- Musical Debate and Political Culture in France 1700–1830by R. J. Arnold
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 Françis 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 querellesand 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 querelletexts and political events (what Richard Taruskin in his Oxford History of Western Musiccoined 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 querellebut with a paralèleand comparaisonof 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...