Rameau was renowned in his day as a keyboard virtuoso and his compositions for harpsichord are among the most colourful in the repertoire, even if attaining only rarely to the emotional refinement and poetry that we find in the Ordres of François Couperin. 25 years the junior of Couperin, Rameau belonged to a generation that was beginning to emancipate itself from the musical lingua franca of the ‘baroque’.
Harmonies that had appeared in the works of Bach and Couperin as by-products of scholarly counterpoint were beginning to be seen in another way, as chords – musical objects which have an intrinsic significance and potential, and which can capture voices, so to speak, from the air around them. Although Rameau is known and admired today as a composer of opera, his operatic career began late in his life, when he had already begun to think in a wholly new way about the nature of tonal harmony. His Treatise on Harmony, published in 1722, eleven years before his operatic debut, aged 50, with Hyppolite et Aricie, was read with enthusiasm and a measure of astonishment by his contemporaries, precisely because it wrote of chords and their uses, and derived from the theory of counterpoint only the notion that the bass must move through melodic intervals, so as to support the structure built on top of it. It is noteworthy in this conection that Rameau’s keyboard music often includes extended sequences of broken chords, exploring every aspect of a single harmony before moving on.
The Treatise on Harmony is not an easy read. Rameau had to invent a new vocabulary, and to adapt the old language of figured bass in order to express thoughts which musicologists today would express in another way, knowing the chords by name, so to speak, rather than by their role in a musical language that is no longer spoken. Exactly how we should express Rameau’s theories is a matter of controversy. But here are some of the main points that he brings to our attention, at least as I read him:
(1) All perfect consonances are composed of two intervals: a minor third and a major third, enclosed within a fifth. If the minor third is below, the result is what we would call a minor triad; if above, the result is a major triad. The major triad is composed of the 4th, 5th and 6th partials of a note sounded two octaves below. That note is the fundamental of the triad, and also the tonic of the key, and the ‘root’ of the chord.
(2) All other chords with a clear grammatical role are likewise built from thirds, but all are, in some measure, dissonant.
(3) Understanding harmony is largely a matter of understanding the role of these dissonant chords, which have a permanent character and recognisable function. Rameau singles out for special attention the seventh, ninth and eleventh chords, and the diminished seventh. One particular seventh chord – the six-five chord on the subdominant – has a special significance for Rameau, and he often uses it to prepare cadences in his operas. In the minor key with major sixth this chord is isomorphic with the famous Tristan chord of Wagner. It is a quintessentially dramatic chord, and that is how Rameau uses it.
(4) Many dissonant chords have an actual or implied root – the note which, sounded in the bass, anchors them and determines the ways in which they might resolve into consonant harmonies. As far as I can see Rameau does not define the nature or role of the ‘root’ of a chord. But he writes as though dissonant chords are nevertheless rooted in the bass in something like the way that the triads are rooted. This is clearly true of the dominant seventh, and of other seventh chords built in the same way, by adding more thirds to a triad. In most of these cases there is a note which, when sounded in the bass, produces maximum stability and also moves melodically to the root of another chord that resolves the dissonance. Some dissonances, however, are rootless, like the diminished seventh and the augmented triad, or ambiguous, like the six-five chord that can rest on either of two roots.
(5) All harmonic movement involves tracing the relations among roots, while making a path towards a cadence. Cadences are of various kinds, perfect and imperfect, complete and interrupted etc.
Tonal music moved on in the aftermath of Beethoven. Diatonic chords with ‘altered’ notes occur frequently in Wagner, while Skryabin built highly coloured dissonances from accumulated fourths, rather than thirds. Nevertheless, it can plausibly be said that Rameau described the topology of tonal space, as it was to be explored during the century that followed. Although it would be wrong to suggest that he anticipated what Schoenberg called the ‘emancipation of the dissonance’, there is no doubt that his treatment of dissonance was revolutionary at the time. He regarded dissonance as a property of individual chords, rather than as a by-product of counterpoint (as in suspension). Chords, for Rameau, add their spice to whole bars, in which they might be held constant through changes in the melodic line. And in his operas it is clear that the rules of counterpoint have far less significance than the grammatical relations among the harmonies. Rameau is happy to allow the occasional parallel fifths and octaves in the voices, and his chord-based harmony has a drive and conviction that enable him to by-pass contrapuntal subtleties and get straight to the point. Look at the ‘Air en Rondeau‘, no. 28 in the score of Hippolyte et Aricie. The seond chord here is a pure augmented fourth on C and F-sharp, with the F-sharp doubled in the bass, leading to a third-built dissonance on G which could be described either as an augmented triad on G with added major seventh, or equally as a B major triad over a dissonant G in the bass. You might say that the chord is a kind of appogiatura resolving on to the E-minor chord that follows, except that the E minor chord does not follow – there is a unison B that separates the dissonance from its resolution, emphasizing free-standing character of the stacked-up thirds. Incidentally, lower down the same page, at measure 381, you find one of Rameau’s unselfconscious parallel fifths.
