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Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Biography

Dad wanted Rameau to be a lawyer, though it soon became clear that he wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer: in fact, women laughed at Rameau's love letters for their poor grammar. So, at the age of eighteen Rameau left Dijon in order to pursue a musical career. After traveling a bit and working in France, he signed a twenty-nine year contract as an organ master for a cathedral in Clermont. There he composed his text Traite de l'harmonie (1722), which pretty much defined music theory for the next two and a half centuries. In it Rameau formally laid out all the ingredients of what is now traditional Western harmony: chords are built in thirds from a root tone, a style that is taken for granted today. In order to get out of the long contract, Rameau played really noisy, crumby organ until they let him go, and for twenty years afterwards he worked with the assistance of wealthy patrons in France. Later in his career, his highly dramatic operas and harmonically rich chamber music went out of fashion as the newer classical style began to take hold, with its simple harmonies and catchy tunes.

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