Thursday, February 17, 2022

Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden's "From Servant to Savant"

Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden is an Associate Professor of Music History at the University of North Texas who works on eighteenth-century music cultures and musical labor during the early Age of Revolution.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, From Servant to Savant: Musical Privilege, Property, and the French Revolution, and reported the following:
On page 99 of From Servant to Savant, it’s 1792. The page introduces more than thirty male musicians amidst heated debates about who “owned” music and how they might come to own it according to the French Revolution’s new property laws. Their names had been affixed to a petition requesting strict legal formalities to regulate the exchange of musical property. These two-and-a-half paragraphs outline the diverse stakes that each of them held in the Parisian music world and in the wider music world of cosmopolitan Europe. Some composed pedagogical works for domestic use, others were big-name publishers who held voluminous catalogues of well-loved music, still others worked as arrangers who made small fortunes by reducing opera and symphony themes into compositions for solo keyboard. And so the reader is struck, first and foremost, by the fact that the professional identity “musician” accounted for many kinds of labor during this period.

The musicians claim here to be struggling against all kinds of “thievery” (to employ their word), especially in the form of pirated musical editions. But the real plaintiffs in this scene are men whose names remain absent from the petition in question—opera composers like Nicolas-Marie Dalayrac and Étienne-Nicolas Méhul, who watched the entire music industry financially profit from their musical ideas, ideas that they described as the most “sacred” and the most “personal” of all properties. Their words drew on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a revolutionary document that would come to inspire human rights-granting documents through the twentieth century.

Page 99 parachutes the reader into an apt introduction—if not in content then in spirit—to the book’s larger claims and methods. First, the modern property regime implemented during the French Revolution gave birth to practices that would inflect professional musicianship and music historiography for centuries to come. And second, understanding such tectonic cultural shifts requires an exploration of the entire ecosystem of musical production comprised of legal, social, and economic factors. This means looking beyond the individuals like Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, who continue to steal the spotlight in today’s “classical music” discourse. Page 99 introduces us to dozens of forgotten musicians who helped to forge the economic and legal frameworks of musical modernity.

The French Revolution gave birth to modern property laws that still inflect today’s music industry. Laborers who produced music—from composers and performers to printers, engravers, publishers, theatre directors, amateurs, and others—asked (and continue to ask) a seemingly unanswerable question: who owns music? Music, like nearly everything during the French Revolution, needed to be legally delimited. After the abolition of a feudal order in which the king technically owned everything, French citizens had to determine when music belonged to individuals as personal property and when it belonged to the nation as a public good. Some musicians, like those introduced on page 99, wanted to make music an alienable or transferable form of property so that they could buy and sell it without complication, while other musicians like Dalayrac and Méhul wanted the ineffable aspect of their musical creations (which usually meant, quite tangibly, its theme or melody) to remain inalienable. What they were really debating was music’s emergent status as commodity and art.

These revolutionary property debates yielded all kinds of significant results: the formation of the Paris Conservatory, the first modern school of music; the theft of cultural property like music scores from foreign countries; and the creation of a music industry that would generate foreign revenue from technologically advanced instruments. As they executed these missions, musicians in France began to articulate the standards of their profession, delineating who could and could not be part of their exclusive echelon, a battle that many musicians still fight today.
Learn more about From Servant to Savant at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue