Manchester, 14th-18th July 2004


Paul Murphy (State University of New York-College at Fredonia)

Jean-Philippe Rameau and speculative music theory in eighteenth-century Spain

The study of music theory in early eighteenth century Europe is a fascinating investigation of a paradigm shift in the way writers on music attempt to understand, redefine, and explain fundamental elements of musical construction. No other theorist or composer is more closely associated with this event than the composer/theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) whose works were subjected to seemingly endless revision, commentary, contradiction, and criticism. Rameau doggedly pursued the bold goal of understanding and explaining–from both the perspective of composer and scientist–how melody and counterpoint relate to harmony, how vertical sonorities relate to one another to create a sense of cadential goal, and how bass lines function as large-scale harmonic frameworks. These were lofty pursuits indeed, and, if imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, pursuits for which Rameau was duly flattered by his contemporaries and his successors.

It is well known that Rameau's theories were disseminated throughout much of Europe through the summary edition of his Traité de l'harmonie (1722) written by Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783) entitled Elemens de musique ... (1752), and through the German translation of this summary by F. W. Marpurg (1718-1795) entitled Systematische Einleitung in die musikalische Setzkunst (1757). However, little attention has been directed toward the dissemination of Rameau's theories in Spain. Thus, this paper traces the influence of Rameau's speculative music theory in Spain through three critical points of transmission.

Perhaps the earliest evidence of Rameau's influence in Spain is a curious reference to the Frenchman's Nouveau système ... (1726) in a margin of Francisco Valls' unpublished Mápa armónico-prático (Barcelona, c.1740). The most complete reproduction of Rameau's theories, especially those of the fundamental bass, is found in the little known Spanish edition of D'Alembert's Elemens de musique ... by Benito Bails (c.1730-1797), his Elementos de música especulativa (1775) part of a mammoth project undertaken by the Royal Academy of San Fernando. Shortly after Bails' edition of D'Alembert's summary, Francisco de Santa María published in Madrid his Dialectos músicos (1778) which, like Rameau's original Traité de l'harmonie, includes a supplement in which the Spaniard approaches harmony not only from a mathematical and physical perspective, but from an experiential perspective as well, the former explanations drawn largely from Rameau, D'Alembert, and Tartini. An investigation into these three writers' works is fundamental to understanding how French speculative music theory was introduced and interpreted in Spain in the Eighteenth century.

Last updated on 10 May 2004