Jean-Philippe Rameau’s early life is quite obscure. Born in 1683 somewhere near Dijon to a church organist, Rameau was taught music before he could read or write. He worked as a violinist and organist from an early age, first visiting Paris in 1706, where he published his first compositions for harpsichord. In 1709 he moved back to Dijon to take over his father’s job as church organist, but then traveled to Lyon and Clermont, and back to Paris for good in 1722.
There he published an important work of music theory, Traité de l’harmonie (Treatise on Harmony) which won him a great reputation. He continued to compose for the harpsichord, but not until the age of 50 did he begin to compose operas, the form for which he is best known. His first opera Hippolyte et Aricie in 1733 was immediately recognized as a landmark in French opera history, the most important work since the death of Lully, causing great controversy through its innovative approach to harmony.
He abandoned a collaboration on the religious theme of Sampson with Voltaire, since it was likely to be banned due to Voltaire’s standing with the church. He turned his attention to lighter works in the category of opéra-ballet with the highly successful Les Indes galantes, as well as several tragédies en musique. He produced his most successful comic opera, Platée, in 1745, along with two collaborations with Voltaire, which earned him a position with the royal court and a pension. This year also saw the start of a long running feud with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He died in 1764 after many prolific years, and was buried in the cemetery at St. Eustache.
Rameau’s music is extraordinarily graceful, technically advanced for his time, and unsettling to the contemporary musical establishment. He wrote a small number of sacred works, many operas, and was a master of the 18th Century French school of the harpsichord, along with Couperin.
In his operas, Rameau included some of the finest dance music that has ever been written, as well as many stirring choruses and arias. His music was largely ignored during the 18th Century with the rise of Italian opera, but he found champions towards the end of that century in Saint-Saëns and Debussy; subsequently his music has been much revived since the late 20th Century.