Sommeil de Rameau

Denis Smalley

Sommeil de Rameau a été jouée à Amiens, Bangor, Belfast, Bruxelles, Canterbury, Cologne, Leicester, Londres, Montpellier, Sheffield, Tallinn et Thessalonique…

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Sommeil de Rameau was composed in homage to Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), whose music I have long loved and admired; 2014 was the 250th anniversary of his death. I have drawn on characteristics of the sleep scene in French Baroque stage works and cantatas, which first appeared in Les amants magnifiques (1670), a comédie-ballet by Molière and Lully. It became more firmly established as a result of the substantial scene in Lully’s tragédie en musique Atys (1676), and many examples can be found during the following hundred years, including Rameau’s music.

When a sleep scene is invoked, dramatic action is suspended as a main character is exhorted to sleep. The music may be solely instrumental, or may involve sung commentary, where, for example, the singers personify dreamed thoughts or suggest future courses of action. The musical style, with its slowish harmonic motion, undulating or rocking contours, and airy instrumentation (typically strings and flutes), is intended to create a contemplative atmosphere and a sense of timelessness, drawing in both the sleeping character(s) and audience. Rameau’s sleep music, which is very inventive, adapts the Lullian characteristics in imaginative ways, but there can also be drifting, descending contours, sometimes adventurously chromatic, rather than undulating motion.

Sommeil de Rameau is a contemplative journey based around recurring refrain materials, contrasted with diversions into a series of episodes that lengthen as the piece progresses. My starting point was a refrain motive adapted from a pair of chords, rocking over a pedal note, which intervenes between the main phrases in the “sommeil” in Act IV of the tragédie en musique Dardanus (1739). Passages derived from Rameau’s music permeate the longer episodes, but these are recomposed and transformed, and are not intended as explicit references. Tonal intervals and harmony prevail, but are expanded through spectral “orchestration”, creating an electroacoustic “spectral tonality”, as if Rameau in his (sometimes disturbed) dreaming were contemplating an imagined musical future.


  • 25 avril 2015, Sonorities Belfast 2015: Fractured Narratives: Concert, Sonic Lab — Sonic Arts Research Centre — Queen’s University, Belfast (Irlande du Nord, RU)


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