Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tombeau de Rameau

by Gina Rivera

NOTE: This is the first of two reflections on the Rameau year 2014.

What could anyone possibly say to a composer dead some 250 years? Two international delegations have convened in 2014 to honor the music and life of Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764): first during a conference in Paris in March, then for an extended weekend of lectures and recitals at the University of Oxford in early September. Many performances and many insightful utterances later, the delegates of these two Rameau anniversary fêtes nevertheless failed to do one thing: they did not address Rameau directly—“head on,” as the poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida would say. Not once did a recitalist pause to greet Rameau by name. Not once did any author of any recited paper pause to thank Rameau for whatever it is that we find so compelling as to inspire celebratory conferences, tributes, periodical volumes, and new musical recordings. I’m of the mind that only one thing remains to be said to a distant, departed composer. And it’s not “thanks,” “congratulations,” or any other pleasantry.

Paris Opéra
This is the only word I know how to say to Rameau: adieu. I do not bid farewell to Rameau in sorrow—as though he were very recently deceased—because he died 250 years ago this September. And with few exceptions he is more or less forgotten. Instead, I say adieu out of a spirit of responsibility. I want to shed light on how the expressive music of Rameau has touched my sensibilities, even as it escapes me—even as it remains altogether removed from my own cultural and historical experience. Thus the most important thing I can say to him is: adieu. Adieu, Rameau.

This is what resonates with my adieu: first of all, the discours uttered by the physician Hugues Maret (1726–86) and soon after published under the aegis of the Académie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres de Dijon.<1> Maret introduced his elegy with great hesitation, first explaining the several encomia to Rameau that had preceded his own: printed notices had appeared in the Mercure de France as well as in the annually published Calendrier des Deuils de Cour well before he raised his voice to describe the departed composer.<2> And he struggled to maintain his composure, especially in light of the outpouring of praise for the late Rameau by the young musician Michel Paul Guy de Chabanon (1730–92).<3> Maret writes:
Following on the heels of such an Elegy, it would have been rash on my part to raise my voice to speak on the same subject, even if I had been able to do so within the honorable boundaries of my appointed Place. Forced by the circumstances to undertake such an Enterprise, I had no choice but to pursue the very details that might better shed light on this great Artist that France has lost (p. ii).
Maret's remarks remain true to form as a tribute to a departed son of the state: to a man of France and above all to a great musician. He praises Rameau as an associate of the Dijon academy and as a purveyor of the expressive art of music. The address proceeds through a lengthy accounting of the biographical details of the Rameau family, the early musical education of Jean-Philippe, the years during which the young man toiled as chapel organist and aspiring academic researcher, and finally his adult successes as an author of musical theories and as mastermind of musical productions for the Parisian lyric stage. Maret speaks to the skill with which Rameau enriched the repertory of the Opéra (p. 31). Then he offers an adieu to Rameau that resonates now, so many years later, when he calls for a statue:
Gentlemen, these aspirations of mine are nevertheless legitimate, & I can only hope that we might follow the example of Athens & Rome by erecting statues of all of the greatest Frenchmen. ... If our country boasts its having birthed Saumaise, Bossuet, Bouhier, Lamonoie, Crebillon, and Rameau; if it still counts among its golden children the Buffons & the Pirons & several others distinguished by talent or wit; then is there any reason to doubt what great effects a patriotic statue gallery would produce on our youth? ... The magnificence of these erected exemplars would surely touch us deeply in France (p. 41).
He says goodbye to the expressive, creative mind of Rameau and but hello to the possibility that a new expressive eloquence might continue to live in the form of a national monument.
The persuasive eloquence of these statues, although mute, would infallibly encourage among us the development of other talents, thereby maximizing our hopes of glory. ... The value of the proposal I have in mind would assure my successors of the satisfaction of gazing upon our Compatriots with as much justice as I hope to render unto them in expressing the sentiments of esteem & admiration that I know Rameau has inspired in you (p. 41).
He stresses the prospect of erecting a monument that moves: a statue that inspires even though it utters no words. By concluding his elegy in this way, the physician bids adieu to Rameau by acknowledging in plain terms both what has died and what might continue to live. This gesture persists in elegies even today. It persists in my own adieu to Rameau, so many years after his likeness was frozen in celebratory marble in the city of Dijon and in the galleries of the Paris Opéra. My words are as dead as the silent Rameau. And yet they cry out to a body of music that continues to sound, and to make the name Rameau resonate.

