Jean-Philippe Rameau: Pièces de clavecin en concerts: Concert No. 5 in D minor

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chamber Music Series. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Jean-Philippe Rameau was a late bloomer, spending his 20s and 30s as an organist in obscure French towns before suddenly emerging in Paris in 1722 as the author of a Traité de l’harmonie (Treatise on Harmony) that revolutionized music theory. Basic concepts of tonal music, like the idea that the lowest pitch of a root-position chord establishes its fundamental sound and name, were first systematized by Rameau, who was influenced by the scientific thinking of René Descartes and Isaac Newton. Besides his theoretical work, Rameau composed a large amount of keyboard music and almost 30 operas which were performed at the Paris Opéra and for Louis XV’s court at Versailles.

The Pièces de clavecin en concerts are Rameau’s only works for keyboard with additional instruments. He published the set of five concerts in Paris in 1741—scored for violin, viola da gamba (a bowed, fretted six-string instrument), and double-manual harpsichord. He also suggested the collection could be performed with flute or a second violin, or even in an embellished version for harpsichord alone.

The Concerto No. 5 in D minor has three movements, each named in honor of another musician or performer from Rameau’s day. The first movement, La Forqueray, is a lively fugue in four voices (the harpsichordist’s two hands plus the other instruments), and is named for either Antoine or Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, a father-and-son pair of viol players. The second movement, La Cupis, is a slinky sarabande filled with roulements—the sudden, rapid scales characteristic of Rameau’s instrumental writing. The title refers either to the composer Ferdinand-Joseph Cupis or to his ballerina daughter, Marie-Anne, who danced in Rameau’s first opera. The bright D-major finale, La Marais, pays tribute to the memory of Marin Marais, the most famous viol-da-gamba player and composer of French viol music in the early-18th century.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.