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Baroque period instruments: a hurdy gurdy, a viola da gamba, a lute, a baroque violin, and baroque guitar.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (25 September, 1683, Dijon – 12 September 1764) is a colossal figure in the development of music.[i]  In 1722, he published a Treatise on Harmony (Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels) (Wikipedia).  Well, 290 years later, textbooks on harmony teach harmony as described by Jean-Philippe Rameau.  Once music students have passed their course(s) on harmony, they may stray from Rameau’s treatise, but even then, Rameau’s treatise remains the standard reference.

Rameau and the French Operatic Tradition

Until Rameau, Italian composers entertained the French.  Italian-born Lully (Giovanni Battista Lulli; 28 November 1632 – 22 March 1687) had been a favorite of Louis XIV.  He and Molière (1622-1673), born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, had collaborated in creating “divertissements” (entertainment) for the king who was immensely fond of ballet.  Allow me to quote the Wikipedia entry on Molière.

“Molière’s friendship with Jean-Baptiste Lully influenced him towards writing his Le Mariage forcé and La Princesse d’Élide (subtitled as Comédie galante mêlée de musique et d’entrées de ballet), written for royal “divertissements” at the Palace of Versailles.”

Yet, although Lully collaborated with Molière on comedies, he went on to create French lyric tragedy which Rameau and his contemporaries inherited.   However, there was dissatisfaction with respect to the French lyric tragedy, works in the “grand manner,” such as Les Indes galantes or gallantes. Galant is our keyword.  Bach’s sons, Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, wrote musique galante and were more successful than their father.  In fact, Johann Sebastian was forgotten.

La Querelle des Bouffons (1752 -1754)

The matter culminated in the Querelle des Bouffons (“Quarrel of the Comic Actors”) which took place in Paris, France between 1752 and 1754.  The Querelle des Bouffons is usually considered as a paper war weighing the relative merits of French and Italian operaWikipedia defines the Querelle des Bouffons as “a war of words between the defenders of the French operatic tradition and the champions of Italian music.”  But it may be more accurate to say that the French longed for music that brought tears to their eyes.  The reign of reason, dating back to Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637), was being replaced by the reign of sentiment.

Despite its reference to buffoons, the Quarrel opposed the loftiest minds of the French enlightenment, including the Encyclopédistes: Denis Diderot (5 October 1713 – July 31, 1784), co-editor of the Encyclopédie, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, co-editor, with Diderot, of the Encyclopédie and a music theorist, (16 November 1717 – 29 October 1783), the Baron Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, a music critic and  journalist, French-German Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach (8 December 1723 – 21 January 1789,  Geneva-born composer, essayist,  author Jean-Jacques Rousseau (28 June 1712 – 2 July 1778).

When Jean-Jacques Rousseau joined the Encyclopédistes, he championed feelings.  Where our Querelle is concerned, Jean-Jacques Rousseau fired the first salvo, but could not have done so had it not been for a performance of Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona, or The Maid as Mistress. (See RELATED ARTICLE, below)

Rameau’s Les Indes galantes: the “noble Savage”

Yet, despite the criticism levelled at him, Rameau was an excellent composer and one who an opera-ballet featuring “Sauvages,” or Amerindians, Les Indes galantes.  In the eighteenth century, le Sauvage was a bon Sauvage.  This is how he is depicted by travellers to North America and, in particular, by a French military officer who served in New France from 1683 to 1693, the Baron de Lahontan (9 June 1666 – prior to 1716).  As described by Lahontan, in three works published at The Hague, in 1703, the Sauvage is morally superior to Europeans in general and the French in particular.  The age of the “Noble Savage” is the age of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who led the Querelle des Bouffons (1752 and 1754).

A Rondeau: Les Sauvages

The history of Les Indes galantes is particularly interesting in that Rameau drew his inspiration from three kinds of dances performed by Amerindians in the Théâtre Italien.  According to Wikipedia, “[o]n 25 November 1725, after French settlers of Illinois sent Chief Agapit Chicagou of the Metchigamea and five other chiefs to Paris, they met with Louis XV, and Chicagou had a letter read pledging allegiance to the crown; they later danced three kinds of dances in the Théâtre Italien, inspiring Rameau to compose his rondeau Les Sauvages.”  Changes have been made to Britannica, but the author of its former entry on Les Indes galantes stated that the Amerindians who travelled to France had motivated Rameau to compose his rondeau were from Louisiana, which makes sense.

Somewhat mysterious, however, is whether or not this rondeau, entitled Les Sauvages, is a separate piece of music or part of Les Indes galantes.  Well, having searched for a solo rondeau entitled Les Sauvages, the piece I discovered was part of the larger Opéra-Ballet.  If I have erred, kindly correct me.

An Opéra-Ballet: Les Indes galantes or Gallantes

Les Indes galantes is an opéra-ballet set to a libretto by Louis Fuzelier.  It is composed of a Prologue and four acts (entrées) and, as mentioned above, features Sauvages. I inserted an excerpt of Les Indes galantes opéra-ballet in Comments on the Quebec General Election & the News is an excerpt from Les Indes galantes. 

Les Indes galantes premiered in Paris at the Académie Royale de Musique et Danse, on 23 August 1735.  It was not a great success and it has a long history of revisions and revivals.  The 185th eighteenth-century performance of Rameau’s opéra-ballet was played for the last time in 1761.  However, by 1961 there had been 246 performances of Les Indes galantes and, in 2005,  Les Indes galantes (Opus Arte) was given a fanciful reading by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants.”[ii]

So my next post features William Christie‘s[iii] “fanciful reading” of Les Indes galantes. I do not have the score of the opéra-ballet, William Christie’s  interpretation is not, in my opinion, detrimental to Rameau’s opéra-ballet, as Rameau himself  may have envisioned his work.

I must close here, but if you wish to take a peak at Les Indes galantes, my next blog constitutes a short and, in my opinion, delightfully-silly performance Les Indes galantes.

A Portrait of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi
Photo credit: Wikipedia

[i] “Jean-Philippe Rameau.” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/490604/Jean-Philippe-Rameau.

[ii] “Performing Arts: Year In Review 2005.”  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1090579/Performing-Arts-Year-In-Review-2005

[iii] William Lincoln Christie (born December 19, 1944 in Buffalo, New York) is an American-born French conductor and harpsichordist.  He is noted as a specialist in baroque repertoire and as the founder (1969) of the ensemble Les Arts Florissants.(Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
25 September 2012