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JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU. L’Orchestre de Louie XV
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Referència: AVSA9882

  • Jordi Savall
  • Le Concert des Nations

The preparation and realisation of this project were carried out in the context of our “First Professional, Research and Performance Using Period Instruments Academy.” Organised by CIMA (International Early Music Centre) Foundation and ESMUC, under my own direction, with the collaboration of Manfredo Kraemer and the soloists of Concert des Nations, the Academy’s objective was to foster the participation of young professional musicians from various countries in Europe and America. Our master classes on individual and ensemble playing, sound, articulation, ornamentation, improvisation, phrasing, dynamics and characteristics of dance and tempo in the performance of orchestral music at the time of Rameau informed and enhanced the rehearsals leading up to concerts in Barcelona, Eindhoven, Cologne, Rotterdam, Metz, Paris and Versailles. The present recording was made in the wonderful concert hall of the Arsenal in Metz, followed a few days later by the DVD recording of the concert given at the Théâtre Royal de Versailles.

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Description

“A good musician must abandon himself to all
the characters he sets out to depict…but
the music must speak to the soul.”
Jean-Philippe Rameau

The recording
This recording devoted to Jean-Philippe Rameau and the orchestra of Louis XV follows our previous releases that focussed on the orchestras of Louis XIII and Philidor, and Louis XIV and Lully. Although Rameau’s relationship to Louis XV and his role under the king cannot be compared to those enjoyed by Lully under Louis XIV, if the living memory of the orchestra of King Louis XV of France were to be linked to one musician above all others, that musician would undoubtedly be Jean-Philippe Rameau. Indeed, the extraordinary diversity, richness and inventiveness of the orchestral language, forms and instrumentation that are Rameau’s legacy, particularly in his overtures, symphonies, dances and other “airs à jouer” included in his more than 17 operas, ballets, tragedies and pastorales, justify his being regarded as the most important, innovative and brilliant French composer of his age, especially with regard to orchestral music and opera. Once we had overcome the initial quandary of choosing the pieces, our present selection of four “instrumental suites or symphonies” was taken from four of Rameau’s most important works for the stage: the ballet héroïque, Les Indes Galantes (1735), the pastorale héroïque, Naïs (1748) and the two lyric tragedies Zoroastre (1749) and his last production, Les Boréades (1764). Rameau intimately blends the orchestra with the vocal music to form his scenic ensembles, as well as incorporating all the dances that were so popular with the public during the first half of the 18th century. In the opéra-ballet, as in the pastorale and the lyric tragedy, dance performed a dual function: on the one hand, it could provide an “embellishment” to the scenography of the work, having no direct connection with the action; on the other hand, it could be a dramatic means of moving the action forward or highlighting important moments in the plot.

The preparation and realisation of this project were carried out in the context of our “First Professional, Research and Performance Using Period Instruments Academy.” Organised by CIMA (International Early Music Centre) Foundation and ESMUC, under my own direction, with the collaboration of Manfredo Kraemer and the soloists of Concert des Nations, the Academy’s objective was to foster the participation of young professional musicians from various countries in Europe and America. Our master classes on individual and ensemble playing, sound, articulation, ornamentation, improvisation, phrasing, dynamics and characteristics of dance and tempo in the performance of orchestral music at the time of Rameau informed and enhanced the rehearsals leading up to concerts in Barcelona, Eindhoven, Cologne, Rotterdam, Metz, Paris and Versailles. The present recording was made in the wonderful concert hall of the Arsenal in Metz, followed a few days later by the DVD recording of the concert given at the Théâtre Royal de Versailles.

