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The era of Baroque music from the mid 17thC to mid 18thC produced some of the world’s finest composers: Bach and Handel in Germany, Purcell in England, Albinoni, Scarlatti and Vivaldi in Italy. This is uplifting music: extravagant, ornate and intense.
In France it was a time of royal splendour. Louis XV continued the decadence and grandeur of Louis XIV, holding court at Versaille with his mistresses (15 on record), the most notable of whom was Madame de Pompadour, that magnanimous patron of the arts, particularly in interior design and, to a lesser extent, architecture. Gilded furniture, highly decorated with curlicues, lavish drapes and chandeliers were the vogue. Gavottes, minuets, loures and rigaudons filled the air.
During the reign of Louis XIV, music at the French court had been under the domination of an Italian composer, Lully, and it wasn’t until Rameau started in earnest to compose opera, that France began to find its place on world stage once more. Rameau and Couperin were the two most important composers of the Baroque era in France.
Jean-Philippe Rameau was born in Dijon in 1683. His father was an organist and it is said that he was taught music before he could read or write. Little is known of his early years, but it seems that his life began to blossom once he moved to Paris. His forte was the harpsichord and he composed some of the greatest works ever written.
He was 50 when he started to compose the operas for which he is still remembered. Under the patronage of Alexandre Le Riche de La Poupelinière, Rameau became the conductor of his sponsor’s private orchestra and socialized with some of the famous names of the day including the writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire. Developing the opera-ballet, his work Les Indes Galantes received wide acclaim followed by Les Fêtes d’Hébé. Castor et Pollux, and Dardanus were also composed during the years from 1737-1739.
His most important comic opera Platée, the opera-ballet Le Temple de la Gloire and the comedy-ballet La Princesse de Navarre, written in conjunction with Voltaire, established Rameau’s name and he was given the title ‘Compoiteur du Cabinet du Roi’ which set him up for the rest of his life with a good pension.
Aside from his compositions, Rameau was also highly thought of for his musical theory and his theories of harmony still form the basis of the modern study of tonal harmony today.
A few months before his death, he was also ennobled and made a knight of the Ordre de Saint-Michel. His memorial service in Paris was attended by 1500 people and one hundred and eighty musicians played excerpts from his operas.