Music in France had declined since Lully had outdone Molière in amusing the Great King. There was not here the same madness about music that made Italy forget its political subjection, nor that laborious devotion to compositional technique which was creating the massive Masses and prolonged Passions of Bach’s Germany. French music was in transition from classic form to baroque decoration to rococo grace, from complex counterpoint mutilating words to fluent melodies and tender themes congenial to French character. Popular composers still issued amorous, satirical, or melancholy songs deifying lasses, defying kings, deprecating virginity and delay. Patronage of music was spreading from kings requiring majesty to financiers apologizing for their fortunes with concerts, dramas, and poetry open to the influential few. Rousseau’s opera Les Muses galantes was produced in the home of the farmer general La Popelinière. Some rich men had orchestras of their own. Performances open to the public for an admission charge were regularly offered in Paris by the Concerts Spirituels, organized in 1725; and other cities followed suit. Opera was presented in the Palais-Royal, usually in late afternoon, concluding by 8:30 P.M.; then the audience, in evening dress, promenaded in the Tuileries Gardens, and singers and instrumentalists entertained them in the open air; this was one of many charming features of Paris life.
We perceive in reading Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau how many composers and executants were then the rage who are forgotten now. Only one French composer in this period left behind him works that still cling to life. Jean Philippe Rameau had every impulse to music. His father was organist in the Church of St.-Étienne at Dijon. Enthusiastic biographers assure us that Jean at seven could read at sight any music placed before him. At college he so absorbed himself in music that the Jesuit fathers expelled him; thereafter he hardly ever opened a book except of or on music. Soon he was so proficient on organ, harpsichord, and violin that Dijon had nothing more to teach him. When he strayed into love, his father, thinking this a waste of talent, sent him to Italy to study its secrets of melody (1701).
Back in France, Jean served as organist in Clermont-Ferrand, succeeded his father in Dijon (1709–14), returned to Clermont as organist of the cathedral (1716), and settled in Paris in 1721. There, in 1722, aged thirty-nine, he wrote the outstanding work of musical theory in eighteenth-century France—Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels. Rameau argued that in a proper musical composition there is always, whether scored or not, a “fundamental base” from which all chords above it can be derived; that all chords can be deduced from the harmonic series of partial tones; and that these chords may be inverted without losing their identity. Rameau wrote in a style intelligible only to the most obdurate musicians, but his ideas pleased the mathematician d’Alembert, who gave them a more lucid exposition in 1752. Today the laws of chordal association formulated by Rameau are accepted as the theoretical foundation of musical composition.34
Opposed by the critics, Rameau fought back with compositions and expositions until he was finally revered for having reduced music to law as Newton had reduced the stars.35 In 1726, aged forty-three, he married Marie Mangot, aged eighteen. In 1727 he put to music Voltaire’s lyric drama Samson, but its production was forbidden on the ground that Biblical stories should not be reduced to opera. Rameau had to butter his bread by serving as organist in the Church of St.-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie. He was fifty before he conquered the operatic stage.
In that year (1733) Abbé Pellegrin offered him a libretto, Hippolyte et Aricie, founded on Racine’s Phèdre, but he exacted from Rameau a bill for five hundred livres as security in case the opera should fail. When it was rehearsed the abbé was so delighted with the music that he tore up the bill at the end of the first act. The public performance at the Académie de Musique surprised the audience with bold departures from the modes that had become a sacred tradition since Lully. Critics protested Rameau’s novel rhythms, heretical modulations, and orchestral elaborations; even the orchestra resented the music. For a time Rameau thought of abandoning all attempts at opera, but his next effort, Les Indes galantes (1735), won the audience by its flow of melody, and hisCastor et Pollux(1737) was one of the great triumphs in French operatic history.
Success spoiled him. He boasted that he could turn any libretto into a good opera, and that he could set a newspaper to music.36 He produced a long succession of indifferent operas. When the managers of the Académie de Musique tired of him, he composed pieces for the harpsichord, violin, or flute. Louis XV—or Mme. de Pompadour—came to his aid by engaging him to write the music for Voltaire’s La Princesse de Navarre, which had a reassuring success at Versailles (1745). He was restored to favor at the Académie, and wrote more operas. As Paris became familiar with his style it forgot Lully, and acclaimed Rameau as the unrivaled monarch of the musical world.
Then in 1752 he found himself faced with a new challenge. Virtuosos and composers had come in from Italy, and a noisy war began between French and Italian music, which would culminate in the seventies with Piccini versus Gluck. An Italian troupe presented at the Paris Opéra, as an intermezzo, Pergolesi’s La serva padrona, one of the classics of comic opera. The friends of French music countered with pamphlets and Rameau. The court divided into two camps; Mme. de Pompadour supported French music, the Queen defended the Italian; Grimm attacked all French opera (1752), and Rousseau declared French music impossible. The final sentence of Rousseau’s Lettre sur la musique française (1753) was characteristic of his emotional unbalance:
I believe I have made it evident that there is neither measure nor melody in French music, because the language does not allow them; that French singing is only a continued barking and complaining, unbearable to any unprepossessed ear; that its harmony is rough [brute], without expression, and feeling only what it has learned from its teacher; that French arias are not arias, that French recitative is no recitative. Whence I concluded that the French have no music, and cannot have any, or that if ever they have any, it will be so much the worse for them.
The partisans of French music retaliated with twenty-five pamphlets, and burned Rousseau in effigy at the Opéra door.37 Rameau was unwillingly used as the pièce de résistance in this Guerre des Bouffons, or War of Buffoons. When it subsided, and he was pronounced victor, he acknowledged that French music had still much to learn from the Italian; and were he not so old, he said, he would go back to Italy to study the methods of Pergolesi and other Italian masters.
He was now at the height of his popularity, but he had many enemies, old and new. He added to them with a pamphlet exposing the errors in the articles on music in the Encyclopédie. Rousseau, who had written most of the articles, turned upon him with hatred; and Diderot, father of the Encyclopédie, abused the old composer with respectful discrimination in Le Neveu de Rameau, which Diderot had the grace not to publish:
The famous musician who delivered us from the plainsong of Lully that we had intoned for over a century, and who wrote so much visionary gibberish and apocalyptic truth about the theory of music—writings which neither he nor anyone else ever understood. We have from him a number of operas in which one finds harmony, snatches of song, disconnected ideas, clatter, flights, triumphal processions, spears, apotheoses, … and dance tunes that will last for all time.38
When, in 1760, aged seventy-seven, Rameau appeared in a box at the revival of his opera Dardanus, he received an ovation that almost rivaled that which would be given to Voltaire eighteen years later. The King gave him a patent of nobility, and Dijon, proud of its son, exempted him and his family from municipal taxes to the end of time. At the height of his glory he caught typhoid fever, wasted away quickly, and died, September 12, 1764. Paris accorded him a ceremonial interment in the Church of St.-Eustache, and many towns in France held services in his honor.