Rameau

Born: 1683

Died: 1764

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Though he was no judge of librettos, he raised the musical side of opera to a new level and in his ballets introduced many novel descriptive effects – the French loved these – such as the earthquake in Les Indes galantes.

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Although revered as being among the most influential and important French composers of the 18th century, little of Rameau’s music is heard today. Yet his theories on music continue to exert an influence. He had a strangely disjointed career. At seven he could sight-read anything put in front of him on the harpsichord (his father was an organist) and, for the first 40 years of his career, he was merely a provincial organist, moving around from Avignon to ­Clermont-Ferrand to Paris, Dijon, Lyon and back to Clermont again. In 1722 he returned to Paris and published a controversial and revolutionary textbook on harmony (Traité de l’harmonie) which, with his reputation as one of the country’s leading organists, helped make his name.

Then he changed course and, backed by the wealthy tax gatherer and arts patron Le Riche de la Poupelinière, devoted himself to writing opera. From 1733 for the next 30 years, Rameau produced some 30 pieces for the theatre in one form or another. Though he was no judge of librettos, he raised the musical side of opera to a new level and in his ballets introduced many novel descriptive effects – the French loved these – such as the earthquake in Les Indes galantes. Audiences found them deafening and musicians complex and demanding. In fact, Wagner came in for much the same criticism for much the same reason a century later.

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