Strange Bedfellows

Mind the Gap

Tonight’s Virtual Picnic Concert begins with a piece by the American funk band Vulfpeck, which is then followed by a performance of two keyboard works by the 18th century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). If this seems like an exercise in juxtaposition, that’s precisely what horn fellow Ava Conway, performer of the former piece, intended. Her choice to step outside the normal bounds of classical music with this performance was a calculated one.

Classical music is often stereotyped as high art but inaccessible, while more popular styles are sometimes seen as low but more, well, popular. The perceived gap between “high” and “low” music is nothing new, although the definition of each of these labels has historically been a moving target. For the early fathers of the Catholic Church, the highest form of music was that which was purely vocal, while instrumental music of any kind was described as low, unholy, and emanating from a “lack of breeding.” In the early 1600s, Giovanni Maria Artusi published a screed in which he attacked Claudio Monteverdi for subverting the “good old rules” of music. Monteverdi’s madrigals, he argued, were the “product of ignorance” and would be “eaten away by time.” And in the nineteenth century, composer and critic Robert Schumann was among those who argued that music by then-dead “masters” like Mozart and Beethoven was a cut above music that was intended for entertainment. Especially annoyed by many virtuoso instrumentalists and singers, he once wrote, “People say, ‘It pleased,’ or ‘It did not please.’ As if there were nothing higher than to please people!”

All the “low” genres which the church fathers, Artusi, and Schumann spoke out against have since become firmly embedded within the classical music canon, hence why those of us endowed with the gift of hindsight find elements of their opinions to be so quaint. The gap, though, still exists, and proponents on both “sides” are guilty of perpetuating it. Too often, different genres of music are seen as being like different countries defined by distinct borders. But perhaps a better metaphor would be to imagine them as different neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive personality, each contributing to a richer whole. We live in a world in which technology has made easily accessible nearly any kind of music imaginable. It only seems fitting that our concerts and venues, whether in person or from a distance, should reflect that incredibly variety.

Ava Conway on horn, accompanied by Ava Conway on horn

Portrait of Jean-Philippe Rameau by Jacques Aved (1728)

A Composer, In Theory

When The Conversation of the Muses (L’Entretien des Muses) first appeared in print in 1724, its composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, was better known in his adopted city of Paris as a music theorist than as a composer. Conversely, less than five years after the publication of The Hen (Le Poule), Rameau was so well known – and controversial – as a composer that his music was a major topic of discussion among the Parisian intelligentsia. These two short keyboard pieces are in some ways indicative of the intermediary period during which one of France’s most renowned music theorists became one of its most renowned composers.

The publication of the Traité de l’harmonie (Treatise on Harmony) in 1722 had propelled the previously unknown Rameau into the limelight. Based on the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and inspired by thinkers like Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton, Rameau postulated that music was a kind of science that was guided by natural laws and rational principles, laws and principles that could be discovered and defined through the examination of evidence. But Rameau’s newfound fame as a thinker did little to help him in his career as a composer. In fact, it may have harmed his compositional prospects, especially when it came to composing operas. In 1727 he suggested a collaboration between himself and a famed writer of operatic texts but was rejected on the grounds of the writer’s doubt that a 40-something-year-old music theorist with no operatic experience had the background to be successful in this endeavor.

Rameau responded in an oft-quoted letter defending his compositional abilities. In this remarkable missive, the wounded-but-confident composer argued that he wasn’t just well suited to composing dramatic music; he argued he was better suited than others.

“It is therefore desirable that there should be found for the stage a musician who has studied nature before painting her and who, through his learning, knows how to choose the colors and shades which his mind and his taste make him feel to be related with the required expression.”

Rather than shrink from the perception that a good theorist couldn’t possibly be a good composer, Rameau turned his theoretical background into a strength. And like a good music theorist, he came armed with examples. He referred to a list of pieces included in his keyboard sets of the 1720s, all of which have descriptive titles that are evoked by their music. The Conversation of the Muses he mentioned by name, and although he didn’t specifically name The Hen, he did reference other works from its set. Whether it be a solemn conversation between the Muses or the frenetic energy of a hen, Rameau reckoned that his demonstrated aptitude for musical expression should be evidence enough of his ability to write for the dramatic stage.

The writer was not swayed by Rameau’s arguments. Within the next decade, however, Rameau got his chance. As his operas took Paris by storm and a famous debate over their merit raged, one thing was never called into question: Rameau’s ability to represent drama, emotions, and the natural world through music. It seems the composer of The Conversation of the Muses and The Hen had been right about his abilities, after all.

– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West


 

Sources:

Graham Sadler and Thomas Christensen, “Rameau, Jean-Philippe,” in Grove Music Online

Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (1984)