1. The reader has no doubt noticed that I am once again committing the crime I think of as "effing the ineffable": that is, translating into words the kinds of experiences that music can render so effortlessly and that speech does so clumsily and ineffectively. I have three reasons for doing so, however, two of which I have indicated throughout my discussion: first, that performers often require extensive reorientation of this sort before they can make any sense of this music; second, that coming to terms with the French repertory can lead us to reexamine the cultural premises of the most basic units of our analytical methods and to take seriously elements such as this elusive quality.

  2. But I want to concentrate for the rest of my discussion on my third reason—namely, history. Historians such as Hayden White sometimes implore musicologists to give back to the discipline of history the kinds of information to which musicians have special access. Too often, we restrict ourselves to the modes of evidence available to other historians while neglecting those issues to which they look to us, usually in vain. Yet scholars who cannot read a note of music can produce inventories of archives, comparisons among verbal documents, or accounts of various moments of critical reception. They cannot, however, address how music itself participates as a cultural medium to articulate structures of feeling.

  3. Let me begin with some of the common explanations for why much French seventeenth-century music works in the ways I have described. Some simply assume the mediocrity of the music, as the products of talentless composers. And many assign the blame for this abysmal absence of talent at the French court to Jean-Baptiste Lully, who exercised a ruthless monopoly over composition, driving would-be competitors to seek employment outside France and leaving behind only those who posed no challenges. Paul Henry Lang writes concerning Lully: "In this ascent to a commanding position he deftly used everyone from the king down. The lettres patentes and the privilèges he secured from the king were so outrageous that they could not have stood the slightest legal scrutiny, but they could not be scrutinized because they came directly from the king. This adroit manipulator did succeed in becoming the virtual dictator of French musical life" (2).13

  4. But many political and cultural historians (Robert Isherwood, Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, Kathryn A. Hoffmann) have pointed to the ideological centrality of neoplatonic ideals for the perpetuation of the Absolutist state. Such critics understand seventeenth-century French cultural forms not as inept but as exceptionally powerful; they concentrate on how these media created the illusion of an eternal NOW so surfeited with pleasures and images of perfect order that thoughts of change never even had the chance to arise. In theory at least, Louis XIV arranged the daily lives of the nobility so as to distract them from fomenting rebellions such as the Fronde, to suspend them in an Arcadia of endless delights, in a condition of busy immobility. Hoffmann opens her book with "The society of pleasures…was a reverie of power where the logic of pleasure always contained the trap of violent oppression, where desire and force, pleasure and knowledge, the caress and the chains of subservience always informed each other in strange couplings" (1); and Isherwood concludes his study with the sentence: "Louis XIV made music the handmaiden of the politics of absolutism" (352).14

  5. Thus we could explain the music as the pragmatic means to an autocratic end: the deliberate anaesthetizing of a potentially restless group of subjects. The geometrical gardens at Versailles, the carefully executed divertissements, the highly regulated dance maneuvers [Louis Pécour's La Bourée d'Achille pictured], the complex etiquette of courtly manners, and many aspects of the music were deliberately designed to produce these political effects, to lull aristocrats into habits of activity-filled oblivion; in the words of a cynical contemporary critic: "Let the people slumber away in their festivities, in their spectacles" (qtd. in Burke 6).15 I always marvel at accounts of French baroque music that somehow neglect to mention any of these issues; we should never minimize the efforts at social engineering that lent support to these cultural practices.

  6. Yet I hate to fall back on a monolithic Adornoesque explanation that appeals solely to false consciousness. For if political establishments and their intentions must form part—even a large part—of the picture, they cannot account for the allure of the imagery, the material complexity of the practices, the ideals embodied and enacted through these processes. Moreover, a state, however powerful, cannot bring into being a viable structure of feeling purely by fiat.16 At best it can privilege some qualities that seem consonant with its priorities and try to suppress others—which is, of course, precisely what happened under Louis XIV. But this mode of being has to have had broad-based support, had to have made sense and genuinely counted as pleasurable for it to work, even at the political level.

