Jean-Philippe Rameau

Pièces de clavecin

Michel Kiener

harmonia mundi

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Excerpts from the integral text (CD text):

Jean-Philippe Rameau
His harpsichord music
The Three Books for harpsichord

Comment on Rameau’s ‘articulation’ by Luc Breton


Michel Kiener      

Born in Geneva, Michel Kiener undertakes simultaneously his piano and harpsichord studies at the local Conservatory of Music, where he wins the price of virtuosity in both disciplines. Further on, he attended improvement studies with Anneke Uittenbosch and Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam. He was awarded the first price of the Brudges International Harpsichord Contest in 1977. Hence forth, he is appointed teacher at the Geneva Conservatory of Music.

His background both as a pianist and harpsichordist soon led him to approach the late Baroque and Classical repertories on the pianoforte of XVIIIth and XIXth centuries, and even on the clavichord.

His eclecticism and passion for chamber music enabled him to share the stage in partnership with eminent artists issued from different generations, namely Pierre Fournier, Christophe Coin, Roel Dieltiens, Christine Busch, Jaap Schröder, Erich Höbarth, Sigiswald Kuijken, Ryo Terakado, Raphael Oleg, Gustav Leonhardt, Pierre Hantaï, Jan de Winne, Alexei Ogrintchouk, Sergio Azzolini; singers such as Marta Almajano, Jennifer Smith, Guillemette Laurens, François Le Roux; and the Kuijken and Mosaïques quartets. As a soloist, he performed with the ensembles Il Giardino Armonico, l’Ensemble Il Gardellino, The Moscou Soloists, and with the Suisse Romande, the Gulbenkian Endowment, the Münich Chamber, and the Württenberg orchestras.



Jean-Philippe Rameau ^^top^^

A son of an organist at Dijon, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) receives from his father his only formal musical instruction. After a brief sojourn in Italy and a term as organist at Clermond-Ferrand he undertakes his first trip to Paris in 1706 where he publishes his first book for harpsichord been thirsty three years old. He then succeeds his father at Notre Dame de Dijon and shortly after he became appointed organist at Lyon. In 1715 he returned to his former position at Clermont-Ferrand; here he wrote his Traité de l’Harmonie (Treatise of Harmony), which he published in 1722.

He returned to Paris in 1723, at the age of forty. The Parisian public then thought of Rameau mostly as a scholar, a philosopher, a wise man, but by no means as a composer. Moreover, due to his being tart and isolated, Rameau revealed unfit to courtly life. He would first become acknowledged by the public once he devoted entirely to opera composition, not before he was fifty. But, at the same time he will find himself involved in quarrels, assailed by his detractors for his being an innovator.

No other musical personality could be so closely related to the ideas of the XVIIIth century French Enlightenment; no one so fully embodies its inner intellectual character. Within an era in which Nature was believed to be ruled by a rational order and mechanic principles, Rameau’s greatest accomplishment was to expose the empirical bias of musical practice in terms of a natural principle based on Cartesian models: the fundamental bass.

Certainly not just pure reason not even pure hearing experience! Rameau shows that “his method” is a true dialectic of theory and practice. He conceives music as a body of empirical evidence and he discovers, by means of analysis, constants which are liable to be clarified through hypothetic statements: fundamental bass, fundamental generator, the seventh as the source of all dissonances, fundamental progression of the fifth…

Could a philosopher, who so astoundingly discourses on intervals and such principles, be capable of creating practical music?

Rameau’s music strongly reflects his concern about harmony and its natural basic principles. His melody is subordinated to harmonic progressions.

His harpsichord music ^^top^^

Rameau imposes to the keyboard a novel virtuosity which relies not only upon new technical resources, that Rameau considers same times of his own invention, but also on colour and orchestral effects that go beyond the reach of the harpsichord’s inner qualities. Embodied with the ideals of French aesthetics he conceives instrumental music in terms of ballet, opera and extra-musical representations.

Rameau’s originality with respect to his fellow composers, particularly evident in his second and third books, resides in his endeavour to extend the boundaries of the harpsichord, considering it as an instrument of highly sustaining power.

