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Rameau authority Graham Sadler begins with an excellent 13-page biography, tracing events from the composer’s birth in Dijon in September 1683 to his death in Paris in September 1764. Rameau was the archetypal late developer, known as a theoretician – rather than as a composer – until he was about 50. Even the first of his vastly influential theoretical writings did not appear until he was 39, most of his previous life having been spent in relative obscurity in the provinces. As Sadler writes, by the age of 50, ‘Bach and Handel had composed most of the works for which they are best remembered’. Rameau was secretive about his early life – contemporary writer Michel-Paul-Guy de Chabanon found his first 40 years ‘almost unknown’. The rest of the book is laid out alphabetically, from Abaris (or Les Boréades, Rameau’s last opera) to Zoroastre.

Rameau is often portrayed as an irascible character. Some contemporaries record unflattering accounts, but Sadler points out that such comments – ‘harsh and unsociable’, ‘uncivil’, ‘unmannerly’, etc – originate with those who had axes to grind, while there are ‘snippets of evidence’ revealing a much more convivial side. In addition to the predictable entries for each of Rameau’s stage works, his vocal and instrumental music, and theoretical writings, we find family members, leading contemporary composers, singers and dancers, intellectuals such as Voltaire, Diderot and D’Alembert, librettists (Cahusac and others), and artists who painted Rameau’s portrait. Even the chief scribe at the Académie Royale de Musique is listed, while other diverse entries include ‘ornaments added at rehearsal’, ‘ sonata form’, ‘slurred tremolo’, ‘French violin clef’, ‘eighteenth-century French’, and three cross-references under ‘viola’. Any reader unsure of the differences between ‘Tragédie en musique’ and ‘Tragédie lyrique’ will find clarification on page 210. The most surprising entry, however, is ‘xylophone’. I hope these examples indicate the range of this deceptively modest-sized book. A list of works (including theoretical writings) and a 30-page bibliography enhance this superb guide to Rameau’s life and music.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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