Decoding Rameau: Music as the Sovereign Science. A Translation with Commentary of Code de musique pratique and Nouvelles reflexions sur le principe sonore (1760).
With the publication of Decoding Rameau: Music as the Sovereign Science, Mark Howard provides the first translation into English of two treatises by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764): Code de musique pratique and Nouvelles reflexions sur le principe sonore, which were published together in late 1760 or early 1761 (Paris: L'imprimerie royale). The Code is a pedagogical work consisting of seven methods for learning music. It is arguably Rameau's most complete work on practical music, the cidmination
of his life's work as a teacher of performance and composition. The bulk of Howard's book is a commentary on this important treatise.
In the introductory overview of the Code, Rameau reviews the seven methods (pp. 35-40): 1) teaching music, "even to the blind" (i.e. rudiments, p. 35); 2) the position of the hand on the harpsichord or organ; 3) the art of forming the voice (i.e. voice production); 4) harpsichord or organ accompaniment (i.e. a thorough-bass method); 5) composition; 6) accompanying without figures; and 7) improvisation. The sections on accompaniment and composition form the heart of the Code, comprising ten of its sixteen chapters.
The Nouvelles reflexions is a brief essay on how the corps sonore (sonorous body) is the key not just to music but to all arts and sciences. Though an independent work, it appeared in print alongside the Code and served as a kind of "speculative" (p. 589) or theoretical supplement.
The source for Howard's translation is the facsimile in volume four of Erwin Jacobi's Complete Theoretical Writings of Jean-Philippe Rameau (Rome: American Institute of Musicology, 1969); however, because Howard includes the page numbers of the original edition in the margins, the reader can easily use virtually any facsimile (or original) with the translation. 1 found it useful to consult the digital version of the treatises found in Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliotheque nationale de France (http://gal lica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148 /btvlb86232474 [accessed 29 December 2017]). In his citations, Howard provides page numbers from both Jacobi's edition and the original print.
Rameau includes many detailed musical examples in the Code, which are here transcribed into modern clefs and incorporated into the text. The original edition places the examples in a separately paginated, 33-page section; Rameau's labeling of the examples (e.g. "Example D1, page 1") refers to this section. He advises the reader to "separate the engraved examples from the book containing the Methods--especially when it concerns Accompaniment--in order to place them on the Keyboard stand while the methods are next to it. One can easily look from one book to the other that way" (p. 39). In the commentary, Howard corrects and painstakingly documents errors in the examples, but he incorporates the published corrections for errata in the text without notice.
Rameau's writing in his treatises is notoriously awkward, dense and disorganized, and the prose of the Code and Nouvelles reflexion is no different. Couple this with the technical vocabulary of eighteenth-century theorists in general, and Rameau in particular, and the challenge facing Howard as the translator of these works becomes clear. It is a formidable task, which is certainly one of the reasons these works are only now being made available in English, more than 250 years after their publication. Howard strives for a balance of readability (idiomatic English) and fidelity to the original text. He is conservative in his approach, so the results can still be difficult to comprehend at times--perhaps inevitably so.
Howard keeps the capitalization and italics in the original publication that convey Rameau's emphasis of specific terms and concepts. Also retained in italics are untranslated words or phrases that have meanings best conveyed in the original French, such as gout and note sensible. For clarification, Howard occasionally inserts a word or phrase into the text, enclosed by square brackets. He discusses his translation choices in the commentary, as when he explains his preference for "Code for the Practice of Music" as the title of the treatise. He believes the more literal translation, "Code of Practical Music," overly emphasizes the categorization of Rameau's treatises as either musica pratica or musica speculativa. A literal translation of the title "seems to disassociate itself too much from speculative matters, which are intended to provide a fundamental mindset for the musical relationships practiced" (p. 22). Howard would rather highlight how the speculative and practical aspects of Rameau's theories are interdependent, a theme that he develops throughout the commentary.
