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ClassicsOnline Home » RAMEAU: Castor et Pollux
Rameau revised his 1737 opera Castor et Pollux in 1754, at the height of the raging debate, the so-called Querelle des Bouffons, over the relative merits of French and Italian opera. Long regarded as Rameau’s crowning achievement, it won immediate popular success, not only striking a significant blow for French music over Italian music but for the supporters of Rameau who looked to him to take over Lully’s mantle as composer of the French national style. Whereas the operas of Lully had been limited to simple subjects based around romantic love, Rameau took French opera to a greater level of complexity both in subject matter and in musical style. With its wider emotional range and dissonant harmonies, Castor et Pollux is a tense drama of brotherly and romantic love that brings its own heroic rescue of Castor from the Underworld, as Pollux encounters the devils and monsters that try to bar his way.
By Stanley Sadie
By Richard Wigmore
The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
By Jan Smaczny
BBC Music Magazine
Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
In 1733, and with the immediate success of his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, Jean- Philippe Rameau, aged fifty, became an overnight success. In one turn he had challenged fifty years of French tradition that held the operas of Lully in the highest regard. Rameau’s music was daring and unorthodox, forcing the listener to sympathize with the hearts of the characters on stage – his was music to move the emotions, Lully’s to impress the senses.
Rameau’s aesthetic caused a sensation and divided the public into two camps – the Lullistes and the Rameauneurs, the latter perhaps a play on the word ramoneur (chimney sweep.) The debate waged on until another took over, the Querelle des Bouffons. Such debates and strong emotions over artistic issues seem foreign to our present century, where only politics or the latest sports result seem to move us to strong opinions. The near riots that resulted after the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring are perhaps the nearest comparison to which we can relate.
Rameau’s career before 1733, and before Hippolyte et Aricie, had been fairly modest, and certainly did not attest to the sudden genius shown in the theatre. He was born in Dijon in 1683, the seventh child of the organist Jean Rameau, and seems to have fared particularly badly in school. Yet as a young man, perhaps because of the ridicule of a woman, he applied himself to perfecting his speech and grammar. At the age of eighteen he travelled to Italy to study music, but stayed only four months, a fact that he was to regret in later life. On his return and for the next twenty-odd years he was employed as an organist, at Avignon (1702), Clermont (1702), Paris (1706), and Dijon (1709), where he took over his father’s old position as organist of Notre Dame, thence to Lyons (1713) and back to Clermont (1715). By the time he reached Paris in 1723, he had composed very little – some motets for the churches where he had been employed as well as some secular cantatas and the 1706 Pièces de clavecin.
During these years, however, Rameau had also been developing a new and systematic approach to music. His Traité de l’harmonie (1722) as well as a theoretical quarrel with the composer Montéclair established his reputation and opened up doors in Parisian artistic circles, in particular with Le Riche de la Pouplinière, one of the wealthiest men in France. La Pouplinière surrounded himself with a camerata of writers and musicians. Here Rameau met many with whom he was to collaborate, including the poet Pierre-Joseph Bernard, the librettist of Castor et Pollux. La Pouplinière also employed a private orchestra and put on prestigious house concerts. Rameau had the opportunity to experiment with his new musical style. These early experiments bore fruit with incidental music he wrote for at least three plays, the music for which, unfortunately, is now lost.
It is to his theories that we must look for an explanation of his new style. Rameau attempted in his (mostly acoustic-harmonic) theories to find an exact representation and correlation of the natural laws of acoustics to the emotions of music – to find a physiological hypothesis for the psychology of music. Experiments with the mathematical results of the vibrations of a length of string, had shown that the fundamental root note (the basic sounding tone of the string) produced second and third harmonics whose notes produced a major triad. From these he investigated the various combinations and inversions of chords that resulted. He had less success in formulating mathematical explanations for the minor triad, but this is less important than the general theories that arose. Seeing that the inversion of a chord could in itself have greater significance than the interval from the bass and feeling that counterpoint was due to the significant clashes of sound (natural intervals), Rameau began to conceive of music where the harmony was more important than the melody. In Lully’s generation, the harmony was just a consequence of the melody. Rameau’s emphasis on the harmony resulted in his rich orchestration and his manipulation of recitative to adhere to harmonic or humanist ideals, as opposed to the purely declamatory use by Lully.