Equally important is the free recitative, with its melismatic vocal line over a figured bass, which was a major step towards the music drama as we know it. Hippolyte et Aricie shocked many in the audience at its first performance, and one, subsequently famous, number, the second trio for the fates, was cut because the players found it too hard to perform. This trio shows the impact of Rameau’s chordal thinking at its most radical, with a rhythmical accompanying figure jumping about over two octaves, and remaining for whole measures on one chord – often a diminished seventh or a six-five chord, and at one point descending chromatically through the minor keys from F sharp minor to D minor, coming then to a dramatic pause on a diminished seventh. This extraordinary passage, anticipating the Mozart of Don Giovanni, illustrates the way in which Rameau’s harmonic language permits maximum freedom of effect. In addition to such daring gestures, the opera is without spoken dialogue, and is musically continuous, recitative, aria, ensemble, chorus and dance episodes all being woven together to form a continuous musical fabric. This endows Hipppolyte et Aricie with a unity that is as much musical as dramatic. The plot – downstream from Racine’s Phèdre – involves the chorus directly in the action, and the dances, when they occur, are not diversions but essential to the narrative. This became a rule in Rameau’s operas: the people dance on the stage not as a distraction from the drama but as a fundamental part of it. The dance is not a comment on the story but contained in it. Anacreon is a prime illustration of this, and is indeed a leading example of an art-form that Rameau made his own – the opera-ballet, or (as he described this particular instance) the ballet héroique. His librettist, Louis de Cahusac, had written a book on the dance, comparing ancient and modern practice, and clearly intended his text to be as much danced as sung.
Rameau’s place in the history of opera is now assured. The criticism of his contemporaries, many of whom preferred the conventions of Lully, in which spoken dialogue, set dances, commenting choruses, and other irrelevances interrupted the dramatic flow, no longer has weight for us. On the contrary, Rameau attempted a synthesis of music and drama that was a model for future composers, and which we now regard as laying out the true path for the opera, the path followed not only by Mozart but also in their different ways by Verdi and Wagner. Rameau was helped to move in this direction by his harmonic discoveries, which enabled him to free himself from the demands of counterpoint and to allow colour and effect to bear the weight of the drama. His music was capable of generating the action by its own impetus, gathering the chorus, the ballet and the principal characters into a single musical movement.
The controversy with the Lullians was not the only one in which Rameau was involved. Far more important historically was the so-called querelle des bouffons, a public controversy over the nature of opera which was connected to other and wider debates surrounding the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert. It is worth revisiting this episode, since it illustrates some of the strengths and also the weaknesses of Rameau as a musician. The querelle was between two factions who were competing for space in the theatres of Paris. On the one hand there were those who favoured the French tradition, exemplified by Lully and Rameau, of the tragédie en musique. On the other hand there were those who championed the Italian opera buffa which was beginning to gain followers in France. The dispute over opera buffa continued another and long-lasting conflict between the Italian opera seria, brought to its apogee by Handel, and the operatic styles of the French court. The opera seria arose out of baroque counterpoint, and hinged upon the aria as the principal means of musical expression. The action would be taken forward by recitatives and, when the situation of a character was clear enough to permit it, he or she would step forward with a long aria, usually in ABA form, expounding his or her sentiments at a length which, while often musically enthralling, was frequently dramatically absurd – not least on account of the da capo section, which made every emotion look like a form of paranoia. Rameau, by contrast, made use of arias and ensembles to move the action forward, rather than to comment upon it. (This is particularly true of his use of the chorus.)
The tragédie en musique grew out of French classical theatre, which was in its turn profoundly influenced by Greek tragedy, as this was understood by the academicians of 17th-century France. From the beginning it was tied to the search for artistic unity and formal integrity, and eschewed the subordination of the plot to moments of autobiographical excess, such as occurred in the extended arias of Opera Seria. The querelle des bouffons added a new twist to the conflict between Italy and France. The new comic plots, of which Pergolesi’s La serva padrona was the most striking, gave prominent parts to the common people, looked with an undeceived eye on class conflict and the puffed up manners of the aristocracy, and appealed to sentiments that might at any time run riot in political form. The French opera deployed old statuesque dramas involving gods, miracles and heroic passions. It was an art form founded in the conventions and solidities of the French court, and one that spoke of the permanence of kings and of the hierarchies maintained by them. Furthermore, the Italian opera buffa was less concerned with dancing and formalised display than with the forward movement of individual feeling, and therefore placed great emphasis on melody. It presented an altogether different image of human life and its goal from that obtainable from the formalised dances of Rameau. The quarrel took on a more radical form with Rousseau, who entered on the side of the Italians, criticising the French for sacrificing melodic invention to harmonic complexity. In his Lettre sur la musique française of 1753 Rousseau went yet further, arguing that there is no such thing as French music, that the very nature of the French language poisoned the sources of melody and encouraged an artifical art, obedient to the rules of harmony alone.
