Rameau, Jean Philippe

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Rameau, Jean Philippe (1683-1764): French composer.

One of the most important and controversial French composers of the 18th century, also celebrated for his revolutionary music theories of tonal harmony, Rameau was born in Dijon, the son of a church organist. While a poor student at school, he showed considerable musical talent, and followed his father’s footsteps as an itinerant church organist, securing jobs in Dijon, Lyon and then in Clermont-Ferrand. In 1722, Rameau moved to Paris where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Initially, he gained notoriety as a music theorist with the publication of his monumental and learned 420 page Traité de l’harmonie in 1722. Only in 1733, when he had just turned fifty years old, was his first opera performed–an adaptation of Racine’s Phèdre entitled Hippolyte et Aricie. The immediate success of this tragédie en musique launched Rameau’s career. Over the next thirty years, he would compose another two dozen stage works that solidified his position as the undisputed master of French music until his death. Throughout this time, he also continued to produce theoretical works, developing his theory of harmony in collaboration with numerous philosophes and scientists of his day.

Rameau’s importance as both composer and theorist to the 18th century can scarcely be overestimated. His many stage works became touchstones for debates among the philosophes concerning problems of musical expression and poetics. While he was initially criticized for corrupting the tenets of the classical tragédie en musique by the conservative defenders of Jean-Baptiste Lully through excesses of “spectacle” and musical opulence, by mid-century, Rameau was acknowledged by almost all French critics as the true heir of Lully’s mantel. Writing work after work of unprecedented musical variety and dramatic scope, Rameau soon was able to attract distinguished librettists with whom to collaborate (including Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, Marmontel, Jean-François, and Louis de Cahusac.). He quickly gained favor at court, being appointed by the King “Compositeur de la musique de la chambre du roy” in 1745.

It was perhaps inevitable that the preeminent composer of French opera would eventually be drawn into the quarrel ignited by Grimm, Baron Friedrich Melchior von in 1751 concerning the respective merits of French and Italian music. While Rameau was initially spared the most scathing criticism by partisans of the “Bouffon” troupe of Italian singers who visited Paris in 1751, Rousseau, Jean-Jacques’s broadside attack of all French music in his notorious pamphlet “Lettre sur la musique française” of 1753 could only be read as a direct assault upon Rameau’s own operas. For Rousseau, Rameau’s music was far too emotionally stilted through reliance upon harmonic artifice; it lacked the expressive freedom and natural lyricism of Italian music, which was rooted in melody. Rameau attempted to rebut Rousseau’s arguments in his own petulant defense (Observations sur notre instinct pour la musique, 1754), but he lacked the rhetorical skills of his adversary.

As well known and controversial as Rameau was as a composer, it was as a music theorist that Rameau was perhaps most celebrated in the eighteenth century. Amidst his prolific compositional output, Rameau produced over a half dozen major treatises concerning questions of musical science. In his deep-seated intellectual ambitions, Rameau was a quintessential product of Enlightenment rationalism.

Seeking to understand the harmonic language of which he was an undisputed master, he looked to natural philosophy for guidance. Influenced initially by Descartes, Rameau proposed a mechanistic model of harmonic syntax based upon the generation and concatenation of chords using his system of the basse fondamentale. Essentially, the fundamental bass is a succession of chord fundamentals (“roots”) by which any harmonic succession can be tracked and reduced to a few fundamental cadential prototypes. Its conceptual appeal was further enhanced with Rameau’s discovery in 1726 of the corps sonore–the ratios of resonating partials sounded in an ideal vibrating body. As these ratios coincided with those by which most harmonies and their succession were composed (primarily perfect fifths and thirds), Rameau was convinced he had found the “natural” origin of music. In later works, Rameau further revised his theory of the fundamental bass, incorporating elements of Newtonian science and Lockean sensationalism.

While the details of Rameau’s theory are often intricate, his basic claim to have found the natural principal of music was easily understandable. His discoveries were hailed by contemporary intellectuals as a stunning achievement on par with Newton in science. The Encyclopedists were particularly drawn to Rameau’s ideas, and both Diderot, Denis and d’Alembert served in different capacities to help formulate and disseminate his writings. Even Rousseau, in his music articles for the Encyclopédie, offered grudging admiration to Rameau’s contributions to the pedagogy of harmony.

In his last years, Rameau fell afoul of each of the Encyclopedists, engaging in bitter polemics offer aspects of his theory–both metaphysical and scientific. Still, critics such as Diderot continued to acknowledge the value of Rameau’s theory of the fundamental bass, and even at the end of the twentieth and at the beginning of the twenty-first centuries his music theory continues to form the foundation of most pedagogies of tonal music.

Further Reading:

T. Christensen, Rameau and Musical Thought in the Enlightenment, 1993.

C. Verba, Music and the French Enlightenment: Reconstruction of a Dialogue, 1992.

Thomas Christensen

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