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ClassicsOnline Home » RAMEAU: Harpsichord Suites / Nouvelles suites
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 - 1764)
Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin
Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin
Named by his friend Voltaire 'le premier musicien de France',
Jean-Philippe Rameau remains possibly the most elusive of all the pantheon of Europe's
"first musicians". Born in Dijon, the son of a parish organist, Rameau set out
to follow in his father's footsteps as a church musician. As a young man he lived a rather
itinerant life as an organist in a restless succession of posts in several cities. Near
the age of forty Rameau settled in Paris, establishing himself as the leading French
musical theorist in 1722 with the publication of the Traité
Rameau is the musician of the Enlightenment par excellence. He
was well known as a theorist before any of his major successes as a composer. He enjoyed
the satisfaction of successfully applying his theories in practice in an age confident of
the usefulness of its speculative enquiries. In his latter years he expended much
intellectual energy arguing, consulting and collaborating with the luminaries among the
Encyclopédistes: Diderot, d'Alembert, Voltaire and Rousseau.
Janus-faced, Rameau the composer looks both backward and
forward over French musical history. He represents a consummation of the Baroque, like
J.S. Bach. Greatest of the composers of the Grand Siècle, he nevertheless looks forward
in certain stylistic and technical traits to the Classical language of later times. Even
the practice of the later 19th century is foreshadowed in Rameau's fondness for recherché
Rameau made his début as a composer
before the Parisian public with the publication of his suites of pieces for the
harpsichord. This small portion of his output kept alive his reputation during the 19th
century. With the revival of the harpsichord in the present century, Rameau's
compositions for the instrument were amongst the first to enjoy success on the original
instrument. In the 1880s Arnold Dolmetsch heard Louis Diémer play Rameau on a seventeenth
century Thibaut harpsichord, and the child Wanda Landowska heard his music played by a
pupil of Liszt's. Saint-Saëns published the keyboard music in 1895.
In the early years of the 18th century there were, broadly
speaking, two types of harpsichord composition in France: pieces derived from dances, and
genre pieces with an extra-musical appeal calling to mind some external object - event,
situation, thing, person. This was not a hard and fast division, many genre pieces are
cast in obvious dance rhythms, and dances may have evocative names. The older suite of
preludes and dance forms has been seen as more austere, more purely musical, the presence
of titles corresponding to a more intimate, less professional attitude to music.
The corpus of harpsichord compositions contains Rameau's first
known works as well as the products of his full maturity. The 1706 Premier Livre consists
of a single suite beginning with an old-fashioned, partly unmeasured prelude - one of the
last of this type to be printed. Then follow the standard dances - two allemandes,
courante, two sarabandes, gigue, with gavotte and menuet. There is only one genre piece,
the 'Vénitienne'. The latter has been connected with a comédie-ballet La Vénitienne, performed in Paris in 1705, which
features an air des barcarolles, (that is, gondoliers), which has analogies with Rameau's
The key of the 1706 suite is A minor, the second Sarabande and
Vénitienne taking the major. The opening prelude is specially interesting, in that the
unmeasured section is repeated, before the second, measured section in 12/8 time. The
Allemande and Courante foreshadow the powerful movements of the Nouvelles Suites. The Gigue ranges widely across the
range of more than four octaves required of a suitable instrument of this date. Rameau's
bold use of harmony, both for structural purposes and to lend colour, demonstrates the
composer's early mastery. There are dissonant false-relations in the Prelude and
diminished 7ths in the Allemande and Courante.
The third and last book for solo harpsichord is undated, but
was probably published in 1729 or 1730. It is more ambitious and less homogeneous than the
first two. The opening Allemande and Courante have a sweeping grandeur and there is a
similar majesty in the Sarbande. We know few exact dates of composition, though the
composer refers to Les Sauvages in a letter
of 1727 and L'Enharmonique was specially
composed for the collection.
The Allemande that opens the Nouvelles
Suites is one of the longest in the repertoire. Its length is achieved with a
series of sequences which interlock in an overall unit y. There is a more or less
consistent three-voiced polyphony, the texture assimilating the old lutenist broken style,
or style brisé, in the inner syncopations. It may be that Rameau's interest in these
dance forms of which we have here the most monumental and highly developed types may have
been prolonged by Handel's example. The Eight Great Handel Suites had been published in
1720, and there is a remarkable resemblance between the Air with five Doubles of Handel's Third Suite and the present Gavotte with six Doubles
in Rameau's collection. The Gavotte theme follows closely the structure of Handel's Air,
and the patterning of the first three variations is closely allied. But Rameau surpasses
Handel in virtuosity thereafter, with his batteries, where the same note is struck
alternately by the two hands or share brilliant arpeggio figures spanning four octaves.
As its title implies, Les
Trois Mains is an attempt to create an impression of three parts, whereas the
piece is written in two. Fanfarinette and Triomphante are both in the major, the latter
containing "some or the richest progressions in 18th century music"
(Girdlestone). These are heard in the second couplet, which sets out in F sharp minor. Its
title aptly describes the vigour and strength of a remarkable movement.
A second suite, in the key of G major/minor begins with Les Tricotets (The knitters). Like Les Sauvages, this is a rondeau in a rather rigid
four-square frame, its couplets of sixteen of twenty four bars. L'Indifférente and the two minuets are of binary
pattern, the second strain beginning like the first, but continuing on a different course.
The Minuets re-appeared in orchestral guise in Castor
et Pollux (1737).
Soon after the composer settled in Paris
in 1722 he was sought out by the Jesuit Louis-Bertrand Castel, a physicist,
mathematician and scientific journalist. Castel introduced Rameau to the birdsongs noted
in Kircher's 'Musurgia universalis' of 1650, among which are the hen and the nightingale. La Poule is composed of a number of short motifs
containing a clucking pattern in various forms. All counterpoint has gone, and the music
largely falls into theme and accompaniment. The piece is a drama, with alternations of
hope and despair, not a barnyard comedy.
Les Triolets (Triplets) is
measured in triple metre, but its quaver motion is to be played in gentle 'notes
inégales', or with subtle triplet rhythm. Les Sauvages
and L'Egyptienne bring a new dramatic
passion to Rameau's keyboard works. The former was inspired by a display at one of the
Paris Fair theatres by two Louisiana Indians. The great musicologist Andre Pirro spoke of
le lyrisme furieux of L'Egyptienne. Its massive effects belong to the new
concerto style. It characterizes the dancing of a gypsy girl.
Rameau devoted a long section of this collection's preface to
L'Enharmonique, pointing out the piquant effect of the enharmonic change spotlighted by a
pause in the second half.
Alan Cuckston was born near Leeds and read Music at King's
College. He successfully auditioned for the BBC as a keyboard soloist and joined the staff
of the Music Department at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of
For the past twenty years he has been a freelance player, with
some specialization in early keyboard instruments - harpsichord, organ and fortepiano. He
has given concerts in many parts of Europe and North America and has toured as
harpsichordist with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and as organist with Pro
Alan Cuckston has made recordings of an extensive repertoire of
music, ranging from the middle ages to the present day. Most recently he has released
harpsichord music by Handel, Rameau and Couperin on Naxos and the complete piano music of
Alan Rawsthorne on Swinsty Records.
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RAMEAU: Harpsichord Suites / Nouvelles suites