Jean-Philippe Rameau
With very little information on the man and his life, our knowledge of Jean-Philippe Rameau is based primarily on his music and his writings. His contemporaries portray him as rather taciturn; in his Éloge de M. Rameau (Paris, 1764) Guy de Chabanon tells us that the composer often walked the avenues “alone, seeing and seeking out no other person.” Notwithstanding his rather solitary nature (no bad thing for his music), he was not always averse to the company and conversation of men of his own intellectual stature. Yet, the fact is that we know practically nothing about the first 30 years of his life, and nothing of much interest about the first half of his long career. Only a handful of details have come down to us concerning his civil status and the positions that he held. He was born in Dijon and was baptised in that city on 25th September, 1683. From earliest childhood, he received music lessons from his father, the organist at Saint Etienne de Dijon. In Eloge historique de M. Rameau (Dijon 1766), Hughes Maret observes: «…it was the first language that he understood and spoke. No sooner could he move his fingers than he was already running them over the keyboard of a spinet.» The child was sent to the Jesuit Collège des Godrans in Dijon: «He distinguished himself at the school because of his remarkable high spirits; but (…) he spent his time in lessons singing or writing music and (…) did not complete quatrième (middle school).» His parents’ hopes that he would study Law were dashed, and when he was eighteen they sent him to Italy. After a few months in Milan, he returned to France in 1701, where he joined the orchestra of a touring theatrical troupe as first violin. One year later, we find him as deputy organist at the church of Notre-Dame-des-Doms in Avignon, and he was subsequently employed for six years as organist at the cathedral of Clermont-Ferrand. However, he left Clermont-Ferrand before the end of his contract and in 1706 he took up an appointment as organist at the Jesuit College in Paris, where he was also organist to the Pères de la Merci (Mercedarians) in the Marais district. It was at this time that he published his first book of Pièces de Clavecin and also successfully applied for the post of organist at Sainte Madeleine de la Cité, although he was unable to accept the position because he could not persuade the church authorities to agree to his taking leave of absence. In 1709 he succeeded his father at Saint Etienne de Dijon. In April 1715 he returned to Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral, where he remained for the next eight years. While there, he composed his first cantatas and his motets for full orchestra, and, notably, published his Traité de l’harmonie, his first major theoretical work, which was to win him European-wide recognition.

At the beginning of 1723, when Rameau was forty years old, he returned to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1724 the composer’s second collection of Pièces de Clavecin was very successfully published by Boivin, and in 1726 Ballard published his Nouveau système de musique théorique. Finally, a great event took place in his personal life: at the age of forty-six he married eighteen-year-old Marie-Louise Mangot, a musician and, in the words of Maret, «a good, sweet, amiable woman, who made her husband very happy; she was musically gifted, had a very pretty voice and was an accomplished singer.» A few years later, in 1734, Mme Rameau sang in a concert for the queen, the Mercure reporting that «The queen praised her voice and her accomplished singing.» It was also at this time that Rameau began to make his way in the world of opera, ballet and lyric tragedy. In 1727, in an introductory letter to the librettist Houdar de La Motte of the Académie Française he wrote the following: «You will therefore appreciate that I am no novice in the art and that my skill does not appear laboured in my productions, in which I strive to conceal art through art itself; for my aim is to please people of good taste, not intellectuals, since there are many of the former and hardly any of the latter.» It is therefore clear that he was very eager to embark on major operatic projects. Houdar de La Motte kept the composer’s letter, but did not reply to it. It was thanks to Rameau’s friendship with Piron that he made the acquaintance of Le Riche de La Pouplinière, the fermier général (“chief tax officer”), and a great patron and music lover, at whose house Rameau premiered (in April 1733) his first opera Hippolyte et Aricie in a private performance. This work was followed by Les Indes Galantes, his first ballet héroïque, which, from then until the time of his death on 12 September 1764, was followed by a stream of magnificent lyric masterpieces and instrumental pieces for orchestra, which grace some twenty operatic works.

Writings and “Quarrels”
Around this time (1729), Le Mercure de France published an anonymously penned article entitled Conférence sur la musique, thereby unleashing a series of controversial publications in a protracted war of ideas against the system proposed by Rameau, culminating a few years later (in 1752) in the formidable “Querelle des Bouffons” (Dispute of the Buffoons). The dispute entailed a rejection of the régime, one which even extended to Rameau himself, and used all possible means to criticise French music, which it associated lock, stock and barrel with all the splendour of the machineries and the pomp – complete with wigs and crested helmets – of the royal spectacles at Versailles, in contrast to the humour, simplicity and light-heartedness of the spectacles staged by the Italian “buffoons” of the opera buffa. As Jean Malignon aptly remarks, no holds were barred against the court of Versailles: «every opportunity and every means were admissible: today it is the Italian Buffoons… Long live buffoonery and long live Italy! Tomorrow it will be the turn of Gluck, so long live the German and long live tragedy! Even if the day after tomorrow that leads us to acclaim the puerile nonsense of Grétry.» Ultimately, «the most striking thing about this bitter quarrel was the devious nature of the attacks and the constant innuendoes: using the Opera as their pretext, Diderot takes aim at the very spirit of Versailles, while Grimm finds fault with the spirit of France as a whole, and Rousseau makes man the object of his critique.»

