Jean-Philippe Rameau, 25 September 1683 – 12 September 1764) was one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the 18th century. He replaced Jean-Baptiste Lully as the dominant composer of French opera and is also considered the leading French composer for the harpsichord of his time, alongside François Couperin.
While the details of his biography are vague and fragmentary, the details of Rameau’s personal and family life are almost completely obscure. Rameau’s music, so graceful and attractive, completely contradicts the man’s public image and what we know of his character as described (or perhaps unfairly caricatured) by Diderot in his satirical novel Le Neveu de Rameau. Throughout his life, music was his consuming passion. It occupied his entire thinking; Philippe Beaussant calls him a monomaniac. Piron explained that “His heart and soul were in his harpsichord; once he had shut its lid, there was no one home.” Physically, Rameau was tall and exceptionally thin, as can be seen by the sketches we have of him, including a famous portrait by Carmontelle. He had a “loud voice.” His speech was difficult to understand, just like his handwriting, which was never fluent. As a man, he was secretive, solitary, irritable, proud of his own achievements (more as a theorist than as a composer), brusque with those who contradicted him, and quick to anger. It is difficult to imagine him among the leading wits, including Voltaire (to whom he bears more than a passing physical resemblance), who frequented La Pouplinière’s salon; his music was his passport, and it made up for his lack of social graces.
His enemies exaggerated his faults; e.g. his supposed miserliness. In fact, it seems that his thriftiness was the result of long years spent in obscurity (when his income was uncertain and scanty) rather than part of his character, because he could also be generous. We know that he helped his nephew Jean-François when he came to Paris and also helped establish the career of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre in the capital. Furthermore, he gave his daughter Marie-Louise a considerable dowry when she became a Visitandine nun in 1750, and he paid a pension to one of his sisters when she became ill. Financial security came late to him, following the success of his stage works and the grant of a royal pension (a few months before his death, he was also ennobled and made a knight of the Ordre de Saint-Michel). But he did not change his way of life, keeping his worn-out clothes, his single pair of shoes, and his old furniture. After his death, it was discovered that he only possessed one dilapidated single-keyboard harpsichord in his rooms in Rue des Bons-Enfants, yet he also had a bag containing 1691 gold louis. via wikipedia.org
Lively, charming, elegant…his music does indeed give pleasure to the listener
Rondeau des Indes Galantes – Jean-Philippe Rameau
Musiciens du Louvres under the direction of Marc Minkowski
Photo credit (front page): By The original uploader was Pixeltoo at French Wikipedia (Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo credit: Louis Carrogis Carmontelle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons