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Jean-Philippe Rameau’s modest output of works for keyboard (around 50 in total) are a crowning influence in French eighteenth-century instrumental music—summed up by one commentator as being 'a paradigm of his mastery, for surveying it is to review many facets of his greatness'.
Famed for his additional contributions to French opera and for his advances in musical theory of the day, his keyboard works are beguiling in their mix of subtle beauty and virtuosity. The characterful works invoke both pictorial and poetic themes—a style that performer Jill Crossland describes as an 'ability to characterise, to construct a miniature world in a few instants'.
Rameau’s music and playing are described as opposite from the austerities of his character, in having refinement, delicacy and intensity of feeling. Debussy was to refer to the composer’s music as the musical equivalent of Antoine Watteau, whose dreamy Fêtes Galantes epitomise the French eighteenth century for the modern viewer. The comparison with visual artists is apt—Rameau’s music is also characterised by the precise filigreeof a Chardin portrait and with the connection to everyday life of a Greuze genre scene. Commentators have always agreed that Rameau’s music is notable for its poetic and emotional qualities. Rameau himself claimed to use ‘art to conceal art’: music itself was a natural form of expression; learning simply enabled composers to better communicate and give aural form to feelings and sensibility. This made him a ‘modern’ in the debates of his time.
Rameau’s music is of course typically French in its decorative, ornamented style and in its many dance movements; it is also distinctive in pursuing the composer’s interests in harmony, in sensibility (the use of the sound-world to convey feeling) and even virtuosity. Rameau does not appear to have met any of his great contemporaries, not even François Couperin, 15 years older and already at court when Rameau arrived in Paris. It is, however, argued there is Handelian influence in Rameau’s continued interest in the suite form (and the resemblance between the famous Gavotte and 5 doubles and Handel’s equivalent movement in Suite 3) as well as the obvious influence of Couperin in encouraging Rameau to write character and descriptive pieces. The first collection shows the influence of Louis Marchand, Rameau’s friend and predecessor as organist at a Jesuit college in Paris, the second that of Jean Castel, a friend credited with introducing Rameau to the idea of using birdsong in music. Rameau endlessly recycled his own music—Le Rappel des Oiseaux, Musette and Tambourin all found their way into Les fêtes d’Hébé, for example, but never borrowed from other composers and although he worked extensively as a church organist, he hardly composed any choral and organ music.
The two collections on this disc, from 1705/6 and 1724, coincide with Rameau’s two relocations to Paris—perhaps the first was intended as a calling card, the second, accompanied as it was by a four-page 'introduction to finger technique' and a table of ornaments, to exploit his new name as a music theorist. A full textbook on learning the harpsichord was promised but never written, presumably because opera then took the composer’s time. It is clear from each collection that Rameau was interested in exploring motivic connections between different movements. Rameau does not explicitly refer to the sets of pieces as suites, though the following collection was entitled ‘New Suites,’ but clearly the pieces on this album do form three distinct groups.
The first collection famously contains one of the last pieces to be written without barlines, the Prelude, whose dramatic, improvisatory beginning resolves into rapid virtuosic figurations. The remainder of the collection consists of the standard movements of a French keyboard suite, with the exception of the Vénitienne, variously described as a Venetian dance or portrait.
By the time of the second collection, the technical demands in the music have become substantially more difficult. Rameau himself, in the four-page technical introduction, alludes to ‘batteries’—such as fast notes alternating between the hands, and hand-crossing—and also to the virtuosic scale passages such as are found in Les Tourbillons and Les Cyclopes. Most of the pieces are now titled, although, as with his pictorial analogue, Watteau, the precise significance of the titles can be mysterious.
The closeness to birdsong in Le Rappel de Oiseaux is unmistakeable, nor are the Musette (a type of bagpipes used at court) and Tambourin ambiguous, but it is moot as to whether or not La Villageoise refers to a city dweller (on the town and country mouse analogy). In the second part of the collection, the ‘suite’ in D, Les Niais de Sologne refers to a region famous for its ‘Niais’ or simpletons, but why—as a reference to its repeated, meandering melody? La Boiteuse has a limping rhythm, Les Tourbillons plausibly refers to the whirling dustclouds on a windy day, or to a rotating mechanism. La Joyeuse and La Follette are equally possibly representations of joy and of whimsy, but Le Lardon (representing the pricking of spices into a joint of ham?) and Les Cyclopes are less obvious, and Les Tendres Plaintes, L’entretien des Muses and Les Soupirs are clearly abstract in some degree.
