Sunday, January 18, 2015

Figuring Rameau

by Thomas Christensen

2014, as Gina Rivera reminds us in her posting from November 2014, was the year Jean-Philippe Rameau got his turn in the recent spate of composer celebrations. The 250th anniversary of his death spawned a number of musicology conferences in Europe (though none in the United States that I heard of) in which scholars and musicians had an opportunity to take stock of the composer/theorist—or more accurately, to take stock of the state of research on Rameau. 
Not that Rameau had not been honored before. In 1983, the tercentennial of his birth, French colleagues threw a very nice party, by all evidence, in his home city of Dijon. The collected papers from that conference still make for informative reading regarding all aspects of his operatic life:  influences upon his style, sources for his operas, his librettists and collaborators, singers, performance practice, staging and dance.<1> Tucked away in a session or two were a few interesting papers on Rameau’s music theory and aesthetics.  But by the apologetic tone of some of the papers (one, for instance, was entitled, “Rameau et l’harmonie:  comment avoir raison de la musique?”) it did seem as if musicologists were still figuring out how Rameau’s activities as theorist/philosophe fit together with his better known work as a stage composer. 
It was thus something of a relief for me to see that many of the conferences organized for Rameau this time around gave a more central place to his music theories. Indeed in two of them, it was exclusively Rameau the theorist who was discussed.  Of course I am biased. I published my first scholarly book on Rameau and his theoretical writings in 1993, and I have long argued that his work as a theorist surely is as historically important as his creative work for the stage.<2> 

It was thus a great pleasure for me to be invited to speak at four of these conferences. It was really something of a surprise, too, for I had long thought in some of my less charitable moods that no one in Europe really gave a hoot about my book; it had never received any reviews or commentary that I knew of from across the Atlantic. Naturally I was inclined to attribute this to the widely-voiced prejudice that most continental musicologists just did not read much American literature. So it was something of a jolt, and perhaps a consolation, that twenty years later I received the most complimentary invitations from European colleagues, each assuring me that not only had they all read and deeply admire my book on Rameau, they were eager to have me participate in their conferences. How could I say no?

Of course it was a risk to accept all four invitations, each arriving within a few months of each other.  It had been, after all, twenty years since I’d been actively working in the area of Rameau. Since then, my research had taken me in many other directions. Would I have anything more to say that I had not already put into my book? But there was an even worse problem. We all know that European academics have this infuriating habit of publishing just about all the proceedings of any conference, whether or not the individual contributions merit such publication. I realized quickly on that I could not get through the Rameau year by simply recycling the same talk four different times. I had really better come up with four decent papers that could stand exposure to the sun. So I spent a busy summer in 2013 reviewing many of my old yellowed notes from twenty years ago that still might be gleaned for a paper or two. I also used the time to catch up on the latest research on Rameau. There was a lot more out there than I had realized. 

The kickoff to the Rameau celebrations actually started earlier than 2014. In September 2013, colleagues at the University of Mainz hosted a small conference on the reception of Rameau’s music theory in Germany.<3> It’s not as esoteric a topic as one might first think. For it was German theorists in the late 18th and 19th centuries perhaps more than anyone else who absorbed and developed many of Rameau’s most pregnant theoretical ideas: the fundamental bass, the functional theory of the triple progression, and his adumbrations of harmonic dualism. Scholars from Germany, France and North America came together and presented a motley roster of papers dealing with various esoterica of French and German music theory, all sutured together by the writings of Rameau. There is no doubt this was perhaps the most specialized of the conferences. But almost for that reason, I think it ended up being the most coherent in retrospect. For my own paper, I was able to salvage a huge notebook of notes I had taken while writing my Rameau book on the writings of several Berlin-based music theorists who seemed to have digested a fair amount of Rameau’s writings: Nichelmann, Adlung, Marpurg, Kirnberger, and even C.P.E. Bach. I’m glad I trusted my instinct not to force that material into my book back then, even if it took two more decades to see it all in print. Material left on the scholar’s cutting table still may find an afterlife. 

In March 2014, our French colleagues got going with their own three-day conference taking place in Paris (and for one lovely day in between at the Fondation Royaumont in Asnières-sur-Oise).<4> This was, I suppose, the “official” French conference, given its broad scope and representation. The leading French Ramists were there, and it was a pleasure for this American to see the likes of Sylvie Bouisseou, Jean Duron, Catherine Kintzler, and Beatrice Didier all in one place. But Americans were well represented, too, with Cynthia Verba, Charles Dill, Rebecca Harris-Warrick, and myself keeping the stars-and-stripes flying high. We were treated over the three days of the conference to a lovely mix of papers on Rameau’s creative work—both compositional and theoretical. Here it seemed no one felt the need to begin their talk about Rameau’s theoretical work with an apology. The conference was capped off by some memorable performances of Rameau’s music: a lovely harpsichord recital at Royaumont, and on the final night, a rollicking performance of Platée, directed by William Christie at the Opéra-Comique. 

