Jean-Philippe Rameau was born in Dijon in 1683, a close contemporary of Bach, Handel and Telemann, but unlike them he had a strangely unbalanced career. During the first half of his working life he was famous for his keyboard music and publications on musical theory. Then, at the age of fifty, he launched himself into the world of opera � �the age when the ordinary mortal begins to decay� said one of his early biographers � and over the next thirty years he went on to write nearly thirty theatrical entertainments. By 1749 his works so dominated the Paris Op�ra that a ruling was made that the company could stage only two of his operas a year �for fear of discouraging other composers�.
The French public were fickle though, and a decade after Rameau�s death in 1764 his operas had virtually disappeared from the stage � �people had grown tired of worshipping at the same altar� admitted one of his followers. Despite the superlative quality of their music and an encouraging increase in the number of recent revivals, his operas have yet to re-enter the regular operatic repertory, but they have found a new lease of life on CD, and their ballet movements have become particularly popular. In Rameau�s time it was customary to collect together the best of the ballet movements into an orchestral suite, introduced by the opera�s overture, and perform them in concert. This disc offers three such suites.
Plat�e was first performed at the palace of Versailles in 1745 to celebrate the marriage of the Dauphin and the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa. Unusually for Rameau, it was comedy, with a plot which was both simple and instantly appealing. In order to cure the jealousy of his queen, the god Jupiter feigns love for Plat�e, but Plat�e, it turns out, is an ugly froglike nymph who inhabits a swamp and lives under the misapprehension that she is irresistible to men. Everyone has a laugh at her expense. This is crueller than at first appears because the joke was really on the unfortunate Maria Teresa who was apparently not a notable beauty herself.
Dance was the life-blood of the French court, and it permeated every sphere of musical life. French opera composers became expert at weaving ballet movements into the dramatic fabric of their works. In Plat�e the ballet episodes are frequent and essential to the overall dramatic design. The original dance steps for all Rameau�s ballets are lost, but the music itself is often so vivid that it suggests its own choreography. The Orage with its swirling, tempestuous string writing could be nothing else but a storm whipped up by the gods, and in the imaginary theatre of the mind you can easily visualise all the characters running for cover. The Air pour des fous gais et des fous tristes (Air for the happy and sad lunatics) is more sophisticated, and the published libretto tells us that the happy characters were dressed as babies and the sad ones clothed as Greek philosophers. Rameau�s music is exceptionally animated, with such abrupt changes of mood and scoring that it must have inspired dancing which bordered on the manic, a far cry from the traditional view of French courtly dances as graceful, refined and perfectly poised. He also takes a new broom to the Menuets, imbuing them with a wistful quality, rich in rustic drone-like harmonies, and with a ravishing, gilded melody in Menuet II. A final pair of Rigaudons restore an air of irrepressible good humour.
During the eighteenth century Pigmalion (1748) was one of Rameau�s most popular and frequently played works. At one performance Rameau was recognised and applauded at length by the audience; according to one eye-witness �he was transported, he wept for joy, and was enraptured by the public�s reception and swore to devote the rest of his life to them�. Pigmalion is not a fully fledged opera but a forty-minute sung-and-danced Acte de ballet. It is based on a myth from Ovid�s Metamorphoses in which the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with the statue he has created. The work opens with one of Rameau�s most brilliant overtures, where the repeated notes of the fast section evoke the sound of the sculptor�s hammer. One of the high points of Pigmalion is the scene where the statue comes to life and, in a charming ballet, learns how to dance. Rameau writes a delightful sequence of ten short dances headed Les diff�rents caract�res de la danse, which covers all the basics of French dance in one easy lesson, from the languorous opening Air to the final up-tempo Tambourin.
Dardanus was Rameau�s fifth opera, first performed in 1739 and later revived with a great deal of new music in 1744 and again in 1760. Each time he revised the score Rameau added yet more instrumental music. Indeed, one contemporary claimed that Dardanus was �so laden with music that for three whole hours the orchestral players do not even have time to sneeze�. The ballet music is especially colourful, not only in its rich and varied instrumentation but also in its quirky rhythmic, melodic and harmonic turns of phrase. The Marche pour les diff�rentes nations, the Menuet and Tambourins I & II are all from the second scene of the Prologue in which �mortals of all states and ages� pay homage to Cupid in dance, each of which is beautifully characterized � musically and metrically. Tambourin III must rank as one of the most memorable tunes in the opera with its manic, twittering parts for piccolos. At the opposite end of the scale comes the Sommeil de Dardanus, a yawning sleep scene, beloved of French opera, which is slow, delicate and full of hushed strings. Finally, a colourfully orchestrated Chaconne with which Rameau brought the opera to a magnificent conclusion.
At the end of this suite we are left in no doubt of Rameau�s place as one of the most original dance composers of the last three hundred years. Indeed, in his own time the famous ballet-master Gardel claimed that �Rameau perceived what the dancers themselves were unaware of; we thus rightly regard him as our first master�.
ReviewsPerhaps the greatest compliment one can pay to any orchestra in this repertoire is that one simply forgets who they are in admiration for this composer's infinite imagination in the fields of melody and above all orchestral colour and I was well into this blissful state before the end of the first suite - David Hansel, Early Music America