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How the French Revolution affected Classical Music - Part 1

How the French Revolution affected Classical Music - Part 1

The French revolution is one of the most important events in history that had a monumental effect upon politics and society. It occurred from the years of 1789 to 1799, and continued to have long term effects not just in France, but around the round. However, many people do not consider the substantial effect that this had music. Had the French revolution not taken place, perhaps today’s music would be very different. Nevertheless, despite the fact that we are not in the midst of a revolution in this day and age, the circumstances of musicians today are certainly comparable to that of those in the 18th century, the difference being the emergence of technology that has primarily caused a problem.

     The revolution changed the way of life for everybody at the time, for some, the effect was the loss of fortunes, such as those in aristocracy, but for others such as the monarchy, the revolution lead them to the infamous guillotine. For music, it was no different. With the revolution came oppression and a new regime, and when the regime was threatened in any way, drastic measures would be taken, but with the oppression came rebellion. ‘The long standing custom of adapting new topical words to familiar tunes (timbres) was frequent during the revolutionary period…The importance of revolutionary songs of this character is evident both from their careful regulation by the government and by their stern suppression when they threatened the established order.’

      In the 18th century, there were a number of ways for musicians to earn a living. The Church was a primary supporter or musicians, as they required someone who could compose, conduct, and play the organ. Bach for example, made his living for the most part by working for the Church. Gaining a patronage from an aristocrat was another way of ensuring financial security and success. Wealthy families would employ a so-called ‘Kappellmeister’ who embodied a composer, a conductor, a performer and an organiser. They would be commissioned to write pieces of music and perform for small gatherings or just for the family’s entertainment. Pieces would have to be written so that the aristocrat in question could play the piece, and also sometimes so the other members of the household could play parts, e.g on the violin. However, with the revolution, these means of support were essentially eradicated. Aristocrats lost their fortunes, and as many as one hundred and twenty small states were subsequently consumed by neighbours, resulting in the loss of music centres within Ducal houses. The lucky few Aristocratic houses to survive were forced to allow paying members of the public in to see their house’s musical performances.


  From this change, came the rise of the public concert halls. In some ways this was a positive thing, as more people had access to music, but it also caused problems for ‘serious’ musicians. People were not interested in ‘heavy’ music, and wanted light entertainment; ‘The composer’s appeal to the public was not allowed to step outside the narrowly drawn limits of what was politically and socially acceptable to an old regime conscious of the fundamental dangers of its position.’ As such, ‘light concerts’ evolved, with less ‘challenging’ music being performed, and the emphasis being on the musician as a performer rather than on the musical work itself. Clearly, all of these changes caused the loss of many jobs, with less families able to employ a Kappellmeister, and with many musicians not fitting the popular trend of the music style, and struggling to find a platform for their music. This is extremely comparable to today’s society; not only is patronage not really a means for support, nor is the Church. Alongside this, for musicians composing classical music for example, it is very difficult to earn money as it is not the current popular style. Once again, music is not about composition, but rather the performance, and perhaps even more so, the ‘look,’ of the musician. In our commercial society, people are buying music based on the attractiveness of the musician; the music industry deliberately employs those with a desired appearance, and does not care about the amount of talent. As such, sadly we can see the quality of mainstream music decreasing. Indeed, sound first being used in films created a similar level of unemployment as cinemas no longer needed live musical accompaniment for films. 

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