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Until he was 50, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) was a church organist who composed liturgical and keyboard music. He was best known not for his music, but for his 1722 Traité de l’harmonie, which Berlioz later described, accurately but unfairly, as “a treatise on harmony for people who already know harmony.” Berlioz came a generation too late to understand why Rameau’s treatise was important. In Rameau’s day (and continuing into Mozart’s), a musician’s education was grounded in much the same modal counterpoint that musicians had learned two centuries earlier, even though it was far removed from what composers were actually writing. Rameau’s treatise established the concept and vocabulary of structural harmony. To this day, musicians use terms like key, tonic, and dominant.
In 1733 Rameau’s first opera (Hippolyte et Aricie) made him a central figure in a Paris opera establishment so ossified that it was still dominated by the operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who had died in 1687. It split into Lullistes and Ramistes, whose debates and bickerings took on a bizarre importance because freedom of speech about political and social issues was unknown in the ancien régime. Opera was therefore front-page material, a substitute or a proxy for politics.
French Baroque opera, in contrast to its Italian counterpart, was full of choruses, ballet, and pageantry, and not always focused on plot. The opéra-ballet might be an anthology of four or five unrelated stories, and even the single-plot tragédie lyrique spent a good part of its time in a prologue praising the king or celebrating some great event. But a silly plot could sink even a French opera, as it nearly did Dardanus in 1739.
The story, written by a talented but inexperienced 23-year-old aristocrat, centers on an obscure figure in classical mythology: Dardanus, the son of Atlas’ daughter Electra and Zeus (and the founder of Troy). He wins the hand of the king of Phrygia’s daughter in the midst of war and sea monster attacks, with the gods and a magician named Isménor pulling strings behind the scene. The opera’s story, particularly the sea monster bits, was widely ridiculed at the time. Rameau completely revised the opera in 1744, adding more instrumental music to a score that was already, as one Parisian observed, “so laden with music that for three whole hours the orchestral players do not even have time to sneeze.”
The practice of excerpting suites from the orchestral music in Rameau operas began with Rameau, who published suites from his 1735 Les Indes Galantes, noting in the preface that the public seemed to prefer the ballet music to the rest of it. And indeed, the instrumental music works perfectly well out of context: the only things a concert audience needs to know to appreciate the Dardanus music is that Isménor is a sorcerer and that Bruit de guerre means “noise of war.”
Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.