It so happened that Diderot had commissioned Rousseau to write the articles on music for the Encyclopédie, and Rameau had complained about these articles, and about the apparent ignorance of their author. This led Rousseau to single out Rameau for special denunciation, even while drawing on Rameau’s Treatise when later composing his own Dictionnaire de musique (1768). All that we now admire in Rameau – the dramatic clarity, the clear enunciation of the text, the power of orchestral effects and the integral musical argument – was denounced by Rousseau as the opposite of music. And to prove his point Rousseau composed a short opera, Le Devin du village, 1752, in the Italian style. This, notwithstanding its plodding harmonies and four-sqare vocal line, had an extraordinary success at the opera house. Rousseau also presented a new scheme for musical notation, jettisoning the graphic representaiton of musical movement and identifying notes and quantities numerically. (The fact that the old notation makes the presentation of harmony and simultaneous voices so clear and immediate was part of what motivated Rousseau to attack it.)
There is something admirable in Rousseau’s reckless confrontation with the musical tradition, and also in his ability to crown his philosophical objections with musical works. Yet closer examination reveals that his contribution to the debate is not merely negative, but also wedded to negation – determined to find corruption in the surrounding musical culture precisely because it is an established practice, and a reservoir of social knowledge. Our notational system developed side by side with harmony and counterpoint. No single person could ever have discovered the knowledge of the human ear and the human heart that these practices contain, any more than a single person could discover language. When Rameau came to write his Treatise on Harmony he was not inventing rules, or recording the conventions of a game. He was attempting to summarize a body of implicit knowledge, which is in all our heads as listeners and performers, but which has no first principles, no definitions, no a priori system. What Rameau did in his treatise was to render a tradition of implicit knowledge as an a posteriori catalogue of explicit principles. His treatise was a moment in the ‘coming to consciousness’ of music, in which the chord was finally understood as an independent musical object, rich in implications that could be spelled out both musically and dramatically.
Rousseau’s system of notation is useless for any musician who has to sight-read multiple parts, and it gives no lucid account of harmonic sequence or voice-leading. It is a match for the old notation only when representing unison melodies. This objection was made by Rameau, and in Book 7 of the Confessions Rousseau concedes the point. In the event, however, Rousseau was deterred neither by Rameau’s arguments nor by his own recognition of their force. Instead he turned against Rameau and all that the composer stood for. He began to attack harmony and counterpoint as marks of corruption, and to praise unison melody as the pure voice of nature.
Rousseau’s attacks were followed up by Diderot’s extraordinary satire, Le neveu de Rameau, in which the querelle des bouffons is linked to the wider concerns of the Enlightenment, and in particular to the attempted return to natural sentiment and intellectual clarity which, for Diderot, represented the true emancipation of mankind. Diderot’s satire was published only in 1805, in Goethe’s German translation, and had no direct influence on events. But it is indicative of the extent to which Rameau had become, during the second half of the 18th century, representative of an old art-form that was being marginalised by fashion, and even condemned outright by the intellectual firebrands of the day. This is not to say that Rameau suffered any loss of status during his lifetime. By the time of his death he had been appointed composer to the King, and ennobled as a knight of the Ordre de Saint Michel. Following his death, however, he fell quickly out of fashion, with the Italian style, represented by Piccini and Gluck, dominating the Paris opera. Rameau’s ballets and operas were thereafter largely unperformed until the movement of revival which began in the 1890s, and which counted Debussy and Ravel among its followers.
What should we think of Rameau’s operatic oeuvre today? Although he is often praised for his harmonic daring, it should be said, looking back on it, that there are few harmonies in Rameau that could not be found – put, of course, to different use – in Couperin or Bach. What Rameau achieved was the emancipation of harmonic effects from counterpoint, so that they were free to perform a direct dramatic function. Furthermore he made full use of the orchestras at his disposal, and introduced some of the melodramatic gestures that were to be reworked for the concert hall by Stamitz and others of the Mannheim school. His contemporaries rightly admired his ballet music, and the dances in the operas are executed with an exquisite sense of choreography – you can hear the feet of the dancers in the music, which moves in sympathy to the drama in a way that has few subsequent parallels. And – once you accept the conventions of the French classical stage, in which gods that no-one believes in create situations that no-one could possibly escape, and in which nevertheless everything ends happily with nymphs and shepherds gracefully dancing without any awareness of the cold water that Diderot and Rousseau are about to pour on them – once you accept all that, you can appreciate Rameau as a composer who advanced the cause of music drama by several notches, at a time when it was threatened by dead conventions and the lop-sided arias of the Italian school.
Rameau had harmony, rhythm and drama. But what about melody? I think it is significant that few musical people retain in their heads a good Rameau tune. His music is melodious, yes; it is a pleasure to sing and the choruses carry you along in sympathy. But – when compared with Pergolesi, for instance, or with Handel who preceded him and Gluck who came after – we should surely say that Rameau rarely presented us with a heart-rending or even truly memorable tune. His operas work in another way, through a species of melismatic declamation, driven along by strong rhythms and the occasional tense harmony, and with very little lingering by the way, unless it be in the form of a dance.