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Jean-Philippe Rameau

1683 - 1764

Jean-Philippe Rameau (25 September 1683 – 12 September 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 is also considered the leading French composer for the harpsichord of his time, alongside François Couperin.

(September 25, 1683 - September 12, 1764)

Joan—Philippe Rameau was born in Dijon, one of 11 children, and studied at a Jesuit College - It is father's initial intention being that he should become a lawyer — before being allowed to go to study music in Milan at the age of 18. After a number of appointments as organist, he settled in Clermont m 1715, where he was organist at the cathedral for eight years.


During this period Rameau wrote his first collection of harpsichord pieces and m 1722 published his book on music theory, Treatise on harmony. He tried to move to Paris, the centre of creative activity, but encountered resistance from his employers in Clermont. It is said that on a particular feast day he simply refused to play, and when pressed, performed with so many discordant notes that he was released from duty. He moved to Paris but for a decade he failed to secure a formal position, although he continued to compose, and published his second and third books of harpsichord works. He made a living by teaching music, in 1732 becoming organist at Ste Croix-de-la-13retonnerie and the following year at the Jesuit novitiate.

Rameau s desire to write an opera received help from an admirer - the wife of a financier, Le Riche de la Poupliniere, who funded a private orchestra. Through this circle the composer met the writer Abbe Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, and together they created his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, based on Racine's tragedy Phedre. It was performed in 1733 at Poupliniere's residence, and then at the Opera in Paris three months later.

Rameau was 50 when his Hippolyte et Aricie was performed and he spent the rest of Ins working life producing operas. In these lie stressed musical elements more than Lully had done, stating, "Lully needs actors but I need singers." Les Indes galantes in 1735 and Castor et Pollux m 1737 were great successes, showing Rameau's bold harmonies and establishing him as Lully's successor as the leading light of French opera. A comic opera, Platee, was also successful when performed at the Paris Opera in 1745, m part because it parodied the set language and conventions of serious opera. Some of its jests were sentimental words set to inappropriate music, incorrect stress of words or syllables, and the use of "unoperatic" phrases and expressions.

Rameau died just before his eighty-first birthday, shortly after Louis XV, in recognition of his long service and lifetime of creative effort, made him Composieur du Cabinet du Roy. His death was marked by a number of memorial services, the passion and vibrance of his music ensuring a great sense of loss at his passing.

"Rameau was the greatest ballet composer of all times. The genius of his creation rests on one hand on his perfect artistic permeation by folk-dance types, on the other hand on the constant preservation of living contact with the practical requirements of the ballet stage, which prevented an estrangement between the expression of the body from the spirit of absolute music."
                            H.W. von Walthershausen on the music  of Rameau

Key Works

Pièces De Clavecin En Concerts Avec Un Violon Ou Une Flûte Ou Une Deuxième Violon (1741)

Piéces de clavecin (B)

Pieces de clavecin (A)

In this, his second set of harpsichord works, Rameau first demonstrated his characteristic florid style, with dramatic runs of scales, and rapid and complex passages that fully exploit the harpsichord keyboard. The influence of Couperin is sometimes evident, but Rameau’s athletic style takes these character pieces to a new level.

Pieces de clavecin en concerts - Premier Concert  (1st concert in C minor)

Rameau’s final published collection of instrumental works comprises five suites of largely character pieces named after either images or tableaux (La pantomime, L’indiscrete), or after people such as society figures, students, or composers (La Marais, La Forqueray and even La Rameau). Although these are ensemble pieces, the harpsichord is very much the featured instrument.

Portrait of Rameau by Carmontelle, 1760

Bust of Rameau by Caffieri, 1760


Despite Rameau’s characteristically frenetic compositional style, this, his first opera, (or properly, tragedie en musique), is very much in the French tradition: five acts in length, with a divertissement (a dance or other spectacle) in each act, and a plot based on figures from Classical mythology or history. Nonetheless, the style of music received both enthusiastic praise and critical dismissal. Many felt its vigorous passage work was too “Italian” and ornate. This opera may have been the first work to which the term “Baroque” was applied, though this would have been meant as an insult. Ironically, 20 years later, Parisian supporters of Italian opera would accuse Rameau of not being Italian enough.

The libretto by Abbe Simon-Joseph Pellegrin is based on Racine’s play, Phedre, of 1677, with elements of the tragedies of Euripides and Seneca. It concerns the incestuous love of Phedre (Phaedra) for her stepson Hippolyte (Hippolytus). Despite the title, much of the action centres on Hippolyte’s father, Thesee (Theseus), King of Athens.

PROLOGUE (27:301 Diana, goddess of the
chaste, pledges to protect Hippolyte and Aricie, daughter of a rival family forced by Thesee to remain chaste. Phedre lusts after Hippolyte.

ACT ONE (28:30) Aricie is preparing to take her vow of chastity to Diana when Hippolyte pledges his love to her. Phedre jealously tries to force Aricie to continue her vows, but Diana offers the young lovers her help.

ACT TWO (27:30) This is devoted to Thesee’s journey to Hell and confrontation with Pluto. As he leaves, the Fates prophesy

that he will find hell in his own house.
ACT THREE (29:30) Hippolyte pledges loyalty to Phedre, which she mistakes for a profession of love and declares hers for him. He rejects her. She seizes his sword in a suicide attempt, which Thesee, just returned, believes to be an attempted rape. He curses his son.
ACT FOUR (22:30) Hippolyte and Aricie plan to flee, but a monster summoned by Thesee’s curse attacks Hippolyte, who disappears, engulfed in flames. Phedre, full of remorse, kills herself.

ACT FIVE (31:30) Thesee also attempts suicide, but it is revealed that Hippolyte has been saved by the gods. He and Aricie are reunited in a happy ending.

Hippolyte et Aricie: Ouverture, Chaconne, Rossignols amoureux

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