Castor and Pollux
(first performed 1737, revised in 1754)
The subject matter, the love and friendship between two brothers, was controversial to the Lullists who were used to a more simple subject based around romantic love. For this, his second tragédie en musique, Rameau was, as ever, uncompromising in his style. The opera had 21 successful performances in 1737. Within the next seventeen years, Rameau staged eighteen further productions, more than one a year, including Dardanus, Platée, Zaïs, Pygmalion and Zorastre. By 1754 the Querelle des Bouffons was in full swing and supporters looked to Rameau, who had now taken over the mantle as composer of the French national style, to reassert the dramatic strengths of French opera over the Italians. Both composer and librettist proposed a revision and substantial rewriting of Castor et Pollux. Such was the success of this revival that the Bouffons were forced to leave Paris.
For the new version of 1754, the one here presented, the subject matter was altered somewhat. In 1737 Castor and Pollux were in love with the same woman, Télaïre (Telaira), and there was tension between romantic and brotherly love. For the revival, the original prologue, which had nothing to do with the plot, was dropped and instead a new act, Act I, was written in which Castor and Telaira are in love, but Telaira is betrothed to Pollux. On realising the object of his brother’s love Pollux gives her up to her brother. Lyncaeus, his rival, attacks and interrupts the wedding celebrations. A battle ensues in which Castor is killed.
In Act II, at Castor’s tomb, the Spartans mourn: ‘Que tout gémisse.’ This moving lament is one of the most famous pieces in the opera and was used at Rameau’s own funeral in 1764. Telaira also laments ‘Tristes apprêts’, perhaps the most famous piece in the opera and one of the most famous in all French baroque opera. Phébé (Phoebe), also in love with Castor, and who has the power to ‘conjure up hell’ tells Telaira that if she were to renounce her love for Castor then by her art she would force Hades to restore Castor. Pollux celebrates the death of Lyncaeus, and Pollux, the god of friendship, vows to restore Castor by appealing to his father, Jupiter.
Act III begins with an extraordinarily complex prologue, full of dissonant harmonies, that introduces an air where Pollux expresses his brotherly love. Central to the act is the meeting between Pollux and his father Jupiter. Jupiter tells him that he is unable to restore Castor unless Pollux takes his place in Hades. In order to dissuade him Jupiter calls on Hébé (Hebe), goddess of Eternal Youth and her followers, to show him the celestial pleasures he would be giving up. Pollux, however keeps his resolve.
In Act IV Phoebe summons spirits and magical forces at the gate of Hades. With the help of Mercury, Pollux manages to enter the underworld. In the second scene the action moves to the Elysian Fields, where Castor is heartbroken over his loss of Telaira. Happy spirits urge him to be as happy, as they are. The end of the act is based around the touching reunion of the brothers. Castor agrees to go back to Telaira for one day, but only to tell her that he cannot accept his brother’s offer to take his place in Hades.
In Act V the two lovers are reunited, only for Castor to tell Telaira that he must leave her for ever. Telaira rebukes the gods for their cruelty; Castor lingers too long and there is thunder and an earthquake. The Fates and the Gods relent at their plight. Jupiter appears and tells them that both brothers will receive immortality, and Telaira will be allowed to join them. The only victim is Phoebe, who kills herself: ‘love was her only crime.’
Notes on this performance
The performing edition used here is by the conductor. It is based on a copy of the 1754 version of the opera which is housed in the rare book room of the music department in the University of Toronto. There were additions and some revisions (the great Chaconne at the end of the opera was not included in the score, for example, and this has been restored). The recording took place following concerts in Toronto and care has been taken to try to project a feeling of the live action. The choir, for example, was placed with the women and men separated either side of the orchestra, as was the custom in eighteenth-century French opera. The score, in all its richness does not expressly mention the use of percussion, as was customary. This has been added by the conductor, with particular effect in the tonnerre, the thunder scene.
Castor and Pollux
 After the Overture the first act opens in the royal palace, where preparations are being made for a wedding.  Phoebe is with her confidante, Cleone. They discuss the coming marriage of Telaira with Pollux, although his brother Castor, whom Phoebe loves, is also in love with Telaira. She regrets the different gifts she and Telaira have received from the gods; she has the power to call up the spirits of Hades, while Telaira is admired by all for her beauty. Cleone tells her that the marriage of Pollux and Telaira will settle matters, but Phoebe fears that Pollux will give in to his brother’s tears and let him marry Telaira. Phoebe, however, has another plan, to encourage Lyncaeus to abduct Telaira. At the latter’s approach Phoebe and Cleone move away.  Alone, Telaira laments her situation.  She is joined by Castor, who bids her farewell; he has told his brother of his love for her, and now must go. They are joined by Pollux, who declares himself ready to give up his bride for his brother; their marriage will assure him of the presence of them both.
