Philippe Sly is already gaining international notoriety for his “beautiful, blooming tone and magnetic stage presence” (San Francisco Chronicle). He is the first prize winner of the [...]
I am forced to believe that I am a musician; but at least I have the advantage over others of the knowledge of colours and shades, of which they have but a confused sense and which they employ in proportion only by chance […] Nature has not entirely deprived me of these gifts, and I am not given to combining notes to the extent of forgetting their intimate connection with nature’s beauty, which is pleasing enough in itself but which is not naturally found in soil lacking in seeds, especially if it has already given up its best. Inquire about the opinion people have of my two cantatas written twelve years ago, whose manuscripts have become so widespread in France that I have not bothered to have them engraved…
Jean-Philippe Rameau held his cantatas in high enough esteem to use them as a calling card in 1927 when he was trying to convince the famous Houdar de la Motte to write him an opera libretto. While the genre—imported from Italy and adopted by many of Rameau’s contemporaries, such as Clérambault, Campra, and Bernier—had quickly won over French audiences, Rameau saw it primarily as a means of mastering opera. “One must be knowledgeable of the stage, have all the characters present, be sensitive to dance and its movements, not to mention all the props; to understand the voice and actors, etc.” he wrote in a letter dated May 29, 1744 in reply to a young priest named Mongeot who had written to him for advice. “Before undertaking so great a work, it is necessary to have done smaller ones, cantatas, entertainments, and a thousand trifles of the sort that nourish the spirit, kindle the imagination, and gradually make one capable of greater things.”
This is pure Rameau: his passion for his art, his quest for excellence, his apparently limitless culture, his ease of conveying a message both with words and sound. As he wrote in his treatise on harmony, “A good musician should surrender himself to all the characters he wishes to portray, and like a skillful actor, put himself in the speaker’s shoes.” Regardless of the means used to achieve this, the composer uses music and the interplay of harmony to convey feeling. These cantatas must be considered not so much as miniature operas than as works of pure music that, as Paul Berthier submits in his book Réflexions sur l’art et la vie de Jean-Philippe Rameau, “triumph solely through the means and attributes of music: melody enhanced with richness and variety, a thousand endlessly renewable rhythmic possibilities, harmony of amazing fullness fashioned freshly from his hands, a combination of timbres and instrumental and vocal writing that have withstood the test of time.”
Aquilon et Orithie and Thétis, no doubt the oldest, were probably composed in Lyon or during the first months Rameau spent in Clermont. The first includes a fiery aria, its theme’s rising scale overlaid with a particularly dazzling violin part. Thétis opens with a prelude that allows the two characters to take their places and that borrows its dotted rhythms from the French overture. “You will notice the degree of anger I give to Neptune and Jupiter according to which of the two it should belong and according to whose orders should be carried out,” he explains to La Motte.
We know that Le Berger fidèle was performed (and likely premiered) in the fall of 1728. The most French of Rameau’s cantatas, it bears his distinctive seal: vigour, balance and clarity from the very first aria, which is comparable to a number of his later operatic works. Indeed, Rameau would reuse the Italianate aria “L’amour qui règne dans votre âme” in Fêtes d’Hébé.
The extant copies of Amants trahis date from 1721. In a flare of comedy that foreshadows Platée, two abandoned lovers lament for their mistresses (the original score is written for bass and countertenor) one with tears, the other with mockery. Rameau reveals the true extent of his expressive palette in the work. When, in “Lorsque malgre son inconstance,” Damon mocks himself, the Alberti bass of the gamba anticipates then echoes his laughter. During the second duet between the two rejected lovers, the concertante treatment of the gamba part underscores Damon’s levity, as if he were dancing. In “Du dieu d’amour je prends tous les feux,” the haunting undulations of the gamba seem curiously lacking in cynicism. Along with “Faut-il qu’Amaryllis périsse?” from Le Berger fidèle, the aria is the high point of Rameau’s early output. As Dagoty wrote in Galerie françoise: “Passion, feeling, everything was within the province of his genius.”
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen
Philippe Sly, bass-baritone
Hélène Guilmette, soprano
Luc Beauséjour, conductor / harpsichord
Adrian Butterfield, violin
Chloe Meyers, violin
Grégoire Jeay, flute
Mélisande Corriveau, viola da gamba