  7. As it happens, this sense of timelessness was valued not only by the centers of power in France, but also by many of those disenfranchised by Absolutism. In his classic study The Hidden God, Lucien Goldmann argues that the Port Royal philosophers advocated withdrawal from the world in part as a way of coping with an eroded sense of political agency; he shows how they aspired to an ideal of attentive motionlessness while discouraging future-oriented thought and beliefs in progress.17 Martin de Barcos (1600-78) wrote, for instance:

    Thoughts of the future are a dangerous and clever temptation of the Evil One, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, and capable of ruining everything if not resisted; they must be rejected without even a first glance, since God’s word tells us not only to take no thought for the morrow in things temporal but also in things spiritual, and it is these which hang much more on His will. (qtd. in Goldmann, 34)

    Far from anticipating the advent of Enlightenment habits of thought, this philosophy recalls the sublime passivity advocated in the Biblical Parable of the Lilies in Matthew 6: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Barcos’s more famous colleague Blaise Pascal likewise wrestled with skepticism concerning agency in a world bounded by Absolutist rule: "We desire truth and find in ourselves nothing but uncertainty. We seek happiness and find only misery and death. We are incapable of not desiring truth and happiness and are incapable of either certainty or happiness. We have been left with this desire as much as a punishment as to make us feel from where we have fallen" (qtd. in Melzer 86).18

  8. An entirely different religious domain, that of the Quietist mystics, diverged in many important ways from the theology of Port Royal. Yet they too advocated withdrawal from time. St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), for instance, wrote concerning "The Prayer of Quiet":

    The soul, then, being thus inwardly recollected in God or before God, now and then becomes so sweetly attentive to the goodness of her well-beloved, that her attention seems not to her to be attention, so purely and delicately is it exercised; as it happens to certain rivers, which glide so calmly and smoothly that beholders and such as float upon them, seem neither to see nor feel any motion, because the waters are not seen to ripple or flow at all.

    Now this repose sometimes goes so deep in its tranquillity, that the whole soul and all its powers fall as it were asleep, and make no movement nor action whatever except the will alone, and even this does no more than receive the delight and satisfaction which the presence of the well-beloved affords [. . .] It is better to sleep upon this sacred breast than to watch elsewhere, wherever it be." (qtd. in de Jaegher, 124-7)

    Sales refers to the writings of St. Teresa of Avila for corroboration of this experience of quiet, but it is very significant that Teresa regards quiet as the least ecstatic of the states she describes in her vivid prose. Her desire-driven descriptions of divine union, which inspired so much poetry, music, and visual art of the Counter-Reformation in Italy, found little resonance in her French counterparts; the Quietist mystic Mme. Guyon, for instance, exalted most a condition in which the soul is "without action, without desire, without inclination, without choice, without impatience, seeing things only as God sees them, and judging them only with God’s judgment" (qtd. in Campbell, 34).19

  9. Note that although the Absolutist court worked to suppress both Jansenism and Quietism they all share similar phenomenological ideals. In other words, musical imagery need not correspond in a one-to-one relationship with the antagonisms or allegiances in the world of politics; the cultural meanings of music are always much vaguer than we might wish. At the same time, music also offers experiential knowledge of a sort that makes far more palpable the qualities aspired to during former periods. Philosophers and theologians of the late seventeenth century could write all they wanted about qualities of being in time, but they could never attain the immediacy offered by immersion in, say, D’Anglebert’s tombeau, in which we hover for the duration of about four minutes in an eternal present of plaisir, slightly tinged with a melancholy reminiscent of Watteau. 20

  10. Perhaps the most important cultural insight offered by this music, however, involves what polemicists referred to as raison—that sense of reason apparently guaranteed by French manners and found to be sorely lacking in the rambunctious music from Italy. We often conflate the raison of French style with the brand of Reason elevated by the dawning Enlightenment. But they are not the same: indeed, they turn out to be diametrically opposed qualities.

  11. Sébastien Bourdon's The Finding of Moses

  12. As Norbert Elias has explained, the raison of court culture might better be translated "regulation": it involves submission to the authority of tradition and etiquette (Elias, The Court Society 110-116).21 Such acquiescence gained one entry into a neoplatonic realm that embodied timeless truths; it allowed one to luxuriate in an idyllic cocoon, a paradise on earth. By contrast, the premises of contemporaneous Italian music enacted ideals of progressive thought: the consistent sacrifice within the music of past and present for the sake of ongoing movement into the future. It is the Italian version of tonality that best approximates the restless habits of questioning, discarding, and projecting forward on the quest for distant goals that we identify with Enlightenment Reason. To the extent that images of extroverted public rhetoric, progressive action, and investment in the future circulated within Italian repertories, that music needed to be quarantined: French authorities feared that a bite of the forbidden sonata would suffice to destroy the illusion of their carefully cultivated Eden, to bring about another Fall from Grace. We can still experience in the musical practices of this time the radical incompatibility of these two worlds. To those courtiers who had managed to live suspended in music such as D’Anglebert’s, the head-on collision with the sweeping events of the later eighteenth century involved more than loss of status and wealth; it brought with it the violent collapse of a way of being. The hermetically sealed jar broke and history rushed in.

