As we are wrapping up the Renaissance with Monteverdi breaking from the strict Palestrina mode of composition, I am editing future entries on Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose 1722 treatise, Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels, set forth the rules that would govern composition for the better part of the next 200 years. And, as it also turns out, I am simultaneously writing the first draft of the entries on Claude Debussy, who, perhaps more than anyone, systematically shattered Rameau’s harmonic constructs.
In listening to these three composers simultaneously, I chanced upon a recent album from the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson, which pairs the works of Rameau and Debussy. In his words:
I decided to play through the entire keyboard works fo Jean-Philippe Rameau. I found things I could not believe in terms of the quality and the scope of expression: I would say about 5 to 10 of the [compositions] are things keyboard aficionados will know, but so many of them are under-performed and equally wonderful, if not more wonderful, than the famous pieces. In so many ways, Rameau was ahead of his time. The way he wrote for the instrument and the way he could perceive music, he does things that we have to wait another 150 years to see re-occurring in music history.
And I found traces of Rameau in Debussy; there was a direct link.
Much like many contemporary bands, Debussy looked back and was influenced by Rameau, as Olafsson compelling demonstrates in his performance. In the NPR interview excerpted above, Olafsson relays that Debussy, once a music critic, reported on a concert of Rameau works, declaring: “He is one of us.” It is exactly this dialog, these Conversations across the centuries that inspire the ever evolving sonic landscape of music, that inspired this blog.
A Gertus History of Music will return after Labor Day. But until then, do download Olafsson’s remarkable album “Debussy-Rameau” for a preview of what’s to come.