Although Jean-Philippe Rameau would later leave his most distinct marks on history with his operatic efforts and influential theoretical writings, his early career centered on virtuoso keyboard music in the great French tradition of Louis Couperin and Chambonnières. Rameau's keyboard work, which is perhaps less well-known because of the attention granted the famously ornate François Couperin (Rameau's near-contemporary and nephew to Louis), glances occasionally over the shoulder at his predecessors on the harpsichord, while at the same style carrying the dances of the French suite toward the more focused style of the eighteenth century. Rameau's keyboard works are found in three collections, all from the first three decades of the eighteenth century, as well as in a handful of later collections containing keyboard arrangements of chamber and operatic works. The collection under consideration here, the Premier livre de pièces de clavecin, contains his earliest-known compositions and marks the beginning of his career.
Published in 1706, the Premier livre was devised as an anthology whose constituent works nonetheless assume the general form of a French dance suite. Of the ten works in the collection, eight are in A minor and two dances (appearing adjacent to each other) are in A major. The entire series begins with a prelude that assumes a self-consciously historical tone. Written in long strings of runs, ornaments, and tied notes whose rhythmic fluidity eliminates the relevance of bar lines (which are, in fact, absent), the Prelude recalls the lute-like strums, chords, and scalar indulgences of F. Couperin's "unmeasured" preludes. The initial unmetered passage is followed by a lively and rhythmically relentless section in 12/8 time. The dances themselves then commence. The pensive Allemande, cast in a straightforward binary form, is characterized by a subtle but steady harmonic impetus that underscores closely spaced textural shifts between clean lines and lucid points, on the one hand, and brief bursts of florid ornamentation on the other. The Deuxième Allemande that follows is slightly bolder in its execution, with fewer scales and sequences and more sturdy chordal passages with rich embellishments. The Courante would seem darker than the name might suggest, were it not for the playful dotted rhythm that marks the bass line's frequent descending arpeggios; the Gigue that follows, on the other hand, demands a lighter feel despite its rather plaintive melodic contours, as the pincé indicated on the downbeat of virtually every measure compels the ear perpetually forward. Next follows a pair of sarabandes, a brief one in A minor followed by a longer, episodic companion piece in A major. The Vénitienne follows immediately in the same key, its pleasing A major sonority coupled with a lilting 3/8 meter and a coy refrain melody made of nimble leaps and turns. The mood shift abruptly with the subsequent Gavotte, marked by a shift back to minor mode and duple meter. The collection closes calmly with a Minuet, the right hand carrying a figurational line above a steady beat in the bass.