  13. This helps explain the vehemence with which so many in France denounced Italian music. In his account of the hysteria over music generated during the Guerre des bouffons, d’Alembert presented the following satirical version of the argument against foreign styles:

    All liberties are interrelated and are equally dangerous. Freedom in music entails freedom to feel, freedom to feel means freedom to act, and freedom to act means the ruin of states. So let us keep French opera as it is if we wish to preserve the kingdom and let us put a brake on singing if we do not want to have liberty in speaking to follow soon afterwards. (520; my translation)

    Note d’Alembert’s use of breathless phrasing and his deployment of logic that, once unleashed, runs rampant from music to insurrection. The irony is, of course, that if Italian music itself did not bring about the French Revolution, it did embody quite palpably the qualities of motion and habits of thought that eventually overthrew the court tradition. In the words of José Maravall: "Static guidance controlling by presence had to give way before a dynamic guidance controlling by activity" (68). And given French ideals such as neoplatonic order, spiritual Quiet, Absolutist authority, and Arcadian timelessness, the awakening could not have been more rude.22

  14. Of course, seventeenth-century France also produced Descartes, who advocated the individual subject’s questioning and rejection of traditional authority in his famous slogan "Cogito, ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am). But that was an earlier time. Louis XIV effectively monopolized the terms of Descartes’s egocentricity with his "L’état, c’est moi!" (I am the State), according to which he became the supreme and only Subject. As Hoffmann puts it, the French nobility "were invited to desire their infinite subservience to the Other. It was a perfect dream of power [...] where the disciple is always desiring the body of the master and is turned to stare, in the posture of admiration, at the place where the renunciation of his own will is performed. Reverie of another’s cogito" (34).

  15. I have no intention of trying to lure anyone back to take up permanent habitation in the always-vulnerable, spellbound utopia of seventeenth-century France. But as historians of music, we need to be able to understand the goût, the plaisir, the raison that sustained this repertory: not only for the sake of performers, who must learn how to suspend their expectation of future-oriented procedures if they are to make sense of this music, but also for the sake of historians of culture, to whom we can offer invaluable pieces of a larger puzzle.

  16. Versailles has long since become a theme park safe for bourgeois tourists. Perhaps we can afford the occasional surrender to absorption in D’Anglebert without losing our investment in upward mobility.23

 1   2   3


    13. See also Rosen, "The Fabulous La Fontaine" for a discussion of how talented artists fled France during this period because of Louis’s ruthless favoritism.

    14. I pursue this line of argumentation in McClary "Unruly Passions."

    15. "Laisser le peuple s’endormir dans les fêtes, dans les spectacles." J. La Bruyère, Les Caractères, 1688. In Society of Pleasures, Hoffmann traces in texts of this time the many recurrent images associated with slumber: dreams, reverie, trance, somnambulism, and so on.

    16. For critiques of the explanation of this culture as simply imposed from above, see again Hoffmann and also Dewald, Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture.

    17. For a more recent political interrogation of Racine and his relation to power, see Hoffmann, Chapter 2.

    18. Orginal source: Blaise Pascal, Pensées, ed. Philippe Sellier (Paris: Mercure de France, 1976), fragment 20. ["Nous souhaitons la vérité et ne trouvons en nous qu’incertitude. Nous recherchons le bonheur et ne trouvons que misère et mort. Nous sommes incapables de ne pas souhaiter la vérité et le bonheur et sommes incapable ni de certitude ni de bonheur. Ce désir nous est laissé pour nous punir que pour nous faire sentir d’où nous sommes tombés."]

    19. Original source: Mme de Guyon, Torrens spirituels, Part II, chap. 4, par. 12. Campbell’s book is a comparative study of subjective religious movements of the seventeenth century.