 The Spartans praise their king,  and dance in celebration of his victory over love.  Castor is delighted, and the dances continue,  a gavotte, and  a tambourin. A Spartan interrupts their joy, calling them to arms, as Phoebe, in jealousy, has led Lyncaeus to the palace, in an attempt to abduct Telaira. There are alarms and excursions, until a cry announces the death of Castor, to the distress of Telaira, and demands that Pollux avenge his brother’s death.
 The second act is set at the royal Spartan burial ground, where a mausoleum has been erected for Castor, whom the people mourn.  Telaira enters, in deep mourning, complaining to her father, the Sun, of her loss.  She is joined, to her anger, by Phoebe, who tells her that she can bring Castor back again, provided that Telaira gives up her love for him. Telaira agrees. Cries of triumph are heard, announcing the victory of Pollux.  He enters, with his men, athletes and soldiers, bearing trophies and the spoils of battle. He announces the death of Lyncaeus.  Alone with Pollux, Telaira tells him of Phoebe’s plan, but he tells her that he will appeal to his father, Jupiter. Telaira applauds his decision, which will bring back Castor and save her too from death. Pollux commands a celebration.  The tombs disappear and the scene is now a pleasant place where athletes dance.  All join in a dance of celebration.
 The third act opens in the vestibule of the Temple of Jupiter, where Pollux is offering a sacrifice, calling on divine friendship. The Temple doors open and the High Priest of Jupiter leads his fellow-priests out, telling the assembled people to tremble before the mighty god, who will appear.  Jupiter appears, enthroned, in full glory, and Pollux regrets his own immortality, if Castor is to die. Jupiter points out that Hades has its own laws that he cannot break. Pollux declares that he will brave Pluto and chain up Cerberus to see his brother again. Jupiter tells him that if he does go down to Hades and set his brother free, then he must take his place there. Pollux agrees to this, but Jupiter calls on the Celestial Pleasures to show Pollux what he will lose.
 Hebe leads in the Celestial Pleasures, with their garlands. They dance around Pollux.  He, however, sees happiness where one loves and is loved.  The Pleasures dance a sarabande and one of Hebe’s followers sings of the delights of their life.  Pollux would be delighted in this, where he not so troubled by his grief for his brother.  Their dance resumes, but Pollux is resolved.
 The fourth act is set at the entrance to the Underworld, guarded by monsters, spectres and demons, with flames spewing forth from the cavern. Phoebe enters, calling on the spirits to bring back a shade from the dead. The scene is interrupted by the appearance of Mercury and Pollux.  Mercury tells Phoebe that her efforts are in vain and Pollux alone can succeed. Pollux declares his intention of descending to Hades to retrieve his brother, and with Mercury prepares to enter the cavern. They are met by the monsters that seek to guard the entrance.  Phoebe and Cleone try to restrain the demons, who do their utmost to terrify Pollux, joined in their dance by the Furies, armed with flaming torches and serpents. Pollux struggles with them and Mercury quells the demons with his caduceus. They enter the cavern.  Phoebe now hopes that Castor’s return will be prevented, if he is to come back to Telaira.
 The scene changes to the Elysian Fields. The river Lethe is seen, and, in the distance, the Blessed Spirits. Castor, while enchanted by the place, still longs for Telaira.  The Blessed Spirits approach, dancing,  and one of them welcomes Castor,  before their dance is resumed.  Pollux appears and the two brothers greet each other. He tells Castor that they will not be together, since he must take his brother’s place in the Underworld; Castor must agree, otherwise Telaira too will die. Castor agrees, but swears to return, and Mercury takes him away in a cloud, while Pollux withdraws, with the Blessed Spirits.
 The fifth act opens in a pleasant scene in Sparta. Telaira welcomes Castor, but he tells her they must part, since he must return to Hades, to her distress.  They are joined by the people, welcoming Castor home, but he sends them away.  He tells Telaira that he must die in order to release his brother, who loves her. She hopes the gods will have pity.  Thunder is heard. Castor thinks he has delayed too long, and Telaira faints in terror.  Jupiter descends on his eagle, annulling Castor’s oath and granting him immortality. They are joined by Pollux, who tells them that Phoebe alone has fallen victim to Hades, condemned for her love.  The heavens open and reveal a part of the zodiac. The Sun in his chariot starts his course and the place allotted to the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, is seen. The spirits that preside over the constellations appear and in the background is the Palace of Olympus. Jupiter praises the loyalty of the brothers and their love.  To a chaconne the various spirits take their places, with Castor and Pollux now in their positions in the zodiac.  Castor is joined by all in praising the sweet bondage of love.