Suite from Dardanus

Programme note

Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764): Suite from ‘Dardanus’

Ouverture; Air gracieux; Tambourins (Prologue) 1 & 2; Menuet tendre en rondeau; Ritournelle (‘Isménor’); Ritournelle (‘Descente de Vénus’);Calme des sens; Gavotte vive; Chaconne; Bruit de guerre

Opera of Rameau’s time differs from the more familiar 19th century sorts in that orchestral music played a huge role – a third of any given opera might be purely instrumental. If you have never seen a complete French opera of that time, imagine something a little like a modern musical but on a grand, lavish and serious scale (almost a third of Lerner and Lowe’s Brigadoon is orchestral music ). The plot is generally a tortuous love story that ends happily having allowed the characters to demonstrate their nobility, wickedness, courage etc as required. The tale is told through singing, but also dances and incidental music which are staged with spectacular effects, scene and costume changes, battles, storms, magical transformations, huge mythic beasts to be defeated, floods… it was all very similar to your average CGI infested blockbuster film. In a good staging the effect is overwhelming, but sadly, it is hard to do that without an astonishingly lavish budget, so productions are not exactly thick on the ground. Thank heavens then for the instrumental sections that are easily extracted to form suites such as this.

Rameau clearly adored writing for the excellent musicians of the Paris Opera Orchestra. 34 string players, 10 winds and continuo – not so very different from the standard modern chamber orchestra, but the sound Rameau creates is unlike anything composed since. In particular, he cherishes the winds and gives them many, many brief solos and duos that add texture and variety to his scores. Brilliant high flutes add brilliance to tuttis; multiple oboes and bassoons enrich the middle registers. 

Few of Rameau’s works enjoyed instantaneous success, and Dardanus is no exception. It was premiered in 1739, when its failure was attributed to the weakness of the libretto - little more than a stringing together of operatic clichés of the day. Rameau went back to the drawing board and produced a second version in 1744, which was a success. The two biggest musical highlights are the Overture and the Chaconne. The overture is a classic ‘French’ overture of the time, in that it opens with broad, grand music full of dotted rhythms then sweeps off into livelier fare. The Chaconne originally closed the opera. It is a long formal dance in which a simple four bar melody is elaborated at length. The simplicity of the basic idea is also the challenge to the composer: to keep delighting his audience with yet more imaginative takes on the basic short chord sequence. Rameau wrote many chaconnes, and this is reckoned to be one of the very best, full of wonderful touches. Around these great bookends, Rameau demonstrates his great emotional range from touching sentiment to the sheer joy of the Tambourins.

© Svend Brown