In the view of Joscelyn Godwin, the conflicting ideas of Rousseau and Rameau serve as a general illustration of tendencies whose reach extends far beyond the confines of the period. On the basis of the monochord theory of Pythagoras, Zarlino and Descartes, Rameau established the principles of tonal language and natural harmonics, putting in place the system of fundamental bass progressions. He defined the categories of cadences and the expressive power of modulations according to the circle of fifths. Rousseau, on the other hand, a gifted amateur with a predilection for melodious Italian opera, denied that harmony deserved any such primacy in music. «By what right does harmony, which itself has no natural basis, claim to be the basis of melody, the wonders of which date back two thousand years before the question of melody and chords arose?» Rameau was right when he observed that the conventions of Western tonality were a manifestation of the natural mathematical laws of music, but Rousseau was also right in his defence of the ancient origins of music, without which music as we know it would not exist.

In his declaration of war, Lettre sur la musique française, Rousseau had no hesitation in pandering to the less educated members of the public: «Making the violins play on the one hand, the flutes on the other, and the bassoons somewhere else, each following its own particular design, with hardly any relationship between them, and to call the ensuing chaos music, is to insult both the ear and the judgement of the audience.» As Jean Malignon points out, «Having thus set forth his dogma to the satisfaction of the least enlightened sections of public opinion, our legislator spares himself the need for any analysis or proof: Rameau’s music is so dense that it immediately impresses the unwary listener; it is intensely symphonic music: ergo it is not music.» Rousseau described it as «difficult nonsense that offends the ear», and «remnants of barbarism and bad taste, which, just like the portals of our Gothic churches, persist only to the shame of their patient builders.» By the time the Querelle had subsided, the various genres of French theatre music had been dealt a fatal blow. Ten years later, Rameau, the only composer who continued to write in a style regarded as outmoded by the vast majority, finished his last tragédie lyrique, Les Boréades. He did not live to see it performed. Whether he was prevented from seeing the work staged by the fever that caused his death or by some other cause, we do not know.

Progress and Musical Memory
Jean Malignon went on to remark: «But perhaps the most astonishing thing is that the philosophers and all their contemporaries, including the supporters of French opera, looked on with a straight face when they saw Rousseau strutting about and setting himself up as the rival of the greatest composer of the day, debating with him as an equal.» And yet, Rousseau’s views reflected those of an entire period, which was convinced that “a certain kind of progress” opened up the possibility of improving the art of musical composition and language. The same belief and points of view inspired the opinions of Stendhal, as expressed in 1814 in his work Vies de Haydn, de Mozart et de Métastase. The mirage of musical progress clouded his view, preventing him from forming an objective judgment of the masterpieces of the recent or distant past, the true history of which he was contemptuously ignorant. Stendhal knew nothing about French music before the Revolution when he wrote: «What little originality there is in France is to be found among the lower classes, whose ignorance prevents them from being imitators; but the people do not concern themselves with music, and in this country no son of a wheelwright will ever be a Joseph Haydn.» Stendhal had clearly never heard about Lully or Couperin or Rameau, his memory concerning French musical life being either astonishingly sketchy or stricken with total amnesia.

In an essay on Carlo Gesualdo, Aldous Huxley referred to the tragic loss of memory of European musical conscience, an amnesia which persisted until the end of World War II. Even in the 50s, the musical repertory before Monteverdi, which lay hidden beneath the successive cultural layers heaped on it by modernism, was still waiting to be rediscovered. Beginning in the 1970s, this rediscovery gradually occurred thanks to the important work and research of numerous musicologists and specialist historians. Even more so, it was thanks to the talent and perseverance of those new generations of performers who approached the new repertory with sensitivity and emotion from an in-depth knowledge of the styles and practice of historical musical performance for both voice and original instruments, specific to each period and country. This genuine renaissance is a confirmation of Rameau’s own words: «True music is the language of the heart» and «music can only be judged through the intervention of hearing, and reason only has authority in it insofar as it agrees with the ear.»

JORDI SAVALL
Bellaterra, April 2011

Translated by Jacqueline Minett