Rameau’s Harmony

Rameau’s importance to the development of opera notwithstanding, his claim to fame lies in his music theory. Rameau’s harmonic innovations, and especially his development of a fundamental bass, form the basis of modern theories of tonality. Rameau’s 1722 Treatise on Harmony (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traité_de_l%27harmonie_réduite_à_ses_principes_naturels) more or less governed musical composition until Debussy more or less threw it out the window over 150 years later.

The Treatise is divided into four parts: Book 1 (the relationship between harmonic ratios and proportions); Book 2 (the nature and properties of chords); Book 3 (Principles of composition); Book 4 (Principles of Accompaniment). Rameau’s revolutionary text proposed a comprehensive system that covered all aspects of composition: Rameau describes how keys or tonalities are developed and why certain harmonic progressions work, while others do not. His basic terminology for describing fundamental principles of music—chord inversion, tonic, dominant—are still used today. Here is a great article that describes the math and science behind Rameau’s Treatise in greater detail: https://www.reddit.com/r/classicalmusic/comments/31v6nz/til_jeanphilippe_rameaus_treatise_on_harmony_1722/

In his Treatise, Rameau sought to establish, much as Pythagoras had done at the dawn of Western music, that the rules of harmony were derived from nature.  Using mathematical proofs, Rameau presents an analysis of overtones by pitch, finding that the natural harmony of any individual note is a major triad: the octave; the fifth; and the third.  Rameau subsequently broke down these triads into smaller intervals, major and minor thirds.  A chord is either major or minor, diminished or augmented.  In Rameau’s view, the quality of a chord is determined by the relationship of the thirds that are used to construct it.  Those rock songs that are based on three chords?  That’s Rameau all over again.

And yet that’s arguably not even Rameau’s greatest contribution to the development of Western Music. That would be his groundbreaking argument that the figured bass is the prime generator of harmony and harmonic progression, an innovation that pushed music forward in a way not seen since Monteverdi’s Seconda Practica. Rameau’s view, that harmony is produced through functional chord progression grounded by the bass line, endured; the German School’s emphasis on harmony through counterpoint did not. Rameau’s harmony is the foundational rock upon which Western music was ultimately built. For those seeking a more in-depth analysis of Rameau’s music theory, this is a great starting point: https://symposium.music.org/index.php/24/item/1970-composition-before-rameau-harmony-figured-bass-and-style-in-the-baroque.

We close with three instrumental works: one of Rameau’s “concerts”, best described as a harpsichord concerto, followed by one of the more recognizable of his works for harpsichord (the pieces de clavecin are often cited as one of the high points of Baroque composition), before ending with his Le Dauphine for solo harpsichord. 

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Six concerts transcrits en sextuor, I. Premier concert, Le Coulicam:

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Pieces de clavecin, Suite in E Minor, No. 8, Tambourin:

Jean-Philippe Rameau: Le Dauphine: (with some bonus material for Gert.  Le Dauphine is the first piece).

Why so much harpsichord? Partially because Gert requested it. But also because of the wonderful quote about Rameau, who loved the harpsichord above all others: “His heart and soul were in his harpsichord; once he had shut its lid, there was no one home.”

Rameau’s controversial compositions notwithstanding, he died in great popular esteem—200 musicians performed at his funeral to a crowd of over 1000.  At the close of his funeral, the harpsichord lid was shut and the great man laid to rest.

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