The musical genres
Throughout his career, Rameau distinguished himself in the typical genres of his time. While favouring the salons with his cantatas, airs, canons and harpsichord pieces (either as a solo instrument or ‘in concert’), he approached the large-scale sacred forms with his motets. For the theatre, he began by writing divertissements for the Paris fairs. From 1733 he composed tragédies lyriques, ballets and pastorales héroïques for the Paris Opéra, and also actes de ballet, for performance either on their own or together with other such short pieces.
Despite the high level of their craftsmanship, his cantatas and motets retain the then current structure and style. His harpsichord pieces, mingling suites of dance-forms and titled miniatures, are in the spirit of the period, even though their descriptive purpose is occasionally combined with an avant-garde virtuosity (La Poule, Les Trois Mains). The later Pièces de clavecin en concert offer a rare example for the time of trios combining a virtuosic keyboard with independent strings.
On the operatic stage, Rameau appears fairly conservative in the genres he cultivated, elaborating the style and the musical writing rather than the structure and the form. He does nevertheless distinguish himself from his contemporaries by doing away with the prologues in all his works written from the 1750s onwards, and by returning to the rarer genres of the pastorale héroïque and the comédie lyrique.