Most of Rameau’s harpsichord music, except for a few pieces originally written as ensemble music and further transcribed for the harpsichord, comes from the anonymous period spent before the stage performance of his first opera in 1733. The harpsichord became Rameau’s alchemist crucible where he experimented toward the final attainment of the technical and expressive resources of his musical language. Beside the enormous bulk of Rameau’s output in the field of the opera, cantata and motet, his harpsichord music may appear a slender legacy deprived of any true musical significance. Notwithstanding, it foreshadows the greatness of the dramatic power deployed by Rameau in his operas.

In the early years of the XVIIIth century two main types of harpsichord pieces existed in France. Namely: dance pieces, reminders of the pleasure of dancing with entertainment goals, and genre pieces (musical painting), whose musical appeal resided in evocative sighs of persons, objects, events or situations. They did not represent watertight compartments, but dance pieces often bore hinting titles or names and genre pieces were often written in dance rhythm.

The Three Books for harpsichord ^^top^^

The Premier livre de pièces de clavecin (First book of pieces for harpsichord) (1706) stands at the boundary of a tradition : the leadership of the suite in France. It contains no genre but only dance pieces, none of them bearing a name. It opens with a remain of the past : a Prélude non mesuré (bar less Prelude). This kind of toccata – like prelude, depicting the lutenists extemporized music was created by Louis Couperin. The structure of the pieces within this recueil is less developed than that of the further ones, but Rameau’s personality filters through the dramatic character of them.


1 - Prélude - composed in two parts : a bar less first one and a second one in 12/8 like an Italian style gigue (in equal note values).

2 - Allemande - grave, because of its notation in sixteenth notes and its dramatic character.

3 - 2e Allemande - it is an outgrowth of the previous one, but on a lighter character due to its notation in eights notes.

4 - Courante – is in luthé style; it foreshadows the analogous pieces in the third book.

5 - Gigue - audaciously sweeps across the keyboard. It echoes the Prélude in the last ten bars, but nuanced by a refined lyricism.

6 - Sarabande - is essentially melodic ; it contrasts with the second one, which is mainly rhythmic, in an allemande – courante linkage fashion.

7 - 2e Sarabande - despite the two Allemandes, the two Sarabandes have no thematic link. The second one is majestic and mostly rhythmic because of its notation pointée à la française.

8 - Vénitienne - reveals its « Rameau-style » character in its second section. Girdlestone associates its mood with that of the barcarolle and suggests a tempo moderato in order to accurately render its cantabile proper to chansons de gondolieri.

9 - Gavotte - features Rameau’s pesonal style and is the forerunner of la Livri (Pièces de Clavecin en Concert).

10 - Menuet - alike the two Sarabandes, it is a remain of the past which does not reflect the Rameau mature of his second and third books.

Rameau’s second book, headed Pièces de Clavecin was published in 1724 (reissued in 1731) a year after Rameau’s return to Paris. Aged forty, he had written several motets and secular cantatas, alike his Traité de l’Harmonie (Treatise of Harmony). By that time suite form had been already banned from repertory; nevertheless, Rameau continues to group his harpsichord compositions by tonality: ten in E and ten in D. Except for eight dances, they are mostly genre pieces, saved for Le Lardon which shares both categories. From then on, Rameau’s harpsichord pieces, among which several were issued from previous casts written for the Fairy Theatre (Théâtre de la Foire), will occur in his operas. The pieces contained here belong to two different forms: binary and rondo form.

Suite in E

11 & 12 - Allemande and Courante - belong to the binary form. They are rather conservative in structure and style alike their analogues in the first book.

13 - Gigue en Rondeau - fashioned in two couplets like most of Rameau’s rondos.

14 - 2e Gigue en rondeau - despite the previous one, this is structured in three couplets ; they are both Italian style gigues written in equal note values.

15 - Le Rappel des Oiseaux (The Birds Recall) - this is Rameau’s first genre piece. The descriptive effect of the forth up leap, which recalls the blaring of the clarion, constitutes the « the recall of the birds». Rameau embodies a colouristic effect to the piece thanks to the holding up of the harmony letting the resolution to be desired.

16 - 1er, 2e Rigaudon and Double – this typically French dance has been inserted in the ballet de cour by Lulli. Certain simplicity of structure and style draws these pieces near those of the first book.

17 - Musette en Rondeau - "musette" depicts the bagpipe. This is a bucolic (partoral) piece which was also added to the dance suite by Lulli. It is fashioned in three couplets, but they were farther on reduced to two to be inserted in act III of Les Fêtes d'Hébé.

18 - Tambourin (The Drum) - it is through composed and, so to speak, monothematic. After the third couplet, the refrain comes back slightly modified. It will be found later in act III of Les Fêtes d'Hébé.

19 - La Villageoise (The Citizen) - a genre title very often found as so its opposite La Paysanne (The Peasant). Its mood is merry and light, almost tender. It shows a thematic unity between refrain and couplets.


Suite in D

20 - Les Tendres Plaintes (The Tender Grievances) - a frequent genre title which points out its character and tempo. Rameau here yields to the quietness and meditative contemplation. He will further insert it as Air tendre en rondeau, air of Amélite, in act I of Zoroastre.

21 - Niais de Sologne and Doubles (The Fools of Sologne) - is a variation piece. It has a country side mood thanks to its drone bass and its melody depicting the vielle. It recalls the proverb: “Fool of Sologne who mistakes but for his own profit ». It was said that the Solonians (from Sologne, a swampy region south to Paris) had foolish and stupid look and manners, but that they were canning and acute. The piece was further inserted in act III of Dardanus.

22 - Les Soupirs (The Sighs) - is a genre piece which represents the sighs, here depicted by the syncopated eighth notes and an ornament called suspension. The latter compels the note that bears it to enter delayed from the bass, thus allowing it to be cravingly desired and expected. On long notes, the effect is even intensified by the addition of a trill.

23 - La Joyeuse ( The Joyful) - is a genre piece. The title suggests its tempo.

24 - La Follette (The Crazy) - is a genre piece. It is an Italian style gigue (in equal note values). The long lasting mordents, alternated between right and left hands, could suggest the craze.

25 - L'Entretien des Muses (The Muses’ Appointment) - is a descriptive and very lyric piece, which reflects Watteau paintings. It is written so that both hands remain close to each other in the tender register of the harpsichord. It quiet mood depicts what would be the Muses conversation in their dwell. It was further inserted in act II of Rameau’s opera Les Fêtes d'Hébé.

26 - Les Tourbillons (The Swirls) - is a descriptive piece of the « whirls of dust while been swirled by the strong winds » - says Rameau in a letter to Houdar de la Motte. It is a tour de force of virtuosity in which the batteries range over more than two octaves.

27 - Les Cyclopes (The Cyclops) - descriptive piece depicting the gods forgers of the thunderbolt. Its eruptive and theatrical character foreshadows the cataclysms of the Tragédies Lyriques. It is a representative of the novel virtuosity that Rameau bestows to the harpsichord. Two main types of batteries can be found in this piece: one in which both hands alternate to strike the keys like drum sticks, and the other the left hand overlaps the right one. Rameau candidly boasts of its invention while ignoring that Scarlatti had created them independently.

28 - Le Lardon (The Bacon) - is a descriptive culinary piece. The left hand fingers intersperse between the chords of the right hand like a slice of bacon. It is a slender piece compared with the virtuous ones or those deeply meditative.

29 - La Boiteuse (The Lame) - is a descriptive piece. The rhythm in the left hand (quarter note, eighth note) suggests the limpness.


Rameau’s third book, headed Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin (New Suites of pieces for Harpsichord) hold within pieces of a grater span and deeper passions than the ones in the other two recueils. They are “among the greatest” according to Girldestone. Rameau’s third book for harpsichord steps forward towards the harmonic fulfilment. Repeated chord and arpeggio textures stand to reinforce harmony and its generating character. The writing is now closer to that of the piano-forte where counterpoint is almost banished.

1 - Allemande - is fashioned upon the Allemandes of the first book ; it has the serious character of the first one of them. However, it embodies the dramatic tone colour of the Rameau mature of the third book.

2 - Courante - in A minor. It owes its majestic flavour to the perfect match of artistic craftsmanship and emotional strength it is endowed with. Virtuosity and rationalism here merge freely. Its magic resides in the multiplicity of simultaneous rhythms, of running scales, of up and down leaping arpeggios, and long sustaining notes underneath of which the piercing motif is omnipresent.

