Classical music, privilege and ghosts of the French Revolution


The word privilege is a lightning rod in American culture. For some it indexes systemic inequalities shaped by race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality, while for others it represents a “woke” vocabulary used to enforce political correctness. Unsurprisingly, the charges of privilege have reached the world of classical music. In recent years, music scholars and critics have identified orchestral audition procedures, music school curricula, and concert repertoire as just a few places where privilege lurks beneath the apolitical veneer. great art. Critics point out how these seemingly objective norms and practices limit access to a profession already shrouded in an elite aura. Their criticisms put pressure on two pillars of classical music: the “great” composers and their musical “masterpieces”.

As a classical era historian (circa 1770-1820) teaching at a major college of music in the United States, I realize that many students never even make it to my class because they had neither the advantage nor the desire to pursue an education in classical music. music as a child. Admissions to elite music schools generally require a mastery of performance within a narrow musical canon formed by an even narrower set of Western European and American values. But are Beethoven’s symphonies or Mozart’s operas really responsible for this privileged state of affairs? In my book, From servant to scholar, I turned to an unlikely place in these composers’ lifetimes – to the barricades of the French Revolution – to uncover a hidden history of privilege in modern professional music.

“Admissions to elite music schools generally require a mastery of performance within a narrow musical canon formed by an even narrower set of Western European and American values.”

Unlike today, musical privileges in pre-revolutionary France were explicit. Before the start of the Revolution of 1789, legal authorizations called privileges granted French subjects the right to engage in certain activities, usually to the exclusion of others. Privileges exempted the clergy and nobility from taxation, protected production rights for guilds, limited trade to particular geographic locations within cities, and reserved hunting rights for nobles. They also regulated musical production, from public performances to the publication of sheet music, the manufacture of instruments and beyond. In a small town in the south of France, a noblewoman owned the right to dictate when the violin could be played in the street! Thus, when we spoke of “privilege” in the splendid culture of the Paris of Marie-Antoinette, we spoke of tangible social and legal advantages either present at birth because of the family line, or granted to subjects by the King and the courses in France. Then, as now, musicians complained about the unfair exclusivity of the system.

Only a few weeks after the fall of the Bastille prison, on July 14, 1789, the unthinkable happened: the French revolutionary government voted to abolish privileges, ending the legal, social and economic system that had structured French society. for almost a millennium. What has replaced this system is the right to property. (The intricate details of this transition can be found in Rafe Blaufarb’s 2016 book, The great demarcation.) The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, drafted in August 1789, enshrines property as the foundation of human rights. Consequently, music in France has changed from an activity requiring authorization to an object that can be possessed.

This new system created a material basis for the enduring values ​​of classical music in two ways. First, when music was protected as a form of private property, the law prioritized composers (the “greats”) and musical scores (the “masterpieces”) above other types of musicians. and musical creation. This legal structure reinforced or, in some cases, even generated the priorities that would dominate accounts of music history throughout the 19e and 20e centuries. Second, when music was legally considered a public good, musicians obtained government funding to open a music school alongside other national educational institutions like schools of health and engineering. In 1795, the Conservatoire de Paris opened its doors as the first modern institution of its kind. Before the Revolution, musical training was the responsibility of individual music teachers or schools attached to Catholic cathedrals. There had never been a large-scale accreditation system in music like those for professions such as medicine or law. The Conservatory changed that.

It was mainly composers who led the new school of music, including François-Joseph Gossec, Étienne-Nicolas Méhul and Jean-François Le Sueur. They oversaw the publication of method books outlining the Conservatoire’s official performance standards for every instrument taught, from piano and violin to bassoon and horn. Following the revolutionary military campaigns, the director of the Conservatoire, Bernard Sarrette, sent his representatives to libraries across Europe to collect musical scores for French students to study in the institution’s new library. . These collections, along with music taken from the Conservatoire’s new method books, bear enduring names in music history – Palestrina, Bach, Haydn and Mozart – whom the institution has upheld as models of musical achievement. While the members of the Conservatoire put in place the repertoire necessary for interpretation and study, they also established very precise curricular priorities. Additionally, Conservatory admissions standards became prohibitively expensive for musicians who were not already socially advantaged.

“By acknowledging musical privilege, educators and administrators can stay alert to how power operates through musical institutions and, more importantly, how individuals can redirect its flow.”

Around 1800, as the Revolution waned, musicians unable to enter the elite school brought an alarming accusation against the Conservatoire: privilege. Violinist Louis Antoine Durieu claimed that the faculty of the Conservatory first rejected and then plagiarized his elementary music textbook. He was exasperated by the power of this small group of musicians. “The Conservatoire dares to assume privilege to decide the talents and fate of those who possess them,” he complained. Although the Revolution abolished legal privilege, a more modern type of privilege quickly took hold, based not on explicit laws but on hidden socio-economic advantages.

Durieu’s frustration seems to resonate in the halls of today’s classical music institutions. As musicologist Loren Kajikawa has shown, many music schools still prioritize Western forms of musical knowledge and musicianship. Graduate students continue to cite Conservatory methods as the authoritative origins of instrumental genealogies. Yet in recent years, new undergraduate degrees require no prior musical training, music courses place accessible technologies at the heart of creativity, pedagogies emphasize musical analyzes beyond reading scores, and a rich and diverse 21st-century repertoire began to fill auditoriums where only Mozart and Beethoven were once heard. However, new systems inevitably come with new challenges. By recognizing the persistence of musical privilege, educators and administrators can remain alert to how power operates through musical institutions and, more importantly, how individuals can redirect its flow.

Featured Image: “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” 1793, via Wikimedia Commonspublic domain


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