Rameau, Jean Philippe

1683-1764

Eminent French theorist, organist and dramatic composer, called the founder of modern harmony; was born at Dijon, the eldest son of musical amateurs who gave him lessons. He read harpsichord music at sight when seven years old; was sent to the Jesuit College, but spent so much time at his music to the neglect of his studies that he was dismissed as incorrigible, and his father abandoned his original plan of making a magistrate of him The boy now studied the violin and organ, but there being no competent teacher of harmony in his native town his theoretical education was left to take care of itself. A premature love-affair caused his father to send him to Italy in 1701, where he stayed but a short time, not liking Italian music, and joined a traveling French company as violinist. After several years of wandering he returned home, refused a position as organist in Dijon and went to Paris, where he studied under Marchand, then a favorite organist in that city, who discerned a probable rival in Rameau, and in a competition for the position of organist at St. Paul's, used his influence in favor of an inferior musician, while Rameau was obliged to accept a position outside of Paris, at Lille. He soon went to Auvergne to succeed his brother Claude. He retained this post for a number of years, during which time he composed and began the study of harmony, in which previous instruction had been denied him. This resulted in the production of his treatise on harmony, setting forth a system of his own, based on certain theories, viz., the reduction of all possible chord combinations to a definite number of primary chords, taking the common chord as the fundamental basis, and building others by thirds from its component tones; second, the harmonic identity of a chord and its various inversions; third, the construction of a fundamental bass which consisted of an assumed series of tones forming the roots of the respective chords. Of these three hypotheses, the second has become an established principle in harmony, while the others, on subsequent investigation and application, proved impracticable and misleading. Rameau himself recognized these early errors and his conceptions changed after the publication of his earlier works. Rameau's claim to the title of the founder of modern harmony consists, with the exception of the law of inverted chords, rather in the impulse which his works gave to later investigations than in the stability of his original system. It was left for later theorists to discover the true laws of the derivation of dissonant chords from consonant chords. The publicity and the fame which followed the printing of his works brought him many pupils. Rameau was not at liberty to remove to Paris as soon as he wished because of his contract as organist and, being much liked in this capacity, found it impossible to shorten his engagement by a request for release; so he resorted to a stratagem, and began to play so badly that, protests being of no avail, the authorities were at last glad to dismiss him, though, after securing the longed-for discharge, he played his last service in his accustomed style for his own satisfaction and the pleasure of his listeners. In 1721 he reached Paris, and the next year his first work, Traite de I'harmonie, appeared. His compositions for clavier also attracted attention, and before long he became popular as a teacher and was appointed organist of Ste. Croix de la Bretonnerie. In 1726 he married Marie Louise Mangot, an attractive young musician and singer, and the marriage proved happy in spite of Rameau's twenty-five years of seniority. This same year was published his Nouveau Systeme de Musique Theortique. Others followed, including a treatise concerning accompaniment on clavecin or organ; Generation harmonique; Demonstration du principe de I'harmonie; Nouvelles reflexions sur la demonstration; and Code de musique pratique, being his last published theoretical work.