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  • Interpreting the Musical Past: Early Music in Nineteenth-Century France
  • John Wagstaff
Interpreting the Musical Past: Early Music in Nineteenth-Century France. By Katharine Ellis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. [xii, 298 p. ISBN 0-19-517682-0. $60.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.

Anyone setting out to explore France and the French, whether from a historical perspective or in the present, will sooner or later come up against what we might term the three "P's" of Philosophy, Politics, and Paris. Each of these, either alone or in potent, inherently unstable combination, exerts its influence on a fourth "P," which is "Patriotism." It is thus not at all surprising to find all four "P's" playing their part in Katharine Ellis's fascinating exploration of early music in nineteenth-century France. This is a book that succeeds on many levels. Readers requiring a straightforward, digestible narrative to introduce them to the main events of this story—sometimes divertissement, more often melodrama—and to the idealists, ideologues, and people in between who form its dramatis personae, will be grateful for the first three chapters, which respectively cover 1800–46, 1846–78, and 1878–1900. If 1846 seems to have been chosen fairly arbitrarily (though it does have the benefit of [End Page 355] dividing the three chapters into manageable chunks of around forty pages each, which probably suited the publisher), 1878 is more artfully selected, for at least two reasons. First of all, it makes musical sense: readers with any knowledge of France's cultural life will immediately recognize 1878 as the year of an Exposition universelle, and Ellis skillfully uses this as a jumping off point for her third chapter, which opens with an account of Alexandre Guilmant's six organ recitals at that event. With these recitals, Guilmant "began what was to be a twenty-year exploration of the organ repertory of Handel, Bach, Buxtehude, Frescobaldi, Clérambault, and modern composers" (p. 81), something obviously germane to the book's subject matter. Second, using 1878 neatly avoids overemphasizing the caesura of 1871 that historians, especially political historians, usually impose when discussing nineteenth-century France. Ellis is keen to avoid giving undue prominence to 1871 in her narrative, surely a wise decision given that 1871 and its aftermath have long been presented in music historiography as the time when the Société nationale de musique and others were promoting new composers of undeniably French pedigree, rather than bringing forward the music of earlier times. By avoiding the 1871 "problem," Ellis reinforces the notion that, at least for the topic under discussion in her book, other dates may have equal or greater significance.

The second set of chapters develops themes expounded in the first three, but now freed from the constraints imposed by those chapters' chronological arrangement. This half of the book proceeds by means of four case studies, respectively "La musique française at the Crossroads" (pp. 119–46); "Sources of Frenchness" (pp. 147– 77); "Defining Palestrina" (pp. 179–207), which deftly negotiates the minefield of church politics and skillfully exposes the different attitudes of Ultramontanes and Gallicans in regard to early music; and "Baroque Choral Music: the Popular and the Profound" (pp. 209–40). A persistent theme of these studies, and of this book as a whole, is that things are never as simple as they appear on the surface. Such a statement will come as no surprise to students of French musical culture, but even they may be somewhat taken aback by the sheer number of levels of complexity that have to be negotiated in order to get to the bottom of things. For the narrative proves time and again that whether a particular composition was perceived as a masterpiece or not depended very little on its musical qualities. Pieces of music became battlegrounds for critics, politicians, and churchmen, all of whom were engaged in a struggle to impose their own point of view on wider issues. Small wonder that some composers were sacrificed in the process. Commentators tied themselves in knots in their attempts to claim non-French composers of earlier centuries for the French musical pantheon, something that was frequently a prerequisite to the performance...


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