The Querelle des Bouffons (1752–4) has secured a place in conventional music history narratives because it exemplifies drastically changing musical aesthetics, audiences, and modes of production in eighteenth-century Europe. Questions about whether opera should privilege the French or Italian style, serious or comic paradigms, and royal or public taste converged in this Parisian debate, and consequently offered music historians a convenient cultural herald of the political Age of Revolution soon to follow. Since the 1980s scholars have expanded and reassessed their understanding of the Querelle des Bouffons as not an exceptional event, but rather as one segment in an ongoing French conversation about the proper parameters and conventions by which to evaluate music. Georgia Cowart pioneered this historiographic movement with The Origins of Modern Musical Criticism: French and Italian Music 1600–1750 (Ann Arbor, 1981), in which she showed how modern criticism—rooted in new conceptions of musical style and taste—was born out of exchanges between François Raguenet and Jean-Laurent Lecerf de la Viéville at the beginning of the eighteenth century. More recently, in Dissonance in the Republic of Letters: The Querelle des Gluckistes et Piccinnistes (Abingdon, 2013), Mark Darlow has reconstructed the dizzying web of social, aesthetic, critical, and political issues that inflected the reception of Christoph Willibald Gluck and Niccolò Piccinni’s operas in 1770s Paris. Scholars including David Charlton, Elisabeth Cook, Cynthia Verba, and Jacqueline Waeber nuanced the contexts of the Querelle des Bouffons, which they have aptly demonstrated were far more complicated than simple binaries. R. J. Arnold adds to this rich body of research in this monograph, in which he sets out on a herculean task to situate the eighteenth-century French musical querelles and their changing public audience within a broader intellectual and social context. In the light of the prodigious scholarship cited above, Arnold’s claim to address all the exchanges in a single slim volume—along with the shifting cultural landscape on which each unfolded—seems at first nearly impossible. While previous scholarship, particularly by Cowart and Darlow, will remain authoritative on individual debates, Arnold nonetheless succeeds in offering a new perspective on the ever-elusive relationship between French culture and music. He eschews one-to-one comparisons between querelle texts and political events (what Richard Taruskin in his Oxford History of Western Music coined the French Old Regime’s ‘Aesopian fable’) to instead interrogate a broader, causal question about whether writing about opera ‘really had any bearing on the weighty events of the Revolution’ (p. 2). Although Arnold’s answer is a resounding ‘no’, this question turns out to be a foil for many more compelling issues that were at play throughout the century. Thus the contents of the debates are less a matter of focus than how they evolved in relation to changing media, discursive practices, and audiences. Arnold ultimately concludes that the musical debates were ‘disputes about disputes’ (p. 212) and it is this defining characteristic that intimately linked the episodes to French political culture, despite his insistence that they were not truly political commentary at all, but indeed just about opera. The chapters are ordered chronologically, commencing in 1702 not with a true querelle but with a paralèle and comparaison of French and Italian music exchanged between Raguenet, an Italophile cleric, and Lecerf, an aristocrat who fancied himself an arbiter of taste. Arnold argues that a central factor in the exchange was the participants’ unequal social status: Raguenet extensively understood his subject matter, but lacked familiarity with noble customs of debate; Lecerf, according to Raguenet’s critique, was far too concerned with fashionable sociability at the expense of intellectual rigour. Where previous scholarship has situated their ‘ill-tempered’ (p. 45) exchange among broader literary debates about the Ancients and Moderns, Arnold identifies the significance of this early debate instead ‘not merely in raising the subject of opera as appropriate for impassioned debate, but in pioneering the ways in which it could be argued about’ (p. 44). Raguenet and Lecerf defined a polarity between French and Italian styles that would be adopted in subsequent querelles. The second chapter convincingly shows how the Ramistes, who supported Jean-Philippe Rameau’s new, ostensibly Italianate style, and the Lullistes, who defended the tragédie lyrique tradition established by Jean-Baptiste Lully, gradually accepted musical taste as a socially constituted, dynamic category, as well as a ‘marker of one’s personal worth’ (p. 77). (This dynamism was proven when Rameau switched from Italian to French champion in the subsequent mid-century querelle.) Consequently, the Ramistes and Lullistes (1733–51) concerned themselves more with settling on who held the authority to arbitrate taste rather than on static musical-aesthetic standards. In his third chapter, Arnold adopts Philip Vendrix’s formulation of a ‘vast negotiation’ to encapsulate how the ‘parameters of discourse were being tested and expanded’ (p. 88) during the brief yet intense Querelle des Bouffons from 1752 to 1754. He argues that the sheer volume of contributions and the diversity of language and media deployed in the debate caused the public to question whether they ‘enjoyed a piece [of opera] on its genuine merits or as part of some engineered conspiracy’ (p. 83). The French public came to detest even the possibility of such conspiracy because it represented either a distraction from more serious political issues or an attempt to dictate public taste. By Arnold’s estimation, the final outcome of this crucial querelle was a validation of public taste and an assertion that it should be protected from manipulation by false voices claiming cultural authority. The fourth chapter continues to follow this trajectory through the Querelle des Gluckistes et Piccinnistes (1774–88) as personal taste expressed in the expanding periodical press eroded the authority of clearly defined parties. Overall, the first four chapters chronicle the weakening polarization of musical debates to a point of obsolescence by the dawn of the French Revolution in 1789. Although Arnold aims to place the Revolution within a longer historical trajectory of musical debates, in the fifth chapter he brackets this period as a time when the party spirit necessary to quarrel was rejected in favour of either utopian universalism or rational pluralism. Practically