Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 - 1764)
Prolific author, tireless worker, passionate and remarkable theorist, Jean-Philippe Rameau remains one of the most prominent musical characters of the French XVIII° century. He was born in Dijon on September 25, 1683 and died in Paris on September 12, 1764. He came two years before Bach, Scarlatti and Handel, yet he left after them. However, little is known about Rameau’s life. This cautious, lonely, and non-talkative man was obscure during the first half of his career. He was first an organist in various French cities (Avignon, Clermont-Ferrand, Paris, Dijon and Lyon). In 1723 he went to Paris and had reached his fifties when he eventually took his place as a major dramatic and operatic composer. Thanks to the support of the Fermier Général La Pouplinière, he gave in 1733 'Hippolyte et Aricie' at the Académie Royale de Musique. This was the first opus of a long and dense series of lyrical tragedies, ballets-operas, and other important works.
Famous for his theoretical works on music and harmony, Rameau was sometimes described as a taciturn, rough and abrupt man, being a cerebral and insensitive composer. Rather he had a sensible soul and an exquisite taste, combined with a vast cleverness. For him, music was both an art and a science. He wrote, “True music is the heart language.” His friend Piron said about him, “All his soul was in his harpsichord; once he had closed it, there was nobody home.”
After his death, Rameau was quickly forgotten. During the XIXth century, he was no more than a name. But he came back into the musical world when Saint-Saëns and Charles Malherbe began to publish his complete works. Unfortunately this project was interrupted by the First World War, but since then Rameau has been constantly celebrated; Debussy even wrote a beautiful piano piece entitled 'Hommage à Rameau '.
Rameau's works for harpsichord are not, in quantity, as important as Couperin's: only some sixty pages, written during about forty years. However, it is immense in quality, and remains one of the master bodies of French music. It comprises three sets of harpsichord pieces, mainly published in 1706, 1724, and 1728. Although Rameau was younger than Couperin, his harpsichord production is essentially anterior to Couperin's ones. Hence, after this spending his youth producing music for keyboard, Rameau essentially spent his second career composing operas and music for large orchestras. Rameau and Couperin are now regarded as the two master figures of the French harpsichord. However, their manners are very distinct: Couperin is first of all a subtle poet, mixing lyricism and irony with the same delicacy. As for Rameau, he represents the classical spirit, combining rigor and power, austerity and greatness, without excluding a certain sensibility.
Nowadays Rameau's music for harpsichord is more often played on the original instrument. However, the late French pianist Marcelle Meyer (1897-1958) recorded a reference, authoritative integral, which shows to which extent these pieces can be beautifully rendered on a modern piano.
--Francois de Larrard (more on the author)