Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Singing Democracy: Music and Politics in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Thought

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Singing Democracy: Music and Politics in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Thought

Article excerpt

Comment? Tous les intervalles de mon Clavecin sont altérés? ... Fi, le vilain instrument; ne m'en parlez plus.... Je veux chanter.

-Anton Bemetzrieder, Leçons de Clavecin

Democratic theory of the eighteenth century, and particularly Rousseau's, is suffused with the idealism and lack of pragmatism that make it both immensely compelling and extraordinarily frustrating. Conceived under the decaying edifice of the absolute monarchy, it strives toward perfection, offering theoretical formulations that often defy practical application. Yet this theory continues to inspire democratic practice and political debates even more than 200 years after its writing. In one passage of Du contrat social Rousseau asserts, "If there were a people of Gods, it would govern itself democratically. Such a perfect government is not suited to men."1 And yet the thrust of the work and the critical force of Rousseau's corpus encourage and challenge us to strive toward democracy, as impossible a goal as it may be for mere mortals.

Alongside Rousseau's works in social and political theory lies another vast body of theoretical work in music. Rarely, if ever, are they read in tandem. Music in the eighteenth century suffers from many of the same difficulties that political theory does, especially the tendency toward a level of abstraction that defies practical application. Like the problem of democracy in the eighteenth century, music also presents the temptation of retreat into a world of abstract perfection based on mathematical certainty with little relation to practical reality. Perhaps nowhere is the tension so acute between the ideal and the real in music as in the domain of tuning specifically, in keyboard tuning, and the question of tempering. So as in the political domain, there is a potentially wide gulf between music theory and music practice.

If there is any hope of realizing democracy in the way that Rousseau understood it, an exploration of his music theory may provide the crucial bridge between theory and practice. Rousseau's theoretical work in music, and singing in particular, covers a number of distinct subject areas. First, his proposal for a new system of musical notation links directly to democratic impulses in his political and social theory. Second, the kinds of emotions that music stirs are related in Rousseau's thought to forms of expression that remain closer to their natural origins. Finally, Rousseau's preference for melody, as opposed to harmony, relates directly to his conception of the political sphere and specifically to the relationship between the general will and the workings of the body politic in a democracy. Unexpectedly, reading Rousseau's musical theory along-side his democratic theory produces a nuanced and moderate view of the social contract that deepens our understanding of the relationship between relative and absolute values in politics as well as in music and offers a model for practice.

Musical Notation and Democracy

A distinctly democratic impulse motivates the Projet concernant de nouveaux signes pour la musique for Rousseau's revision of the musical notation system is designed to increase accessibility to music. With characteristic rhetoric Rousseau introduces his project for "simplifying" musical notation with a short, to-the-point paragraph: "This project tends to make music easier to write down, easier to learn and much less diffuse."2 Following this statement of purpose, Rousseau relates, in a contrasting rhetorical style-replete with specialized vocabulary-the current state of affairs in musical notation:

This quantity of lines, keys, transpositions, of sharps, flats, naturals, of simple and complex measures, of whole-notes, half-notes, quarter-notes, eighth-notes, sixteenth-notes, thirty-second notes, of rests, half-rests, quarter-rests, eighth-rests, sixteenth-rests, etc. gives a quantity of signs and combinations from which result two principle inconveniences: the first, to occupy too great a volume, and the second to overload the memory of schoolchildren in such a way that the ear being formed and the organs having acquired all the necessary facility long before one is capable of singing from a book, it follows that the difficulty is more in the observation of rules than in the execution of the song. …

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