Of that generation of composers who were born in the decade between 1675 and 1685, there is a good argument to be made that Jean-Philippe Rameau had the greatest influence. Not Bach. Not Handel. Not Vivaldi. In fact, the term “baroque” was derived from a pejorative comment made about Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie: Jean-Baptiste Rousseau dismissed Rameau as a “distiller of baroque chords of which so many idiots are enamoured.” Other critics complained that Rameau’s “misshaped composition lacked coherent melody, was overly dissonant and changed key and metre too much.”
Rameau was savagely attacked during his lifetime by traditionalists who braced at his harmonic innovations. And yet Rameau held on to his exalted position as court composer, much to the dismay of the so-called “Lullyists” who championed the cause and aesthetics of his predecessor. Perhaps it is hard to hear today what caused passions to run so hot in Paris during the 1750s—but it is fair to say that Rameau’s opera subverted Lully’s conception of French opera completely—driving the entire composition through harmonic progression and changing overnight what French society deemed to have been unchangeable. To find a parallel to the storm of controversy created by Rameau’s Hippolyte, we need to look to 20th century Paris and the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. And that guy drank with The Rolling Stones.
So let’s listen to this revolutionary work. In the Act IV conclusion to his controversial Hippolyte, we see opera take on a bigger, grander sound—perhaps even more so than Handel ever composed. The discordant tones that so enraged the Lullyists back in the day are clearly discernable, even if their shock value has diminished over the centuries.
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Hippolyte et Aricie, Act IV conclusion:
For my money, Rameau’s best opera is Les Indes Galantes, which I doubt will ever be performed again given the subject matter. Rameau is often derided for lack of melody. This selection puts that debate to rest.
Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Indes Galantes, Tendre Amour:
Rameau is the first true modern opera composer, laying down the maxim that has guided the art form to this day: “I conceal art with art,” he said, signaling his intent to unite all of the arts (music, fine art, architecture, decorative arts, dance, poetry, etc.) in opera itself. Rameau was the originator; Wagner was its realization a century later.
Personal note: As some may know, my other passion lies in antitrust law and economic theory. It is therefore unsurprising that Rameau is a personal favorite of mine, not only because of his music, but because he came to so dominate the French opera scene that a petition was circulated in 1740 seeking a royal order to limit his output in any given year. Who doesn’t love output restraints in Baroque opera?