After the 1724 works, Rameau further developed his keyboard work in the collection variously attributed to any year between 1726 and 1730 and in the Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts; otherwise, only the transcriptions of Les Indes Galantes and a few individual pieces were written between his operas.
The complete first publication of the keyboard music was edited by Saint-Saëns in 1895, as part of a complete edition of the composer’s works. Saint-Saëns of course took liberties that would be anathema to modern scholarship, omitting ornaments (and repeats) that seemed unpianistic, making the text as palatable as possible to the nineteenth-century pianist and allowing a number of wrong notes to be printed. The first modern edition, in 1958, was by Erwin Jacobi, a pupil of Wanda Landowska (and only recently superseded, in 2004, by Rampe’s edition for the same publishers, Baerenreiter), by the time of the second, by Kenneth Gilbert, the ‘authenticity’ movement was in full swing. The idiosyncrasies of 18th-century orthography are now standard in modern renderings—hence the inconsistencies with which both the collections and the individual movements are titled.
As Rameau himself was to remark, the keyboard works were physically printed according to the convenience of printing—in terms of printer’s layout and the wish to avoid page turns. So the order of the movements differs from that expected in the case where the works are performed as complete ‘suites’. In particular, Le Lardon and La Boiteuse are interpolated towards the end of the ‘suite in D’ and the sarabandes precede the gigue in the ‘first suite.’ The tranquil profundity of La Vilageoise, however, means a number of performers (as here) choose to end the second ‘suite’ with it rather than with the obviously tub-thumping Tambourin
Rameau on the Piano and Performance practice
For pianists such as Cziffra, Cherkassky and Gilels, individual pieces by Rameau, such as the Tambourin or the “Gavotte and five doubles” were common in recital programmes, but the only complete recording using the piano was by Marcelle Meyer, a pupil of Marguerite Long, in the late 1940s, and with distinguished rare exceptions, such as Grigory Sokolov, Rameau is currently heard relatively rarely on the piano.
French harpsichord music uses ornamentation and the rhythmical variation of notes inégales as principal methods of conveying emotional tension and depth. Playing Rameau on the piano, as well as gesturing towards their distinguished performance history on recital platforms, alsoentails making the most of the piano’s own sound world and expressive possibilities.
It would be perverse to play these pieces as if the piano were a harpsichord—in his essays for example, no less impeccable a scholarly authority as Paul Badura-Skoda comments that the plucked action of the harpsichord gives a resonance analogous to a minimal amount of pedal on the piano—so that absolutely eschewing the use of the pedal misses the point. Likewise, though correctness in ornamentation is very important, Badura-Skoda emphasises the need for freedom and variation, not a pedantic realisation of what is written: 'Although the application of an ornament must be regulated by compositional convention, it also requires a certain freedom. If a tyrant ordered all women to wear the same jewellery it would no longer be jewellery but a uniform'. This even applies to notes inégales. A pianist who were to mimic the precise harpsichord treatment of notes inégales would risk turning an expressive device for the earlier instrument into a stammering, anti-lyrical effect on the piano.
Although Rameau’s operatic and theatrical interests clearly influence the keyboard works, they need no apology or special pleading, nor to piggy-back on the fame of those larger dramatic works. Irrespective of the instrument that presents them, they display both the perfection of miniatures and the profundity of an exquisite sensibility.
Ying Chang © 2012
I was first introduced to this music as a child of about eight. My local teacher, who encouraged me to discover a wide variety of repertoire, one day gave me a book of music by a composer of whom I had not heard—it was Rameau. I treasured this compilation of the well-known character pieces, which also had charming pictures of the composer himself and of harpsichords. I was fascinated by the wigs and period costumes, and thought of it as a story book, in which the musical scores were the narrative and those pictures the illustrations.
Some years on, my father, who had always had a huge influence on my choice of repertoire, and whose tastes I shared, discovered the keyboard music from a harpsichord album. The force of his conviction that this was great music and would sound well on the piano persuaded me to try it. I love Rameau’s ability to characterise, to construct a miniature world in a few instants.
These pieces encompass an extraordinary range of moods and settings. Their singing melodic lines, exemplified above all by La Villageoise for me, but also by Les Soupirs and L’entretien Des Muses and many others, make them seem naturally pianistic for me. They are virtuosic too—as exemplified by the opening Prelude and the concluding Cyclopes. I have come to feel great affection for these pieces, and indeed to regard them as great music.
Jill Crossland © 2012