Music and the French Enlightenment: Reconstruction of a Dialogue, 1750-1764

Music and the French Enlightenment: Reconstruction of a Dialogue, 1750-1764

Music and the French Enlightenment: Reconstruction of a Dialogue, 1750-1764

Music and the French Enlightenment: Reconstruction of a Dialogue, 1750-1764


Around the middle of the eighteenth century the leading figures of the French Enlightenment engaged in a philosophical debate about the nature of music. This book traces the development of the ideas discussed, focusing on three different events that occurred roughly simultaneously: Rameau's formulation of the principle of the fundamental bass; the writing of the Encyclopedie, edited by Diderot and d'Alembert, with articles on music by Rousseau; and the "Querelle des Bouffons," over Italian comic opera and French tragic opera. The philosophes, in the typical manner of Enlightenment thinkers, were able to move freely from the broad issues of philosophy and criticism, to the more technical questions of music theory, considering music as both art and science. Their dialogue was one of extraordinary depth and richness and dealt with some of the most fundamental issues of the French Enlightenment. Verba reconstructs the link between music theory and criticism that has been lost over time, presenting intensive passages from the debate in English translation for the first time.


In the preceding chapters we have traced some of the salient and conflicting positions in the prolonged dialogue on music as art and as science. We have also seen that Rameau increasingly became a subject of controversy--for his views on expression in music, as well as music theory. The dialogue in both these areas continued to be marked by the characteristic Enlightenment search for underlying principles that could explain a multitude of phenomena.

The search, however, was accompanied by a gradual weakening of neo-classical theory in art, and an increasing awareness of the limitations of a priori or abstract principles in science. Much of the change was influenced by a new and greater importance attached to the respective roles of sensibility in artistic expression, and of experience or empiricism in scientific investigation. Although Rameau made an effort to adapt to these changes, his essentially rationalist outlook and his increasing immersion in metaphysical speculation left him in an isolated position vis à vis the philosophes at the time of his death in 1764.

D'Alembert, in his conciliatory fashion, attempted to preserve what was best in Rameau's theory by making a clearer separation between his metaphysical speculations and his more solid contributions in the development of harmonic theory. He also tried to improve the theory by simplifying Rameau's formulations and making them more intelligible. Rousseau was far more radical in his attacks, aiming not only at Rameau's metaphysics, but at reason itself. He proposed a view of music--and of art, language, and society--in which pure feeling was the sole component that was true to its nature.

Interestingly enough, the Enlightenment's challenge to neo- classicism in the realm of music as art, while moving away from absolute laws or rational systems, stopped considerably short of a concept of art as a totally subjective experience--either for artist or audience. Ernst Cassirer describes the situation in the following terms: 'The new approach . . . considerably limits or gives up entirely the claim to rational justification of aesthetic judgement; but it does not relinquish its claim to universality. The question now is merely that of a more exact determination of the nature of this universality and of the manner . . .

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