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EXPLORING MUSIC - Rameau: A College Dropout

The MHS Review 237 Vol. 3, No. 3 March 26, 1979

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by David M. Greene

You may think that it was not difficult for Rameau to become what he became. But he really became more than that: he is, in fact, one of the towering figures in the history of the lyric stage. It is comforting for some of us, however, to recall that Rameau was not born to such eminence. He was, in fact, a college dropout at sixteen, and, by forty, had amounted to little or nothing. Rameau was, in fact, fifty, when his first opera was staged.


(1683 -1764)

Les Musicholiers
Aviva Einhorn, Director

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Jean-Philippe Rameau is said to have been the greatest French opera composer between Jean-Baptiste Lully and Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck. Since Lully was Italian and Gluck was German, you may think that it was not difficult for Rameau to become what he became. But he really became more than that: he is, in fact, one of the towering figures in the history of the lyric stage. It is comforting for some of us, however, to recall that Rameau was not born to such eminence. He was, in fact, a college dropout at sixteen, and, by forty, had amounted to little or nothing. Rameau was, in fact, fifty, when his first opera was staged.

I think a few issues back I ventured the opinion that the great musico-cultural difference between the Italians and the French is that the former are singers and the latter are dancers. Despite the guy who keeps writing to chastise me for immodesty ill suiting my professional status, evidenced in the expression of what I think, I am still stuck with this notion, for history supports it. Opera is not native to France; ballet is. The vast spectacles of nineteenth-century Meyer­beerean grand-opero are, in many ways, directly traceable back to the ballets de cour of the late Renaissance. These were not the equivalent of Mikhail's entrechots and Gelsey's plies, and there was not a tutu to be seen. Rather they were excuses for the king and courtiers to play dressups (umpteen costume changes over a long evening), strutting around and generally making fools of themselves. When, in the middle of the next century, the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin, court eninence rouge, imported some Italian operas, the French were appalled at all that noise and rude emoting, and Lully hastened to fill in between the acts with decorous French dance-music. When Lully took over as France's official musical dictator, French opera, as he devised it, was at least as much dance as song. A generation later, a bastard form called opera-ballet, which was more dance than song, virtually took over.

Moments listening to French baroque instrumental dance music is a good choice for a high-level, mildly enlightening, time wasting activity, not unlike a decent episode of a favorite sitcom.

  • HOW TO HEAR: The Rameau recording reviewed here is currently available for streaming (no sign of a physical release unless you want the old MHS LP). Just click down below to here one of the few Les Musicholiers recordings.

The passion for baroque music from the writers of this era of Musical Heritage Society is to be commended - this 1978 review predates almost every other recording of Rameau suites we can find currently in print. So when we look at today's search on a streaming service, there are quite a few recordings of Rameau suites, but when this review was written, there might have been 2 or 3. where do we offer a few suggestions for some additional listening?

Most of the recordings are "historically informed" performances - any "big band" orchestral Rameau is almost certain to remain in its dusty chamber, as the light and lithe textures of HIP is much better suited than the enormity of a modern orchestral string section. So we'll be mainly hearing from the conductors and ensembles who staked out the French baroque as their specialties during the boom recording years of 1985-2000.

There's no exact duplicate of these works and frankly, it looks like the arrangements have fallen from favor (a bit). In fact, in the spectrum of recordings available the Arion Les Musicholiers, while deserving of a place as a pioneer, sounds a bit "big" versus some of the ensembles that came after.

  • Striking just about the perfect balance is Les Concerts des Nations, led by Jordi Savall. His tempos are sprightly but not breakneck and the orchestral textures are beautifully captured and sensitively realized by the maestro and his band.

  • From about five years after Les Musicholiers comes Philippe Herreweghe, and this does serve as a transitional recording, but looking much more to the future than the past.

  • Frans Bruggen delivers a smooth and charming recording, and the Orchestra of the 18th Century becomes Les Academy de la Sainte-Martin de la Fields, it seems. It's even a bit hard to know if this is an original instrument or a modern instrument performance. But that's quibbling - it's a very entertaining recording.