3 - Sarabande - reveals a greater passion compared with the analogous pieces in the first book. It echoes the aria Tristes Apprêts from Castor et Pollux. Rameau later inserted it in act III of Zoroastre.

4 - Les Trois Mains (The Three Hands) - is a descriptive piece. The ranging of the register (four octaves and a half), the overlapping of the hands, and the up and down leaps from one side to the other of the keyboard give the illusion that three hands take place in the playing.

5 - Fanfarinette - is a genre piece. Possible allusion to Fanfan la Tulipe or to « boaster» ( ?). The writing (repeated figure of three quarter notes with a trill written over the middle one) could also suggest the sound of fanfare. It could be a little fanfare which precedes the greater one of La Triomphante.

6 - La Triomphante (The Triumphant) - is a genre piece. The arpeggios and up and down leaps of an octave, culminated by a trill followed with a cadence recall the themes from fanfares.

7 - Gavotte with six doubles - together with Les Niais de Sologne from the second book, are the only two variation forms in the whole Rameau’s work for harpsichord. The theme recalls French lute music. Rameau here deploys for the first time orchestral resorts coming out from the new concerto style, namely swift scales in the manner of tirades before cadences. The succession of both hands in imitation in the forth double is also a typically newly introduced rococo figure.

8 - Les Tricotets (The Weavings) - is a descriptive piece. Allusion to the dance thus named because of the rapid movements of the feet here depicted by the hands which interweave (the visualisation of the score yields no doubt).

9 - L’Indifférente (The Indifferent) - is a very frequent genre title. It used to be a personage of the Fairy Theatre from where a first cast of the piece would come. It recalls the dreamer and superfluous look of L’Indifférent by Watteau.

10 - Deux Menuets - the first one was later inserted in the prologue of Castor et Pollux.

11 - La Poule (The Hen) - seems to be mono-thematic. It is based on a brief clucking theme which reveals Rameau’s intention to depict Nature. The inscription of co co co co co co co daï underneath the first appearance of the clucking theme, certainly a Rameau’s nonsense, could lead to the wrong belief of a derisive effect. All but a superfluous jest! The development of the clucking theme shows, through its permanent tension and relief interplay, the dramatic seriousness of the piece. The clucking theme, which completes its harmony in waves as it is customary in Rameau’s style, comes back, footed fort, in every climatic passage. Thus, it relentlessly returns to appease the tension with its centralizer effect.

12 - Les Triolets (The Triplets) – the title possibly makes allusion to the omnipresent ternary rhythm. Its character resembles that of L’Indifférente.

13 - Les Sauvages (The Savages) - issued from the Danse des Deux Indiens de la Louisiane (Dance of Two Indians of Lousiana) written by Rameau for the Fairy Theatre in 1725; later become a harpsichord piece and farther on the Danse du Calumet de la Paix (Dance of the Peace Pipe ?) in Les Indes Galantes. It soon became a popular tune.

14 - L’Enharmonique (The Enharmonic) - twice along the second section Rameau inserts new thematic material endowed with the harmonic change to which he largely refers to in the foreword: the diesis enharmonica or quarter tone between the diatonic half tone (B-C) and the chromatic half tone (B-B#) that he even imposes to modulations. Michel Kiener’s interpretation renders in an unquestionable accuracy the psychological effect of enharmonic sought by Rameau and declared in the preface as of to enlighten the touché and to hold little by little the “Coulez whilst approaching the seizing point where one must remain for a while” as it is pointed out by a fermata in bar 12 of the reprise.

15 - L’Egyptienne (The Egyptian) - is a descriptive piece of Rameau’s utterance while seen the dance of a gypsy. This Egyptian, alike those in Molière’s plays, has nothing of oriental but she is just a gypsy.

16 - La Dauphine (The Daulphin) - in 1747, twenty years after the coming out of his third book, Rameau was compelled to write a slender piece devoted to the occasion of the Dolphin’s weeding with Maria Josepha de Sajonia. Rameau balanced the lacking of inspiration with the virtuosity he bestowed to the piece. La Dauphine was kept by Decroix and further handed out by his heirs to the Paris National Library. It was first published by Camile Saint Saëns in 1895.

