Introduction to Prufrock’s “2015 Edition”
I’ve been reading actual books. I’m reminded what a pleasure it is when I settle down to it, which is all too rare. The conundrum, as always, is how to strike a balance between the time I spend online and off. This year, the plan is to read more and use the blog, perhaps more than in past years, to record something of what I’m finding out. It remains to be seen, of course, how well that will work out.
Be warned in advance: I’ll be writing on subjects of which I know little (or nothing) and about which I want to know more. So, for example, the vapors of expertise that emanate from the lofty title of this post work a total falsehood. This post will, however, record something of what I’ve learned so far.
I’ve been reading The Orchestra, Origins and Transformations. It’s a book of essays reputed to be uneven, but one essay that gets high marks is the one I went for first: Orchestral Texture and the Art of Orchestration, by R. Larry Todd. Todd’s essay traces the development of orchestration as a discipline; that is, “the study of instruments and their use to create distinctive orchestral textures.” [Todd 193]
As a backdrop to the discussion, Todd notes that the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) was among the first “to experiment with gradation of orchestral dynamics.” [Todd 193] He then goes on to other developments and writes not another word about Rameau.
Rameau, a big thinker on spindly legs, composed his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, when he was fifty. By the time he died, by one source’s count, he’d composed thirty-plus works for the stage and about forty pieces on musical theory. (Read more about Rameau here.)
Hippolyte et Aricie occasioned more than a little distress among the establishment cognoscenti:
Immediately lines were drawn between the staunch supporters of the well-established Lully tradition, with its unmistakably French poise and reserve, and those who preferred the red-blooded passion and intensity of Rameau – or as the Lullyists put it, his “grotesque, discordant music” replete with “noisy instrumentation”. [citation]
Rameau experimented boldly with orchestral effects—not only those “gradations of dynamics” Todd noted in his essay, but also timbres, textures, and harmony. In the overture to his opera Zaïs, for example, he evoked the elements forming out of chaos with “unaccompanied tympani followed by bizarre harmonies.” [The Birth of the Orchestra : History of an Institution, 1650-1815: History 493] Needless to say, Rameau’s depiction caused critical consternation. “As one contemporary put it,”
I consider that the overture paints so well the unravelling of Chaos that it is unpleasant; this clash of Elements separating and recombining cannot have made a very agreeable concert for the ear. Happily, man was not yet there to hear it: the Creator spared him such an overture, which would have burst his eardrums.
The opéra-ballet Les Indes Galantes proved provocative as well. In the second of the work’s four acts, Les incas du Pérou (The Incas of Peru),
The Incas’ Festival of the Sun is depicted in . . . a grand spectacle full of choruses, symphonies, and airs. There is a long scene in which the sun is invoked by the priest Huascar, and the chorus “Brillant Soleil” (Brilliant Sun) is its climax. Although this scene was praised by Voltaire, many found it too new and unusual. The earthquake that follows is described in the orchestra by tremolos, rushing scales, and dissonant harmony, and was considered too difficult to perform. [citation]
Earthquake-like in effect, Rameau’s musical disruptions to the status quo set off a pamphlet war of several years duration between supporters of Lully (Lullyistes) and Rameau. The Lullyistes, not above a pejorative pun, dubbed their opponents Rameauneurs (the word “ramoneur” means “chimney sweep” in French). [citation]
In the end, Rameau seems to have won out. The master orchestrator Hector Berlioz believed him to be “le premier musicien français qui mérite le nom de maître” (the first French musician who merits the name “master”).
On Spotify: Overture, Zaïs (Orchestral Suite) (1748) and, for comparison, Je suis trahi! Ciel! (I am betrayed!) from Act IV, final scene, Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Roland (1685) and Prelude, Die Vorstellung des Chaos (The Representation of Chaos), from Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (The Creation) (1800).
Rameau – Zaïs Ouverture
Rameau – Les Indes galantes, excerpt, Le tremblement de terre (earthquake):
Les Indes Galantes libretto (the text related to the earthquake, below, may be found in DEUXIÈME ENTRÉE, Les Incas du Pérou, SCÈNE 5):
Tremblement de terre
Dans les abîmes de la terre,
Les vents se déclarent la guerre.
L’air s’obscurcit, le tremblement redouble,
le volcan s’allume et jette par tourbillons du feu et de la fumée.