Jean Philippe Rameau

(25 September 1683, Dijon – 12 September 1764, Paris)


Jean Philippe Rameau was one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the Baroque era. He is widely accepted as the dominant composer of French opera and leading French composer of the harpsichord of his time, alongside François Couperin. Rameau was taught music before he could read or write, his father, Jean worked as an organist in several churches around Dijon and was probably his first teacher.

At the age of 18, after deciding to pursue a musical career, he traveled to Italy but seems to have gotten no farther than Milan. The following year, he received the first of a series of appointments as organist in various cities of central France: Avignon, Clermont, Dijon, Lyon. There was a brief interlude in the capital, but apparently Paris did not take an immediate fancy to the provincial organist, in spite of his having published there a fine suite of harpsichord pieces in A minor, Premier livre de pièces de clavecin (1706). These works show the beneficial influence of Louis Marchand, a famous organist-harpsichordist of the day whose playing Rameau greatly admired. About Rameau's early years little is known, the details of his life are generally obscure, especially his first 40 years, before he moved to Paris for good. His nature was quite secretive, not even his wife knew anything about his early life, which explains the scarcity of biographical information available.

He first appeared in the public eye in the 1720s after he won fame as a major theorist of music with his Treatise on Harmony (1722) and also in the years that followed, as a composer of masterpieces for the harpsichord which circulated throughout Europe. He soon gained the attention and respect of Parisian musicians. But although his music (the harpsichord pieces, cantatas and music for the theaters) was greatly admired, he was unable to win an organ post in Paris. In 1724 he wrote a second volume of harpsichord pieces, Pieces de clavecin avec une méthode sur la mécanique des doigts (Harpsichord pieces, with a method for fingering) which was well received and brought him considerably more success than the first, thus, becoming a fashionable teacher of the instrument. 

He started giving lessons, among his pupils the talented Marie-Louise Mangeot, who became his wife in 1726. Soon after, he wrote his third book of harpsichord pieces, which like his second was largely devoted to pièces de caractère, he published his Observations sur la methode d'accompagnement pour le clavecin in the Mercure de France (February 1730), drawing upon his own brilliant technique of improvising on a figured bass. His most influential contact at this time was Le Riche de la Pouplinière, one of the wealthiest men in France and one of the greatest musical patrons of all time. Rameau was put in charge of La Pouplinière’s excellent private orchestra, a post he held for 22 years. The rich musical resources - singers, players and dancers - of Paris were augmented by virtuoso clarinettists and horn players brought in from Germany and Bohemia, providing Rameau with a private forum. It was for this circle that the virtuoso Pièces de clavecin en concerts (1741) were composed.


Rameau's complex orchestrations and the intensity of his accompanied recitatives seemed to baffle the average listener. Rameau himself, however, professed his admiration for his predecessor in the preface to Les Indes galantes, in which he praised the “beautiful declamation and handsome turns of phrase in the recitative of the great Lully,” and stated that he had sought to imitate it, though not as a “servile copyist.”

The year 1745 was a watershed in Rameau's career. He received several commissions from the court for works to celebrate the French victory at the Battle of Fontenoy and the marriage of the Dauphin to Infanta Maria Teresa Rafaela of Spain. Rameau produced his most important comic opera, Platée, as well as two collaborations with Voltaire: the opéra-ballet Le temple de la gloire and the comédie-ballet La princesse de Navarre. Rameau composed prolifically in the late 1740s and early 1750s. After that, his rate of productivity dropped off, probably due to old age and ill health, although he was still able to write another comic opera, Les Paladins, in 1760. This was due to be followed by a final tragédie en musique, Les Boréades; but for unknown reasons, the opera was never produced and had to wait until the late 20th century for a proper staging.

Rameau's legacy can be divided into four distinct groups, which differ greatly in importance: a few cantatas, a few motets for large chorus, some pieces for solo harpsichord or harpsichord accompanied by other instruments, and his works for the stage, to which he dedicated the last thirty years of his career almost exclusively. 

Rameau's music had gone out of fashion by the end of the 18th century, and it was not until the 20th that serious efforts were made to revive it. Today, he enjoys renewed appreciation with performances and recordings of his music ever more frequent.

Here  you can find a list of Rameau's compositions.