Jean-Philippe Rameau

Composer Jean-Philippe Rameau

The most important 18th-century French composer, known especially for his operas and other theater works. He also was an influential music theorist.

Vital Statistics
September 25, 1683, in Dijon, France
September 12, 1764, in Paris
Performed As:
Harpsichordist, organist, violinist
During Lifetime:
Death of Louis XIV (1714), accession of Louis XV, and a general French attitude of “new beginnings.” The coining of the term Baroque.
Biographical Outline
  • In Daddy’s footsteps: Jean-Philippe Rameau’s father, Jean, is an organist in Dijon, and presumably teaches his son. However, details of Rameau’s early career remain a mystery because he never talked about it, even to his wife. Jean-Philippe’s siblings and nephews become professional musicians, as well.
  • Italian sojourn: Like many composers, Rameau travels to Italy in the early 1700s. There he studies the Italian cantata, which fosters his lifelong interest in vocal music. 
  • First gigs, 1702: Rameau is appointed music master at the cathedral in Avignon, but moves to Clermont Cathedral less than five months later. Abandoning his post at Clermont, Rameau moves to Paris to oversee the publication of this first book of harpsichord pieces. He becomes the organist for the Jesuit college in Paris and publishes more harpsichord music in 1724. 
  • Hometown boy, 1709: Rameau returns to Dijon to take over his father’s position at Notre Dame. He signs a six-year contract, but breaks this one, too. Finally, he returns to Clermont, where he stays for 29 years. 
  • In theory, 1722: Rameau returns to Paris to oversee the publication of his Treatise on Harmony. This work, and the sequel, New System of Music Theory (1726), win him great fame among leading French intellectuals. The two works, together, form the foundation for modern music theory. 
  • Better late than never: At age 42, Rameau marries his first wife, singer Marie-Louise Mangot, who is 19 at the time. 
  • “Early” opera, 1733: At the age of 50, Rameau produces his first grand opera, Hippolyte et Aricie. This great work makes an incredible impact at its premiere. It eventually revolutionizes French tragic opera, much to the consternation of operatic conservatives. 
  • The fame game: Rameau goes on to produce some of the more famous French serious operas of the 18th century, such as Castor et Pollux (1737), as well as works in other genres, for instance the opera-ballet Les Indes galantes (1735). In the mid-1730s, one of the wealthiest men in Paris, A.-J.-J. le Riche de La Pouplinière, becomes Rameau’s patron and introduces him to important contacts. In 1745, in recognition of his stage works written for court, he receives a royal pension and a title, Composer of the King’s Chamber, a high honor. He balances his time between producing new stage works, writing theoretical treatises, and arguing with scholars and polemicists in the pages of Paris’ intellectual newspapers. He dies an extremely rich man.
Fun Facts
  • The anti-Parisian: According to his student Chabanon, Rameau was “extremely tall; he was lean and scraggy, with more the air of a ghost than a man.” He was shy and often difficult to work with, and grew more eccentric with age. There are almost no reports of him as a young man. 
  • Late bloomer: Rameau was a local, small-time musician until about the age of 40, when he suddenly became famous ... for a music treatise! 
  • Baroque leanings: Hippolyte et Aricie and the rest of Rameau’s 31 dramatic works were controversial. A reporter for the newspaper Mercure de France criticized Hippolyte as being “Baroque” — a jeweler’s term for an irregularly shaped pearl, hinting that the work was beautiful, yet fundamentally flawed. Fellow composer Andrè Campra said of it, “There is enough music in this opera to make ten of them.”
  • Pamphlet war: Rameau was involved in the so-called Querelle des buffons (literally, the War of the Buffoons), in which writers publically debated the relative merits of French and Italian music. Rameau occasionally wrote in the Italian style, so critics of Italian influence pointed to his work as showing the corrupting influence of their southern neighbors. But to a modern listener, this music sounds totally French!
  • Name dropping: Rameau worked with the writer/philosopher Voltaire as his librettist on two stage works. Jean-Jacques Rousseau hated him because Rameau criticized his compositions and, later, his music articles for Dénis Diderot’s Encyclopédie. So when Diderot wrote a famous, scathing satire of modern Frenchmen and critics of the Enlightenment, he called it Le neveu de Rameau (1761-1772). In it, Rameau’s nephew represents wild, undisciplined youth.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music

Rameau is by far best-known for his operas. French opera can be a bit difficult to warm up to at first, so it’s good to start off with some orchestral suites from several of the operas and the works for court. Try the suites from Naïs and Le Temple de la gloire, played by the Bay Area’s own Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas McGegan (Harmonia Mundi, 1995).

  • Platée, an unusual comedy that Rameau composed late in life, was given influential revivals in a 1999 Paris Opéra production, directed by Laurent Pelly, and a coproduction by the Mark Morris Dance Group and New York City Opera, directed by Morris, which toured widely. The Paris production is available on DVD.
  • William Christie has conducted the serious operas in strong performances available on DVD. Les Indes galantes is a particularly sumptuous performance, with lavish costumes and dancers, as well as a most interesting commentary on the special features. 
  • Beyond category: Rameau wrote a collection of pieces that defy generic definition. Called the Pièces de Clavecin en concert (Pieces for keyboard in concert [that is, with other instruments]), they’re not exactly concertos, and not exactly chamber music, either. One thing’s for sure: They are fantastic music. Rameau’s harpsichord music is among some of the most virtuosic ever written. Recordings by Peter Sykes are highly recommended.
  • Check out the famous “Les Cyclopes,” as played by Alan Cuckston, free streaming from this link.
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