speaking, arguing about music lost its privileged place in French culture as the entire social, economic, and political systems were dismantled and renegotiated. This profound change led to what the final chapter reveals to be the decline of musical quarrelling in early nineteenth-century France. Debates between the melodists and harmonists and among professionals within new cultural institutions like the Conservatoire took place in remove from the wider public that had so vigorously participated in previous querelles. Despite the deceptively straightforward chapter outline provided here, the book’s narrative does not lend itself to any concise summary because of the diverse issues raised in each chapter. Arnold ultimately concludes that the political culture of Old Regime France provided an ideal environment for musical debates to flourish because the government permitted some freedom of speech, yet the public was still susceptible to shock when that freedom was exercised. With this insight, Arnold highlights the work of T. C. W. Blanning and Jürgen Habermas to further elucidate the byzantine trajectory that eighteenth-century France followed from a representational to editorial political culture. An assertion about politics that will stand out to specialists of the period is Arnold’s conviction that the Querelle des Bouffons had nothing to do with ‘hidden politics’, as argued in Cook’s scrupulous research on the affair. He stakes the claim not so much on a body of evidence, but a lack thereof, arguing that because the political import of the querelle is not explicitly discussed in contemporaneous texts, the exchange must not have actually held the political weight granted it in some scholarship. Sceptics might wonder whether this lacuna exists precisely because such motives could not be overtly discussed under the Old Regime. His attempts to dispel any affinity between political commentary and musical debates fall short because he devotes so little space to providing clear evidence to support the bold claim, a claim that is in any case unnecessary to his larger, eloquent, and convincing argument: that any evaluation of these debates must carefully consider the distinction between political culture and politics. Arnold makes his most compelling arguments at the intersection of media, language, and audience, to show that the querelles were actually debates about how and where opera should be discussed, and who held the authority to make such judgements. In this, he joins other leading historians including Darlow, as well as James H. Johnson (Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley, 1995)), and William Weber’s recent research on the new journalistic language that emerged in the late eighteenth-century Parisian press. By considering verses and plays alongside more formal contributions to the exchanges and by tracing the changing venues through which the debates circulated, Arnold demonstrates that media formats and discursive practices are just as relevant to our understanding of the eighteenth century as they are to our contemporary world. Raguenet and Lecerf argued the merits of French and Italian music in a language dictated by honnêteté, filling hundred-page tomes that were discussed in public by only a few specialized journals, yet their language of galanterie would soon be set aside as no longer viable in the ‘age of Voltaire and Montesquieu’ (p. 48). During the 1730s, quarrels between Ramistes and Lullistes reduced Raguenet and Lecerf’s verbose rhetoric to shorter forms. As pithy verses competed with new argumentative tones and techniques honed by ‘conservatives’, the threat of cabal and partisan ‘parterre democracy’ (p. 74) that would animate the Querelle des Bouffons began to congeal. Arnold argues that the Lullistes’ conciliatory language began to weaken the dualities that had characterized Raguenet and Lecerf’s previous debate. Pamphlets offered an entirely new media for musical debate during the 1750s, allowing contributors to experiment with forms like the epistolary narrative and to ventriloquize marginal groups, including women, in order to push the boundaries of debate not only for the sake of entertainment but also to establish a public voice distinct from men of letters. A spirit of conversation increasingly fostered interreferentiality among the texts. The men of letters who vigorously participated in (and some would argue constituted) the Querelle des Bouffons fell silent during the Querelle des Gluckistes et Piccinnistes, which took place primarily among the rapid succession of journal instalments that conveyed the personal tastes of musical amateurs and connoisseurs. Arnold uses a series of play scripts to demonstrate how the public began to mock the argumentative tone of querelles—flamed since the 1730s—to favour instead rational debate led by informed discussants. By the end of the Revolution ‘the age of party had come to an end’ (p. 208), and as the Napoleonic regime allowed heated cultural disputes to distract attention from more serious political issues, the journal industry increasingly published for money rather than to foster rigorous public debate. The querelles were connected in their ongoing negotiation of how media, language, and authority, inflected, perhaps even dictated, the evaluation of music. A few terms in the monograph may strike some readers as curious. In particular, how ‘musicological’ is applied to eighteenth-century texts and discourses (pp. 185, 187, 211). The author foregoes an opportunity to engage previous research deeply on particular terms such as honnêteté, galanterie, politesse, amateur, and connoisseur, which have been widely and meticulously scrutinized. Yet Arnold accomplishes so much in this short work that he was quite understandably forced to limit some of his analyses. Musical Debate and Political Culture is well researched, and specialists of the period will find Arnold’s diverse primary and secondary sources compelling and useful. The book is a testament to the rich results yielded when scholars bring the vast historiography of eighteenth-century France to bear on musicological topics. What he accomplishes best is a clear explanation of why the eighteenth-century querelles should be considered together and in connection with the French Revolution as a media revolution fostered by Old Regime political culture, which eventually gave way to the vibrant music criticism that would flourish in nineteenth-century Paris. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Music and Letters – Oxford University Press
Published: May 15, 2018
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