Jean-Philippe Rameau was a French composer and music theorist at the end of the Baroque period and the beginning of the Classical. As the first theorist of classical harmony, he is, in many ways, emblematic of this period. He mainly produced operatic works and wrote for the harpsichord.
The son of an organist, Rameau studied at the Jesuit College in Godrans but did not excel there, and decided to instead devote himself to music. At 18, he went to Italy to round off his musical education. He was then appointed as an organist in Avignon, and later in Clermont-Ferrand, he soon composed his first cantatas.
In 1706 Rameau arrived in Paris, he acted as an organist for the Jesuits and studied organ with Louis Marchand (a rival of François Couperin), he also began to publish pieces for the harpsichord.
He left Paris to take on a position as an organist and composed motets (sacred music) and secular cantatas, before returning to Paris in 1722. That year he published his major theoretical work Treatise on Harmony. He presented music in an innovative, scientific way arguing that music is governed by harmony.
Rameau’s operatic career only began in 1733 when he was 50 years old. He wrote Hippolyte and Aricia, Les Indes galantes and Castor and Pollux. In 1745, he worked on The Princess of Navarre, along with four other operatic works and became the official court musician, composer to the King’s Cabinet. Rameau continued to compose until his death.
Six landmark dates in the life of Jean-Philippe Rameau
1706: Rameau studies in Paris with Louis Marchand, Organist of the Chapelle des Cordeliers.
1709: Rameau succeeds his father to become Organist at Notre-Dame in Dijon.
1722: Treatise on Harmony Rameau’s influential music theory text is published.
1731: Rameau directs the private orchestra of his patron Alexandre Le Riche de la Pouplinière.
1745: Rameau reappears on the operatic stage with the production of five new operatic works in one year, including The Princess of Navarre
1752: The beginning of the War of the Comic Actors, which pitted Rameau, defender of French music, against Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who extolled Italian Opera.
Six Key Works by Jean-Philippe Rameau
1706: Rameau’s first book of harpsichord pieces is published, followed by two others in 1724 and 1728.
1733: Hippolyte and Aricia, a tragedy in 5 acts, based on the libretto of Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, produced at the Royal Academy of Music.
1735: Les Indes Galantes, an opera ballet consisting of a prologue and 4 entrée de ballet, using the libretto of Louis Fuzelier.
1737: Castor and Pollux, a tragic opera consisting of a prologue and 5 acts using the libretto of Gentil-Bernard, produced at the Royal Academy of Music.
1741: Pieces for harpsichord played in concert - 5 concerts with several pieces for harpsichord accompanied by violin and viol.
1745: Plataea a comic opera consisting of a prologue and 3 acts, libretto by Jacques Autreau adapting Pausanias, produced in Versailles for the marriage of Louis XV’s son.