Rameau and the Art of Orchestration

Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, watercolor of Rameau (1760)

Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, watercolor of Rameau (1760)

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's Traité de l'harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels (1722)

Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels (1722)

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”).

Listening List

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).

On YouTube:

Rameau – Zaïs Ouverture

Rameau – Les Indes galantes, excerpt, Le tremblement de terre (earthquake):

Other Resources

The Rameau Project

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.


The image at the head of the post may be found here and the one of the harmony treatise here. The quotations may be found at the links indicated in the text.

18 thoughts on “Rameau and the Art of Orchestration

  1. David N

    Admirable and modest tenets as always, Sue – happy 2015.

    Isn’t it always the way, that when any composer pursues a new line, the critics jump on the aspect they can present negatively. Rameau’s storms may have been ‘noisy’, as of course they had to be; but all that complaining about ‘uproar’ ignores the ravishing weave of multidivided strings which quite overcame me, I think in one of Phedre’s arias, when I saw Hippolyte et Aricie at Glyndebourne (kicking off a huge passion well outside my usual comfort zone). You’ll see, too, that Berlioz and Strauss were caricatured as noisemakers, the incredible refinement of so much of what they achieved ignored.

    Well, those voices are all rebuked now. Here’s to more Rameau in 2015! And more of you.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: It is interesting how often some critics jump to the negative–and how this pattern is repeated over the centuries, again and again, in the face of the new. I can well imagine–and I think I may have read snippets here and there–of negative responses to Berlioz and Strauss. (What sense it makes that other ground-breakers, like Berlioz and Debussy, would recognize and take delight in Rameau’s previous breaches of the status quo.)

      I’ve been reading Jens Malte Fischer’s biography of Mahler, and the negative commentary from some reviewers he describes and quotes from is fascinating in its own peculiar way–particularly the tenacious clinging to what has come before as the measure by which to judge the new. It’s not, of course, that the new is always good–far from it–but it’s essential to find a way to respond to it on its own terms. Not always easy to do, but by now, surely, we should know that using the current norm as the default leaves much to be desired. (Speaking of Mahler–generous family gift cards have allowed me to collect a complete set of Mahler symphonies, with some extras. I’ve been listening today, among other things, to Fischer-Dieskau on the Songs of a Wayfarer (Kubelik/Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra). Such a pleasure. BUT I didn’t read a word of Fischer today, so I must redouble my efforts on that!)

  2. angela

    Happy New Year! Your wisdom to delve into the unknown a bit more always inspires- your posts are way above my scope of knowledge but that is why your blog draws me in… To learn through your reading and research. I’m a bit obsessed with the ballet as late (a missed dream) ergo wondering if the Incas piece has ever been presented as dance? In advance, apologies if that is YouTube link- cannot link yet. Keep sharing ~

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: Or is it foolhardy! But certainly in the spirit of the Prufrock as Polonius. On the issue of dance, by now you may have seen the video of excerpt of the opéra-ballet Les Indes Galantes, which definitely features dance. While I still know only the barest bit about Rameau, a number of his opera works are called opéra-ballets, so I think there’s lots to be explored in that realm. The other thing I’ve observed from just a little bit of time with Rameau is that contemporary productions seem to have a lot of fun staging his works. Here’s a short clip of the Glyndebourne production David noted: http://youtu.be/Ly-Mwp_kFFs, and here’s a video about integrating dance into that opera: http://www.theguardian.com/music/video/2013/jul/25/glyndebourne-2013-hippolyte-at-aricie-the-chance-to-dance-video.

  3. shoreacres

    I’ll be back to read, but I wanted to let you know I didn’t get the usual email announcement of your new post. It just seemed as though you would have posted by now, and lo! So you have. I unfollowed and refollowed, and we’ll see if that does the trick. You’re back on my list with an indication that I should get emails, so we’ll see. Such things do happen from time to time. One of my regular readers suddenly stopped getting emails, for no apparent reason.

    I’m looking forward to the read — perhaps tomorrow, as it’s turning truly cold, and it may be that I’ll be “weathered in.”

  4. shoreacres

    The commonly-offered advice is to “write what you know.” I’ve come to believe there’s a more expansive alternative, and it’s one you’re clearly pursuing, given the prologue you’ve offered here.

    A good example is the Larkin poem I currently have posted. I’d never heard of the man until I bumped into him on Goodreads this past week. Given the number and variety of responses to his poem, I’d say my lack of knowledge wasn’t a deterrent to enjoyment. People love making their own discoveries, but they seem to be equally fond of following around behind other people who are busy making discoveries, too. It’s life as treasure hunt, and there’s no end of treasure to be found.

    As for Rameau, his name put me in mind of Ravel, and his “Tombeau de Couperin.” What a surprise it was to find that Rameau and Couperin were contemporaries, and so there is a connection there more substantial than the sound of two words. See? Discovery. And I had to laugh at the role Voltaire played in the musical machinations of the time. So much to learn, so little time.

    It’s delightful to have you back. Here’s to a year of good music, fine words, and not quite so much cold and snow for you as last year!

