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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Jean-Philippe Rameau

This innocent-sounding music was published in 1706. It sounds delicate and unpretentious, but it actually heralds the start of one of the most important careers in European music.

The composer of this music was Jean-Philippe Rameau. Rameau is mainly remembered today as a composer of operas and ballets but there's much more to him than that. Rameau's operas and ballets are among the most important - and for their time, radical - works of their kind, but he didn't stage his first opera until he was fifty. Clearly there's more to Rameau than meets the ear. [listen]

Jean-Philippe Rameau was born in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy in Eastern France, in September 1683; his baptism is recorded as having taken place on the 25th of that month. His father, Jean Rameau, was an organist, apparently the first professional musician in the family. His mother, Claudine Dematinécourt, was the daughter of a notary and a member of the lesser nobility. Jean-Philippe was the seventh of the couple's eleven children and their eldest surviving son.


Rameau revealed little about his early life and even now the details of his first 40 years can only be reconstructed in the barest outline. As a boy he was sent to the Jesuit College of Godrans in Dijon, an institution which had a tradition of performing music theatre works. It's likely that these early performing experiences bore fruit decades later in Rameau's theatrical career.

In January 1702, when he was 18, Rameau took up the first of a series of church appointments which are the only certain landmarks in his early career. This first post - as acting music director - was at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Avignon in Southern France, but only four months later he had been appointed to another post, as organist of Clermont Cathedral in the Auvergne. Within four years he had left Clermont; in 1706 he moved to Paris.

Avignon Cathedral

It was in 1706 that Rameau's first collection of harpsichord pieces was published, and the two pieces linked to above come from that publication. It didn't take long for Rameau to establish himself in Paris; he quickly gained a post as organist at the famous Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand and at the same time was organist at the Mercedarians church. On 12 September of the same year he won a competition for the post of organist at Ste Madeleine-en-la-Cité, but as Rameau didn't want to give up his other two posts for this job, the judges withdrew the offer of the position and gave it to someone else. Rameau seems to have been unfazed by this as he was still in the same two jobs two years later.

In 1709, three years after arriving in Paris, he returned to his home town of Dijon to succeed his father as organist at the Notre Dame church. By 1713, though, he'd left Dijon and gone to Lyons to hold yet another organist's post.

In Lyons Rameau probably wrote some or all of the early motets which have survived. Because most of his church appointments were as organist and not as director of music, Rameau wasn't required to compose much in the way of sacred vocal works. But in Lyons he became involved in concerts and it seems, ironically, that these glorious sacred works - and there are four which survive - were designed for concerts rather than liturgical use. These motets are for solo voices, choir and orchestra and follow in the traditions developed in the 17th century by composers such as Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Michel Delalande.

This is part of Rameau's motet In convertendo, composed around this time. [listen]

In 1715 Rameau returned to Clermont and was again appointed organist at the Cathedral where he had worked between 1702 and 1706; he stayed there for seven years. During this period he is thought to have written many of the secular cantatas which survive; one of these is Impatience. This little gem is scored with the utmost delicacy, as one would expect for works intended for domestic performance. The solo tenor is accompanied by continuo, with a florid obbligato part for viola da gamba. [listen]

Clermont Cathedral

In 1722 Rameau left Clermont and once more headed for Paris which was to be his home for the rest of his life. Despite his earlier sojourn there, he was virtually unknown, but he seems to have gone to Paris to supervise an important undertaking, the publication of his first great theoretical work, the Treatise on Harmony. This was published in 1722 after some three years of preparation. This marks the beginning - in the public eye at least - of the other great strand of Rameau's career, that of a musical theorist. Throughout his life Rameau published theoretical works on musical matters and he longed to be regarded as a great philosopher as much as a great composer. That formal recognition of his philosophical aspirations eluded him throughout his life was a constant disappointment, but there can be no doubting that Rameau's ideas made him as famous - and as controversial - as his theatre works soon would.

The Treatise on Harmony of 1722 was followed four years later by another publication, the New System of Music Theory. Some of Rameau's ideas were controversial and he had regular public disputes with other composers and theorists in journals over his ideas.

Meanwhile, as a composer, Rameau was seeking to gain a foothold in Paris. In 1724 he published a second collection of harpsichord pieces. This set contains twice as many pieces as the 1706 publication and includes characteristic or programmatic pieces as well as dances. The publication also included a "method", with instructions on technical matters such as fingering. Many of the pieces fall into the structure of the rondeau, where a recurring melody is alternated with contrasting episodes. [listen]

Aved: Jean-Philippe Rameau (1728)

In 1726, aged 42, Rameau married Marie-Louise Mangot, who was 19. She was a skilled singer and harpsichordist, and may already have been one of Rameau's pupils. She came from a musical family; her father was employed as an instrumentalist at court.

Despite his reputation as an organist and as a theoretician, Rameau was unable to secure a major organist's post for many years after he returned in Paris. By 1732, though, he had secured such a post, although by that stage it was becoming evident that his professional aspirations lay elsewhere.

Letters exist from the late 1720s showing that Rameau had been long harbouring the desire to compose for the Paris Opéra. He finally had his chance in 1733, the year in which he turned 50 and from this first work for the lyric stage, the opera Hippolyte et Aricie, his life took a completely different direction. [listen]

To our ears. Hippolyte et Aricie and Rameau's other early operas sounds straight out of the Lully tradition from the late 17th century, and indeed, they are. Hippolyte et Aricie is a full scale lyric tragedy in five acts with a prologue, with copious amounts of singing, dancing and stage effects. But to its first audiences in 1733 the work was a shattering experience. Reactions ranged from thrilled admiration on the one hand, to bewilderment and even disgust on the other. Almost overnight a new dispute arose in French opera and people aligned themselves either with the old school of Lully (the lullistes) or the new school of Rameau (the ramistes). Those who hated the ramistes often derogatively called them the ramoneurs, meaning "chimney sweeps".

