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  • A Lady-in-Waiting’s Account of Marie Antoinette’s Musical PoliticsWomen, Music, and the French Revolution
  • Rebecca Dowd Geoffroy-Schwinden (bio)

Legend has it that Jeanne-Louise-Henriette Genet-Campan (1752–1822) first encountered Marie Antoinette at a pianoforte in the Versailles royal apartments, where Madame Campan accompanied the future queen as she sang opéra comique tunes.1 Around 1774, Campan entered Marie Antoinette’s service as a lady-in-waiting and ascended to the position of first lady-in-waiting on July 13, 1786, a role she held as late as 1792.2 After the queen’s execution in 1793, Campan weathered a tumultuous political landscape. Under the revolutionary government she founded a school for girls, becoming a renowned educator. Napoléon himself took note, and by 1807 he had appointed her director of the school for daughters of Legion of Honor recipients.3 At both schools Campan educated a cohort of young [End Page 72] women who became princesses and queens across nineteenth-century Europe.4 In 1822, during the Bourbon Restoration, Campan published her Mémoires sur la vie privée de Marie-Antoinette, reine de France et de Navarre (Memoirs on the private life of Marie Antoinette, queen of France and of Navarre), which appeared shortly after her own death.5 Throughout these memoirs, musical and social performances prove inextricably intertwined, revealing a public perception of Marie Antoinette’s musical tastes and entertainments as imbued with politics.

A robust body of scholarly literature treats music and politics during the French Revolution.6 During the revolutionary decade, the political and the performative merged, as pastiche stage genres that included music came to be judged through an aesthetic that blurred distinctions between fiction and reality—a phenomenon Mark Darlow has termed “meta-theatricality.”7 Laura Mason has shown how judgments about the virtue or immorality of female musicians during the French Revolution tended to be formed on a case-by-case basis rather than on clearly defined ideologies about music and femininity.8 Yet most scholarship on women musicians in Enlightenment and revolutionary France has focused on [End Page 73]

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Table 1.

A timeline of major events during the French Revolution and Napoleonic empire with key dates from Madame Campan’s life in bold

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composition, leaving aside nonprofessional musiciennes.9 By focusing on how two women negotiated musical practice and political meaning during the Old Regime, Revolution, and Napoleonic empire, I elucidate the tangible consequences of music in women’s lives during a watershed political moment.

Written after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, Campan’s memoirs are presumably an attempt to endear herself to the reinstated royal family. This has led to questions regarding the work’s veracity, with an assault on Campan’s credibility as historical witness beginning as early as the Revolution itself. She battled two fronts after the Terror ended in July 1794: one believed she had been unfaithful to the queen during the Revolution by secretly aiding in the revolutionary agenda, while the other accused her of royalism. Immediately following the queen’s death in October 1793, critics also claimed that Campan was never as close to Marie Antoinette as she would later assert.10 Nonetheless, archival evidence corroborates the positions that Campan claims to have held in the queen’s household, and Campan’s father-in-law, sister, and niece also served the royal family.11 Regardless of this proof of proximity, the intimacy of Campan’s relationship with Marie Antoinette is less important to my argument than how Campan chose to address music, suggesting that Marie Antoinette failed to manage the public discourse that developed around her musical tastes and entertainments.12 Whether or not the text was written to gain favor with the Restoration government, the memoirs work toward political ends: asserting the innocence of Marie Antoinette’s musical choices and challenging past assaults on her character.

Long before Marie Antoinette arrived in Paris, the French court and Parisian polite society had established the political implications of music. Although sometimes mere entertainment, music served as a foil for political sparring in an Old Regime society...


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pp. 72-100
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