Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Resplendent M. Rameau!

I have, from time to time, mentioned Jean-Philippe Rameau, but have devoted surprisingly little space to him given how important a composer he is. He did after all, literally, write the book on harmony! So let us take some time and celebrate this remarkable composer.

Jean-Philippe Rameau, by Jacques Aved, 1728
Just to whet your appetite, here is a rondeau from his opera-ballet Les Indes galantes:

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 - 1764) is famous for being one of the leading composers and theorists of the 18th century. He, along with François Couperin, is the glory of the French Baroque. His greatest works were operas and he did not embark on this phase of his life until he was nearly fifty. He achieved early fame with his Traité de l'harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels, published in 1722, which attempts to discover the fundamental principles underlying tonal harmony and does a pretty good job of it. He says:
Music is a science which should have definite rules; these rules should be drawn from an evident principle; and this principle cannot really be known to us without the aid of mathematics.
[Rameau, Jean-Philippe. Treatise on Harmony (Dover Books on Music) (Kindle Locations 456-458). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.]
Despite his best efforts and those of others, including Paul Hindemith, it is not quite possible to derive the rules of harmony from the overtone series or by dividing a string into its parts, and Rameau acknowledges this when he later says
No rules have yet been devised to teach composition in all its present perfection. Every skillful man in this field sincerely confesses that he owes all his knowledge to experience alone.
[Rameau, Jean-Philippe. Treatise on Harmony (Dover Books on Music) (Kindle Locations 482-484). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.]
Rameau focuses on the fundamental importance of the fifth:
The sounds which form the fifth and the fourth are included in the divisions of the undivided string and are consequently generated by the fundamental sound. With regard to intervals, however, only the octave and the fifth are directly generated by the fundamental sound. The fourth is merely a result of the octave, since it arises from the difference between this octave and the fifth.
[Rameau, Jean-Philippe. Treatise on Harmony (Dover Books on Music) (Kindle Locations 967-969). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.]
 It must be confessed that as a writer Rameau was confusing, awkward and prolix and his explanations are often difficult to sort out. Here is his explanation of the relationship between the three different possible inversions of a major chord:
The major perfect chord is formed from the three numbers 4:5:6. If we raise 4. to its octave, we shall have 5:6:8; this forms the chord called the sixth chord, because the sixth is heard between the two extreme sounds. If we then raise 5 to its octave, we shall have 6:8:10; this forms another chord called the six-four chord, because the sixth and the fourth are heard between the two upper sounds and the lowest sound (to which all intervals of a chord should be compared). If we then raised 6 to its octave, we should have 8:10:12, which is in the same proportion as 4:5:6.
[Rameau, Jean-Philippe. Treatise on Harmony (Dover Books on Music) (Kindle Locations 1365-1369). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.]
What he terms 4:5:6 we would call a major chord in root position: CEG. If you raise the C an octave you obtain the chord EGC which is notated in figured bass as a 6 chord (meaning that the C is now a sixth above the bass, E). Then if you then raise the E an octave you have the chord GCE which is, in figured bass notation, referred to as a 6/4 chord because the two notes above are now at the intervals of a sixth and a fourth. This is taught to every beginning music student and it was in fact Rameau that first laid out a coherent theory of inversion which provided a rational foundation for the theory of harmony and gave him wide recognition as a music theorist, as famous in his own field as Isaac Newton was in physics.

But it is for his compositions that he is most know today. Neglected for nearly two hundred years, it is only in the last fifty or so years that his music has been unearthed and restored to its previous glory. He was not a prolific composer, but his few suites for harpsichord are justly appreciated today. Fanciful names were typical of the French clavecinistes. Here is one of his most delightful pieces Les Niais de Sologne avec six doubles meaning "The Simpletons of Soulogne with six variations." This is Trevor Pinnock on harpsichord:

In recent years Grigory Sokolov has given some extraordinary performances of Rameau on piano. This is Les Cyclopes:

But his greatest achievements were in the realm of opera. Here is the overture to Hippolyte and Aricie:

And, if you have the time, here is a complete performance of Les Indes galantes, though I should warn you, as it is a recent production (Bordeaux, 2014) while the instruments are original, the costuming most certainly is not. The opening ballet, for example, is danced by a whole troupe of nude dancers though the singer is somewhat clothed. Rest assured that later on the costume department does come up with some items so the entire opera is not performed in the nude! Blogger won't embed, so just follow the link:

(I would have put up the less-controversial and perhaps more faithful version by William Christie, but I could not find it on YouTube.)

If you want a less, uh, "galant" version, here is the closing Chaconne:

My expertise does not extend to dance, so I am not sure how much if any of this choreography is the original. I'm pretty sure that they had dance notation, so perhaps it is. But again, the costuming is likely not!


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