Nicholas Mcgegan


Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)

Little is known about the early life of the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau – although it does seem that, like many other baroque composers, he was born into a musical family and was quite precocious, being taught music before he could read.

Professionally, Rameau was a violinist in the Lyon Opera and an organist at Avignon and Clermont. The first half of his life was largely unremarkable, aside from the 1722 publication of his book Treatise on Harmony. This work is important because Rameau used mathematics to posit the basis of musical theory – a position that continues to be taught today.

At the age of about 50, Rameau turned to writing operas. This work was well received by other composers, such as Tommasio Traetta and Christoph Willibald Gluck. The body of work Rameau produced from about 1730 through the early 1750s is quite astounding, marking a break with the then-dominant tradition set by Jean-Bapiste Lully for the French baroque. Rameau was among those in Paris who encouraged French musicians and audiences to be more open to outside influences, such as the work of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

Rameau’s work – like that of many of his contemporaries – was out of fashion by the end of the 18th century. His operas vanished altogether, and his other work seems to have been overlooked throughout the 19th century, despite the revival of other baroque masters. This situation has been reversed, and contemporary efforts to revive Rameau’s work have been fruitful.