A sked to identify the greatest composer in Germany during the first half of the 18th century, most people would name Bach. When asked who was the greatest composer in England then, the response would be Handel.
But the intellectual and artistic center of Europe during that period was neither Germany nor England, but France. Naturally, the land shone upon by the Sun King and his successor also boasted an outstanding composer, but one who for various reasons has remained in the shadows until the middle of our own century.
Jean-Philippe Rameau enjoyed a spot in the sun only toward the end of his life. He wrote most of his finest music between the ages of 50 and 56. Until he reached middle age, and for nearly two centuries after his death, Rameau was just another name in the deep musicological murk.
Born in Dijon in 1683, Rameau remained a non-entity until he was 40, when he wrote a still-famous treatise on harmony. Then, aspiring to write operas for Paris production, he had to shake the theorist image. Nobody thought a person who wrote about such arcane things as root-position chords and their inversions could also create pleasant music.
So he began publishing a series of delightful harpsichord works, full of dance movements and pieces inspired by animals and personalities of the day. Then in 1733 came the 50-year-old Rameau's big break - an opportunity to write operas, the best way for a French composer to make his name at that time.
Oh, yes, Rameau made a name for himself. He was suddenly attacked by half the Paris intelligentsia as a radical, a composer of grotesque, unmelodic, discordant music that was made even more offensive by its noisy instrumentation.
Rameau was thrust into the middle of a war of aesthetics. He represented the avant-garde movement, while his detractors favored the comfortingly bland harmonic style of Jean-Baptiste Lully, who through royal appointment had been France's most powerful composer in the previous century.
Rameau defended his position in print, and gained many supporters. But his personality won him no fans. His usually uncommunicative nature was periodically convulsed by bouts of severe rudeness. One of his contemporaries would later recall, ``His whole heart and soul were in his harpsichord; once he had shut it there was no one at home.''
Still, his fame grew and his operas became increasingly popular. Eventually even the king of France took an interest in Rameau, giving the composer an honorary title and an annual pension. Once an outsider, Rameau came to represent the Establishment.
In the 1750s he was once again embroiled in controversy. This time, the factions that had denounced his work 20 years before were defending him as the champion of French music, which was being threatened, so the factions claimed, by an insidious Italian invasion.
An Italian opera buffa, or comic opera, troupe had come to Paris with a production of Giovanni Pergolesi's ``La serva padrona,'' demonstrating the allure of simple melody. The Parisian pro-Italian faction felt that, compared to Pergolesi's music, Rameau's seemed unnecessarily complex and artificial.
This was the so-called War of the Buffonists (a word derived from the term opera buffa), which raged from 1752 to 1754. On Rameau's side were the French aristocracy and King Louis XV. On the Italianists' side were Parisian thinkers like Diderot and Rousseau, and the queen.
Arguments on each side could reach silly extremes, but in the end the Italian faction prevailed and the operas of Rameau lost favor. One of his last works, the lyric tragedy ``Les BorBades'' of 1764, was premiered only in 1975.
It similarly took more than two centuries for his other stage works to be revived in a significant way, and that came about as a result of scholarly interest in Rameau's period, the Baroque era, not so much from interest in Rameau's own music.
But now that Rameau's scores have been dusted off along with all the rest, they turn out to be utterly delightful.
Most attractive to people who are not steeped in the sometimes repetitive wonders of Baroque opera are Rameau's opera-ballets. In these works, lovely vocal passages give way to extensive dance sequences.
Opera-ballets were grand spectacles; plot was not especially important, and Rameau's music is often far more dramatic than the story.
The dances themselves are often collected into suites, so it's possible for people who dislike vocal music to enjoy at least some of Rameau's stage works.
In contrast to the staid, stuffy and harmonically simple music of Lully, Rameau's ballet sequences are energetic, harmonically inventive and imaginatively scored.
Rhythm is, of course, supremely important in dance music. While Rameau could write his share of stately, measured dance pieces, he was best in his more unfettered dances - those written for primitive, exotic characters, or those imitating storms or battles.
Rameau's harmony was always orderly; he was, after all, a grand theorist. But he did sometimes modulate to different keys in ways that were so swift and expressive that the music seems a century ahead of its time. This sort of effect would not be achieved so regularly again until the Romantic era of Chopin and Tchaikovsky.
Rameau was similarly forward-thinking in his approach to orchestration. His use of percussion and independent woodwinds (in other words, the flutes didn't merely play the violin music) made his musical tempests and earthquakes the most evocative of the period.
He carried his musical scene-painting over into his keyboard works, too. His five suites for harpsichord and assorted other pieces are both elegant and picturesque.
Like Francois Couperin, another important French composer during the same period, Rameau wrote theatrical little keyboard pieces imitating birds, describing familiar characters or making fun of country bumpkins.
He also wrote graceful, refined dance movements - not the same sort of music he used in ballets, but more stylized, courtly dances. Some were moderately paced, two-beat gavottes; others were slow sarabandes in three-four time; still others were gigues, quick but less bumptious versions of the leaping British jig.
Rameau's music has all the qualities that would characterize French music well into the 20th century - gracet clarity, wit, occasional sentimentality and a taste for the picturesque.