I must admit that I really did have to adjust my old uncharitable prejudice that French scholars simply did not read any English literature (let alone speak the language). Many of the younger French musicologists who attended and even spoke at the conference clearly knew about much of the work going on over here, at least based on my own conversations with them. I think when the proceedings of the Paris conference are eventually published, we’ll be able to compare favorably the state of Rameau research in France. No musicologist reading this blog will be surprised to hear that the amount of published research on Rameau has multiplied immensely in the three decades since the 1983 conference, what with a whole new edition of Rameau’s complete oeuvre well under way, along with wholesale revisions of his place in the history of opera and the Enlightenment. 

In August, yet another large Rameau conference was held at Oxford University, under the direction of the ever amiable Graham Sadler.<5> In the pleasant confines of St. Hilda’s College, some forty historians, theorists, and musicians gathered to talk more Rameau—this time all in English.  Even though the Oxford conference was larger than the one in Paris, it somehow seemed more laid back to me.  I’m not sure there was too much difference in thematic coverage;  there were the papers on editorial issues in his operas, dramaturgical questions about staging, dance, and singing, and—of course—exegeses of his theoretical writings. Concerts, too, were a part of the fun, with a memorable evening of harpsichord music performed by Davitt Moroney. But without the distractions of Paris, the whole event seemed so much more intimate. Given that a many of us had already overlapped in the earlier conferences, we were by now feeling like old friends. 

The last major conference for Rameau returned me to Paris in December, where Rémy Campos and Nicolas Donin had organized a two-day conference that took place at IRCAM.<6> This was perhaps the most unusual conference of the Rameau year in that the organizers had the inspired idea to ask what lessons might be learned from Rameau’s dual activities as composer and theorist for contemporary music. It’s not like we haven’t seen examples of composer/theorists in our own lifetime among countless colleagues. But the charge of the conference committee seemed more specific. Was there anything in Rameau’s own project of theory and its relation to his compositional work that could be suggestive for our understanding of contemporary music today? And what better a place to ask this than the Mecca of modernist music in Europe: IRCAM? I have to confess that as happy a question as it all seemed, the payoff at the conference was mixed at best. The participants seemed to be divided between two groups: historians who knew something of Rameau’s music theory and music, but not a huge amount about contemporary music; and composers who knew a good deal about contemporary music, but less about Rameau’s. Thus the varied papers we heard over two days in the bowels of that iron cavern at Bourbourg had a Janus-like feel, some looking backwards and some forwards;  but rarely did any of them meet up. 

It was still a delightful two days. But at the end, I found myself asking if the initial question of the conference might not be misplaced. Why do we presume that Rameau the theorist necessarily has something to say about Rameau the composer—let alone to help us understand what composers today might be doing? For sure, both his operas and treatises were written with the same quill pen. But each was written for a specific audience with very differing aims using almost irreconcilable media. It’s nice for us to think of ourselves as organic wholes, with our lives and actions following coherent and inter-related paths. But in fact is that how we really work?  As I left IRCAM after the final session and walked across that grand plaza in front of the Centre Georges Pompidou, full of noisy buskers, jongleurs, jugglers, sketch artists, mimes, pan-handlers, hawkers, and hucksters, not to mention all the hundreds of gawking passer-byers, it seemed so clear to me that we all can wear many differing hats, and our various personae may not always have to be in close collaboration. Maybe that was the case of Rameau. 2014 opened many wonderful and fascinating windows onto this remarkable artist from the 18th century. But at the end, I still think he survives as a complex, enigmatic, individual with many sides, perhaps not unlike the mashup of music, drama,  dance, poetry, and machinery that comprise so many of his operatic spectacles. (Not for nothing did Charlie Dill title his marvelous study of Rameau’s lyric tragedies “monstrous opera.”) 

Gina Rivera ended her meditative essay on the Rameau year by bidding adieu to the many faded pastel portraits musicologists have long drawn of our friend from Dijon.  But I’ll turn this around and suggest we might gaze now at a newer (post-modern?) picture of Rameau that we can greet with a hearty “bonjour.”  For all our intensive musicological forensics over the past decades, Rameau has entered the 21st century as even a more complicated, more challenging and more wonderful figure than ever. Today music historians and music theorists now cohabit many of the same departments, conferences, and journal pages with most of the suspicions and animosities that characterized our relation in the past long faded. But if we still occasionally scratch our heads wondering just what it is we have to say to one another, I don’t think there is a more timely figure to turn to and ask than Jean-Philippe Rameau. Just don’t expect a clear answer. 
Thomas Christensen is Avalon Foundation Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago (webpage HERE). He is editor of the Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (Cambridge UP, 2002, paperback 2005) and several forthcoming volumes.

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