Jean-Philippe Rameau Biography

(Music composer and theorist)

Birthday: September 25, 1683 (Libra)

Born In: Dijon, France

Jean Philippe- Rameau was a French composer and music theorist known for his contribution to the growth of French opera in the 18th century. Born to an organist father, Jean became interested in music at an early age. Although he studied to become a lawyer, he soon left college to pursue music. He moved to Paris and began learning music. He joined travelling orchestras and gained experience. In the initial years of his career, he worked as a music theorist and an organist at a few local churches. It was after he turned 50 and ventured into the world of opera that his popularity really soared. He began by composing an opera ballet titled Hippolyte et Aricie. It was so unique and innovative that it split the French musical community. Jean went on composing more operas such as Les Indes Galantes, Castor et Pollux, Dardanus and Les Fetes d’Hebe  among a few others. In addition to his musical work, he was also known for his long friendship with the famous French writer Voltaire and his disagreements with the famous French thinker Rousseau. Jean worked until he lived and passed away at the age of 80.

Quick Facts

French Celebrities Born In September

Died At Age: 80


Spouse/Ex-: Marie-Louise Mangot

father: Jean, Jean-François Rameau

mother: Claudine Demartinécourt

children: Alexandre Rameau, Claude-François Rameau, Marie-Alexandrine Rameau, Marie-Louise, Marie-Louise Rameau

Born Country: France

French Men Libra Musicians

Died on: September 12, 1764

place of death: Paris, France

Cause of Death: Fever

City: Dijon, France

discoveries/inventions: Fundamental Bass

Childhood & Early Life

Jean Philippe-Rameau was born on September 25, 1683, in Dijon, France. His father, Jean, worked as a provincial organist. His mother, Claudine was the daughter of a notary. His father played the organ in churches in and around Dijon.

The details about the first few years of his life are mostly obscure. Hence, it is assumed that Jean received early training from his father and later trained under a few other master musicians. It is also noted that he was taught music before he could read or write. However, his father wanted him to focus on his academics as well. Hence, Jean was enrolled at the Jesuit college at Godrans. However, Jean had no interest in academics and his teachers would complain that he disrupted the classes with his singing.

In college, Jean was studying law. But soon he realized that music was his true passion and it was what he wanted to do all his life. His father thus sent him to Milan, Italy, to study music. From there, Jean moved to Paris. He also worked as a violinist for some time before he made the big move to Paris, which was the hub of music in that part of Europe.

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While living and working in Paris, Jean published his first set of compositions, titled Pieces de Clavecin. In the book, he published compositions for harpsichord. He later went on to publish two more instalments of the book. After working in Paris for about 3 years, he returned to Dijon in 1709, where he took his father’s job at the main church, as an organist.

His contract with the church was to work there for six years. But he decided to leave early and joined other churches. Around this time, he indulged heavily in composing motets for the church performances. He also composed secular cantatas as well.

There has been no record of what he did in the next decade or so and was only noticed again when he returned to Paris in 1722. In the same year, he wrote one of his most popular books on music theory, titled Treatise on Harmony Reduced to its Natural Principles. This book earned him a great reputation among the music theorists and the musicians. He went on to publish another music theory book a few years later titled Nouveau systeme de musique theorique. His music theory works were highly revered for being scientific, innovative, analytical and highly creative at the same time.

In 1731, he was also invited to serve as the conductor of La Poupelinière's orchestra. Jean’s work there was of top quality and further entered the good books of many major artists. He remained in the position of orchestra’s chief conductor for the next two decades. He met Voltaire through his work there and also collaborated with the celebrated writer. Together, they began working on the opera titled tragédie en musique Samson. However, Voltaire’s reputation in the French circles was that of a major critic of the church establishment. Hence, it was assumed that the opera won’t be able to run and thus, its production was halted midway.

Towards the end of the 1720s, Jean also published a few more harpsichord pieces. However, by this time, his popularity was mostly as a music theorist. He was yet to reach his full potential as a musician and the beginning of the golden phase of his music was after he had turned 50 after he dived headfirst into the world of opera music composing.

His main inspiration to attempt this form was the opera that he saw in the 1730s, titled Jephet by Montclair. The first opera Jean thus produced was titled Hippolyte et Aricie. It premered in 1733 at the Academie Royale de Musique in Paris. His opera was highly innovative and touched new avenues in the French opera culture. There were many critiques for his first attempt at opera calling it an attack on the French musical tradition.

His opera was considered to be the most significant work in the French opera culture since the demise of Lully, who was another pioneer of French opera tradition. The reaction to Jean’s attempt in the genre was so divided that the French musical community divided into two Lullyistes and Rameauneurs.

The divisive response to the opera further caused Jean to gain popularity among many patrons. He got a wealthy patron in Alexandre Le Riche de La Poupelinière, who funded most of Jean’s works until 1753.

Jean also played with different genres. One of his most popular experiments was with the lighthearted genre of opera ballet. Under this genre, he composed Les Indes galantes, which was an extremely successful opera.

After getting a taste of success with his opera composing stints, he began working on back to back operas. His next three ventures were Castor et Pollux, Dardanus and another opéra-ballet titled Les fêtes d'Hébé. The operas he produced in this period of the 1730s are known to be his best works in the field. Following these back to back successes, Jean practically disappeared for the next six years.

Apart from 1744’s Dardanus, no significant work was seen from Jean. His disappearance during this time is said to be caused by his fallout with the Académie royale de la musique over some undisclosed issue.

In 1745, Jean once again appeared in public life when he was asked to perform at some major events, such as the French victory at the Battle of Fontenoy. Along with it, he was also seen performing at weddings of French royalty.

In the same year, Jean composed an opera that is also considered to be one of his most celebrated works to date, Platee. Along with it, he also worked with Voltaire on two operas titled Le temple de la gloire and Le princesse de Navarre. Again these two ballets were in a lighthearted tone. It can be said that Jean never stopped challenging the norms in French music.

Jean worked on his music theories and operas until the 1760s. His final two operas were titled Les Paladins and Les Boreades.

Personal Life & Death

Jean Philippe-Rameau married Marie-Louise Mangot in 1726. They stayed together happily until his death in the mid-1760s. The couple had four children together, 2 boys and 2 girls.

Jean had an eccentric personality. He was also famous for his quarrels with the esteemed French thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau over the credits for his work. Rousseau constantly accused Voltaire and Jean of stealing his works.

Jean passed away from high fever on September 12, 1764. He passed away a few days before celebrating his 81st birthday.

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