Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden, ‘Politics, the French Revolution, and Performance: Parisian Musicians as an Emergent Professional Class, 1749-1802’, Thesis, Duke University, 2015

This term’s reading group was dedicated to the notion of the ‘emergence of a professional class’, for which Jonathan chose Rebecca Geoffroy-Schwinden’s recent doctoral thesis. The aim of this session was to help us think about this phenomenon within our own Revolutionary artistic communities at the centre of our research.


We agreed that this was a conceptually useful and stimulating approach, which emphasised how informal ancien régime relationships became institutionalised by the Revolution. In her third chapter, which was the focus of our discussions, Geoffroy-Schwinden uses the history of the Conservatoire as a ‘history from below’ instead of the traditional top-down approach, she investigates French actors outside of France, and how musical activity whilst in emigration could licence an émigré’s return: the regime had an inherent belief in music’s didacticism.


Geoffroy-Schwinden’s work created much discussion and forced us to reflect on our own approaches. Fabio, who has worked on both real and imaginary networks around Cherubini advocated for a more contextual approach; Jonathan wanted to look at the relationships not just between composers, but between composers and librettists, and how the wider network, which invariably involved the Church, the military, and other teachers in the Conservatoire impacted on these friendships and the works themselves. What about the international scene and how did the identity of ‘French’ fit into this? Essentially, we just wanted to know more about our own and different case studies.


This brought us onto a more detailed methodological dialogue, reflecting on topography. Cosmin rightly argued that such an approach was necessary to underline the social context at the time which can all too easily be left aside but that such approaches could run the risk of generalising. In our interdisciplinary environment we wanted to know how topology differs between the disciplines, both now and at the time. The principle question was simply how do we do this? How do we track these networks and measure their impact? How do we move beyond the institutions which are at the basis of our studies? This harked back to our discussions on the Revolution as a moment of continuity or rupture. Was 1789 really such a moment of rupture?


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