A French (R)evolution in Music?

By Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden

The American media seems to foreground the affinities between music and politics during election years. The Rolling Stones, Adele, R.E.M., and many other musicians have publicly confronted the Trump campaign for using their music without permission during rallies. The visceral and almost pre-conscious elements of music make it an ideal outlet for the passionate ideologies that boil over during heated political debate. Yet the German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus has warned, “To argue that the French Revolution marks a break in music history appears to be a hardly justifiable construction, sacrificing empirical reality to methodological principal [through an] equation between political and cultural history.”[1] He was skeptical of music historians who casually located the roots of nineteenth-century Romantic musical aesthetics in French revolutionary operas or a spirit of revolution in the instrumental compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven. Historical research from the past two decades has shown that significant changes in musical practices and institutions occurred in France from 1789 to 1794. The time is ripe to ask again whether the political Revolution of 1789 coincided with a musical revolution.

In France, the word “revolution” was first applied to music during the eighteenth century, as the term slowly shed its astronomical meaning to take on a historiographic one. Revolution no longer meant a heavenly body’s completion of one rotation around its path, rather, it came to be defined as an abrupt change or rupture from the past. This new definition assumed history to be a process of continual improvement.[2] Thus, historical revolutions did not return to a point of origin, but arrived at a completely new, and better result. Michel-Paul-Gui de Chabanon, an amateur musician and writer, seems to be the first writer to consistently apply the word revolution to French music. According to him, musical revolution occurred when an individual genius—in his opinion, composer Jean-Philippe Rameau—caused a sudden change in aesthetics.[3]

Dahlhaus’ quote warns us not to conflate sudden changes in aesthetics with sudden social changes, that is, not to assume that revolutions naturally occur simultaneously across social, political, and cultural realms. But determining whether a revolution in music occurred during the French Revolution requires a macro-historical understanding of musicianship in France. Louis XIV, the Sun King, established the Royal Academy of Music alongside numerous other academies dedicated to the arts and sciences. (The Académie française remains the most famous today for its diligent regulation of the French language.) French academies were modeled after those in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italy, where experts gathered to debate and to set standards in their fields. The Royal Academy of Music, however, did not quite fit this definition. Because opera was integral to glorifying the king and justifying his policies, the music academy in fact protected the crown’s interests on stage more than it provided a venue for musicians to cultivate their art. Not only did musicians lack a proper academy such as those dedicated to the visual arts, but they also lacked rigorous guilds, the formal corporate structures that regulated crafts and trades. Although musicians trained students in the Royal School of Singing and Declamation founded in 1784, these activities still ultimately served the Opera. With the exception of notable composers like Jean-Baptiste Lully, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and François-Joseph Gossec, musicians in early and mid-eighteenth-century France were primarily considered as court servants rather than as experts. Indeed, at the end of the Revolution the composer André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry stated that “under the Old Regime, performing musicians were regarded as mere musical instruments, to be dumped in the same case after they had played their sonata.” [4]

Music note: Composer André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry’s ballet suite La Rosière républicaine (1794) represents a blend of the classical style typical of Mozart with the patriotic necessities of festival music during the French Revolution. Composers demonstrated their utility to the nation through such compositions.

My recent research investigates how musicians took on a more prestigious socio-economic role as the French Revolution began in 1789. Documents liquidating the retirement account of Bernard Sarrette, who would become director of the Paris Conservatory in 1796, claim that he gathered the musicians who lived in the Filles-Saint-Thomas section of Paris the day before the storming of the Bastille, on July 13, 1789, to contribute their music to the revolutionary cause.[5] This core group became the musical branch of the French National Guard, performing at revolutionary festivals and some even providing military music on the battlefields. These forty-five musicians remained integral to revolutionary social and cultural life, at times supported only by the personal finances cobbled together by Sarrette himself. Meanwhile, the governments of the city of Paris and of France debated whether municipal or national entities held responsibility for funding these socially and politically useful musicians. As the turmoil of the Terror receded in late 1794, Sarrette and the famous composers affiliated with this group, including François-Joseph Gossec and Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, came together to propose a National Institute of Music. After proving their utility to the nation and losing their primary pre-revolutionary patrons to the Revolution—namely, the church and nobility—musicians argued that they deserved government funds to establish an institution dedicated to their art.

