Jean-Philippe Rameau: Musician of the Enlightenment

On the 21st of January 1793, Louis XVI made a final address to his people: "Gentlemen, I am innocent of everything I am accused. I hope that my blood may cement the good fortune of the French" (Edgesworth, 1815). Across centuries, historians attempted to explain the origins behind the dramatic events of the French Revolution. Among the countless suggestions, the most recurring one has been the Enlightenment. Whether a historical period, a philosophical, cultural, and intellectual movement, or a social and political event, the Enlightenment has been equated with the end of the Ancien Regime for its hand in the development of ideas, notions, and concepts that challenged the status quo (Brewer, 1). Unfortunately, this movement tends to be reduced to the field of philosophy, excluding other important actors: musicians. Throughout her scholarship, Cynthia Verba - a historian devoted to the rich musical debates of the French Enlightenment - sustained that music was to be 'identified as one of the most fundamental issues of the Enlightenment' (Verba, 2013, 2). An author of numerous operas and theoretical treatises, Jean-Philippe Rameau has largely been forgotten by the public, and yet stands as an indisputable genius of French music and, more importantly, the representation of the Enlightenment in the field of music (Giroud, 49). This article seeks to illustrate the interactions between music and the Enlightenment through the study of Rameau.

Jean-Philippe Rameau with Violin. Jacques-André-Joseph Aved. 1728.

Above all, Rameau’s contribution to the Enlightenment is found in his theoretical treatises. During his phenomenal career, the French artist expressed great concern in perfecting composition and therefore published several musical theoretical works. In 1722, Rameau shared his discovery of the fundamental bass and the tonal system in the Treatise of Harmony. Demonstrating that all music was foundationally harmonic in structure, Rameau was able to clarify the harmonic practice of his contemporaries with unparalleled concision while, in turn, radically simplifying the pedagogy of the thoroughbass and composition (Christensen, 2004, 1). Beyond transforming the existing concepts on music composition, this treatise expressed a desire to explain the secrets of music rationally (Brewer, 1). The preface stated that music was a 'science which should have definite rules; these rules should be drawn from an evident principle; and this principle cannot really be known to us without the aid of mathematics' (Rameau, 1722, ii). This methodology was in total conjunction with the intellectual mindset of the Enlightenment, which, in the words of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer, resided upon the 'belief in the unity and immutability of reason' (Cassirer, 6). For these reasons, the treatise had a resonating success. The Abbé Condillac, a leading figure of rational philosophy, described it as an example of 'empirical reasoning and esprit systémique' (Christensen, 2004, 6). Numerous musical treaties were written in that period, such as Renée Descartes' Compendium Musicae in 1618, but none met such success. Rameau brought a new approach to music composition based on stronger scientific arguments, still mostly making consensus today.

Rameau was far from being a simple theoretician; his findings were incorporated into his operas in order to develop their dramatic dimension. During the French Enlightenment, musicians and philosophers continued to believe in the principles of Aristotle's Poetics, which stated that music had to express and mean something (Cassirer, 5). With Hippolyte and Aricie, a tragédie en musique - inspired by Jean Racine’s tragedy Phèdre - Rameau composed his dramatic scenes through not only elaborate and structured musical settings but, more importantly, by introducing his findings on harmony. At the end of the opera, Neptune convinces Theseus to trust the gods to assure Hippolytus' happiness. These final words marked an important step in leaving the tragedy behind, paving the way to the final happy family reunion. As Neptune pronounced these words, the music simultaneously shifted with a move from C minor to a bright C major–G major for these lines (Cassirer, 93). Several analyses demonstrated that Rameau regularly injected strong elements of rational design, especially tonal ones, to portray dramatic actions. Verba emphasizes that music was meant to be 'both an expressive art form and an object of scientific inquiry' (Verba, 2016, xi). Rameau brilliantly managed to fulfil these two expectations.

Phaedra. Alexandre Cabanel. 1880.

Rameau's operas also engaged in philosophical debates. His opera ballet The Amorous Indies, for instance, tackles the famous myth of the Noble Savage. Enjoying great popularity in the highest spheres of the French intelligentsia, this myth consisted of the glorification of the innocence and simplicity of Native Amerindian tribes in contrast with the corrupted Western societies. Denis Diderot, co-editor of the Encyclopaedia, defended these ideas in many of his writings, such as in the Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage. In a set of philosophical dialogue between a Native and a French traveller, the philosopher wrote:

And you, leader of the ruffians who obey you, pull your ship away swiftly from these shores. We are innocent, we are content, and you can only spoil that happiness. We follow the pure instincts of nature, and you have tried to erase its impression from our hearts. (Diderot, 42).

At a certain point in the opera, two protagonists shared a similar description of their society and lifestyle through a song:

In our retreats Greatness, never come, to offer your false attractions; Heaven, you have made them for innocence and for peace (Meglin, 98).

Along with the lyrics, musicologists also identified the myth in the choreographies, costumes, and melody (Meglin, 98). According to the musicologist Phillip Beaussant, Zima’s - one of the Native Americans and protagonist - air embraces the myth as it proposes 'a gracious air, of tender, gradually conjoined lines and porte de voix full of languid grace, which the violins – unaccompanied by bass – escort, unrolling garlands of slurred notes' (Meglin, 102). Everything was organized to create an image of a utopian society far from the vices of the West.

