Jean-Philippe Rameau, French Composer

Monsieur Rameau painted by Carmontelle in 1760
Monsieur Rameau painted by Carmontelle in 1760

In 17th and 18th Century France, there were an extraordinary number of men and women artists that emerged, making a name for themselves. They were poets, fabulists, painters, playwrights, actors, composers and writers. Some of the writers became the foundation for the L’Académie Française, which was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister to King Louis XIII. The Académie is the most distinguished learned body on matters pertaining to the French language. The Freelance History Writer would like to take a look at some of these remarkable artists.

Jean-Philippe Rameau was a French musician, composer and writer born on September 25, 1683 in Dijon. Details of his early life are scarce as he did not discuss this time of his life, not even with his wife. We do know his father was an organist and his mother was the daughter of a notary. He was the seventh of eleven children and learned music before he was taught to read and write. He was educated at a Jesuit college and was destined for a career in law. But he decided early he wanted to be a musician and his father sent him to Milan. He returned to live in Paris between 1706 and 1709. During this time he wrote his first book of harpsichord pieces. He moved back to Dijon and worked there, as well as in Lyons and Clermont as a musician until he moved back to Paris in 1722.

It was during this time Rameau wrote his most famous “Treatise on Harmony” along with other works on music theory and more harpsichord pieces. He was beginning to establish his reputation and was asked to collaborate on stage music. Despite his growing reputation he was unable to obtain an organist position in Paris so he took on pupils. One of his students was 19 year old Marie-Louise Mangeot, a talented singer and instrumentalist. Rameau married her in February of 1726. They were to have four children and a happy marriage.

Title page of Rameau's "Treatise on Harmony"
Title page of Rameau’s “Treatise on Harmony”

Rameau was beginning to compose operas. His first opera, “Hippolyte et Aricie” premiered in 1733 when he was fifty years old. The opera world was in an uproar. There was no denying Rameau was talented. The opera was original, full of invention and harmonic innovations. Some felt it was disrespectful to the traditional Italian opera musical style of Jean-Baptiste Lully. There were two camps, the Lullyistes and the Rameauneurs who engaged in a rivalry in pamphlets for the rest of the decade.

Rameau found a job as conductor of the private, high quality orchestra for a rich financier in 1731 and held this post of twenty-two years. Rameau met many leading cultural figures of the day, including Voltaire. During this time he also began composing a light genre of music for the opera-ballet including “Les Indes galantes” and “Les fêtes d’Hébé”. He also wrote two tragedies, “Castor et Pollux” and “Dardanus”. These are his most famous works. After “Dardanus” debuted in 1739, Rameau’s creative life came to a halt for six years. The reasons for this are unknown.

In 1745, Rameau was commissioned to write music from the royal court to celebrate the French victory at the Battle of Fontenoy and the marriage of the Dauphin. He composed a comic opera and collaborated with Voltaire on two ballets. He was then granted the title of “Composer of the Music of the Chamber of the King” and given a pension. In 1753, he had a falling out with his financier patron but by this time he no longer was dependent on the financial support. He was at the height of his career.

Rameau’s productivity as a composer began to diminish in the mid 1750’s, probably due to ill health and old age. He did write a few operas and continued to write about music theory. Music was definitely his consuming passion. He lived in the Rue des Bons-Enfants in a large suite of rooms with his wife and two of his children. Rameau died on September 12, 1764, succumbing to a fever. Over fifteen hundred people attended his memorial service in Paris with one hundred and eighty musicians performing pieces from his operas. Other memorial services were held in Paris and in the provinces. Rameau was buried in the church of St. Eustache in Paris.

Pianist Stephen Hough plays three short pieces by Rameau

4 thoughts on “Jean-Philippe Rameau, French Composer

  1. This is incredible, fifteen hundred people was at his funeral, he was very talented!!!! Thank you for this great information !!!!!


  2. Absolutely lovely! Someone who was talented, respected, and actually lived his life as he wanted. To leave a rich heritage is truly remarkable.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.