The commentary in Decoding Rameau is quite extensive. Howard analyzes the treatises in depth, defining terms and unraveling Rameau's theories. He demonstrates in numerous examples how Rameau realized his theories in his compositions and establishes how those concepts and methods relate to earlier works by Rameau, as well as to those of other composers, theorists and philosophers. Howard also discusses Rameau's debate with the Encyclopedists Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In short, he places Rameau's ideas in context, philosophically, musically and culturally. This is a wealth of information, and the length of the commentary reflects this: of the book's 653 pages, 351 are devoted to commentary.
Howard presents this information by guiding the reader systematically through the sixteen chapters of the Code and eight sections of the Nouvelles reflexions, section by section, even paragraph by paragraph. Commentaries-- thirteen in total--follow each chapter or set of related chapters. The paragraphs in each chapter of the translation are numbered, making them easy to refer to in the commentary. As the commentary is well-documented, citations are quite plentiful. In contrast, the translation contains relatively few footnotes, as most of the information appears instead in the commentary. In one instance, however, a footnote might be warranted. Rameau explains in the method for accompaniment (chapter five) that he capitalizes the word "Ton" (meaning "key") to differentiate it from the word "ton" (meaning "whole tone"). The translation reads, "To follow custom, I will call Key what we would call Mode, and, so that we do not mistake it with the word tone, which expresses the relationship in the interval of a second, it will be written in italics and with a capital T" (p. 102). Howard clarifies this passage in the commentary, but sixty pages later.
I was disappointed that Howard refers to an important predecessor of the Code, Rameau's unpublished "L'Art de la Basse Fondamentale" (1738-1745), only through secondary sources, not having access to the manuscript (p. 298). In a translation with a less ambitious commentary, I might not give this a second thought: after all, this is not an in-depth study. But Howard sets a high standard with his commentary, raising expectations that cannot always be met in this context.
The structure of the book works well for analyzing the text, and I can see it being effectively used for teaching these treatises. However, those who wish only to read only the translation may find it awkward having a commentary interpolated between each chapter. Indeed, at times the translation seems buried by the commentary. If the publisher had provided the translation and commentary in separate volumes, the translation would be more accessible and easier to use when, for example, readers wish to consult a copy in the original French, with both volumes open side by side. But this is a minor detail when considering the overall value of the book. Unfortunately, I can only touch upon a few highlights in this review. Both continuo players and students of composition will find much to appreciate in chapter five of the Code, a fifty-one-page method on accompaniment. In the eighteenth century, most musicians found accompaniment and composition to be closely related. As Rameau notes, the practical advice on accompaniment outlines and prepares the method on composition. Accompaniment is the surest way to train the ear, and "without the aid of the ear, no one should bother trying to succeed in Composition" (p. 37). Howard, a keyboard player and musicologist, compares this method with Rameau's earlier work on accompanying, Dissertation sur les differentes metodos d'accompagnement pour le clavecin, ou pour l'orgue (Paris: Boivin, 1732), and with other contemporary treatises. He notes that "compared to other treatises on accompanying, the amount of care, detail, and depth with which Rameau treats his topics is staggering and impressive" (p. 152).
Chapters six through fourteen comprise the method on composition, which is more than a mere listing of rules. Some will be surprised to find Rameau writing about imagination and variety in composition. Howard goes beyond the music examples that Rameau presents, providing excerpts from Rameau's works to illustrate how his compositional method and musical theories find expression in his music.
Mark Howard's book is only the second of Rameau's treatises to be published in English. Philip Gossett's translation of the Traite de l'harmonie is the first (Jean-Philippe Rameau, Treatise on Harmony, trans. Philip Gossett [New York: Dover Publications, 1971]). Rameau's other major treatises are only available in English translation as the dissertations or papers of doctoral students. Decoding Rameau fulfills a real need and is a welcome addition to the literature on Rameau's theoretical writings.
University of Pennsylvania
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2018|
|Previous Article:||Guide to the Solo Horn Repertoire.|
|Next Article:||Performative Analysis: Reimagining Music Theory for Performance.|