Rameau's master-stroke, perhaps, lay in restoring (or achieving) a balance. He was one of those very rare composers who understood that an opera is not mere music and not just a play, but a fusion of all the arts and crafts of the stage, to produce what Wagner termed a Gesamtkunstwerk (or, in the newer phrase, "total theater"). The tradition, however askew, provided him with what he needed: song, recitative, dance, orchestra, action, scenery, special effects-- the works. Given the neo-classical conventions (serious opera had to be about gods and heroes), he brought his immense musical learning and his instinctive genius to every aspect of his creations, and made them work as theater. Shortly after World War II, though he had long been little more than a name in the history books to most people, the Paris Opera dared produce Rameau's spectacular opera-ballet Les Indes galantes (roughly "The Indies a-Courting"), Incas, erupting volcanoes, and all, and found itself with a smash hit that had nothing to do with "camp."

Before that, however, French musicians, recognizing Rameau as a national treasure, had begun to mine his music and restore it to life as best they could, and Camille Saint-Saens was entrusted in 1895 with the editing of the complete works. But nothing was more amenable to being resurrected than the dance music. To this Rameau brought his "seemingly inexhaustible in­vention,'' mingling court dances, like the minuet and gavotte, with more plebeian types, such as the tambourin and rigaudon. The works from which they are drawn, in these suites, were written between Rameau's fifty-fourth (Castor et Pollux) and eightieth (Les Paladins) years. Of the arrangers, Dukas and d'lndy need no introduction. Francois Auguste Gevaert (1828-1908) was a Belgian, a successful opera composer, administrator, and teacher in Paris, who tirelessly mined the musical archives. Roger Desormiere (1898-1963) was one of the most brilliant conductors of his generation, whose career was tragically ended in 1950 by incapacitating illness. Georges Marty (1860-1908) also conducted and wrote operas; he was one of Massenet's best pupils. (The conductor of this record, Mme. Aviva Einhorn, is a former child prodigy, who is now winning applause all over Europe. I assume that Musicholiers is a telescoping of the words for music and






Les Paladins (edited by Roger Desormiere) First Suite: 1. Entree gaye, 2. Air pour les pagodes, _ 3. Gavotte gaye I, 4,. Menuet et contredanse

Les Indes Galantes(edited by Paul Dukas)

Second Suite: 5. No. 3 Rig􀅁udon 1 and 2, 6. No. 4 Tambourin 1 and 2; First Suite: 7. N·o. 2 Menuet 1 and 2; Second Suite: 8 .. No. 5 Gavotte and Rondeau; First Suite: 9. No. 3 Danse des sauvages;

Platee (edited by Georges Marty) First Suite: 10. No.1 Entree, 11. No. 2 Musette, 12. Nos. 3 and 4 Menuet 1 and 2, 13. No. 5- Air

Dardanus (edited by Vincent d'lndy) First Suite: 1. No. 2 Tambourin; Second Suite: 2. No. 2 Rondeau du sommiel First Suite: 3. No. 5 Rondeau gaye

Castor et Pollux (edited by Francois-August Gevaert) First Suite: 4. Overture 5. Gavotte, 6. Air gaye 7. Tambourin 8. Chaconne.

Les Musicholiers

Aviva Einhorn, Director

A virtual unknown until the age of 40, Jean-Philippe Rameau became recognized "overnight'' as a genius after the publication of his ''Traite de l 'harmonie."

At the age of 50, Rameau started a new career for himself when his first opera, Hippolyte et

Aricie, was performed. It aroused a storm of controversy.

Today Rameau is recognized to have brought to stage music brilliantly innovative works, embodying new principles of harmony and orchestration. This record covers 26 years of Rameau's stage music, from Les lndes Galantes, his second production at the Paris Opera to Les Paladins, composed when Rameau was 76 and was the last of his operas to be performed during his lifetime. Find out for yourself why his operas are still being performed to this very day.

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