Sommeil de Rameau
- Denis Smalley
- Year of composition: 2014-15
- Duration: 15:22
- Instrumentation: 8-channel fixed medium
- Commission: Sonorities Festival
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 occurred in Les amants magnifiques (1670), a comédie-ballet by Molière and Lully. Due to the popularity of the substantial scene in Lully’s tragédie en musique Atys (1676), sleep scenes became more firmly established, and many examples can be found during the following hundred years, Rameau’s stage works included.
When a sleep scene is invoked, a main character is exhorted to sleep, and dramatic action is suspended. 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. Rameau’s sleep music departed from the established Lullian characteristics, for example by using drifting, descending contours, which can sometimes be adventurously chromatic.
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, marking the ends of 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, expanded through spectral ‘orchestration,’ creating a ‘spectral tonality,’ as if Rameau in his (occasionally disturbed) dreaming were contemplating an imagined musical future.
Sommeil de Rameau was realized between 2014 and ’15 in the composer’s studios in Fabrezan (France) and London (England, UK), and premiered on April 25, 2015, during the Sonorities Festival at Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) — Queen’s University in Belfast (Northern Ireland, UK). It was commissioned by the Sonorities Festival. Thanks to Simon Waters, who initiated the commission.
- April 25, 2015, Sonorities Belfast 2015 — Fractured Narratives: Concert, Sonic Lab — Sonic Arts Research Centre — Queen’s University, Belfast (Northern Ireland, UK)