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Classical music, privilege, and ghosts of the French Revolution

Classical music, privilege, and ghosts of the French Revolution

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

As a historian of the Classical Era (ca. 1770–1820) teaching at a large college of music in the US, I realize that many students never even arrive in my classroom because they had neither the advantage nor the desire to pursue training in classical music as children. Admissions to elite music schools usually require performance fluency in 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 truly to blame for this privileged state of affairs? In my book, From Servant to Savant, I turned to an unlikely place during these composers’ lifetimes—to the barricades of the French Revolution—to uncover a hidden history of privilege in modern professional musicianship. 

“Admissions to elite music schools usually require performance fluency in 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 1789 Revolution began, legal permissions called privilèges granted French subjects the right to engage in certain activities, usually at the exclusion of others. Privileges exempt the clergy and nobility from taxation, protected production rights for guilds, confined trade to particular geographic locations within cities, and reserved hunting rights for nobles. They also regulated musical production, from public performances to score publication, instrument building, and beyond. In a small town in southern France, one noble woman owned the right to dictate when the violin could be played in the street! And so, when one spoke of “privilege” in the splendid culture of Marie Antoinette’s Paris, one spoke of tangible social and legal advantages either present at birth due to family lineage or bestowed upon subjects by the King and the French courts. Then, like now, musicians complained about the system’s unfair exclusivity.

Only weeks after the Bastille prison fell on 14 July 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 nearly a millennium. What replaced this system was the right to property. (The complex 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, enshrined property as a bedrock of human rights. Consequently, music in France transformed from an activity requiring permission to an object that could be owned. 

This new system created a material foundation for lasting 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 kinds of musicians and music-making. This legal structure reinforced or in some cases even generated the priorities that would come to dominate narratives of music history throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Second, when music was legally cast as a public good, musicians earned government funding to open a school of music alongside other national education institutions like schools of health and engineering. In 1795, the Paris Conservatory opened its doors as the first modern institution of its kind. Before the Revolution, musical training had been the purview of individual music teachers or schools attached to Catholic cathedrals. There had never been a widescale system of accreditation in music like those for professions such as medicine or law. The Conservatory changed that. 

It was primarily composers who led the new music school, including François-Joseph Gossec, Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, and Jean-François Le Sueur. They oversaw publication of method books outlining the Conservatory’s official standards of performance for every instrument it taught, from piano and violin to bassoon and horn. In the wake of revolutionary military campaigns, the Conservatory’s director Bernard Sarrette sent his representatives to libraries throughout Europe to collect musical scores for French students to study in the institution’s new library. These collections, along with the music excerpted in the Conservatory’s new method books, bear lasting names of music history—Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, and Mozart—which the institution upheld as models of musical achievement. While the Conservatory members set in place the repertoire required for performance and study, it collaterally established very specific curricular priorities. Moreover, the Conservatory’s standards for admission became prohibitive for musicians who were not already somehow socially advantaged.

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

Around 1800, as Revolution faded, musicians who could not enter the elite school raised an alarming accusation against the Conservatory: privilege. The violinist Louis Antoine Durieu claimed that the Conservatory faculty had at first rejected then plagiarized his elementary music textbook. He was exasperated by the power that this small group of musicians yielded. “The Conservatory dares to assume the privilege of deciding the talents and the fate of those who possess them,” he complained. Although the Revolution abolished legal privilege, a more modern kind of privilege soon took hold, one predicated not on explicit laws but on covert socio-economic advantages. 

Durieu’s frustration seems to echo 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 the Conservatory’s methods as the authoritative origins of instrument 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 analyses beyond score-reading, and a rich and diverse twenty-first-century repertoire has begun to fill auditoriums where once only Mozart and Beethoven were heard. However, new systems inevitably come with their own new challenges. By acknowledging the persistence of musical privilege, educators and administrators can remain alert to how power operates through music institutions, and more importantly, how individuals can redirect its flow.

Featured image: “Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen” 1793, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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