Saturday, February 4, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: Jean-Philippe Rameau

Apart from Couperin, the other great French Baroque composer is Rameau, born in 1683 and died in 1764.

His greatest fame came late in life when he became the master of French opera, but before then he published a number of books of wonderful harpsichord music and, in 1722, possibly the most important book of music theory every published, the Traité de L’Harmonie: Reduite à ses Principes naturels. This was the first book to systematically discuss all the harmonic discoveries and innovations of the Baroque that began around 1600 with Giulio Caccini's Le nuove musiche. One of the basic observations that Rameau made was that the chords C E G, E G C and G C E are not three different chords, but three versions of the same chord. This may seem obvious to us, but the funny thing is that a lot of great discoveries are like that: obvious only as soon as some genius points them out. You might compare this with Newton's thoughts on gravity after being hit on the head by a falling apple. Rameau's idea was that the chord C E G is the root-position version of a C major chord, while the ones that have E and G in the bass, but the same three notes, are inversions of a C major chord. A perfectly simple and useful idea that is taught in every music theory class to this very day. Here is the title page of the first edition of Rameau's book:

Rameau's harpsichord music is inventive and virtuosic. Here is "Tambourin", the last movement of the E minor suite from his Pièces de Clavecin of 1724:

And here is the rather gentler "Les Tendres Plaintes" from the D minor suite in the same collection:

From the age of fifty, Rameau devoted himself almost exclusively to opera and it was this that made him famous in the eyes of the public. Here is the overture to Zaïs, an "heroic pastorale":

I think we can hear why his operas were such a success!

UPDATE: After Nathan Shirley commented on "Tambourin" I just have to add another favorite. Here is Leonhardt playing several pieces--the one I recommend is the first, "La Triomphante":


Nathan Shirley said...

Ah I now have a new favorite (Tambourin). Many thanks!

Bryan Townsend said...

Have a listen to the one I added as an update!

Nathan Shirley said...

Thanks, all fine examples.