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Jean-Philippe Rameau: true godfather of impressionists

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Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau

In a world full of precocious talent, the notion of a first big success at the age of 50 sounds a bit strange. Neither Mozart nor Schubert, Chopin nor Schumann even made it that far.

Jean-Philippe Rameau, who died 250 years ago last September, belonged to the pre-Classical period, the Baroque, an era dominated by the music of Bach and Handel. He was a direct contemporary of theirs, but you'd hardly ever hear him mentioned in the same breath.

Fashion has had a good deal to do with that. While Handel and Bach were delivering material of such breadth and depth across the disciplines, Rameau wrote mostly for the stage, and even then, it was French-specific, so to speak. The English National Opera, for instance, only got around to staging one of Rameau's in 2011. He first featured at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2013.

It was partly through circumstance that he came to it late. He was born in France's mustard capital of Dijon in 1683, two years before Handel and Bach. He was talented, all right, but more of a theorist than a composer. What he did write, he wrote for the harpsichord.

He played the organ to support himself while he developed his theories on harmonics and only made it to Paris when he'd his book ready to publish. This would turn out to be a seminal work.

Little enough is known about his time in the provinces, but once in Paris, the biography gets fleshed out. He was a tall, wiry man, with "a sharp chin, no stomach and flutes for legs", "like a long organ pipe with no blower" in the words of contemporaries.

He met and married a 19-year-old singer from Lyons. Rameau was 42 at the time. They would have two sons and two daughters.

Initially, he carried on with his studies and supported the family as an organist, but he was working at developing his career as a composer of opera, and finally, a week after his 50th birthday, his first took to the stage.

Hippolyte et Aricie - his take on the Greek legend of Phaedra who falls for her stepson - certainly marked him out as somebody different, for it was like nothing that had been gone before. His story included a roaring sea and howling winds. He used his orchestra to illustrate this.

A radical departure, too radical for some. Traditionalists found it vulgar.

Rameau was doing something with his music - breaking with convention, using the sounds to create a mood - that made him a prototype for the impressionists a century and a half later. Debussy was a huge fan.

Something else he would do was build on the elements of dance that were a feature of French musical drama. Rameau's were more than just dance sequences, they were an integral part of the proceedings, with music to match. When he was starting work on his first attempt at opera, he approached a playwright to come up with a text.

"I'm trying to hide art with more art," he wrote. It was Rameau's ambition to combine all the arts in one musical masterpiece. For music, according to Jean-Philippe Rameau, is "the language of the heart".

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning

Indo Review