Jean Philippe Rameau - Encyclopedia

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JEAN PHILIPPE RAMEAU (1683-1764), French musical theorist and composer, was born at Dijon on the 23rd of October 1683. His musical education, partly in consequence of his father's desire that he should study law, still more through his own wayward disposition, was of a desultory character. In 1701 his father sent him to Milan to break off a foolish lovematch. But he learned little in Italy, and soon returned, in company with a wandering theatrical manager, for whom he played the second violin. He next settled in Paris, where he published his Premier livre de pieces de clavecin, in 1706. In 1717 he made an attempt to obtain the appointment of organist at the church of St Paul. Deeply annoyed at his unexpected failure, he retired for a time to Lille, whence, however, he soon removed to Clermont-Ferrand. Here he succeeded his brother Claude as organist at the cathedral.

Burning with desire to remedy the imperfections of his early education, Rameau diligently studied the writings of Zarlino, Descartes, Mersenne, F. Kircher and other theorists. He not only mastered their views but succeeded in demonstrating their weak points and substituting for them a system of his own. His keen insight into the constitution of certain chords, which in early life he had studied only by ear, enabled him to propound a series of hypotheses, many of which are now accepted as established facts. While the older contrapuntists were perfectly satisfied with the laws which regulated the melodious involutions of their vocal and instrumental parts, Rameau demonstrated the possibility of building up a natural harmony upon a fundamental bass, and of using that harmony as an authority for the enactment of whatever laws might be considered necessary for the guidance either of the contrapuntist or the less ambitious general composer. And in this he first explained the distinction between two styles, which have been called the "horizontal and vertical systems," the "horizontal system" being that by which the older contrapuntists regulated the onward motion of their several parts, and the "vertical system" that which constructs an entire passage out of a single harmony. From fundamental harmonies he passed to inverted chords, to which he was the first to call attention; and the value of this discovery fully compensates for his erroneous theory concerning the chords of the eleventh and the great (Angl. " added") sixth (see Harmony).

Rameau first set forth his new theory in his Traite de l'harmonie (Paris, 1722), and followed it up in his Nouveau systente (1726), Generation harmonique (1737), Demonstration (1750) and Nouvelles reflexions (1752). But it was not only as a theorist that he became famous. Returning to Paris in 1722 he first attracted attention by composing some light dramatic pieces, and then showed his real powers in his opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, founded on Racine's Phedre and produced at the Academie in 1733. Though this work was violently opposed by the admirers of Lulli, whose party spirit eventually stirred up the famous "guerre des bouffons," Rameau's genius was too brilliant to be trampled under foot by an ephemeral faction and his ultimate triumph was assured. He afterwards produced more than twenty operas, the most successful of which were Dardanus, Castor et Pollux, Les Indes galantes and La princesse de Navarre. Honours were showered upon him. He was. appointed conductor at the Opera Comique, and the directors of the opera granted him a pension. King Louis XV. appointed him composer to the court in 1745, and in 1764 honoured him with a patent of nobility and the order of St Michael. But these last privileges were granted only on the eve of his death at Paris on the 12th of September 1764.

See biographies in Charles Poisset (1864), Nisard (1867), Pougin (1876).

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