Gavotte with Six Doubles
by Jean-Philippe Rameau [playing time 7:50]  [Download the MP3]

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764)
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A direct contemporary of Bach and Handel, Rameau was perhaps the most eminent French musician of his day. His considerable body of works ranges from very short exercises for keyboard to full-blown operas such as Castor and Pollux. For their day, many of these works were rather progressive, for which Rameau evidently drew the criticism that has always been leveled at composers who pushed the envelope. He was also a prominent pedagogue, writing extensively on music theory.

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This is deservedly one of Rameau's better known works, a fine example of the theme and variations genre ("double" being another term of the day for "variation"). Beginning with the stately gavotte (a 17th century French folk dance), the work proceeds through six variations of generally increasing intensity. By the final variation, the theme has been transformed from its somewhat wispy initial character to a triumphant proclamation. Here's a brief guide to the structure of this work.

Gavotte (0:00): The dance is stated in 2, in A minor. It has a continuous binary form, with two repeated sections (AA-BB), and with a general harmonic structure of i - V | III - i. I have scored this first section for solo harpsichord, as originally intended.

Double I (1:59): Listen for the theme in the left hand, while the right hand plays a stream of sixteenth notes that freely outline the harmony. Rameau achieves a delightful effect here at the entrance of the B section by introducing bass notes much lower than used so far. Suddenly the delicate dance becomes a broad, immersive canvas of sound. I introduce bass organ and string patches at this point to emphasize this change of character.

Double II (2:57): This variation reverses the scheme of Double I: the right hand takes the theme, while the left hand plays continuous supporting scales. Rameau makes this Double a stronger statement than the first one by stating the theme in solid triads rather than the quieter intervals and broken chords of Double I.

Double III (3:57): Having been in the treble and the bass, the rapid line of sixteenths is now placed in an inner voice, while the harmony is stated by the outer voices.

Double IV (4:55): Here Rameau wisely gives the listener a break in the increasing intensity with a very lightly scored variation in which the theme appears in broken arpeggios. For this Double, I have left out the bass patches and have added a widely panned flute and clarinet to emphasize the flighty nature of the scoring.

Double V (5:54): The rapid line of the first three Doubles is here transformed from a flowing contour to wide leaps that outline the harmony. The placement of parts mirrors that of Double I, but with increased energy and agitation, which leads to...

Double VI (6:49): Completing the symmetry by mirroring the scoring of Double II, this final variation rounds off the work with a powerful statement of the theme. By eliminating all the passing tones of the scales in Double II, Rameau stamps the theme firmly in its basic harmonies; the result is stirring and quite dramatic, especially when the brilliant C major of the III tonality arrives. I've scored this with every patch used in the previous five Doubles, with gradually increasing energy in the bass (applying that patch progressively from quarters, to eighths, and finally to the sixteenths), augmented with brass and a choir in the treble.

I hope you enjoy listening to this splendid work from the French Baroque.

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