Research breathes new life into 18th-century music

By Pam Frampton

It is the time of the Enlightenment in Paris, France. The year is 1754.

Jean-Philippe Rameau, a respected and prolific opera composer and theorist, has been told by officials at the Opera House that they are considering putting a limit on the number of his works that they will allow on stage. Some of the citizens of Paris, their enthusiasm fanned by a group of pro-Italian opera enthusiasts, have begun to withdraw support for French opera and are instead attending the performances of a troupe of comic Italian opera singers. Fistfights between the divided opera audience are common in neighborhood bistros. Rameau is understandably concerned about how his finances will be affected by this turn of events and seeks to re-establish himself in his role as court composer to Louis XV. One year earlier he had completed three one-act operas for the king, which were performed at the summer palace in Fontainebleau. Now he works on two others which he hopes will please the king as well as the discriminating musical taste of his mistress, the formidable Mme. de Pompadour...

Rameau wrote many more substantial operas during his lifetime, but it was the group of five one-act works written between 1753-54 which caught the interest of Dr. Paul Rice of Memorial's School of Music. Dr. Rice is a musicologist who specializes in 18th-century French opera and English stage music. "It's a fascinating period," he explained. "It's the period of the Enlightenment and it's a very culturally active period. In terms of music there are a lot of different styles, and I think it was this diversity which originally fascinated me."

Dr. Rice based his doctoral thesis on Rameau, then began to notice that there wasn't much written on the Fontainbleau operas. For the past three years he has edited orchestral suites from the operas, working from copies of Rameau's manuscripts which are kept in the Paris Opera Library. On March 9, 1996, excerpts from the works were performed by the chamber orchestra of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Peter Gardner, in the M. O. Morgan Building. It was the North American premiere of some of that music.

"The process of editing music is analogous to what people do when they edit literary texts," Dr. Rice said of the painstaking work. "We have to first get all of the existing material. In the case of these Rameau scores I was very lucky - the French save everything! I had copies of the composer's autograph manuscripts, which is the document he actually composed in. The original performing parts were all there, as well as a later copy of the full score. What this allows you to see is the growth of the piece as an artwork."

Dr. Rice said the process of editing music -- as well as text -- is fraught with decisions. Should the edited version reflect the author's first ideas, the version used in rehearsal, or the final version? He decided to reflect the music that had actually been performed on stage. In addition to editing the music, Dr. Rice arranged to have it professionally recorded. In this endeavor, as well as in the research required to edit the works, he was supported by the Office of the Vice-President (Research). "I contacted a recording company and recording sessions were held last summer in Hungary," he said. "The music was performed by Capella Savaria, a period instrument orchestra from Hungary, conducted by Mary Terey-Smith of the University of Western Washington at Bellingham."

The music will be released as two independent compact discs this summer on the Naxos label. Dr. Rice readily admits that opera is his great love -- it's something he just "eats, sleeps and breathes." But he is also quite interested in the music of the 18th century English stage, and has edited a "lost" work by John Abraham Fisher, written for the witches scene in Macbeth. The piece was sold at public auction in the early 1800s, then disappeared. It was found in London about 50 years ago by the son of a deceased book seller among his father's boxes; the original is now safe in the hands of the Shakespeare Music Catalogue Project in Victoria, B.C. Dr. Rice's edited version of Fisher's overture to The Syrens will also be performed March 9. The book version, titled An Edited Collection of the Theatre Music of John Abraham Fisher, was just released by the publisher, Edwin Mellen.