RAMEAU: Pigmalion, Platee and Dardanus Ballet Suites
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Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
Jean-Philippe Rameau was born in Dijon in 1683, aclose contemporary of Bach, Handel and Telemann, butunlike them he had a strangely unbalanced career.
During the first half of his working life he was famousfor his keyboard music and publications on musicaltheory. Then, at the age of fifty, he launched himselfinto the world of opera - 'the age when the ordinarymortal begins to decay' said one of his earlybiographers - and over the next thirty years he went onto write nearly thirty theatrical entertainments. By 1749his works so dominated the Paris Opera that a rulingwas made that the company could stage only two of hisoperas a year 'for fear of discouraging othercomposers'.
The French public were fickle though, and a decadeafter Rameau's death in 1764 his operas had virtuallydisappeared from the stage - 'people had grown tired ofworshipping at the same altar' admitted one of hisfollowers. Despite the superlative quality of their musicand an encouraging increase in the number of recentrevivals, his operas have yet to re-enter the regularoperatic repertory, but they have found a new lease oflife on CD, and their ballet movements have becomeparticularly popular. In Rameau's time it was customaryto collect together the best of the ballet movements intoan orchestral suite, introduced by the opera's overture,and perform them in concert. This disc offers three suchsuites.
Platee was first performed at the palace ofVersailles in 1745 to celebrate the marriage of theDauphin and the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa.
Unusually for Rameau, it was comedy, with a plotwhich was both simple and instantly appealing. In orderto cure the jealousy of his queen, the god Jupiter feignslove for Platee, but Platee, it turns out, is an ugly froglikenymph who inhabits a swamp and lives under themisapprehension that she is irresistible to men.
Everyone has a laugh at her expense. This is cruellerthan at first appears because the joke was really on theunfortunate Maria Teresa who was apparently not anotable beauty herself.
Dance was the life-blood of the French court, and itpermeated every sphere of musical life. French operacomposers became expert at weaving ballet movementsinto the dramatic fabric of their works. In Platee theballet episodes are frequent and essential to the overalldramatic design. The original dance steps for allRameau's ballets are lost, but the music itself is often sovivid that it suggests its own choreography. The Oragewith its swirling, tempestuous string writing could benothing else but a storm whipped up by the gods, and inthe imaginary theatre of the mind you can easilyvisualise all the characters running for cover. The Airpour des fous gais et des fous tristes (Air for the happyand sad lunatics) is more sophisticated, and thepublished libretto tells us that the happy characters weredressed as babies and the sad ones clothed as Greekphilosophers. Rameau's music is exceptionallyanimated, with such abrupt changes of mood andscoring that it must have inspired dancing whichbordered on the manic, a far cry from the traditionalview of French courtly dances as graceful, refined andperfectly poised. He also takes a new broom to theMenuets, imbuing them with a wistful quality, rich inrustic drone-like harmonies, and with a ravishing,gilded melody in Menuet II. A final pair of Rigaudonsrestore an air of irrepressible good humour.
During the eighteenth century Pigmalion (1748)was one of Rameau's most popular and frequentlyplayed works. At one performance Rameau wasrecognised and applauded at length by the audience;according to one eye-witness 'he was transported, hewept for joy, and was enraptured by the public'sreception and swore to devote the rest of his life tothem'. Pigmalion is not a fully fledged opera but aforty-minute sung-and-danced Acte de ballet. It is basedon a myth from Ovid's Metamorphoses in which thesculptor Pygmalion falls in love with the statue he hascreated. The work opens with one of Rameau's mostbrilliant overtures, where the repeated notes of the fastsection evoke the sound of the sculptor's hammer. Oneof the high points of Pigmalion is the scene where thestatue comes to life and, in a charming ballet, learnshow to dance. Rameau writes a delightful sequence often short dances headed Les differents caract?¿res de ladanse, which covers all the basics of French dance inone easy lesson, from the languorous opening Air to thefinal up-tempo Tambourin.
Dardanus was Rameau's fifth opera, firstperformed in 1739 and later revived with a great deal ofnew music in 1744 and again in 1760. Each time herevised the score Rameau added yet more instrumentalmusic. Indeed, one contemporary claimed thatDardanus was 'so laden with music that for three wholehours the orchestral players do not even have time tosneeze'. The ballet music is especially colourful, notonly in its rich and varied instrumentation but also in itsquirky rhythmic, melodic and harmonic turns of phrase.
The Marche pour les differentes nations, the Menuetand Tambourins I & II are all from the second scene ofthe Prologue in which 'mortals of all states and ages'pay homage to Cupid in dance, each of which isbeautifully characterized - musically and metrically.
Tambourin III must rank as one of the most memorabletunes in the opera with its manic, twittering parts forpiccolos. At the opposite end of the scale comes theSommeil de Dardanus, a yawning sleep scene, belovedof French opera, which is slow, delicate and full ofhushed strings. Finally, a colourfully orchestratedChaconne with which Rameau brought the opera to amagnificent conclusion.
At the end of this suite we are left in no doubt ofRameau's place as one of the most original dancecomposers of the last three hundred years. Indeed, in hisown time the famous ballet-master Gardel claimed that'Rameau perceived what the dancers themselves wereunaware of; we thus rightly regard him as our firstmaster'.Simon Heighes