Musicians from the Conservatory organized for the music festivals such as the Festival of the Supreme Being.
Jean Pierre Simon, Vue du côté oriental de la montagne élevée au Champ de la Réunion, 1794. Musicians from the Conservatory organized the music for festivals such as the Festival of the Supreme Being held in 1794. This image shows two trumpets playing from either side of the tower to signal when the large crowd should join in singing. After revolutionary festivals were disbanded, musicians directed their “utility” from festivals to training outstanding French musicians and to cultivating a French national style of music.

In 1795, the French National Assembly agreed that these musicians had become crucial to the regeneration of the nation, and by October 1796 the Paris Conservatory officially opened its doors. The new conservatory offered musicians a privilege that they had never enjoyed under the Old Regime: to set the their own standards for musical production. Administrators hoped to recruit the best music students from across France. Faculty members wrote new method books to teach instrumental pedagogy, performance, and composition to the students. Sarrette worked with his colleagues to acquire collections in order to establish a music library and instrument museum that would exhibit changes in musical styles from the very earliest times to the present, from across geographic regions and cultures.[6] The Conservatory administrators even planned to establish their own printing press and to organize studios where students would develop improved instrument-building technologies. By attempting to house the many facets of musical production within one autonomous institution, French musicians planned to control the aesthetics, reproduction, and circulation of music in an unprecedented fashion. 

Although the Conservatory did not realize every aspect of its original institutional vision, its methods came to dominate Western music pedagogy during the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries, and today, it remains one of the best-recognized musical institutions in the world. Unlike the definition of revolution applied to music during the 1780s, an abrupt change in musical aesthetics was not incited by an individual genius during the French Revolution. Instead, the French Revolution fostered a gradual social change, nurtured by a group of professionals, which led to innovative and lasting standardization and institutionalization of music in France. My current research investigates the relationship between individual musicians and the institutions in which they worked to reveal how musical production experienced an evolution rather than a revolution in Enlightenment and Revolutionary France.

Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden is Professor of Music History at the University of North Texas College of Music. You can find her on Twitter @BeccaShwinRoy or contact her by email at rebecca.geoffroy-scwinden@unt.edu.

Title image: Muerte de Bara, by Charles Moreau Vauthier.


[1] Carl Dahlhaus, Die Musik des 18. Jahrhunderts (Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1985), 365. Translation is my own.

[2] Michael Fend, “An Instinct for Parody and a Spirit of Revolution: Parisian Opera, 1752–1800,” in The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Music, ed. Simon Keefe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 296.

[3] Philippe Vendrix, “La notion de révolution dans les écrits théoriques concernant la musique avant 1789,” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 21, no. 1 (June 1990): 71–78.

[4] André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, De la vérité (Paris: Chez Ch. Pougens, 1801), 2: 7.

[5] Constant Pierre, Bernard Sarrette et les origines du Conservatoire national de musique et de déclamation (Paris: Delalain frères, 1895), 13.

[6] Florence Gétreau, “Un cabinet d’instruments pour l’instruction publique: faillite du projet, ouverture du débat,” and Catherine Massip, “La bibliothèque du Conservatoire (1795–1819): une utopie réalisée?” in Le Conservatoire de Paris: Des Menus-Plaisirs à la Cité de la musique 1795-1995, ed. Anne Bongrain and Yves Gérard, vol. 1 (Paris: Éditions Buchet/Chastel, 1996).

Further Reading on Musicians and Musical Institutions during the French Revolution:

On changes in musical institutions during the French Revolution, see Mark Darlow. Staging the French Revolution: Cultural Politics and the Paris Opéra, 1789–1794. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

On changes in popular musical practices during the French Revolution, see Laura Mason. Singing the French Revolution: Popular Culture and Politics, 1787–1799. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

For a perspective on the French Revolution as an underwhelming change in musical institutions, see Jean Mongrédien. French Music from the Enlightenment to Romanticism: 1789–1830. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1996.

To learn about how the musical legacy of the Revolution was picked up later in Frenc history, see Jann Pasler. “Reinscribing the Revolutionary Legacy.” Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

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