Choir - Collegium Vocale De Gand, Choeurs De La Chapelle Royale
Orchestra - Orchestre De La Chapelle Royale
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What a curious career Jean-Philippe Rameau had! Born in Dijon in 1683, he is afterwards to be found in a variety of functions in several French towns. After a brief sojourn in Italy he became Master of the Chapel of the Cathedral of Avignon, then of the Cathedral in Clermont-Ferrand, a post he abandoned in 1706 to go to Paris in order to have his Pieces de clavecin published. In 1709 he returned to his birthplace where he succeeded his father at the organ of Notre-Dame. From 1713 to 1715 he was organist at Lyons and then, after a stay in Montpellier, he again took up his post at Clermont only to break his contract yet once more and to settle once and for all in Paris in 1723. In his Musikalisches Lexikon published in 1732, Johann Gottfried Walther presents Rameau as an organist, theoretician and the author of harpsichord pieces. But even in the capital Rameau was to have an agitated career. On his arrival in Paris he came into contact with several important circles, among them that of the Farmer-General, Le Riche de la Poupliniere who entrusted him with the direction of his orchestra from 1731 to 1752.
It was only in 1733, at the age of fifty, that Rameau most unequivocally declared his intentions of restoring the tragedie en musique to its former glory in his Hippolyte etAricie. At the beginning of the 18th century France was torn asunder by the partisans and the adversaries of Italian music. The Abbe Raguenet and Lecerf de la Vieville, in their Parallele, Cornparaison, Defense du Parallele and Reponse a la Defense du Parallele, foreshadowed the notorious Querelle des Bouffons which was to break out during the performances of the Italian opera buffo in 1752. Rameau's operatic works therefore fall between these two great disputes and the opinion of Baron Grimm, albeit somewhat uncouthly expressed, was that during this period European music began to be very similar in Paris, in Vienna, in London and in Mannheim and that the search for a specifically French music was doomed to certain failure: "May I die if Rameau and all his notes ever count for anything in the rest of Europe!" Rameau's motets are difficult to place in a historic context. When, at the command of Louis XIV, Dumont's Motets pour la Chapelle du Roy were published it might be presumed that the French motet had already been awarded its letters of nobility. In fact Dumont's successors at the Chapelle Royale or in any of the other great centres did no more than conform to the normal development of the established pattern. If composers like Dela-lande, Campra or Charpentier made more frequent use of added wind instruments in their orchestras they were doing no more than following the movement to expand the orchestra proposed by Lully, not only in the opera but also in some of his rare motets. Breaking out of the compact style of the double chorus motet in which a close complicity had established itself between the soloists (small chorus) and the large chorus, more and more precisely defined sections were to result in the division of the motet into several numbers (chorus, solo, duo, trio, etc.) with variable instrumental accompaniments. If in several respects Rameau's motets seem to be a dutiful continuation of the work of his predecessors, they do not appear in the light of a culmination of it; on the contrary, like a good number of his works, they show an urge for reflection on the principles of an authentic French style. Raynal's reaction in the Nouvelles litteraires after the performence of In convertendo at the Concert Spirituel in 1751 is understandable: "Rameau's best friends have been constrained to agree that there are neither brilliant solos, nor majestic choruses, nor symphonies, nor images nor homogeneity in his music. Mondonville has not been dethroned and the rivalry of Rameau has but doubled the esteem in which his motets are held." Behind this harsh comment lurks a meticulously organized hostility. When for the first time the Concert Spirituel presented a major work by Rameau (this motet) it is easy to imagine that it was quite * simply a matter of forced courtesy. We will see later that his critics, doubtlessly well-founded, were in fact only explaining that which constitutes the great dignity of Rameau's motets. This brings us to placing the composition of his motets. Of the five surviving motets (only one of which is of doubtful authenticity), only Laboravi was published as an example of fugal writing in the Traite de I'Hamonie reduite a sesprincipes naturels (1722). The catalogue of the Library of the Academie des Beaux Arts at Lyons, founded in 1713, mentions in the first numbers of its inventory three motets by Rameau, Dens nostrum refugium, Quam dilecta and/ft convertendo. It therefore seems almost certain that all these motets date from before his arrival in Paris. Were they written at Lyons or at Clermont? When In convertendo was performed in 1751 the Mercure announced "an old motet by M. Rameau". A glance at the development of sacred music in the 18th century reveals that it was constantly growing closer to secular music. This tendency became even more pronounced after the establishment of societies like the Concert Spirituel in Paris (1725) and especially with the appearance of veritable concert works like Gossec's Messe des Morts (1760). Jean-Jacques Rousseau was aware of this development: "The French are more successful in this type of music than they are in the French, the language (Latin) being less unfavourable; but they belabour it too much, and as the Abbe du Bos reproaches them, they play too much on the word. In general Latin music does not have enough gravity for the use for which it is destined. One should not seek here to imitate as in music for the stage; sacred songs should not represent the tumult of human passions but only the majesty of him to whom they are addressed and the equanimity of those who utter them" (JJ. Rousseau, Dictionnaire deMusique, under Mottet). In numerous writings on music, among them those by the Abbe du Bos or Lecerf de la Vieville, one finds the same kind of remark in defence of a religious style different from that of the "particular expression of each line, of each word". Rameau's motets are the perfect answer to these desires; what is more, they have the appearance of a totally original creation, which is all the more remarkable since they seem to belong to a style that was very advanced for their period. These motets are divided into distinctly individualized numbers. What strikes one from the first bars of In convertendo is the construction of the melodic lines; in the recitatives and airs the style, while remaining syllabic, is infused with an extreme mannerism giving an important place to the ornaments. Only a few selected words like iaetantes", "exultatione" or "magnificavit" are highlighted by the use of vocalises. In the same spirit the air, Converte Domine, has an almost Italianate soaring quality on "sicut torrens in austro" underlined by rapid rising and falling scales in the flutes and violins giving it a rather theatrical effect. The choruses alternate two kinds of writing: there are, on the one hand, homorhythmic sections the flow of which is dictated by rhetorical principles and, on the other, passages of imitative writing. Particular care has been bestowed on the use of the orchestra. In the chorus, as required, it doubles the parts or plays an independent role of astonishingly supple imaginativeness. As regards the construction of the various numbers, one is struck by the frequency of ABA forms as well as by the number of orchestral introductions announcing the main motif of the vocal part. But it is true that we do not find in these works the ready pomp of the symphonies and larges choruses of Delalande. All is expressed with an inward intensity which is quite foreign to the evolution of music in the "century of light". One has only to recall that in 1751, the year in which In convertendo was performed at the Concert Spirituel, Johann Stamitz was playing his symphonies in Paris.
- Jerome Lejeune (translated by Derek Yeld)