Rameau Redux: Why the French Composer Deserves Our Attention

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This year is not only the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, about whom I will write at various points throughout the year, but also the 250th anniversary of the death of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), one of the most unsung (in every sense) of the great composers. Part of why he became lost to modern audiences is that, in his own time, he was eclipsed by Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), which presented a different style from that practiced by Rameau.

Rameau was the great French musical theorist of the late Baroque era but, had he only written his ideas without his marvelous music, he would be a mere footnote. He is the point of reference in French music on the subject of harmony. In 1722 he published his Traité de l’harmonie, in which he expressed his belief that music was not meant to be a pleasant adornment to a civilized life but a means of attaining a more complete expression of what it means to be human, with harmony being the means to achieve that.

He wrote, “It is certain that harmony can arouse various passions within us, depending on the chords we employ. There are sad, languishing, tender, agreeable, gay and surprising chords; there is also a specified sequence of chords to express particular passions.” This may sound schematic and lacking in freshness but, in Rameau’s skilled hands, the music is deeply emotional, sensual and beguiling.

There have been, and will be, more opportunities to encounter Rameau’s music this year. If you are fortunate to do so, I encourage you to bear in mind the words of Claude Debussy, one of France’s foremost champions of Rameau. He said that, “Rameau was lyrical, and that suits the French spirit from all points of view...I fear that our ears have lost their power to listen with the necessary delicacy to the music of Rameau, in which all ungraceful notes are forbidden. Nevertheless, those who do know how to listen will be afforded a polite but warm welcome.”

Rameau composed many keyboard works that are evidence of his harmonic theories, but much of what is being presented this year are some of his more than 30 works for the stage. As was often the case in France at that time and for more than a century after, dance and opera were combined in unusual ways. This means that creative stage directors and choreographers in our own times can make these works appealing for modern audiences.

Not surprisingly, much of the Rameau being presented this year is in the French-speaking world. Les Indes Galantes was presented in Bordeaux in February. In the same month, in Brussels, the Theatre de la Monnaie gave a concert version of Les Fêtes de l’hymen et de l’amour called a ballet héroïque mis en musique. It is, in fact, an opera-ballet composed on the occasion of the marriage of the French Dauphin. It has sparkling music that would befit such an event and draws freely from themes of Egyptian mythology.

Paris’s esteemed Les Arts Florissants (founded by the American maestro William Christie) has just performed Platée in a production by Robert Carsen at the Opera Comique (see below). New Yorkers (including the many of us who recall when this opera was done by the New York City Opera with brilliant designs by Isaac Mizrahi) can see the Les Arts Florissantes Platée that was just staged in Paris on April 2 at Alice Tully Hall. It will be conducted by Paul Agnew, replacing William Christie who is recovering from surgery.

This was Rameau’s first comedy and was a big hit. It is the story of the god Jupiter who woos an ugly yet self-possessed marsh nymph for the purpose of mocking his wife’s jealousy. Following the premiere in Versailles on March 31, 1745, Rameau was appointed a few months later to the position of Composer of the King's Chamber Music with a sizable annual pension.

Rameau wrote other comedies, including his 1748 Pygmalion, based on Ovid’s story of a man who sculpts a statue and declares his love for the woman it represents. You might know the story as interpreted by George Bernard Shaw, with the characters of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. This, of course, was the source material for My Fair Lady, but I commend to you the film starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller.

Rameau’s Pygmalion will be staged in June by On Site Opera, one of New York’s most original and enterprising companies. Once they choose an opera, they then select the ideal place to perform it. I very much enjoyed their Blue Monday by George Gershwin at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Pygmalion by Rameau will be done in two venues: First (June 17) will be Madame Tussaud’s wax museum on West 42nd Street, where the statuary seems to come to life and yet not quite. Just as interesting will be the performances on June 20 and 21, which take place in Lifestyle-Trimco Mannequin Showroom on West 25th where, I would assume, the mannequins would represent frozen figures waiting to be brought to life.

This mini-Rameau festival in Europe and New York is a welcome development. Let us hope that, once the anniversary year ends, this composer is not put back on the shelf, where he will reside and await another rediscovery. His works deserve to be seen and heard often. They are ideal for many small companies as well as audiences who like beautiful harmonic music that tells stories both fanciful and humane.

Rameau portrait: Atributed to Joseph Aved (Wikipedia Commons)