Jean-Philippe Rameau ( 25 September 1683 – 12 September 1764) was one of the most important French composers and music theorists of the Baroque era. He replaced Jean-Baptiste Lully as the dominant composer of French opera and is also considered the leading French composer for the harpsichord of his time, alongside François Couperin.
Little is known about Rameau's early years, and it was not until the 1720s that he won fame as a major theorist of music with his Treatise on Harmony (1722) and also in the following years as a composer of masterpieces for the harpsichord, which circulated throughout Europe. He was almost 50 before he embarked on the operatic career on which his reputation chiefly rests today. His debut, Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), caused a great stir and was fiercely attacked by the supporters of Lully's style of music for its revolutionary use of harmony. Nevertheless, Rameau's pre-eminence in the field of French opera was soon acknowledged, and he was later attacked as an "establishment" composer by those who favoured Italian opera during the controversy known as the Querelle des Bouffons in the 1750s. Rameau's music had gone out of fashion by the end of the 18th century, and it was not until the 20th that serious efforts were made to revive it. Today, he enjoys renewed appreciation with performances and recordings of his music ever more frequent.
Rameau was the leading French composer of his time, particularly after the death of Couperin in 1733. He made a significant and lasting contribution to musical theory. Born in Dijon, two years before the year of birth of Handel, Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, Rameau spent the earlier part of his career principally as organist at Clermont Cathedral. In 1722 or 1723, however, he settled in Paris, publishing further collections of harpsichord pieces and his important Treatise on Harmony, written before his removal to Paris. From 1733 he devoted himself largely to the composition of opera and to his work as a theorist, the first under the patronage of a rich amateur, in whose house he had an apartment.
Rameau contributed to a variety of dramatic forms, continuing, in some, the tradition of Lully. These included tragédies lyriques, comédies lyriques and comédies-ballets. His first success in 1733 was Hippolyte et Aricie, but as time went on fashions changed and the stage works he wrote after Les Paladins in 1760 remained unperformed. Orchestral suites derived from some of Rameau’s stage works at least make a certain amount of this music readily available.
Sixty of Rameau’s 65 harpsichord pieces were written by 1728, with a final group appearing in 1741. Published in 1706, 1724 and around the year 1728, these collections, with the final collection of 1741, consist of genre pieces and dances in the established tradition of French keyboard music.
In the later part of his career Rameau also wrote a series of suites, the Pièces de clavecin en concerts, for harpsichord, flute or violin and second violin or tenor viol.