Mark Howard Decoding Rameau: Music as the Sovereign Science

A Translation with Commentary of the Code de musique pratique and Nouvelles réflexions sur le principe sonore  (1760)
Foreword by Robert Zappulla
Teorie Musicali, 2
LIM, 2015
pp. xxv + 653
ISBN 9788870968460 €40

Mark Howard’s translation of the two final treatises (1760) by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) is a staggering and long-awaited achievement! If reading these close-to-literal translations at times requires some effort, the reader is guided by the in-depth, in-detail, chapter by chapter commentaries that follow every section. Actually the word “commentary” is an understatement for what Howard provides, which goes beyond summarizing, to paraphrase, quote at length and explain Rameau’s thinking, his theories and his convictions as a composer and teacher. The commentaries also lend Rameau a defense he requires, by helping the reader to adopt his personal musical terminology, which is essential for following his reasoning, and seriously entertaining his conclusions.

Dr. Howard’s discussion explains the methods, rules and analyses of the Code  and Rameau’s supplementary réflexions  in their historical context (another understatement), including point by point comparisons with Rameau’s previous Traité de l’harmonie  (1722), Nouveau système de musique théorique  (1726), Dissertation sur les différentes métodes d’accompagnement  (1732), L’Art de la Basse Fondamentale  (unpublished, ca. 1737-44), and Réflexions de M. Rameau sur la maniere de former la voix e d’apprendre la Musique… (1752). This hefty (1 kg?) volume is 1/3 Rameau and 2/3 Howard, which fact alone recommends it highly.

Since the chapter commentaries follow their respective chapters, multiple bookmarks are recommended; a finger won’t do because of the many cross-references to other chapters. (Putting the History, Commentaries, bibliography and index into a separate volume might have helped this minor problem! But the plan works amazingly well, and one can choose when to skip backward or forward to the original or to other relevant sections. The 9-page Table of Contents is in itself a useful detailed outline of the headings of the 17 chapters of the Code  with their subdivisions (articles, lessons, means, and observations). In the text itself, Rameau’s numbered paragraphs (¶) appear. Those original paragraph numbers are similarly clear in the commentaries, where they may cue the reader to other chapters. Howard also puts the original page numbers in the margins, for those with access to volume 4 of E. R. Jacobi’s 6-volume facsimile edition. Rameau’s footnotes are distinguished from Howard’s: there are very few of either. The LIM gets as much as possible on every line and every page, and for a bit of comic relief the English reader might chuckle at some arbitrary hyphenation (such as an-yone  or id-ea  or theat-er).

Now – why do the codes of practical music require decoding?

The translation gives a feeling for how Rameau actually expressed his rules, theories, and recommendations, without being hopelessly obscure. A more idiomatic English version would have spawned ambiguities, because the idiosyncratic terminology of Rameau, innovative in itself, is integral to his meaning, and to his arguably scientific premises (e.g. from Adam to Pythagoras, the frequency ratios of intervals and harmonics ‘must’ explain music, but in the end the human ear somehow accepts their distortions while still apprehending chromatic and enharmonic effects).

Concepts explained and better left in French (e.g. corps sonoré, accord sensible, goût, pleureuse  [Ex.N6, p. 343, the first b’ needs a flat], and règle de l’octave) or in non-standard English usage (e.g. broken  cadence, added, reigning  tonic), are in italics. Normal words used differently (e.g. scales, dominant, fingers 1-2-3-4 = our 5-4-3-2), or coined as necessary (e.g. supposition, intertwining suppositions, double employment) are just temporary hurdles. New terms are indispensable for new understanding of composition. A very tiny complaint might be that when details in the musical examples are discussed, the notes are referred to by capital letters, and not designated by their precise pitches (C, c, c’, c”), which would have made the points discussed easier to appreciate.

