Movement 1: Les tricotets (rondeau)
Movement 2: L'indifferente
Movement 3: Menuets I & II
Movement 4: La poule
Movement 5: Les triolets
Movement 6: Les sauvages
Movement 7: L'enharmonique
Movement 8: L'egiptienne
Then comes one of Rameau’s masterpieces, La poule, with the obsessive clucking of the hen (Rameau writes ‘co co co co co coco dai’ under the opening notes). It is pure drama, and, as Cuthbert Girdlestone wrote in his 1957 biography of the composer, ‘has the intensity and singlemindedness of a Racine tragedy, with alternations of hope and despair’. Rameau marks these contrasts with the words fort et doux. It is possible that the first sketches for this piece go back to his early days in Paris when the Jesuit Père Castel discussed with him the bird songs noted in the writings of Athanasius Kircher (1650) and aroused his feelings for depicting nature. The five repeated notes of the theme become hammered-out chords in the right hand towards the end, with the arpeggios transferred to the bass. Observing all of Rameau’s ornamentation requires some quick fingerwork.
The next movement of the suite, Les triolets, calms us down with its poetic melancholy and tenderness. Rameau states in his preface to this collection that it should not be taken fast. It ends with a ‘petite reprise’—a written-out echo of the last few bars. A triolet was a medieval verse form that became popular again in the seventeenth century.
On 10 September 1725 Rameau attended a performance by two Louisiana Indians at one of the theatres of the Fair. Their dancing must have made an impression on him, because he characterized them in the next piece, Les sauvages. As a Canadian I can’t help imagining the colourful displays of our Canadian native people, especially when playing the descending repeated notes of the theme. It became one of Rameau’s most popular works, and he later included it in his opera-ballet Les Indes galantes.
The last two pieces of the suite are also gems. Rameau talks at great length of L’enharmonique in the preface to this collection. An enharmonic change is when, for example, a C sharp becomes a D flat (on the keyboard the same note), which indeed happens in the twelfth bar of the second section. An expressive pause marks the point which, to listeners of Rameau’s day, would have been something quite extraordinary. Rameau states:
The effect experienced in the twelfth bar of the Reprise of the Enharmonique may not perhaps be to everyone’s taste right away; one can nonetheless grow accustomed to it after a little application, and even grow to awareness of all its beauty once the initial aversion, which in this case might result from lack of familiarity, has been overcome. The harmony which creates this effect has by no means been thrown in haphazardly; it is based on logic and has the sanction of Nature herself …
The mood is one of a lament, with poignant chromaticisms and a few contrasting bars where, to alternate with gracieusement (‘gracefully’) Rameau writes hardiment, sans altérer la mesure (‘boldly, without altering the tempo’).
The final movement, L’egiptienne, is inspired by the dance of a gypsy girl, and brings the suite to a brilliant conclusion. In his preface Rameau sensibly warns us not to take the fast pieces too fast, but rather to be more intent upon capturing their correct character. That seems especially apt in the case of this piece.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2007