When thinking of Baroque music, it is Bach that immediately springs to mind. Indeed, Johann Sebastian is the indisputable King Supreme of the musical style. But Händel, Scarlatti and Vivaldi are probably just as well known.

Another great, if slightly less familiar, Baroque composer is Jean-Philippe Rameau. Now widely regarded as one of the leading French composers of his time, alongside François Couperin, his music lost popularity towards the end of the 18th century and it was not until the late 20th century that his reputation was re-established.

jean-philippe-rameau
Jean-Philippe Rameau

A staunch promoter of French lyric tragedy, in the 1750s Rameau came under attack during the so-called Querelle des Bouffons: a rather harsh controversy between rival schools of thought concerned with the worthiness of Italian and French opera.

The quarrel erupted in 1752, when an Italian touring company of comic actors known as buffoni (jokers) landed at the Royal Academy of Music (the future Opéra de Paris), and opened their performance with Pergolesi‘s comic opera, La serva padrona (The Servant Turned Mistress).

During the first half of the 18th century, Italian opera had evolved and split into two genres: opera seria, with serious themes, and opera buffa, which introduced farcical interludes. The unexpected success of the latter split the Parisian intelligentsia into two blocs: advocates of tragédie lyrique and supporters of opéra bouffon.

In 1753, a year after the arrival of the buffoni, Jean-Jacques Rousseau published a pamphlet (Letter on French music) praising the Italian style while attacking the French quite harshly:

…“French singing is only continual barking, unbearable to all unprejudiced ears” … “The harmony is brutal, without expression and feeling”… “French airs are not airs… French recitals are not recitals”…

In all this, Rameau was seen as a defender of the establishment and his music went out of fashion. However, composers working in the Italian tradition began looking to Rameau as a way of reforming their leading genre, opera seria.

Tommaso Traetta, for example, produced operas that show the French composer’s influence, and many of the reforms found in Gluck’s operas were already present in Rameau’s works. So the two traditions ended up being interwoven.

Ironically, two and a half decades before the arrival of the buffoni, Couperin had already succeeded in reconciling French and Italian musical styles, albeit in instrumental rather than operatic music.

Having introduced Corelli’s trio sonata form to France, Couperin’s Grand Trio Sonata, published in 1724, was subtitled Le Parnasse, ou L’Apothéose de Corelli (Parnassus, or the Apotheosis of Corelli) and it blended the two styles in a set of pieces called Les goûts réunis (Styles Reunited).