Rameau’s controversial theories were disputed by his contemporaries, and he was bent on having composers, musicians, singers, players, continuo accompanists and listeners all on the same page! His fame as a teacher and composer obliges us to try very hard to comply. It is sometimes hard, but often enlightening. For example: his theories about modulation – each modulation expresses a different ‘situation’ or frame of mind, and whether it is within the corps sonoré  of the reigning tonic  or not determines the degree of its effect on the listener; his didactic strategies – a beginner at the keyboard must first learn to play the Scales of Thirds [i.e. c-e-g-b-d] and of Fifths; recommendations for an accompanist – one is above all to play four notes to every chord, in the right hand, and without the thumb, because otherwise his fingering for the voice leading patterns will simply not work, and the thumb will not be available for an optional doubling of the note played by the highest finger (if allowable). Even if one tries these procedures, they may or may not be deemed practicable, because our modern techniques do not enable us to do some of these things! As for the analyses, he derives and posits Fundamental Basses determined by melody, or harmony, to explain compositional intentions, and whatever theoretical background the reader has, he may not expect the rules to differ, according to his choice of an unwritten ‘B.F.’! (The brilliant lecture on creativity by John Cleese comes to mind: the creative mind does not choose quickly, but can tolerate being uncertain for a long time.)

Rameau’s treatment of figured bass is imbued with everything he knew from experience playing and teaching. Much of it has to do with fingering. But was the following exquisite hint ever expressed elsewhere, on how to time the notes of a chord? Code… Chap. V Method for Accompaniment, Lesson 28 ¶250 (the emphasis is mine):

‘…to bring the basse continue  and the chords together  … Its entire art consists in playing the basse continue  with the left hand along with  the 4[th] [i.e. the index] finger of the right. Without this precaution, one of the hands would not be in time… Then  the other fingers of the right hand fall successively, forming an arpeggio. This is done with much more exactitude when the hand is supple and the movement only comes from the fingers.’

His innovations for how to figure  a bass were also eminently practical. Rameau was bothered by the informational defects of a complicated notation that sometimes indicated the exact intervals, but otherwise the nominal intervals, susceptible to alteration respect to the key signature. (We have inherited various contradictory systems, the shorthand notation of different schools, periods, and composers, and we need a legend for each one, plus our own preferred method.) Rameau refined an ingenious system, with an ambitious agenda: to ensure that every chord be intelligible with the least possible number of figures, and to enable the player to instantly know its function in the fabric of the composition. He called ‘dominant-tonic’ the V7, in any inversion, as well as the VII, of any fleeting or prevailing tonic. He called ‘dominant’ any chord proceeding downward along the circle of fifths. The first, in any inversion, is always distinguishable by a cross (+, or X) indicating a note acting anywhere as a leading-note (be it a 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7), whether implied by the key signature or not, and whether in a momentary modulation or the reigning  tonality; accidentals and slashes are relegated to all other cases. The player has more information with less to remember: he sees the intervals to be produced, in a manner that defines the form and purpose (which may depend on the composer’s idea of the actual basse fondamentale) of any unequivocally figured chord. In fact, this distinction in itself, along with the French règle de l’octave  and Rameau’s original observations about dissonances, is a cogent reason for every continuo player to read the Code. A lot of what a continuist has to do is to play unfigured basses, and one could do very well to adopt personally these final figuring recommendations. which Rameau made after encountering these problems throughout his life!

Today, as heirs of Rameau, we probably study harmony before counterpoint, with or without composition, and lastly, if ever, decide to learn thorough-bass. This is totally backward, and we find ourselves needing to ignore especially harmony in order to play basso continuo  fluently! Rameau is therefore a sort of Rosetta stone, coming from the other side. The basse fondamentale  (fundamental bass, b.f. as opposed to b.c.) was his invention, expressing a hypothetical analysis of a passage, alongside the given basse continue  to be realized. Various ones are possible, requiring different treatments. Rameau’s b.f. defined new rules for composer and player alike, and was invoked to explain why music can effect listeners as it does. It often made these rules and explanations simpler. In fact there are striking similarities between the theories of Rameau and those of both Schönberg and Schenker – due to their basic correctness.

I apologize to readers for a review that cannot possibly say much about so detailed and comprehensive a work, but I’d like to add that Rameau is not all heavy-going. He is synthetic when discussing taste, imagination, how to obtain beautiful effects, how music was to be understood, etc. He is likeable for his passion, guidance, rules, his intellectual reasons, his ‘tough-love’ for his students. Dr. Howard’s expertise puts Rameau’s final writings into the widest historically informed context, and keeps the reader from giving up at bewildering moments. And, most importantly, the Code  is finally available – especially to players of French Baroque music – ‘decoded’ into English thanks to his mammoth undertaking, and in a soft-cover format with two useful flaps by the LIM.

Barbara Sachs