Composer Rameau: Operas & Music

Jean-Phillipe Rameau was an important composer of the French Baroque period. This lesson will discuss his music, compositional style and his contribution to the development of opera.

Controversy in the Concert Hall

Parisians in 1733 were taking sides, debating in the streets and coffee houses. Strident opinions were voiced. Friendships were ruined. Serious matters were at hand. Jean-Phillipe Rameau had premiered his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, in Paris, and the audiences were sharply divided over one issue: Was Jean-Baptiste Lully still the epitome of French opera, or had the younger Rameau replaced him?

Rameau’s Humble Beginnings

After Jean-Phillipe was born in September of 1683 in Dijon, France, there was very little about his early life to indicate the excitement he would cause in Paris years later. His father, Jean, was an organist, but Jean-Phillipe was not encouraged to pursue music. Instead, his parents hoped he would become a lawyer. Against their wishes, Jean-Phillipe studied music for a short time in Italy before accepting an organist position in Clermont, France.

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Jean-Philippe Rameau
Painting of Jean-Philippe Rameau

While in Clermont, Rameau began work on a lengthy book about music theory. Called Trait; de l’harmonie (Treatise on Harmony), it generated much interest among his peers. In his book, Rameau proposed that harmony, not melody, was the foundation of music theory, and that all chords have a root, a note upon which they are based. While well accepted by theory students today, Traité de l’harmonie was considered groundbreaking in the early 18th century.

A second treatise, Nouveau syst;me de musique th;orique (New System of Music Theory), was published in 1726. However, this new theory was not met with the same approval from Rameau’s peers and was scorned by traditional composers. But Rameau proved to be ahead of his time, as both of these works have become the basis for modern theoretical studies.

Early Compositions

Rameau’s first published pieces were composed for harpsichord. Premier Livre de Pi;ces de Clavecin, published in 1706, was a collection of dances, standard Baroque keyboard fare. Despite their excellent craftsmanship and elegant melodies, the pieces received only a modest reception. A second volume of harpsichord compositions, published in 1724, was much more successful. These two volumes represent the height of French Baroque keyboard music. They are still important staples in the harpsichord repertoire.

French Baroque harpsichord
Photo of French Baroque harpsichord

French Baroque Opera

Prior to Rameau, the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was considered representative of French opera. Lully’s music demonstrated a refinement and restraint that appealed to audiences. When Rameau burst on the scene with his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, audiences complained about ‘discordant music’ and ‘noisy instrumentation.’ His critics were not entirely wrong.; influenced by Italian opera, Rameau employed a large orchestra, especially for the recitatives. Recitatives are passages of music where the text moves rapidly in a style similar to speech. Traditionally, only a harpsichord and a handful of string instruments accompanied these sections.

Rameau also took a different approach to the aria. Arias are long solos intended to give the singer a chance to show both vocal skill and emotion. In the Baroque tradition arias were for the star singer, the diva. Rameau distributed the arias among more singers, underpinning the melodies with unusual harmonies to create greater drama and emotion.

Although not well integrated, dance, particularly ballet, had always been a part of French Baroque opera. Typically, the plot and action stopped completely before a dance was performed. The dance may or may not have had anything to do with the story of the opera. When the dance was finished, the opera would resume.

Rameau wove the dancing into the opera itself, creating a whole, unified work with a single goal, a single story to tell. The influence of this new, completely integrated art form cannot be overestimated. One hundred years later, the titan opera composer Richard Wagner would look back to Rameau’s work as he developed his own idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, the complete integration of music and drama.

Rameau’s Legacy

Rameau continued to compose opera until near the end of his life, finishing more than twenty. Some of the more successful works include Pygmalion, Castor et Pollux and Les Indes Galantes. By the 1750’s new ideas were sweeping the musical world. Rameau found his music was considered old fashioned and out of favor as the classical era was ushered in by composers such as Stamitz and Pergolesi.

A scene from a modern production of Les Indes Galantes
A scene from the opera Les Indes Galantes

Still, Rameau’s innovations in harmony, dissonance, melodic line, and above all, the idea that all arts should be integrated into a unified work, influenced composers for the next two centuries. He was revered by Gluck, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, and D’Indy, who were inspired by his music.

When Rameau’s died in Paris on September 12, 1764, 1500 people attended his funeral while 180 musicians played his music. They came to pay homage to the man who reinvented the opera.

Lesson Summary

Jean-Phillipe Rameau, who lived from 1683-1764, was an influential composer of the French Baroque period. Trained as an organist and harpsichordist, he wrote two treatises on music theory that while revolutionary for the time later became the basis for modern studies. Rameau also composed numerous harpsichord works known for their delicacy and beauty.

As a composer, Rameau made significant contributions to the opera genre. He employed large orchestras. He experimented with unusual, dissonant harmonies. He restructured arias and recitatives. He integrated dance into the plot and texture of the opera, believing that music must form a unified whole. These changes influenced operatic composers for generations to come.

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