It is impossible to examine the Enlightenment without tackling its ferocious debates. Music was not spared from controversies and disputes, and Rameau found himself involved in many of them. Since the Pythagorean discovery of the existence of a relation between numbers and musical consonances, music theory has been a tempting subject of inquiry for scientists and philosophers (Christensen, 1989, 410). Amid this cultural effervescence, Rameau’s treatises were questioned by some of the most influential minds of his time, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The philosopher was originally an adherent of Rameau's musical theory, but several incidents resulted in a deep rivalry between the two men. Rousseau never forgave the musician and criticized him endlessly to the point of becoming his nemesis. The two men disagreed on many different subjects; a notorious one was, for instance, the place of harmony and melody. Whereas Rameau makes harmony the centre of the composition, Rousseau acknowledges that, at the start, 'music consists of harmony, as well as melody and rhythm, but that, in the end, harmony is of little relevance' (Verba, 2016, 19).

The philosopher also reproached him of adhering too literally to his principles, arguing that some chords would be unbearable if filled out entirely in the manner he suggested (Rousseau, 1998, xxviii). Rousseau was not the only intellectual criticizing the musician. Jean Le Rond d’Alembert had initially been a fervent admirer of Rameau, but gradually came into conflict with the latter. The mathematician progressively sided with Rousseau, and even came to describe him as a man 'who not only has much knowledge and taste in music, but also the talent of thinking and expressing himself with clarity' (Verba, 2016, 43). Against his detractors, Rameau wrote several papers, but in vain, as criticisms continued to flourish.

A reading of Voltaire's tragedy "L'Orpheline de la Chine" in the salon of Madame Geoffrin. Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier. c1812.

Perhaps the most effective way to illustrate Rameau's involvement in the Enlightenment is to examine his contribution to the Querelle des Bouffons. In August 1752, an Italian troupe presented La Serva padrona and met resonating success, though it came to be perceived as an affront to the French opera and reopened old arguments. France saw its intelligentsia splitting between the defenders of French music and the advocates of Italians' supremacy in this genre. In 1753, Rousseau wrote a letter destroying French opera:

I think that I have made it obvious to all that there is neither a clear beat nor a melody in French music because the French language is not susceptible to either. (…) From all this I conclude that the French do not have music, and that if they ever do have it, it will be all the worse for them. (Rousseau, 1753, 92).

Unsurprisingly, reactions were particularly brutal. Rousseau's effigy was burned, and his access to the Paris Opera denied. Rameau personally responded to this letter in an extensive essay, in which he explained that:

beats or noises are not that frequent in our music compared to the Italian's, because the dominating matter of our music stands in the expression of feelings (pathos) (…) which is found in the harmony (Rameau, 1754, vii-viii).

No clear winner emerged from these discussions, but this quarrel brought important musical innovations. Vincent Giroud argued that the Querelle des Bouffons was an essential event in the renewal of the French operatic genre, as it helped the evolution of the opéra-comique, both as a genre and an institution (Giroud, 26).

Overall, Rameau stands as an embodiment of the Enlightenment. Proposing an unprecedented scientific and rational approach to composition, Rameau enhanced musical expression and, more notably, set the foundations for modern music theory. One could argue that his main contribution to the Enlightenment resided in his tumultuous debates with Rousseau. Throughout his numerous essays, Rameau demonstrated that he had the required skills to defend himself against the toughest detractors of his time. In the end, Rameau reflects what the Enlightenment was: a period championing rationality, reason, science and debate.


Bernard, J.W. & Rameau, J-P. (1980). The Principle and the Elements : Rameau’s « Controversy with d’Alembert ». Journal of Music Theory, 24(1), pp. 37-62.

Brewer, D. (2014). The Enlightenment today?. In D. Brewer (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the French Enlightenment (pp. 1-13). Cambridge University Press.

Cassirer, E. (1951). The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton University Press.

Christensen, T. ( 1989). Music theory as Scientific propaganda: The Case of d’Alembert’s Elemens de Musique. Journal of the History of Ideas, 50(3), pp. 409-427.

Christensen, T. (2004). Rameau and Musical Thought in the Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press.

Diderot, D. (1992). The Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville. In J. Mason & R. Wokler (Eds.), Diderot: Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, pp. 31-76). Cambridge University Press.

Edgesworth, C. S. & Edgeworth de Firmont, H. E. (1815). Mémoirs of the Abbé Edgeworth: Containing his narrative of the Last Hours of Louis XVI. Rowland Hunter.

Girdlestone, C. (2014). Jean-Philippe Rameau, His life and work, new introduction by Philip Gosset. Dover Publications Inc.

Giroud, V. (2010). The French Opera, A short History. Yale University Press.

Meglin, J. A. (2000). “Sauvages, Sex Roles and Semiotics”: Representations of Native Americans in the French Ballet, 1736-1837, Part One : the Eighteenth century. Dance Chronicles, 21(2), pp. 87-132.

Rameau, J-P. (1722). Traité de l’Harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels. Jean-Baptiste Ballard.

Rameau, J-P. (1754). Observations sur notre instinct pour la musique et sur son principe ou les moyens de reconnoitre l'un par l'autre, conduisent a pouvoir se rendre raison avec certitiude des differens effets de cet Art. Prault fils.

Rousseau, J-J. (1998). Essay on the origin of languages and writings related to music (J.T. Scott, Trans.). University Press of New England.

Rousseau, J-J. (1753). Lettre sur la musique françoise: sunt verba & voces, praetereaque, nihil.

Verba, C. (2013). Dramatic Expression in Rameau’s tragédie en musique: Between Tradition and the Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press.

Verba, C. (2016). Music and the French Enlightenment : Rameau and the philosophes in dialogue. Oxford University Press.

Visual Sources:

Aved, Jacques-André-Joseph. Jacques-André-Jean-Philippe Rameau with Violin. 1728. Oil on canvas.

Cabanel, Alexandre. Phaedra. 1880. Oil on canvas.

Lemonnier, Anicet-Charles-Gabriel. A reading of Voltaire's tragedy "L'Orpheline de la Chine" in the salon of Madame Geoffrin. c1812. Oil on canvas.

Author Photo

Benoit Gaume

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