Bust by Jean-Jacques Caffieri, 1760
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon

My goodbye to Rameau thus connects to the spirit of solemn farewells from well after the eighteenth century. In its own way, it evokes the same sentiment expressed by Derrida (1930–2004) after the death of Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95) in 1995. At that time, he examined the ethical underpinnings of the philosophy of the late Levinas by asking, “What happens when a great thinker falls silent?”  Derrida meditates on death as an ultimate silence: a gaping non-response.
What happens when a great thinker becomes silent, one whom we knew living, whom we read and reread, and also heard, one from whom we were still awaiting a response, as if such a response would help us not only to think otherwise but also to read what we thought we had already read under his signature, a response that held everything in reserve, and so much more than what we thought we had already recognized there?<4>
The silence described here figures as the quietude of non-response and as the stillness of the expressionless deceased. The deceased becomes not unlike the statue, living only as a frozen face, a figural reminder. Before his own death, Levinas elaborated on the peculiar silence of the dead. Speaking of death as a masque, he explained the unresponsive subject as an individual whose capacity for expression had frozen.<5> Bereft of movement, the face remains cold, still, and lifeless. The subject no longer communicates to us with expressive gestures, postures, or music. The face can no more come alive. It is a masque, a flat slate, a monument.

And, Levinas observes, the deceased, no longer able to express himself, is no longer entrusted to a living companion. When Levinas describes the politics of relationship among living subjects, he speaks of conviviality and entrustment, saying “The Other who expresses himself is entrusted to me [m’être confié] and “The Other individuates in me the responsibility I have for him.”<6> This is a kind of ethics of survival, wherein the Other who dies affects very deeply the identity of a responsible, individual survivor. “The death of the Other who dies affects me in my very identity as a responsible me [moi].” Any survivor who confronts the death of a friend confronts the very notion of relationship to death. Being affected by the death of an Other amounts to a radical confrontation with the individual relationship to dying.
My being affected by the death of the other is precisely that, my relation with his death. It is, in my relation, my deference to someone who no longer responds, already a culpability—the culpability of the survivor. [This] being affected by death is affectivity [l’affectation], passivity, a being affected by the nonpresent, more intimate than any intimacy, to the point of fission. The human esse, or existing, is not a conatus but a disinterestedness and adieu (Levinas, p. 15).

Dijon: Grand Théâtre
The adieu described by Levinas functions as a key component of the fabric of survival. In order to live in deep, productive, and emotional relationship to Others—to live en rapport à l’autre—an individual must constantly remind himself of the emotional relationship to the death of the other. Maret might have expressed it in this way: a statue of Rameau would remind me both of his passing and of my living.

A statue to which I say adieu—frozen monument to the dead Rameau—allows me to approach yet another component of the teaching of Levinas. When I witness the statuesque deceased, I apprehend the moral and physical weight of this other human being. I experience what Levinas calls the condition of being in respect [à l’égard] to everything that exists because of being through respect [par égard] for everything that exists.<7> The imaginary statue at the heart of Maret’s elegy represents a desire to allow the death of Rameau to make better, more respectful citizens out of those who remain alive.

