Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts
When Rameau published his Pièces de clavecin en concerts in 1741, he was already recognised as a composer and was a respected theoretician. In 1728, the year in which the Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin were published, he had abandoned instrumental music to devote all of his energies to Opera. The year 1733 symbolises his resounding entrance onto the lyrical stage with the creation of Hippolyte et Aricie, and it was a stage he was not to leave until his death in 1764. With the exception of La Dauphine, a harpsichord piece written in 1747 for the marriage of the Dauphin, the Pièces de clavecin en concerts are his last harpsichord pieces. Rameau conceived it in a manner radically different from others, as he announced in his Avis aux concertants, a short introductory text that accompanied the work: “the success of the Sonatas which have recently appeared as Pièces de Clavecin with a violin gave me the idea of following more or less the same plan in the new Pièces de Calvecin that I venture to publish today: I have written small Concerts for the harpsichord, one violin or one flute and a viola or a second violin”.
The Pièces de Clavecin cited by Rameau are none other than those of the virtuoso violinist Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville published in 1737-38. This instrumental format, which consists of an obligatory harpsichord part accompanied by one or more instrumental parts, was to become a fashionable genre in France, which strongly influenced music in all of Europe in the second half of the 18th century. But, unlike his contemporaries, Rameau chose to call his series Concertos instead of Sonatas. Contrary to the term Sonata, which indicates a succession of lively and slow movements, the word Concerto makes no reference here to a structure similar to the concerto in the Italian sense of the 18th century, but to the French meaning, which indicates a performance with different families of instruments. In the case of the Pièces de clavecin en concerts, this gives rise to many possibilities: violin, viola da gamba, harpsichord / flute, viola da gamba, harpsichord / violin, second violin, harpsichord / flute, second violin, harpsichord. The version with the second violin, apart from the different sonority, is a sensible alternative, bearing in mind the fearsome difficulties of the viola da gamba part, quite apart from the fact that this instrument was falling into disuse.
Instead of publishing the Pièces series in separate parts (only the second violin part was published in this way), he decided to publish the score, something that was not usual at the time. In this way, he meant to emphasise to the musicians that the instruments had to blend together, requiring that in their concertation, in which the violin and viola should especially lend themselves to the harpsichord, they should distinguish that which is mere accompaniment from that which forms part of the theme, playing more softly in the former case. In short, only by capturing the spirit of each piece can the whole be adequately rendered.
Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that the composer himself added: “these pieces played solo on the harpsichord leave nothing to be desired”. To the sixteen pieces in concerts, Rameau added five pieces rewritten for solo harpsichord, which are the only ones which do not have the melodic part. The others stand alone, and there is no indication that they are intended for any other arrangement. And Rameau adds: “this is at least the opinion of many people of taste and musical knowledge whom I have consulted, and of whom the majority have honoured me by allowing me to give their names to some of the pieces”. If we decipher this sentence, Rameau must have played the Pièces de clavecin en concerts in their solo harpsichord version to some friends and professional musicians. Perhaps he surprised them by playing the pieces also with the accompaniment of one alto and another bass instrument?. We can imagine the astonishment of the harpsichordist Anne-Jeanne Boucon, of the viola player Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Forqueray or Rameau’s patron, Alexandre Le Riche de la Pouplinière when presented with this skilful metamorphosis. Is this why, among other reasons, that we see their names on the work?.
Placing this collection within the perspective of harpsichord pieces, the path followed by Rameau as regards their instrumental composition can be understood. Of the dances of the old French suite, all that remain are the Menuets (2º concert) and the Tambourins (3º concert), pieces which are scarcely representative of the genre. The other pieces are rondeaux, or character pieces, according to the denominations of Marin Marais. Rameau’s experience of opera led him to exploit his discoveries in the instrumental world. Here, La Pantomime is an admirable illustration of this metamorphosis from salon to stage. Rameau does not hesitate to reuse part of the musical material from the Pièces de clavecin en concerts in his theatrical works. For example, La Livri becomes Gavotte en rondeau gracieux in the third act of Zoroastro (1749), while La Cupis is transformed into Air tendre pour les muses in the prologue of Temple de la gloire (1745). The version proposed by Chiara Bianchini, Marianne Müller and Françoise Lengellè is a perfect example of this theatrical transformation. On the other hand, the interpreters have followed the text of the new critical edition of Denis Herlin and David Moroney within the framework of the Jean Philippe Rameau Opera Omnia edition (Paris, Gerard Billaudot, 1996), an edition which encompasses for the first time not only the 1741 edition, but also other contemporary manuscript sources.