Around 1760, Rameau’s harpsichord music, as well as his operas, began to be neglected. When Chabanon pronounced Rameau’s eulogy in 1765, a year after Rameau’s death, it was hardly played. Chabanon deplored this injustice and praised the virtues of Rameau’s music which, according to him, combined with a captivating charm two qualities seldom found in music: “chant” and “execution”…

Excerpts from the integral text by Jorge Cova.

Whole version


Glossaire de termes spécifiques ^^top^^

2e livre :

Le Rappel des Oiseaux : (voir commentaire). Première pièce de genre de Rameau. L’effet descriptif du saut de quarte évoquant la sonnerie de clairon constitue le motif du rappel.

La Villageoise : (voir commentaire). Titre de caractère assez fréquent toute comme son contraire La Paysanne. Son allure est gaie et légère, quasiment tendre.

Les Tendres Plaintes : titre de caractère très fréquent. Indique en lui-même son caractère et tempo.

Les Niais de Sologne : (voir commentaire). Le titre évoque le proverbe : "  Niais de Sologne qui ne se trompe qu’à son profit ". Il était dit que les Solognots (de Sologne : région marécageuse située au sud de Paris) avaient la mine et les manières niaises, qu’ils avaient l’air stupide et hébété, mais qu’il étaient pour autant rusés et fins d’esprit.

Les Soupires : pièce de caractère et descriptive des soupires représentés par les croches syncopées et un ornement appelé suspension, qui oblige la note qui le porte à entrer en retard par rapport à la basse se faisant désirer, attendre. Sur de longues notes l’effet est encore intensifié par un trille.

La Joyeuse : pièce de caractère. Le titre suggère son tempo.

La Follette : pièce de caractère. Gigue à l’italienne (notes égales). Des pincés très longues alternés entre main droite et main gauche pourraient suggérer la folie.

L’Entretien des Muses : (voir commentaire). Pièce descriptive, très lyrique qui reflète la peinture de Watteau. Écrite de façon que les mains restent proches dans la partie du registre " tendre " du clavecin. L’air calme évoque ce qui pourrait être la conversation des Muses dans leur demeure.

Les Tourbillons : (voir commentaire). Pièce descriptive des " tourbillons de poussier agités par les grands vents " - dit Rameau dans une lettre à Houdar de la Motte.

Les Cyclopes : (voir commentaire). Pièce descriptive, évocation de dieux forgeurs de la foudre. À caractère théâtral, par fois éruptif, elle anticipe les cataclysmes des Tragédies Lyriques.

Le Lardon : pièce descriptive (culinaire). Les doigts de la main gauche se faufilent entre les accords de la main droite comme une tranche de lard.

La Boiteuse : pièce descriptive. Le rythme de la main gauche (noire, croche) suggère le boitement.

3e livre :

Les Trois Mains : pièce descriptive. L’étendue du registre (quatre octaves et demie), le croisement des mains et les sauts d’un extrême à l’autre du clavier donnent l’illusion que trois mains interviennent dans le jeu.

Fanfarinette : pièce de caractère. Probable allusion à Fanfan la Tulipe ou à " fanfaronne " ( ?). L’écriture (figure répétée de trois croches, avec un trille noté sur la note centrale) pourrait être aussi allusive aux sons de fanfare. Elle pourrait être une petite fanfare qui précède la grande fanfare La Triomphante

La Triomphante : pièce de caractère. Les arpèges et sauts d’octave culminés par un trille et cadence évoquent les thèmes de fanfares.

Les Tricotets : pièce descriptive. Allusion à la danse ainsi nommée pour les mouvements rapides des pieds ici imités par les mains que tricotent (l’effet visuel de la partition ne laisse aucun doute).

L’Indifférente : titre de caractère très fréquent. Il était un personnage du Théâtre de la Foire d’où viendrait la première version de la pièce. Elle rappelle l’aspect rêveur et superflu de L’Indifférent de Watteau.

La Poule : (voir commentaire).

Les Triolets : probable allusion au rythme de subdivision ternaire omniprésent. Son caractère rappelle celui de L’Indifférente.

