which are considered his greatest works. Around this time, he also became acquainted with Alexandre Le Riche de La Poupelinière, a powerful French financier. La Poupelinière became Rameau's patron and, in 1731, made Rameau conductor of his private orchestra. Furthermore, through La Poupelinière, Rameau was introduced to leading members of Parisian society, including Voltaire, whom Rameau later collaborated with on several operas.

During 1752-54, Rameau's music once again instigated a bitter rivalry. This time, however, he found himself on the opposite side of the conflict. In the Querelle des Bouffons, Rameau's music and French tragédie en musique was pitted against that of Pergolesi and Italian opera buffa. Rameau's music was accused of being outdated and too complicated compared with that of the rising Italian composers, of whom Pergolesi was a leading example.

After the early 1750s, Rameau's rate of productivity declined, though he still remained active as both a composer and theorist until his death. On September 12, 1764, he died after suffering from a fever. Though his theoretical ideas continued on and his music influenced later composers, particularly Gluck, Rameau's operas completely vanished from the stage by the beginning of the 19th century. In the wake of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian war and the eagerness of French composers to reestablish a uniquely French musical tradition, some of Rameau's works were once again brought before the public. This revival, however, shortly fizzled out and Rameau's operas once again were absent from the stage. It has only been recently that renewed and steadfast interest in his compositions has reemerged, many of which have now been immortalized in recording.


Composer Title Date Action
Jean-Philippe Rameau Le rappel des oiseaux (Bird Calls) 02/10/2009 Play Add to playlist
Jean-Philippe Rameau Tambourin (arr. Leopold Godowsky) 11/04/2009 Play Add to playlist
Jean-Philippe Rameau Sarabande and Gigue with variations 01/26/2009 Play Add to playlist
Jean-Philippe Rameau Suite from Les Indes Galantes 09/21/2010 Play Add to playlist
Jean-Philippe Rameau Le Grillon 09/06/2010 Play Add to playlist
Jean-Philippe Rameau Les sauvages 03/28/2011 Play Add to playlist
Jean-Philippe Rameau Gavotte and Doubles, from Suite in A minor 01/05/2012 Play Add to playlist
Jean-Philippe Rameau La dauphine 09/17/2013 Play Add to playlist
Jean-Philippe Rameau Les tendres plaints from Pièces de clavecin 09/17/2013 Play Add to playlist
Jean-Philippe Rameau Overture, from Zaïs 09/20/2013 Play Add to playlist