Susan McClary
University of California, Los Angeles

  1. In a classic essay from 1973, art historian Michael Fried focused on a quality he had discerned in French eighteenth-century painting—a quality he called "absorption" (Fried, "Absorption" 139-77).1 The paintings he examines in the course of the article depict individuals so immersed in meditation that they seem withdrawn from the world. Those artists who excelled in this genre rarely chose heroic figures as their subjects; Jean-Baptiste Greuze, for instance, often preferred to present pretty children quietly pondering their dead canaries or gazing in distraction away from their books. [Greuze's Jeune Fille qui pleure la mort de son oiseau pictured] Today such paintings may strike viewers as precious and sentimental—certainly not the stuff to which one would turn in reconstructing socio-political history. Indeed, these works, much loved during their own moment, have long been dismissed by many critics as kitsch. Yet by interrogating this quality of absorption rather than the manifest content of the canvases, Fried identifies an elusive but persistent element for the period under consideration—the kind of element Raymond Williams referred to as a "structure of feeling":

    For what we are defining is a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period. The relations between this quality and the other specifying historical marks of changing institutions, formations, and beliefs, and beyond these the changing social and economic relations between and within classes, are again an open question: that is to say, a set of specific historical questions [. . .] We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. (131-32)

  2. I encountered Fried’s article when I was seeking to understandVersailles a peculiar quality in French music of the ancien régime—a quality that seems designed to induce something like absorption in the listener, a quality of stillness in which consciousness hovers suspended outside linear time. As it turns out, Fried’s absorption is but one of a very large cluster of privileged images and metaphors prevalent in France during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that converge around the ideal of timelessness: I would include here the neoplatonic geometry that undergirds everything from landscape design to ballroom dance at Versailles [General plan of André Le Nôtre's gardens at Versailles pictured], the obsession with Arcadian themes that pervades court life and its art, the warnings against thinking about the future in Jansenist theology, the Quietist definition of ecstasy as a state of utter desirelessness.

  3. To the consternation of historians who like to keep their categories separate, these images come from a wide variety of cultural domains, some of them (for instance, the Absolutist court and the Jansenist philosophers of Port Royal) explicitly antagonistic. Moreover, they appear throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: a very long span of time during which many radical ideological and cultural changes occurred.2 I will return later in this essay for a more detailed discussion of these problems. But first I wish to consider briefly the music that first motivated this line of inquiry.

  4. In my experience as a coach of early-music performance, the seventeenth-century French repertory presents more acute challenges to most present-day musicians than any other. Heinrich Schütz’s complex modal allegories or Girolamo Frescobaldi’s erratic toccatas may present them with temporary obstacles, but these gradually become accessible through the rhetorical sensibilities performers bring with them from later music. The French baroque, however, stops them dead in their tracks; François Couperin [pictured, right] taunts them from across the centuries when he boasts in L’Art de toucher le clavecin (1716) that "foreigners play our music less well than we do theirs."3 Yet most performers, before they will accept Couperin’s chauvinistic diagnosis for their puzzlement, prefer to reverse the blame, to dismiss the music itself as incompetent.

  5. Oddly enough, this assessment underlies a good many of our official musicological accounts of this music. Of those who have written on seventeenth-century French music, only David Fuller seems to me to have grappled sympathetically with how it produces its effects.4 But most scholars—even those who create elaborate catalogues, exhaustive archival documentation, and detailed histories—go on summarily to dismiss the materials in question as unworthy of serious musical attention. In his introduction to a book devoted to Lully [pictured, left], for instance, Paul Henry Lang writes (with extravagantly feminized tropes):

    The music all these composers cultivated was in the sign of the dance, so congenial to the French, with its neat little forms, pregnant rhythms, great surface attraction, and in tone and structure so much in harmony with the spirit of the age. This music, though slight and short-breathed, was elegant and so different from any other that the whole of Europe became enamored of it. (1)

  6. Similarly, James R. Anthony, in his French Baroque Music (long the definitive book on this repertory), damns with the faintest of praise one of its most characteristic genres:

    In summary, French lute music of the seventeenth century is mannered, precious, even decadent; its melodies are surcharged with ornaments, its rhythms fussy, its harmony often aimless, and its texture without unity. Yet at the same time, it is never pretentious, it never demands more from the instrument than the instrument can give. In its own fragile way, it is honest to itself. (243)

  7. We must keep in mind, however, that the Absolutist rulers who commissioned and listened to this music had access to the very best artistic talents money could buy. It is not likely that Louis XIV [pictured] simply tolerated mediocrity in his compositional staff; indeed, we know that he intervened at every level of cultural production and even participated personally in auditions for new orchestral musicians. If this music now falls on figuratively deaf ears, it seems to have satisfied precisely what its highly discriminating makers and patrons required of it.

  8. As the quotations above indicate, today’s musicians encountering French seventeenth-century music often experience it chiefly in terms of lack: they listen in vain for teleological tonal progressions ("its harmony often aimless"), patterns of motivic reiteration ("its texture without unity"), or imitative counterpoint—the very ingredients we have learned through our theoretical training to notice. Instead, this music arrests the attention with an ornament here, a sudden flurry and cessation of activity there, making it difficult or impossible to play the games of speculation and anticipation we usually bring to music of this and subsequent periods.

  9. Confronted by what we take as manifestations of absence, we may hear this music as relatively arbitrary—as a series of events connected (if at all) only on a moment-by-moment basis. In phenomenological terms, it sounds static rather than dynamic. Yet most courtiers and artists during the ancien régime clearly preferred this music to its alternatives. Consequently, historians of seventeenth-century French culture face the difficult task of converting all those negatives into positive attributes. What kinds of rewards did this music offer its devotees? What structures of feeling did it reinforce?

  10. We might, of course, turn directly to the polemics of the time, in which Francophile connoisseurs sought to justify their predilections. In their attempts at pinpointing the essence of French music, they buttressed their documents with words such as bon goût, plaisir, and raison (good taste, pleasure, reason)—words obviously freighted with a great deal of cultural prestige. But those words speak meaningfully only to insiders who already count themselves aficionados; the rest of us must ask: whose taste? which pleasures? what version of reason?

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1. See also Fried Absorption. Fried observes that "[t]here had been a tradition of absorptive painting, one whose almost universal efflorescence in the seventeenth century was everywhere followed by its relative decline" (Absorption 1980, 43; emphasis in the original).

2. Gordon Pocock justifies a similar account of the longue durée in Pocock:

[. . . neoclassicism as] a doctrine which flourished in such different social and intellectual contexts, beginning in France in the years when Richelieu was coming to power, consolidating itself in the 1630s, and enduring through the Frondes, the absolutism of Louis XIV, into the Regency, and well into the second half of the eighteenth century. These are years of profound social and intellectual change: of civil wars; of the establishment and partial failure of absolutism; of recession followed by eighteenth-century prosperity; of the Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. It surely requires some explanation that the same critical themes and doctrines should occupy such diverse minds as Chapelain, Boileau and Voltaire. (14)

3. François Couperin, ‘L’Art de toucher le Clavecin (1716), the paragraph just before the heading "Examinons donc d’où vient cette contrarieté!"

4. See, for instance, Fuller, "Chambonnière"; Fuller, "French Harpsichord Playing"; Fuller "’Sous les doits’." I wish to thank Professor Fuller for sharing with me some of his unpublished materials on this repertory

Volume 2 Issue 2


Susan McClary:
Temporality and Ideology

Fink, Garofalo, Gebhardt,
and Partovi:

Music as Object?
A Napster Roundtable



Magical Urbanism

The Art of Piano

Review Essays

Experience Music Project

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