‘Social Theories’ Reading Group

There were about 10 of us in attendance for our Reading Group on ‘Social Theories and the French Revolution’, with most of the group travelling only a short distance across campus to find the room (although for those of us with a little further to travel this was something of an adventure!). Once we’d settled in and caught up, we began by discussing what we already knew about the work of the writers we’d be discussing that day: Habermas (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) and Lilti (Figures publiques). There was an interesting range of perspectives! Some, like me, were not really familiar with their work; others, like Kate found themselves recalling well-buried facts from previous studies; some were well acquainted.

After this initial time, we began by discussing Habermas’ concept of the ‘public sphere’ in terms of its ‘creation’, to explore whether we felt it was something which could be manufactured. Jonathan suggested that the two terms perhaps meant something different, with ‘creation’ relating to socio-political spheres, and ‘manufacture’ to cultural spheres. Naturally, we also had to discuss the possibility of multiple public ‘spheres’ existing concurrently: was it possible, for example, that the flood of counterfeit and contraband imported prints was responsible for establishing a ‘public sphere’ of consumers who were below or ‘outside’ the official sphere of the nation state? Christie suggested that the cultural ‘public sphere’ was often over looked in favour of a socio-economic focus, but pointed towards our reading of Lilti’s work as a possible theoretical bridge ‘out’.

We also spent some time discussing the differences we perceived in public spheres across national boundaries, with a particular focus on the French and British states. It was suggested that during the long ‘revolutionary’ period, the creation and development of public spheres was more controlled than in France. Stacie posited that in France the Revolution had drastically altered the public sphere in a way which Britain never experienced with its gradual development of legal discourses and legislative frameworks. Jonathan argued that to be able to draw an effective comparison, we needed to think in terms of transnational public spheres.

Some discussion of the issue of gender was also had, and Stacie suggested that women had their own ‘private public sphere’ during this period, but we should not think that they were limited to it. After all, Tabatha pointed out that by being active within their own private sphere, they naturally participated in other spheres: as consumers, for example, they helped to drive the fashion and domestic industries. Stacie added that women indirectly participated in political debates by wearing certain items in public, such as the Indian shawl banned by Napoleon. We discussed the (in)famous story of French citizens attending the ‘red lace’ ball towards the end of the Revolution, which commemorated the victims of the guillotine, but Kate thought that this might only be apocryphal.

Jonathan mentioned that he had found examples of how fashion items had definitely caused political problems on the stage of the Opéra Comique, as the archives hold ominous letters from the Minister of Police threatening to shut the institution down if it continued in this vein. So the ‘cultural sphere’ we concluded could have great impact on the political, which seemed like a nice conjunction.

Having had several mentions of archival discoveries so far, Kate pointed out the importance of oral records. Often things wouldn’t make it into the press, but later records would mention threads of discourse as gossip. We agreed that French Revolutionary society was on the cusp of becoming a written society, but that it maintained a strong oral culture which carried a tremendous amount of power. This fed into Habermas’ anecdote about the power of memory, demonstrating how the minutes of British Parliamentary debates could initially only reach the public sphere thanks to the exceptional memory of one journalist (taking notes was banned in the public box). Jonathan brought up the chansonniers who caused the Revolutionary government a great deal of anxiety, because they were able to spread political sentiment without leaving any written record.

Nevertheless, as Tabatha argued, preserved written records or objects are a powerful and useful means of tracing the public sphere. Often these were in the ‘cultural sphere’, but this in turn had significant implications for the ‘socio-political sphere’.

This seemed to neatly bring us back to our earlier discussion about the difference (and possible competition) between two spheres: the cultural and the political. Upon reflection, this seemed to recur in all of our discussions about Habermas and Lilti: we didn’t feel we could talk about the ‘public sphere’ insomuch as the ‘public spheres’.

Pierre Baillot and Violin Pedagogy in Paris, 1795-1815

Congratulations to  Diane Tisdall, who also submitted her thesis very recently! We wish you all the best going forward with it. You can find the abstract below:

“My dissertation focuses on Paris from shortly after the French Revolution to the end of the First Napoleonic Empire (1795-1815). It concentrates on the professionalisation of violin teaching and learning in Paris in the period, using as a case study Pierre Baillot’s initial Conservatoire classes. The Directory government’s interest in creating practically-trained students, useful to la patrie, led to the inauguration of the Conservatoire in 1795, alongside specialist schools such as the science-based Ecole Polytechnique. The issue of music as a trade – métier – rather than an art-form beloved of the Ancien Régime, and within a cultural landscape marked by Napoleon’s fascination with Italian culture and aesthetic preference for vocal music, led to a turbulent first two decades at the Conservatoire. My detailed institutional history thus aims to contribute to existing scholarship on the early Conservatoire while also tracing how violin training related to contemporary cultural and educational change.

Pierre Baillot (1771-1842) was the most eminent European violin pedagogue of the early nineteenth century. One of the first violin teachers at the Paris Conservatoire, his classes ran for nearly fifty years. His violin manuals – Méthode de violon (1803) and L’Art du violon (1834) – remain a comprehensive and vibrant analysis of early nineteenth-century performance. With the help of the Conservatoire archives, press reviews and his own correspondence, I suggest that Baillot attempted, unlike many of his contemporaries, to overcome a fiercely-protected and oral pedagogical tradition. Rather than perpetuating a web of whispered secrets, he perceived music to have a strong social function; Baillot was happy to provide the means for his pupils to supersede him. By putting pedagogical integrity before his ego, Baillot proved the ideal teacher to propagate the Conservatoire’s national musical syllabus.                                         

As shown by Cynthia Gessele, the chaotic transfer in governments and ensuing legal loophole enabled the Conservatoire to keep its artistic independence from the newly-formed National Institute of Sciences and Arts. Maintaining internal control also enabled the Conservatoire administration to preserve its independence from the new Directory government, apart from in financial matters. Whilst Gessele is the first to provide a political history of the Conservatoire, she does play down (by inference) the institution’s relationship with the state. But was the Conservatoire really an independent institution? Were the rules and regulations actually followed? In 1900, Constant Pierre published a valuable body of work on the Conservatoire, opening the door on its archives to researchers: his books are a stepping-stone to finding the answers to such questions. But still, over a hundred years later, the dust on this admittedly labour-intensive, at times frustrating, but ultimately fascinating material, has barely been blown away. Even the scholarly editions brought out to commemorate the bicentenary of the Conservatoire’s foundation shied away from examining its full riches.

