Jean Philippe Rameau

Jean Philippe Rameau

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Born: Dijon, (baptized September 25, 1683)

Died: Paris, September 12, 1764

    French composer, one of the country's greatest of the 18th century, and a highly influential music theorist.

    Born in Dijon, where his father was an organist, Rameau travelled to Italy at the age of 18 and was subsequently employed as an organist in several French cities, most notably Clermont-Ferrand, where he stayed until 1722 and where he wrote his Traité de l'harmonie (Treatise on Harmony, 1722). He moved to Paris in 1723, where he taught harpsichord and music theory. His early compositions include light theatrical pieces, sacred music, and harpsichord music. In 1731 he became director of the private orchestra of a wealthy music patron. This patronage enabled him to turn to opera. Rameau's 30 or so operas include many masterpieces of the French lyric theatre: the tragedies Hippolyte et Aricie (Hippolytus and Aricia, 1733), Castor et Pollux (Castor and Pollux, 1737), Dardanus (1739 and 1744 versions), and Zoroastre (1749); the opéra-ballets Les Indes galantes (The Gallant Indies, 1735), Les fêtes d'Hébé (The Festivals of Hebe, 1739), and La princesse de Navarre (1745); and the comedy Platée (1745). His orchestration was powerful and innovative, as was the manner in which he used harmony for dramatic effect. Rameau became unwillingly involved in controversy when his music was attacked, first by enthusiasts of Lully who felt that Rameau's modern work betrayed the older composer's legacy, and later, in the 1750s, by "modernists" such as Rousseau who advocated the Italian opera of Pergolesi instead.

    His Piéces de clavecin en concerts (Concert Pieces for Harpsichord, 1741), for two violins and harpsichord, are among the earliest such works to give the keyboard an independent, rather than accompanying, part.

    Rameau's theoretical writing, which he considered his most important work, set in systematic form the harmonic practices of the previous 100 years and codified theoretical concepts that remained basic to European harmony until about 1900. Rameau died in Paris, September 12, 1764.