Discovery Series: Jean-Philippe Rameau - Entrada

September 21, 2021

Discovery Series: Jean-Philippe Rameau

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The career of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) developed slowly, first gaining traction after he published his now-famous Treatise on Harmony (1722), the earliest important document on tonality. In 1724, he composed his second major set of harpsichord pieces, including ten consecutive movements in either D Minor or D Major that have been grouped together as the “Suite in D Major.” 


The opening movement, the captivating Les tendres plaintes, has recently gained popularity as a standalone piece. If played without ornaments, it is an intermediate work and is not complicated. Adding various mordents, trills, and appoggiaturas produces a more advanced level of difficulty. In any event, it presents a contrast to the more ‘learned’ counterpoint of contemporaries such as J.S.Bach. Les tendres plaintes is a rondeau in ABACA form, with a tender, melancholic melody in a comparatively homophonic (“melody and accompaniment”) texture. 


Fred Karpoff walks you through how to execute several different kinds of ornaments while maintaining the essential cantabile quality of the piece. Three-dimensional technique proves essential to playing the many trills with ease–with a quiet hand, clever fingering, momentum, follow-through, and release.


The harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, in the notes of his recording of Rameau, wrote: 

“…the Suite in D Major, opening with an almost tongue-in-cheek exemplar of the character piece, with a title so hackneyed that Rameau was surely poking a bit of fun: Les tendres plaintes (‘The tender sighs’). Whatever his intentions it is a pearl of a piece, and Rameau clearly thought enough of it to rework it as a ballet movement in Zoroastre (1749)…The use of rondeau form proves effective as the repetition of the main theme after each couplet (contrasting section) creates great intensity.”


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