Yet how can I be satisfied by saying adieu, adieu, adieu to a statue, to a masque mute these 250 years? I believe the seeds of my satisfaction are scattered among French philosophies of love instead of those of death. Consider the ways in which the non-response of death—the sans-réponse described by Levinas and then by Derrida—connects to the observations on love and loss that Roland Barthes (1915–1980) published at the end of the very same decade, under the title Fragments d’un discours amoureux (1977).
“This is what death is, most of all: everything that has been seen, will have been seen for nothing. Mourning over what we have perceived.” In those brief moments when I speak for nothing, it is as if I were dying. For the loved one becomes a leaden figure, a dream creature who does not speak, and silence, in dreams, is death. Or again: the gratifying Mother shows me the Mirror, the Image, and says to me: “That’s you.” But the silent Mother does not tell me what I am: I am no longer established, I drift painfully, without existence.<8>
The answer to how I might be satisfied by such abject, unmoored meditation is contained within the fabric of my existence as a survivor. When I apprehend the silence of the dead Rameau, I acknowledge—just as Maret did—the passing of the deceased into the corpus of statuesque spirits: spiritualized statues who seem to live, though they remain dead. Barthes describes the richest aspects of this kind of remembering as a kind of rapturous anamnesis: a remembering that is equal parts reductive and resplendent.
One day, I shall recall the scene, I shall lose myself in the past. The amorous scene, like the first ravishment, consists only of after-the-fact manipulations: this is anamnesis, which recovers only insignificant features in no way dramatic, as if I remembered time itself and only time: it is a fragrance without support, a texture of memory; something like pure expenditure. … This theater of time is the very contrary of the search for lost time; for I remember pathetically, punctually, and not philosophically, discursively: I remember in order to be unhappy/happy—not in order to understand (Barthes, 217).

I can be satisfied with my adieu to Rameau only insofar as I remain able to acknowledge what happens when I say adieu. I bid a farewell akin to Maret’s farewell, and to to Derrida’s farewell to Levinas. I meditate upon a statuesque Rameau who cannot speak. I remember the deceased Rameau when his music resonates in my living ears. I remember Rameau when his name resonates in my mouth. But I never necessarily remember Rameau in order to understand him. The only circumstance that I can plainly comprehend is this one: that Rameau the living musician is long dead, never to be understood by me.

Gina Rivera is an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at the Penn Humanities Forum at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed the PhD in musicology at Harvard University in 2013, with a dissertation on early modern female performers at the Opéra in Paris. She holds graduate and undergraduate degrees in violin performance from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she played on both baroque and modern instruments.



1. ELOGE HISTORIQUE DE MR. RAMEAU, Compositeur de la Musique du Cabinet du Roi, Associé de l’Académie des Sciences, Arts & Belles-Lettres de Dijon. Lu à la Séance publique de l’Académie, le 25 Août 1765, par M. MARET, D. M. Secretaire Perpétuel (Dijon: Causse, 1766), 64.

2. ESSAI d’Eloge historique de feu M. RAMEAU, Compositeur de la Musique du Cabinet du Roi, Pensionnaire de SA MAJESTÉ & de l’Académie Royale de Musique in the MERCURE DE FRANCE, / DÉDIÉ AU ROI. / OCTOBRE 1764. / PREMIER VOLUME (Paris: Duchesne, 1764), 182. See also LE NÉCROLOGUE DES HOMMES CÉLEBRES DE FRANCE, / PAR UNE SOCIÉTÉ DE GENS DE LETTRES. / ANNÉE 1765 (Maestricht: Dufour, 1775), 39.

3. ÉLOGE DE M. Rameau, Par M. CHABANON, De l’Académie Royale des Inscriptions & Belles-Lettres (Paris: Lambert, 1764).

4. Jacques Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michale Naas, (Stanford UP, 1999), 9.
 

5. Emmanuel Levinas, “What do we know of Death?—Friday, November 14, 1975,” in God, Death, and Time, trans. Bettina Bergo, ed. Jacques Rolland (Stanford UP, 2000), 14.
 

6. Ibid., p. 12.

7. Levinas, “Freedom and Responsibility”—Friday, February 27, 1976,” in God, Death, and Time, p. 176.

8. Transl. Richard Howard, as A Lover's Discourse (Hill and Wang, 1978), 168.

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