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.
[Benoît Dratwicki]

Tragédie lyrique

The tragédie lyrique, inaugurated by Quinault and Lully in the early 1670s, was the noble French operatic genre par excellence; such works were serious, but not necessarily tragic. Also known as tragédie en musique, it con... The tragédie lyrique, inaugurated by Quinault and Lully in the...

Ballet héroïque

Heir to the opéra-ballet, which Campra and Destouches had brought back into vogue towards the end of the reign of Louis XIV, the ballet héroïque adopted the same general structure, with a prologue and three autonomousacts... Heir to the opéra-ballet, which Campra and Destouches had broug...

Pastorale héroïque

During the second part of his career, Rameau became interested in the mixed genre known as the pastorale héroïque, inherited from the age of Louis XIV but rarely brought to the stage in the eighteenth century. Set in the w... During the second part of his career, Rameau became interested...

Comédie lyrique

The ancestor of the comédie lyrique was probably the seventeenth-century comédie-ballet. Burlesque, which had long been banished from the stage of the Académie royale de musique, finally made its entrance at the end of th... The ancestor of the comédie lyrique was probably the seventeen...

Comédie-ballet

Devised by Molière and Lully, the comédie-ballet was the highlight of court entertainments during the finest hours of the reign of Louis XIV, between 1660 and 1670, acting as a prelude to the creation of French opera. They... Devised by Molière and Lully, the comédie-ballet was the highli...

Acte de ballet

The acte de ballet was, as its name implies, a short piece in one act, but contrary to the implications of the terminology, it included sung music as well as dance (Other names for the genre were ‘petit opera’ and ‘opéra e... The acte de ballet was, as its name implies, a short piece in o...

Motet

Whether for solo voice or for a large choir, the motet was intended to punctuate the office, alternating with the Ordinary of the Mass or replacing it in the case of Low Mass. During the second half of the seventeenth cent... Whether for solo voice or for a large choir, the motet was inte...

Cantata

The French cantata for one or two singers, a small group of instruments and continuo was developed in imitation of the Italian cantata during the last fifteen years of the reign of Louis XV, parallel to the acclimatisatio... The French cantata for one or two singers, a small group of in...

Instrumental music

Rameau was a violinist and a harpsichordist and he left several collections of chamber music in keeping with the style of his time. His books of harpsichord pieces are in the great seventeenth-century French harpsichord tr... Rameau was a violinist and a harpsichordist and he left several...

Air and Canon

In Rameau’s secular vocal works, his canons and individual airs relate directly to his theoretical writings. According to Decroix, Rameau was planning to publish a treatise on the composition of canons (Traité de la compos... In Rameau’s secular vocal works, his canons and individual airs...
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