Whilst improved access to the archives makes for an easier navigation through the material – the Histoire de l’enseignement de la musique en France au XIXe siècle (1795-1914) (HEMEF) digitisation project is proving of great value to my research – all the resources require processing before a clear and detailed account of the first twenty years of the Conservatoire can be written. Such a project is sadly too large for one thesis. In my examination of the violin department, however, I attempt to initiate a move towards this goal as I weave my archival research through historian Jerrold Seigel’s theory of a ‘network of means’ – the drawing together of a group of disparate people to create a benchmark of technical competence, and so creating social power for the network itself and (some of) the people within it. Seigel’s statement that people, and their actions, are crucial to a network’s existence, may seem obvious but as studies in music education have highlighted, teachers and their pupils remain a relatively unexplored area of research.

This is why Baillot’s Conservatoire career features in my institutional history. Usually presented by scholars as an individually mighty pedagogue, as a (mostly) self-taught violinist, he would not have been able to generate or sustain a musical career without an involvement with the institution. Analysing his responsibilities at the Conservatoire, such as syllabus-setting, repertoire creation and of course, teaching, I show how his unorthodox musical training and aesthetical preferences informed his pedagogical ideology whilst attempting to fit within the newly-constructed institutional framework. We see that Baillot’s almost immediate veneration, as well as his constant financial struggle, were bound to the fortunes of the Conservatoire, in addition to the changing critical and public perceptions of performing excellence.”

The Revolution and the ‘Transnational’

The theme of this second reading group, led by Clare, was ‘France and the Transnational’, leaving the definition of ‘transnational’ intentionally broad to encourage the discussion of ideas and themes which might reach beyond the obvious issue of sovereign boundaries. The reading—extracts from David Bell’s Inventing Nationalism; John Isbell’s The Birth of European Romanticism; Rahul Markovits’ Civiliser l’Europe: Politiques du théâtre français au XVIIIe siècle; and the collaborative effort by Ann Thomson, Simon Burrows, Edmond Dziembowski, and Sophie Audidière, Cultural Transfers: France and Britain in the Long Eighteenth Century—was intended to draw out these sorts of interpretations.

We began our discussion by focussing on this very issue. Jonathan opened up by asking the group to consider how we might best define the communities under scrutiny: is the nation a useful framework for us to work within when we as researchers are predominantly concerned with shared ideas within a community of cultural elites working across national boundaries? In other words- is transnationalism an intrinsic aspect of ‘cultural transfer’ anyway? It was agreed that the process of cultural transfer within these communities is perhaps more interesting than the functionalities of national politics; but that the construct of the nation is an integral part of how we map this process.

This naturally provoked a discussion on the idea of ‘cultural transfer’ as a concept (dealt with in Cultural Transfers), which we concluded by agreeing that ‘cultural transfer’ between sovereign states is at least as interesting for the means by which cultural ‘objects’ are transferred as for the end result itself.

We also discussed the notion that sovereign states were keen to encourage culture transfer as a means of achieving a ‘cultural monopoly’, or acquiring ‘cultural capital’. One particular example that stood out in the discussion was Napoleon’s contest with Great Britain for Egyptian cultural artefacts at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Sarah suggested that we pursue this further- what function does ‘cultural capital’ play within a transnational framework? Notions of ‘heritage’ dominated the discussion- Oskar argued that we might perceive heritage as a foundation on which cultural acquisitions might be ‘spent’ to construct something entirely new.

Turning towards the cultural ‘objects’ themselves, it was pointed out by Fabio that the framework is as much an issue of romanticism as of transnationalism. Indeed, where we consider Staël’s De l’Allemagne (the focus of Isbell’s The Birth of European Romanticism), the two are perhaps even inseparable. The romanticists were keen on pushing back to the past, with German romantics in particular frequently recycling classicism through re-reading of ancient Greeks etc. Might we—as Clare suggested—perceive this as a form of ‘temporal transnationalism’, where cultural transfers crossed both national and temporal boundaries?

But what do we mean by romanticism? This proves to be a problematic term within disciplines, let alone across disciplinary lines. Can we really discuss romanticism within a methodological framework of ‘temporal transnationalism’? Sarah suggested a helpful metaphor- romanticism as an umbrella, where ideas ‘hang together’ wherever they are but which (as Michael posited) take on slightly different meanings depending on the location of their performance (thus back to the importance of national identity in the process of cultural transfer).

Some form of transnational mediation of meaning is possible, however, if we consider the cultural hegemony of what some scholars have termed l’Europe française during the eighteenth and the early decades of the nineteenth centuries. It is a problematic mediation, however, given there was also a very dynamic and reciprocal practice of import and export in France, particularly of Italian and German cultural objects. Therefore, from a cultural perspective, it is difficult to limit oneself to writing purely national histories, given that the practice of dialogue between them was so well entrenched.

Nevertheless—and in conclusion of our discussion—we agreed that alongside any meaningful discussion about issues pertaining to culture and transnationalism, we need to consider the importance of nationalism within the same context.