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Some of the most profoundly touching moments in Rameau's tragedies en musique are phrases sung by the chorus as they respond to an unexpected event: the grief-laden downward appoggiatura of 'Hippolyte n'est plus' and the exquisite chromaticism accompanying the words of the Spartan people ('Que tout gemisse') at the tomb of Castor are two eloquent examples.(1) Indeed, the latter passage was frequently cited for its expressive effect, and Rameau himself described its chromatic line played by oboes, bassoons and strings as depicting 'des pleurs & des gemissemens causes par de vifs regrets'.(2) Yet despite the beauty and extraordinary craft of Rameau's choral writing, most studies of this aspect of his music have concentrated upon the variety of textures and forms he employed,(3) and little attention has been paid to performance issues. Moreover, until quite recently recordings and performances of his operas have perpetuated some long-standing misconceptions about the size and especially the distribution of parts within the chorus.(4)
The fact that performance issues in particular have received little attention may be attributed in part to the scarcity of documentary evidence concerning the size and distribution of the chorus at the Academie Royale de Musique (known colloquially as the Opera). Some historical documents that mention the Opera chorus lead us to believe that its size remained stable throughout Rameau's career - but information from the lists of performers included in printed librettos does not support this conclusion - and with some exceptions most sources provide little indication of how the parts were distributed within the chorus, since they mention only the total number of singers and not how many performed each part. Thus Paul-Marie Masson assumed that the chorus remained constant in size between 1713 and 1760, and he concluded that the distribution of voice parts within it probably remained constant as well.(5) He also noticed an apparently disproportionate number of women's voices: twelve of the 31 singers were women, all of whom sang the soprano part, while only nineteen men were divided among the other three parts.(6) But Lois Rosow and Antonia Banducci have demonstrated that Masson's assumptions do not hold good for individual works by Lully and Campra,(7) and, as we shall see, new evidence now allows us to establish the size and distribution of parts within the Opera chorus during Rameau's career as well.
CHARACTERISTICS OF RAMEAU'S CHORAL WRITING
Most of Rameau's choral writing is in four parts - designated dessus, haute-contre, taille and basse (also called basse-taille) - with all parts but the top sung by male voices. Even when specific designations are lacking, each part can readily be identified by its clef: G2 for dessus, C3 for haute-contre, C4 for taille and F4 for basse. Rameau does not usually use any other clefs for the different voice types, although some earlier composers do: in Thetis et Pelee (1689), for example, Pascal Collasse divides the male voices into four parts for the celebrated Chorus of Destiny ('Qu'un respect plein d'epouvante fasse tout trembler') and notates each in a different clef (C3, C4, F3, F4).(8) Treatises from the first half of the eighteenth century include descriptions of as many as six different voice types,(9) each employing a different clef, but all six clefs (G2, C1, C3, C4, F3, F4) are rarely found in choral writing. Distinctions between the dessus and bas-dessus among women's voices were applied mainly to solo roles, where differences in tone colour were important for dramatic reasons. The women's part in the chorus was usually called simply dessus or, in a divisi section, [1.sup.er] and [2.sup.e] dessus.
Although four-part writing may be considered the norm for Rameau's choruses, we also find a variety of other textures. The terms petit choeur and grand choeur were used for pieces requiring fewer or more than four voice parts respectively, but petit choeur did not indicate a reduction in the number of singers per part, as it did in the orchestra.(10) In the petit choeur, the two lower parts often dropped out, and the remaining two parts were expanded to three by dividing the dessus, with the haute-contre serving as a bass.(11) In a five-part grand choeur, the dessus was usually divided. A remarkable ten-part piece that demonstrates Rameau's use of unusually large choral forces is found in the act entitled 'Canope' from Les Fetes de l'Hymen et de …