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  • Dramatic Expression in Rameau’s “Tragédie en Musique”: Between Tradition and Enlightenment by Cynthia Verba
  • Gina Rivera
Cynthia Verba, Dramatic Expression in Rameau’s “Tragédie en Musique”: Between Tradition and Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Pp. 338. $99.00.

Cynthia Verba sheds new light on several old and controversial problems in early modern French opera and its reception: the nature of meaning in music, the relationship between music theory and musical practice, and the nature of gender differences and their artistic implications. She claims in this analysis of the lyric tragedies of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764) that the only certainty greeting scholars of these operas is that debates about them will continue to emerge (318). As for the certainties at the heart of Rameau’s operatic vision, they revolved less around Cartesian rationalism and its interrogation, around dualities of reason and sensibility, mind and body, or rational text and sensual music, than around a progressive belief in the inherently expressive capacity of music. The tension that Verba highlights between harmonic design and emotional expressivity in Rameau’s approach to composition underscores deeper issues in operatic practice in these years, particularly a French propensity for retaining old genres while giving them new meaning (10). The seventeenth-century model of lyric tragedy that Rameau inherited from Jean-Baptiste Lully and the librettist Philippe Quinault ultimately served him less well than the many revisions he made to his operas over the course of his career, often with the express purpose of placating his highly critical Parisian audiences. As Verba contends, Rameau never abandoned the outmoded genre of lyric tragedy; instead, he attempted to let it breathe an air of musical expressivity, one he understood both as a theorist of music’s scientific basis in nature and as a composer of dramatic arias and recitatives whose emotional impact frustrated scientific reason (160).

A central facet of the musical analyses in Verba’s study—all of which appear with beautifully set musical examples and libretto quotations in appendices featuring the original French with elegant translations into English—is her view that when the dramatic action would seem to call for a break in orderly harmonic progressions, Rameau anchors the chaos in a stable tonal framework (30). These tonal anchoring strategies highlight the interplay between reason and feeling that drove his dramatic settings, most especially in his rich writing for the orchestra beyond the confines of divertissement scenes, his use of set pieces, elaborate solo arias, and an increased reliance on vocal numbers with orchestral accompaniment. These musical decisions, and indeed the primacy of music itself in Rameau’s staged works, grated against the centrality of the poetic text in Lullian opera, in which dramatic dialogue scenes featured recitative, the narrative core of French opera. Verba is not the first scholar to describe Rameau’s operas as departures from Lullian tradition precisely because of their generically unprecedented stress on music over livret poetry (21). She reads one of the most jarring musical events in Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), the second trio des parques in act 2, scene 5, as an elaborate instance of harmonic stability punctuated by a passage of enharmonicism, or a manipulation of quarter tones (44). Its music begins on the dominant of G minor and shifts through the keys of F-sharp minor, F minor, E minor, E-flat minor, and D minor. The impact of its ominous poetic lines (“Tremble, shake with fright! / You depart from hell, / Only to find hell within yourself”) and its enharmonicism leads Verba to speculate on what physical reactions this passage did and does incite in [End Page 85] listeners, whose shock registers the contrast between harmonic departures and the tonally secure setting in which they occur. She also calls attention to the separate shock with which we greet Thésée and Phèdre as tragic characters in Hippolyte et Aricie. Their jealous penchant for vengeance injects a level of drama into the opera that is at odds with the pastoral love between Hippolyte and Aricie. Lyric tragedy in these decades drew less on violent, cathartic portrayals of emotion than on a more mild French pastoral tradition with its own...


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pp. 85-86
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