As a graduate student in the 1960s, I was encouraged by professors who were specialists in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to pursue a doctoral dissertation on the work of François-Joseph Fétis (1784–1871). Aware of the profundity of his understanding and the breadth of his research, my mentors were at once intrigued and infuriated by Fétis because of the gentleman’s apparent habit, embodied in his long celebrated Biographie universelle des musiciens, of inventing the “facts” when the facts were not to hand. Fifty years ago, Fétis’s reputation was not pure. Like Luigi Cherubini (his colleague and protector), the magniloquent professor furthermore suffered in the musicological arena from the ridicule heaped upon him in the Mémoires of Berlioz in passages utterly unforgettable and arguably unjust. Since that time, Fétis has risen to a place sufficiently honored such that Rémy Campos, professor of music history at the Conservatoire de Musique, in Paris, director of research at the Haute École de Musique, in Geneva, and author of books and articles on a wide variety of historical and theoretical subjects, has been able plausibly to construct upon his oeuvre a major metamusicological study of the nature of writing and writing about music. His book offers a far-reaching, original, and uniquely comprehensive view of one of the seminal musical figures of the long nineteenth century.
Fétis played the violin, harpsichord, piano, and organ; he sang, he composed a not inconsiderable quantity of music, he became a conductor; he knew the art, though we have a tendency to forget it in the fog of his furious activity, from the inside out. His identity, now, is that of the founder of the musical press in France (he pushed his promotional and polemical pen to the end), of the prescient theorist of modern tonality, and of the creator and curator of an international laboratory and library of music history and historiography that became a lieu de savoir and a beacon of light whose rays reached across the continent and the Channel that he more than a few times traversed. His image, I might add, once that of the devilish director of the Brussels Conservatory in caricatures by such artists as Dantan jeune and Félicien Rops, is now more that of the humanistic twenty-six-year-old in the painting by Jacques Albert Senave reproduced on the cover of the Fétis exhibition catalog (Bruxelles: Bibliothèque Royale Albert Ier, 1972), and that of the steadfast scholar in his sixties in the drawing by Jean Joseph Bonaventure Laurens that graces the cover of Campos’s monumental tome. Still, for those unable to think of Fétis as anything other than a flatulent old fuddy-duddy, Campos includes in one of twenty useful appendices the autobiographical sketch in which the budding Belgian describes in disarming detail his dépucelage at fourteen by an older woman of twenty.
This 831-page book, with its 48-page bibliography, is divided into four large parts, each with an attractive title (“L’atelier du musicographe,” “Le texte musical,” “Les gestes du musician,” “Le musée sonore”), each stuffed with particulars and amplifications too numerous to detail. It is “meta-musicological” in its wise and adroit maneuvering from fact to interpretation, from close-up to panorama. One example must stand for many. Demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that Fétis cut out [End Page 465] paragraphs from the Lione Allacci’s Drammaturgia of 1755 in such a way as to turn the pages of that catalog into slices of square-eyed Swiss cheese (shown in the photograph on p. 258), and asking us to restrain our indignant and “biblio-economic morality” (Fétis was librarian at the Conservatoire at the time, but no one is perfect), Campos reflects (in my free translation which, I hope, properly conveys his point):
The transformation of the physical properties of the book carried out by...