Rameau's second opera, Les Indes galantes, was premiered at the Paris Opéra two years later and it too aroused immense hostility and controversy. One anonymous correspondent in one of the newspapers wrote, "The music is a perpetual witchery...I am racked, flayed, dislocated by this devilish sonata of Les Indes galantes”. It's hard to understand such reactions from our point of view, but the mix was clearly too much - too spicy, if you like - for many of Rameau's contemporaries. It's perhaps worth remembering, just to put this music in context, that 1735, the year Les Indes galantes was premiered, was the same year Handel premiered Ariodante and Alcina in London, while earlier the same year Bach completed his first performances of the Christmas Oratorio. It was a very good year, it seems.

This amazing storm sequence from Les Indes galantes gives an indication of Rameau's audacious dramatic flair. [listen]

Rameau's early operas for Paris continued to appear at two-year intervals; his third opera was Castor et Pollux, first performed in 1737, followed by Les fêtes d'Hébé in 1739. In 1739, though he produced not one but two new operas, and his fifth major stage work, Dardanus, saw the controversy over Rameau's operatic style reach its climax. Certainly Dardanus contains some of Rameau's most thrilling music, both for singing and dancing. [listen]

The controversy doesn't seem to have done Rameau any harm, though, as is often the case in such matters. None of these first five operas was a failure; the least successful of them - Castor et Pollux and Dardanus - had respectable runs of 21 and 26 performances respectively. And over the next decade, Parisian audiences got used to the idea that an organist and theorist could also be a theatre composer, albeit one who wrote in a confronting and powerful idiom.

From late 1733 Rameau also established a connection with the royal court. His operas were given concert performances for Queen Marie which were occasionally also attended by the King, Louis XV. Rameau's wife was also sometimes among the cast members and her singing was highly praised by the Queen.

De La Tour: Louis XV (1748)

During the 1730s Rameau came under the protection and sponsorship of a wealthy and influential businessman and patron of the arts. Alexandre-Jean-Joseph Le Riche de La Pouplinère would have revelled in having the notorious Rameau on his staff. La Pouplinère's mistress, Thérèse des Hayes, was already a Rameau pupil and devotee.

Alexandre-Jean-Joseph Le Riche de La Pouplinère

Rameau remained connected to the household of La Pouplinère for twenty years and it was a connection which greatly benefitted the composer. La Pouplinère's salon was a meeting place for a wide range of people, including writers, artists, actors, diplomats and all sorts of hangers-on. La Pouplinère's circle eventually became known as a citadel of the ramistes.

In 1741 Rameau produced another set of harpsichord pieces, the Pieces de Clavecin en Concerts. This stands apart from the earlier sets as it includes other instruments and not just the harpsichord. It's also different in that the little groups of pieces are mostly characteristic pieces, or pieces named after friends, pupils and patrons; there are almost no dance movements. This is the piece named after Rameau's patron, La Pouplinère. [listen]

Rameau's second intense period of theatrical composition began in 1745. Over some six or seven years he composed 12 works of varying types, some in one act, some in three acts, and some in five. Some were operas (which contained dancing), and some were ballets (which contained singing). The best of these are generally regarded as Platée, a three-act lyric comedy which was premiered at Versailles in 1745, and Pigmalion, a one-act opera-ballet which premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1748.

I have long had a soft spot for Pigmalion and it's one of many works in which Rameau takes an idea from the opera's subject matter and incorporates it into the overture. Pigmalion (or Pygmalion) is the sculptor from Greek legend who falls in love with a statue of his own creation. Rameau clearly loved making the overture sound like the hammering and chiselling of the sculptor attacking his block of marble. [listen]

The year after Pigmalion Rameau produced the five-act tragedy Zoroastre. which contains some of his most glorious music. And like many of his stage works, Zoroastre was revised for later revivals. The music is invested with immense vitality and power. [listen]

Caffieri: Bust of Rameau (1760)

By the time Rameau premiered Zoroastre his works had come to dominate the stage so much that orders were given by the authorities at the Paris Opéra that no more than two Rameau works could be staged in any one year, so as not to disadvantage other composers.

By 1750 Rameau had the support of a wide cross-section of the French music-loving public and his support at the court of the Louis XV was secure. In his final years, he produced fewer new works but many of his earlier works were revised and revived, so the name of Rameau was a constant on the French musical horizon in the 1750s and 60s.

Still, no Rameau works were given at the Paris Opéra between 1749 and 1757 because the composer, always prone to disputes and arguments, was on bad terms with the management. His works were still presented at court and elsewhere, though.

The reduction in his composing work in Rameau's final years contrasts with a huge increase in his theoretical publications. In the last decade of his life he produced 23 new theoretical works; some are pamphlets but others are major tomes, including the Code of Musical Practice, published in 1760.

Rameau's last five act opera was Les Boréades, composed in 1763 when Rameau was 79, but despite being rehearsed it was unperformed in the composer's lifetime. Handel and Bach were long dead, Haydn had already written his first symphonies, and yet Rameau could still produce music like this. [listen]

Jean-Philippe Rameau died at his home in Paris on 12 September 1764, just before his 81st birthday. He died a wealthy man and left a legacy of extraordinary music and thought-provoking writings. As a composer of theatre music, in particular, he displayed in his last thirty years a unique and powerful voice. Rameau is without doubt the most important and influential French composer of the 18th century.

Carmontelle: Jean-Philippe Rameau (1760)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2013.

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