    20. For detailed readings of Watteau stressing the qualities contributing to reverie, see Bryson, Chapter 3.

    21. See also Pocock, 12-13.

    22. Of course, this is not the only moment in history to have experienced such a collision. Americanists such as David Noble have identified a similar confrontation at the turn of the last century between Quietist isolationism (which many wanted to protect from the onslaught of modern urbanization) and the Progressive political movements that eventually won the day. See Noble.

    23. This essay was written for the national meeting of the American Musicological Society Meetings in Phoenix, November 1997, as part of a session on music in Absolutist France. I wish to thank Kate van Orden for inviting me to participate in this session. I am also grateful to Marischka Hopcroft, my research assistant, who located many of these delicious sources for me. David Fuller, Wesley Morgan (my first music history teacher), Elisabeth Le Guin, and Sara Melzer graciously read and made valuable comments on an earlier version. My laziness in seeking publication paid off handsomely when new technologies appeared, making on-line circulation—complete with performance!—possible. My thanks to Kate Bartel, who produced the video, and especially to Jacqueline Warwick, the editor of ECHO, who finally pried the essay out of my hands for her journal.

    Works Cited

    d’Alembert, J. le Rond. La Liberté de la musique (1759). Oeuvres de d’Alembert 1. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1967.

    D’Anglebert, Jean Henry. Pieces de Clavecin. Paris, 1689; facsimile edition, New York: Broude Brothers, 1965.

    Dewald, Jonathan. Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture: France, 1570-1715. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

    Anthony, James R. French Baroque Music from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

    Brooks, Peter. Body Works: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Harvard, 1993.

    Bryson, Norman. Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Régime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

    Burke, Peter. The Fabrication of Louis XIV. New York: Yale University Press, 1992.

    Campbell, Ted. The Religion of the Heart: A Study of European Religious Life in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1991.

    Elias, Norvert. The Court Society. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New york: Pantheon, 1983.

    ---. The History of Manners: The Civilizing Process. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Vol. 1. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

    Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

    Fried, Michael. "Absorption: A Master Theme in Eighteenth Century French Painting and Criticism." Eighteenth Century Studies 9.2 (Winter 1975-76): 139-77.

    ---. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.

    Fuller, David. "Chambonnières." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 6th ed. 1980.

    ---. "French Harpsichord Playing in the 17th Century—after Le gallois." Early Music (1976): 22-26.

    ---. "’Sous les doits de Chambonnières’." Early Music (May 1993): 191-202.

    Goldmann, Lucien. The Hidden God: A Study of Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Tragedies of Racine. Trans. Philip Thody. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964; repr. 1977.

    Hoffmann, Kathryn. Society of Pleasures: Intersiciplinary Readings in Pleasure and Power During the Reign of Louis XIV. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

    Isherwood, Robert. Music in the Service of the King. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973.

    de Jaegher, Paul. An Anthology of Christian Mysticism. Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1977.

    Lang, Paul Henry. Introduction. Jean-Baptiste Lully and the Music of the French Baroque: Essays in Honor of James R. Anthony. Ed. John Hajdu Heyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Maravall, José Antonio. Culture of the Baroque: Analysis of a Historical Structure. Trans. Terry Cochran. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

    McClary, Susan. Conventional Wisdom. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000.

    ---. "Temp Work: Music and the Cultural Shaping of Time." Musicology Australia, forthcoming.

    ---. "Unruly Passions and Courtly Dances: Technologies of the Body in Baroque Music." From the Royal to the Republican Body: Incorporating the Political in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century France. Ed. Sara Melzer and Kate Norberg. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. 85-112.

    Melzer, Sara. Discourses of the Fall: A Study of Pascal’s Pensées. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

    Noble, David. The End of American History: Democracy, Capitalism, and the Metaphor of Two Worlds in Anglo-American Historical Writing, 1880-1980. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

    Pocock, Gordon. Boileau and the Nature of Neo-Classicism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

    Rosen, Charles. "The Fabulous La Fontaine." New York Review of Books. Dec. 18, 1997: 38-46.

    Scheibert, Beverly. D’Anglebert and the 17th-Century Clavecin School. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

    White, Hayden. "Form, Reference, and Ideology in Musical Discourse." Music and Text: Critical Inquiries. Ed. Steven Paul Scher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

    Zbikowski, Lawrence M. Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.






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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