Posted on October 22nd, 2011 by


LINK to Viotti in Washington

The French revolution depended on music, and musicians, to spread its message, like no political movement before.  For hundreds of years, the Church had relied on music for its propagandising; choir schools had trained generations of young singers and instrumentalists. With the early Revolution, the Church and the officer corps of the French army “were broken in two by its demands.”  Not only were these institutions gone,  it was necessary to find a way to train enough musicians to supply the constant demand of the new administration for ceremonial events, secular celebrations, performing and playing the revolutionary hymns which were the very fuel of revolutionary foment, from Ça ira (1790) to La Marsellaise (1792).

The musical fury of Revolution

More importantly, the general public needed to be taught these pieces.  The popular function of the violinist had been as the dancing master, his ‘kit’, or pochette violin tucked into the pockets of his coat.  Come the revolution, he had a new function, as propagandising music teacher, although dance music would continue to be dominated by violinists for the next century.

The first music to be used specifically for an organised Republican spectacle was François-Joseph Gossec’s (1734-1829) Requiem, which was played on three occasions in August 1789 in memorial for those who died at the Siege of the Bastille on the 14th July of that year.  The first great republican out door spectacle, the Festival de le Champ de Mars, where the Eiffel Tower stands today, on the 14th July 1791, demonstrated the need for suitable numbers of trained musicians for such spectaculars, and stimulated the beginning of a move towards louder and more impressive instruments suitable for such spectacles.  In this lay the roots of all the innovations of François Chanot (1788-1825), Adolphe Saxe (1814-1894) and Felix Savart (1791-1841), over the ensuing decades.  Felix Clément (1822-1885) pointed out that André Erneste Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) attempted to leaven the somewhat earnest tenor of the works written for public events and propaganda:

“As soon as Cherubini and Méhul introduced a more knowing harmony, and stronger instrumentation into their works, Grétry endeavoured to accord the light tone of his music to the tenor of the new fanfare…The same need to court the taste of the day led Grétry to enrich the revolutionary repertoire, despite having only shortly before received from Louis XVI a pension of 1000000 écus.  It would be fair to say that such ingratitude ill served his talent; neither Denis le Tyran nor Callias (1794) added any luster to the reputation of their author, still less the hymn for the planting of ‘Trees of Liberty’…”

Of course, at the time of this second anniversary of the storming of la Bastille, Louis XVI (1754 -1793) was still on the throne, albeit imprisoned, his musicians in limbo,   hoping that he would be released and that they would regain their security of body and income.  Some of them such as Grétry, weathered the storm, but many more simply disappeared.

It had been originally planned to bring out a monthly periodical of music inspired by the revolutionary ideal; the composers behind the conservatoire, Gossec, Catel, Le Seuer, Cherubini and Méhul initiated this venture.  Perhaps inevitably, this ambitious venture foundered; for the simple reason that soon no one could agree what the ‘Revolutionary ideal’ was.  To express an opinion on the subject became dangerous, to print music illustrating such an opinion, would have been at best, folly, at worst, suicidal.

Art, by its nature, is a disruptive force.  It is ideally suited for subversion, for exhortation, for inspiration, but when tasked with the celebration of a status quo inevitably falters, as do its creators.  Works such as Beethoven’s Glorreiche Augenblicke or Britten’s ‘coronation-opera’, Gloriana, are sobering examples of the problems into which composers run.  Shostakovich’s unique ‘doublethink’ when faced with ‘just criticism’ was a position which very few artists, before and after his time, have been prepared or able to adopt.

For all the hiccups along the way, the need for musicians for public spectacles to oil the social wheels which kept government and diplomacy alive, and more pressingly, for large scale propaganda, led to the eventual foundation of the world’s first conservatoire, and in this, the birth of the modern system of music teaching.  Every music teacher and player alive today traces their pedagogical heritage back to the professors of the early Paris Conservatoire; we are all the children of propaganda.  The early revolutionaries have achieved a cultural longevity of which they can hardly have dreamt.