Rameau was secretive about the first half of his life: it seems that he never imparted any detail of it to his friends or even to his wife. We know he was born in a family of musicians, that his father was his first teacher and that he worked as an organist in some churches, including the one in the Jesuit College where Voltaire was a pupil – a few years later he became the librettist of some of Rameau’s operas. Everything changed when he arrived in Paris in 1722 and published his Traité. Success and intensive public debates became part of his life. He was said to have been extremely unsociable, avaricious and tall ‘like a long organ pipe’. Those who knew him well said he was just an old eccentric man.
Born more than a century before the French Revolution, Rameau became one of the greatest figures in French musical history, recognised all over Europe as an eminent theorist, keyboardist and composer. His opera’s were attended by Queen Maria and even King Louis XV.
Rameau was already unknown when he arrived in Paris in 1722, but the publication of his Traité de l’Harmonie earned him a massive reputation not only in France but all throughout Europe –although conservative intellectuals were radically against his ‘revolutionary’ ideas, and they became the object of discussion for years in French newspapers.
Alongside his theoretical activity, he wrote mainly keyboard music and did not make his operatic début until he was 50, with Hippolyte et Aricie (1733). This was, once again, the origin of an intense debate: Jean-Baptiste Lully and the ‘encyclopaedists’ Vs. the complexity and Italianate character of Rameau’s music. Despite the controversy (or thanks to it) Rameau’s first five operas became quite popular and were often performed.
Our 2014-2015 season at London’s Southbank Centre opens on 9 October with two rare one-act operas by Rameau. More details here.