Les Sauvages : (voir commentaire). Issue de la Danse des Deux Indiens de la Louisiane  écrite par Rameau pour le Théâtre de la Foire en 1725 ; puis devenue pièce de clavecin et plus tard la Danse du Calumet de la Paix dans Les Indes Galantes. Cette pièce est devenu un véritable "tube" à l'époque.

L’Enharmonique : (voir commentaire).

L’Egyptienne : pièce descriptive de l’impression de Rameau en voyant danser une gitane. Tout comme les Egyptiennes dans le théâtre de Molière,  celle-ci n’a rien d’oriental, mais il s’agit toujours des gitanes.

Comment on Rameau’s ‘articulation’ (pronounciation of consonants) ^^top^^

 The disappearance of musical ‘articulation’ was (first) proproposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In this day and age/n ‘articulation’ is commonly allied with a ‘staccato’, something that did not occur in Rameau’s time as he kept music closely linked with the spoken language.

 Rameau’s contribution to his era was to make it a period of transition between Baroque and Classical, during which time although language was rigorously conserved, its loss was foreshadowed.

 In relation to the speeches of Dardanus, Alembert underlined the fact that while rhetoric plays a fundamental role, their interpretation pesents enormous difficulties particularly due to their severe form combined with the noticeable fantasy of ‘parlato’.

 “This difference between song and speech gives a distinct advantage to the latter in the first verse mentioned (…), where it is not possible to delve further than the composer did into truth of feelings and the resemblance of song with speech”.

 Pierre Lasserre describes the style of Rameau as: “of the 17th century, he keeps the sense of pride, of grandeur, of nobility, the energy and scale of oration/speech which are the most striking characteristics of his style; he retains without any problem the clarity, precision, backbone and symmetrical order of shape; he keeps to principles which demand a sort of exactness and mathematical precision in his creation of beauty; and finally he retains the dignity of tragedy without effort where necessary. But what he offers in particular, in this language of another era, so superior with respect to art, is to know how to express the sounds of his epoch. In his music he had to transmit the sensitivity and imagination of his contemporaries. Their dreams found in him an interpreter: dreams of life as in nature, of pastoral innocence, of voluptuous charm, of grace and lightness of passion, of happiness and of pleasure.”

 Clearly, Rameau makes use of his knowledge of the old ways such as ‘articulation’, the loss of which was predicted by Rousseau in his ‘Writings’ of music and his ‘Essay’ on the origins of language, when he said, for example “(…..) natural voices are ’inarticulate’, words will have few ‘tones’; some interspersed consonants effacing the hiatus of vowels will suffice to make them flow and easier to pronounce.”  He justifies this statement by the following argument: “In the beginning, man had only family, the law of nature, and language consisting only of gestures and a few inarticulate sounds.” Of this axiom, he deduced that the consonant is only a ‘brusque sound’ that had no place in music. This change (as well as equal temperament) was elevated to the status of “ Culture”.

 So what really is ‘articulation’?

‘Articulation’ appeared with the use of two types of consonants: those that the ancient grammaticians called “thin” (explosive: eg. P, T, Q) and those they called “thick” (M, L, R etc). These two categories differed essentially by the fact that the first started high up, while the second started with a low ‘groan’.

 Keyboard instruments lend themselves easily to the exploitation of the characteristics of consonants: an ‘arpeggio’ starting low down will produce the effect of a thick consonant will be accentuated if it is prolonged, whereas a short/rapid ‘chord’ starting with a high produces the effect of a ‘thin’ consonant.

The judiciously chosen placement of these consonants within a strict tempo will produce a characteristic ‘rubato’ effect such that one can say that it is just as much ‘equal’ or unequal’. This constitutes a correctly spoken ‘articulation’, such as that described earlier by Rousseau.

 This practice is found intact today in the music inherited from the European Baroque School (eg. Ayacucho School in Peru , Launeddas School in Sardinia ).

 The alert listener will appreciate their strict application in this masterful interpretation by Michel Kiener. In fact, this interpretation of Rameau’s harpsichord music reestablishes a dialogue in the strictest sense of the word. In addition, this also shows that all that which qualifies as ornamentation, loses the decorative side at the expense of a purely ‘articulate’ function.

 “articulation“ =Pronounce each consonant clearly.

 Luc Breton

Translation by Anne WILSON