    1. David N

      Shoreacres, you make me curious to know how big Larkin’s reputation is in the USA. It’s huge here, of course. Best known poem, quoted by those who aren’t especially poetry-minded: ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad’.

      Rameau – Berlioz – Ravel is the line of the greatest orchestrators. Maybe no coincidence that they’re all French. Wagner and Strauss have some claim, but aren’t as consistently perfect.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        David: I’m not myself clear how well known Larkin is here in the US, though this review of The Complete Poems may give a bit of a sense of how he is received: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/books/philip-larkins-complete-poems-edited-by-archie-burnett.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. Very interesting to think that the greatest orchestrators may all be French. Where would Mahler rank for you? I don’t yet have a good handle on what makes for great in that department, though I have enough in hand to recognize Berlioz and Ravel as masterful–and this little exploration gave me some nice clues on Rameau.

        1. David N

          Yes, Mahler explored areas where no-one had gone before, and I suppose they shouldn’t be undermined by the many passages where he overscored. I suppose it’s just that these three seem well-nigh flawless in terms of cause and effect.

          1. Susan Scheid Post author

            David: Interesting, your point about the overscoring. Not long after I posed the question, I happened to be reading something about that very thing vis-a-vis Mahler. On your comment about cause and effect, I had the (not startling) thought that fine orchestration must rest on the ability to choose the exact effect to convey the composer’s intention, no more, no less. I’d think Britten has to be a “contender” there.

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Well, do I ever agree with this: “People love making their own discoveries, but they seem to be equally fond of following around behind other people who are busy making discoveries, too. It’s life as treasure hunt, and there’s no end of treasure to be found.” Your Larkin poem is an excellent example. I do know of Larkin, but I’ve not read more than a poem or two (including the one David quotes below, which may be found here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178055). I love your association from Rameau to Ravel to Couperin–such a lovely trail of crumbs to follow there! As to Voltaire and the musical machinations of the time, one of the things I also discovered was that Voltaire served as Rameau’s librettist for some of his works. (I was going to include that in the post, but chasing that down turned out to be a crumb too far . . . this time.)

      Happy new year, and I look forward to laying down and following trails of crumbs at your place and mine!

  5. Steve Schwartzman

    Till your post, I know almost nothing about Lully and Rameau, who ran together in my head. I now see that Rameau was born half a century later (1683 versus 1732). I might have known and then forgotten that Lully was born in Italy but moved to France as a child. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music says that “His talent for court politics had much to with his rise to the heights of the French musical world, and from the outset he won the friendship of the fourteen-year-old Louis [XIV], dancing at his side in many ballets and enjoying an important place in the royal household.”

    About Rameau, Larousse notes: “In the subject matter of his stage works he remained within the tradition of Lully, but his musical language employed a more expressive melodic line, richer harmonies and a more fully differentiated and colourful instrumentation which makes use, for example, of the clarinet and the horns, relative newcomers to the French orchestra.”

    The discordance near the end of your selection from Les Incas du Pérou doesn’t seem out of place to us, and it’s hard for us to put ourselves in the place of an audience that had been Lullyed into complacence when they heard it for the first time. That’s one Rameaufication of the passage of time.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Well, you’ve added another post’s worth to the storehouse of my knowledge, certainly, about Lully and Rameau, and your punning on their names is beyond price, as only you can do.

      1. Steve Schwartzman

        In terms of etymology, the second one isn’t a pun at all, because French rameau means ‘branch’ and contains the same root (now there’s another bit of wordplay) as our word ramification.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Steve: Well, I love this, and I’m mindful that, if you were writing in this box, you’d have a marvelous comeback, whereas all I can do is sit here grinning at the cleverness of this.

  6. Friko

    Books now? Golly, I am looking forward to books. I know so little about the music you favour that I hardly ever want to comment and display my ignorance. I just hope that the books you read and introduce aren’t going to be way above my level.

    I expect my hopes are vain.

    As for Larkin being a virtual unknown in the US, I am shocked. Now you know how we feel about some of the poets you laud so highly and who are barely read here and never quoted.
    In my poetry groups I am trying to make amends by introducing lots of American poets. It’s an uphill struggle.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: Never fear. I read very, very slowly, succumb to endless distractions, and retain a minuscule amount of what I read. As I said to a friend recently, “It is true, I like to think big thoughts, but I’m not equal to them.”

      It is curious about Larkin in the US. Speaking of British poets (now this is a wild segway, mind you), one of the many yawning gaps in my eddykashun is the British Romantic poets–whatever they served us in school and university is all I learned (and have mostly forgotten). At present, there is a MOOC, lovingly put together by a very smart, very nice fellow, Eric Weinstein, called “Unbinding Prometheus,” so I’ve joined up. The central poem is Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, which, as I’m sure you know, is very, very long. I’m not sure how well I’ll fare, but it’s very, very cold outside, so it seemed a good opportunity to give it a try. (Here’s the link, for you or anyone who might want to take a gander, BTW: https://www.openlearning.com/courses/percyshelley-unbindingprometheus.)

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