Rameau on the art of composition

Jean-Philippe Rameau – Letter to Houdar de La Motte, 1727

October 25: 1727

Whatever reasons you may have, Sir, not to expect from my dramatic music as favourable a success as from that of a composer apparently more experienced in this kind of music, allow me to counter them, and at the same time to justify my bias in my own favour, without claiming to draw from my learning any other advantages than those which you will agree with me in feeling to be legitimate.

When one says: a learned musician, one generally means a man whom nothing escapes in the different combinations of notes, but one believes him to be so absorbed in these combinations that he sacrifices everything to them, common sense, wit and feeling. Such a one is but a school musician, of a school where it is a question of notes and nothing more; so that one is right in preferring to him a musician who boasts less science than taste. Yet this latter, whose taste has formed only comparisons within reach of his senses, can at best excel in only a few kinds of music, I mean, kinds suited to his temperament. If he is naturally tender, he expresses tenderness. If his character is quick, playful, witty, etc, his music corresponds. Take him away from these characters which are natural to him and you will not recognize him. Moreover, as he draws everything from his imagination, without any help from art with relation to his expressions, in the end he runs dry. In the first flush all was brilliant; but this fire is consumed as he tries to rekindle it, and all one finds in him is repetitions or commonplaces.

It is therefore desirable that there should be found for the stage a musician who has studied nature before painting her and who, through his learning, knows how to choose the colours and shades which his mind and his taste make him feel to be related with the required expressions.

I cannot deny that I am a musician; but at least I have more than others the knowledge of colours and shades of which they have but a confused feeling and which they use in due proportion only by chance. They have taste and imagination, but confined in the store of their sensations where the different things cluster in a little patch of colours beyond which they perceive nothing. Nature has not entirely deprived me of these gifts and I have not given myself to combining notes to the extent of forgetting their intimate connexion with that natural beauty which alone is enough to please but which one does not find easily in a ground lacking in seeds and which, especially, has already gone its full length.

Make inquiry of the opinion people have of the two cantatas of mine one or the other should be carried out. You have only to come and hear how I have characterized the song and the dance of the savages who appeared at the Théâtre Italien two years ago and how I have rendered the titles: Les Soupirs, Les endres Plaintes, Les Cyclopes, Les Tourbillons (that is to say the swirls of dust raised by high winds) L’Entretien des Muses, a Musette, a Tamourin, etc. You will then see that I am not a novice in the art and that it is not obvious that I make a great display of learning in my compositions, where I seek to hide the art by very art; for I consider only people of taste and not all the learned, since there are many of the former and hardly any of the latter. I could make you hear motets of mine with full choir and you would see whether I feel what I seek to express. But this is enough to give you food for thought.

Quoted in: Girdlestone, Cuthbert, Jean Phillipe Rameau His Life and Work, Dover Publications Inc., 1969, Library of Congress No. 74-78058, pp. 9-10.

1 thought on “Rameau on the art of composition

  1. Yuri Vilenkin

    Rameau’s letter is referred to time when he still struggled for his recognition and this letter is addressed to the influential man. Rameau tells that he posses good musical taste and he in some time (but for some time only) win high recognition as composer. He claims as well that he posses l knowledge about music nature more as other musicians. Apparently he told about his theory of harmony. Indeed, Rameau formed method of chord progressions as result of analysis of known music works. Nevertheless his interpretation wasn’t ready for achievement of really good composition results although it was in fashion for long time.
    What was result? Famous Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

    “The study of composition, which used to require about twenty years, now can be completed in a couple of months; musicians are devouring the theories of Rameau, and the number of students has multiplied. … France has been inundated by bad music and bad musicians; everybody thinks he has understood the finesses of art before having learned as much as the rudiments; and everybody tries to invent new harmonies before having trained his ear to distinguish between right and wrong ones.”


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