A Midsummer Night’s Dream was also an inspiration to Purcell, and influenced the entire Baroque period. Purcell’s Fairy Queen combines theatre and music in a highly expressive way. You recorded this work with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.
Yes. To me it is odd how the French respect and adore Purcell, but are far less receptive to Rameau. This paradox has puzzled me for years.
Do you think the French treat their composers unfairly? You already mentioned the fact that the French don’t always appreciate French music.
That’s far less true today, though I think it may have been true thirty or forty years ago. For me Purcell and Rameau are twin giants of Baroque music. They have very different languages, but I feel they are equal in terms of creativity.
Rameau was considered an old-fashioned musician at the time of the Querelle des Bouffons. The public, under the influence of Rousseau and Diderot, the men who wrote the Encyclopédie, preferred Italian music. It was simpler and lighter, and its subject matter was more familiar than the mythological themes of Rameau’s operas, which were more for aristocratic, cultivated audiences.
That’s an overly simple approach. The French seem to have no difficulty admiring the paintings of Watteau, the exact contemporary of Couperin; they respond enthusiastically to the nostalgia, the incredible tenderness and sensuality of his world. Yet they balk at the music of Couperin and Rameau! I think that all the art of a given period, both visual and aural, goes together, though. Paintings can sometimes show what the music implies.
Rameau is considered a major figure in French music, and Les Boréades will be part of the Paris Opera’s next season. It’s a work you know well. Didn’t you contribute to its rediscovery on stage and through a recording?
I spent a lot of time reading different scores by Rameau in the Bibliothèque Nationale during my student years. In 1968 I came across Les Boréades—it was virtually unknown then. I could not believe what a wonderful score it was, not in the least the product of “a worn-out imagination”, as had been said. After receiving permission to transcribe, I conducted a concert version of the complete work in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1975. (Simon Rattle told me that he had been there; he was about twenty then. In 1999 he himself conducted Les Boréades in Salzburg.) The greatest moment came in 1982, when, thanks to Jean-Pierre Brossmann and Louis Erlo, I was invited to conduct the first-ever stage production of the work at the Festival of Aix-en Provence. Jean-Louis Martinoty was responsible for the imaginative and exciting production, and several French musical cognoscenti have told me that the rehabilitation of Rameau in France dates from those Aix performances. Luckily, we were also able to record the work in the municipal theatre in Aix, for Erato. The conditions were appalling, partly due to the stifling heat, but I think the recording goes a long way towards confirming the opera’s place in the repertoire, and makes up for the fact that it lay forgotten for two centuries.
Isn’t the most important thing that this posthumous work is now known to the public as Rameau’s artistic testament?
Rameau’s music is an inexhaustible resource. It is many years since I last conducted any of his operas and I would love to conduct Castor et Pollux, and to do Dardanus and Les Fêtes d’Hébé again some day.
For me Purcell and Rameau are twin giants of Baroque music. They have very different languages, but I feel they are equal in terms of creativity