Rameau, Jean Philippe


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.

By middle life, Rameau turned aspiring efforts toward grand opera. He became acquainted with M. de la Popeliniere, the fermier-general who was a man of wealth and influence, and whose wife was a harpsichord pupil of Rameau. He introduced the composer to Voltaire, to whom Rameau is said to have borne a striking resemblance, and the result was a libretto by the famous writer, known by the title of Samson. Rameau worked eagerly at this, and the opera, when completed, fully satisfied both his librettist and his patron, but not the manager of the Academic, who objected to the biblical subject. The next year he was successful in making his debut with Hippolyte et Aricie, founded on Racine's Phedre. It did not, however, attain favor with the public. Rameau's style was characterized by improvements over the best of his rivals' works that were innovations, and therefore not enjoyed or appreciated at first. His originality embodied itself in bold harmonies, unusual rhythms, and a new manner of writing for the orchestra, especially for the wood wind-instruments, which were now for the first time given separate and individual parts. After the first shock subsided, the public began to like his music. His balletopera, Les Indes Galantes, was a success. Two years afterward came his masterpiece, Castor et Pollux, and for over twenty years he dominated the French, stage. Other operas were Les Fetes d'Hebe and Dardanus; La Princesse de Navarre; Les Fetes de Polyhymnie; Le Temple de la Gloire; Les Fetes de 1'Hymen et de 1'Amour; Zais; and Pygmalion; Platee ou Junon jalouse; Neis; Zoroastre; Acanthe et Cephise; La Guirlande; and La Naissance d'Osiris; Daphnis et Egle; Lycis et Delie; Le Retour d'Astree; Anacreon; Les Surprises de 1'Amour; Les Sybarites; and Les Paladins, which, though written at the age of seventy-seven, showed no weakening of the composer's mental powers. He composed cantatas with choruses and also motets during the earlier part of his career, but never wrote so happily for voices as for instruments, a fact due in some measure to his indifference or aversion to Italian music in his youth. That he realized this is evident from a confession he made at sixty years of age, declaring that if he were twenty years younger he would visit Italy and study Pergolesi's works with a view of supplementing his deficiencies in declamation and acquiring the graceful and melodious qualities in which Lully was his superior.

In the period from 1740 to 1745, during which he produced no operas, he composed considerable music for clavier, including sonatas, variations, etc., some of which were written with " accompaniments " for flute, violin and viola. Some numbers from his various collections of clavier-pieces have been published in later works; Pauer's Old French Composers, and Popular Pieces by Rameau, are examples; also Mereaux's Les Clavecimstes. Ferrenc's Tresor des pianistes contains a reprint of two collections entire, and Riemann edited a complete edition of all Rameau's works for clavier. Many of these are well worth the pianist's attention. In addition to these, he left some for organ, and a number of pamphlets, some being of a controversial nature.

Rameau was appointed chamber composer to the  King in 1745, and received honors in later life; a pension from the director of the Grand Opera, a patent of nobility and the order of St. Michael from the King After his death, which occurred at the age of eighty-one, from typhoid fever, his funeral was solemnized at Paris by ceremonies befitting the foremost musician of his day, while memorial services were held in many other places. The music for the funeral was performed by the orchestra and chorus of the Grand Opera, and the mass embodied numbers arranged from Castor and Pollux, and other lyrical works by the composer. Several portraits of Rameau are in existence, notably one in the Dijon Museum, by Chardin. A bust was placed in the library of the Paris Conservatory, and at Dijon a memorial statue in bronze was unveiled in 1880. A life-size statue is placed in the vestibule of the Paris Opera House. Rameau is described as " tall and thin almost to emaciation," with a face "furrowed by deep wrinkles, an aquiline nose, broad and open forehead, and prominent cheek-bones. The mouth was large, the look frank and bold, and indicative of energy, perseverance and will-power." Of his characteristics as a composer, W. J. Henderson says: "He was a more sincere artist (than Lully), with a self-sacrificing devotion to high ideals of which Lully was quite incapable. The story of Rameau's early struggles and of his late recognition by force of sheer merit is far different from that of Lully's courtier-like machinations . . . Rameau was a much more truthfully dramatic composer than Lully, and at the same time he was a better musician . . . that he was not wholly able to escape affectation is due largely to the taste of the period in which he lived." His work contains many passages of true musical worth, and he exerted a strong influence upon French Opera, though perhaps not so much directly as indirectly through his legitimate successor, Gluck He improved, however, the mode of writing for chorus, as well as orchestra, in his operas; but many of his librettos were unworthy, and unfortunately, he seemed to look upon the words more as a framework upon which to hang the music than as an equally important part of the opera; his ideals required the best in music, but not necessarily the best in words. He is said to have been somewhat irascible, usually self-absorbed, resenting ordinary interruptions as intrusions on his time, yet ready and willing to respond to the calls of necessity, either in friends or relatives. All his known actions indicate straightforwardness, simplicity and indomitable persistence in pursuit of his artistic ambitions.