It is not surprising that the music of 18th-century Paris is largely unknown to modern symphony orchestra audiences. Parisian musical life revolved around French opera, an acquired taste that listeners of the 19th and 20th centuries resisted acquiring. For one thing, Baroque opera plots deal exclusively with ancient mythology or medieval romances, giving them even less of the real world, if possible, than the Romantic works that now make up most of the opera repertory. For another, the singing itself requires a virtuosic flexibility - of which "Quand l'aquilon fougueux" from Rameau's Dardanus is a fairly modest example - that was hard to find between the early 19th century and the late-20th century flowering of the early music movement.
And of course, the music is vocal, not instrumental. Master of the orchestra though he was, Rameau's orchestral music comes exclusively from his operas, most of it short ballets that are full of instrumental color and catchy tunes, but not much development. They display Rameau's skill as an orchestrator and tunesmith, but not as dramatist or composer. So orchestral suites can convey an impression of Rameau as a lightweight. To the Parisians of his day, or anyone who experiences his operas in full, he was anything but.
Rameau came late to opera. He was a provincial church organist with a small reputation as keyboard composer until he published his famous Treatise on Harmony in 1722, when he was nearly 40. It is because of that treatise that we now talk of structural harmony and "tonic " and "dominant," instead of the terms of modal counterpoint. He was 50 when his first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, made him a controversial star. The elegant but relatively simple operas of Lully were still holding the boards in Paris a half-century after Lully's death. Rameau's music - more detailed, contrapuntal, colorful in orchestration, and inventive - astonished everyone, and shocked and offended the devoted Lullistes. André Campra, a composer old enough to have known Lully, said that Hippolyte contained enough music for ten operas.
Rameau's operas typically begin with a prologue that is as long as one of the acts, but is not part of the opera's plot. In the Dardanus prologue (from which most of the suite that begins this concert is taken) Venus, the goddess of love, sees that things are getting dull around her palace, and turns the destructive Jealousy and her followers loose to rouse everyone. When Jealousy's minions get out of hand, Venus calms them down in the recitative, air, and ariette that begin with "C'en est trop." Then she asks everyone to enact the story of Dardanus, and the opera begins.
In "Tristes apprêts" from Castor et Pollux, Telaire laments Castor's death in battle moments after she had become engaged to him. In "Cruelle mère des amours" from Hippolyte et Aricie, Phaedra asks the goddess of love to allow her to seduce Hippolytus, her husband's son by a previous marriage. The husband, Theseus, spent the preceding scene in Hades, narrowly escaping after being warned that his life back on earth would be hell itself.
- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.