Today, 25th September, is the 331st birthday of Jean-Philippe Rameau. Celebrate! Rameau epitomizes the best parts of the era in which he lived, when Europe was confidently discovering the rest of the world, but before it took on the baggage of empire. The baroque was an age of discovery, exploring exotic new frontiers, of glorious, audacious extremes of the imagination. Cure from the art, hyperbole, not grim literalism. Gods mix with mortals and animals in landscapes which bear less resemblance to Greece than to contemporary France. Goddesses in states of undress, revealing the delights of the flesh, but teasingly virtuous, under the veil of 'art". Shepherdesses in the clothes of the time, fantastical inventiveness and over the top fantasy. Technical limitations decreed a degree of abstraction in stage mechanics, compensated by extreme imagination in music and characterization. Perhaps Gods and mythic heroes appealed so much - they didn't conform to grubby expectations. When your grandad is Neptune, for example, you don't really need to follow rules. And so the Heroes go their merry ways, having adventures, fooling around, screwing around, and getting away with things and eventually learning a degree of basic moral wisdom. In the baroque lies the germ of the idea that Gods and Kings aren't all-powerrful. The baroque was more forward thinking – and "modern" – than many realize.
And listen to Rameau's music! Who can resist the vigorous and very physical dance rhythms, that make you feel with your body as well as with your mind? Petty minded Victorian values colour the past with a prissiness that Baroque personalities wouldn't recognize. Rameau, a nobody from the provinces, captures the imagination of Paris with his uninhibited joie de vivre. In his own time, Rameau was considered a radical and a rebel. Rameau's dance patterns and structures need precise, clear-sighted performance. hence the importance of performance styles which let the music shine, free and unfettered. Without the genuinely informed insight we have today, would we be able to hear Rameau in his true light? Jean-Philippe Rameau, your time has come!