The Emerging Egalitarian Ideas Of The French Revolution

During the late eighteenth century, the French Revolution added a new and unprecedented chapter to the rich history of France, with the obvious political and socioeconomic changes that occurred. Music, deeply entrenched at the heart of French culture, was experiencing a contemporaneous revolution, not only ideologically but also in its physical manifestation. Prior to the revolution, music, specifically in urban Paris, had no role outside of the single purpose of glorifying the monarchy (Zaslaw 516). Yet during the revolution and in its aftermath, music in France began to change and diversify, both in purpose and in the means by which it could be consumed.

Therefore, what were the mechanisms behind the musical changes during the French Revolution, and how did they affect the relationship between the musical changes and the revolution? Some scholars would assert the autonomy of musical change from the French Revolution, supporting this claim by linking technological innovations or international influence as the root of musical advancement. However, culture and music are very much interwoven, through cyclical interdependence and influence, which was not only evident in France during the end of the 18th century but in modern times as well.

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Music is fundamentally related and connected to the social and political world, and it is necessary to ground music in the lens of not only technical and acoustic discourse, but also in cultural discourse. The political challenges and reforms, the unprecedented economic opportunities brought about in the unstable climate, and the emerging egalitarian ideas of the French Revolution all elucidate the very mechanisms of the musical change, establishing the symbiotic relationship between a comprehensive culture and music.

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The volatile political climate of competing powers and challenges to the Old Regime was instrumental in providing conditions that both fostered and were impressionable to musical and specifically lyrical change.

It is first important to acknowledge the staunchly political nature of music before the revolution. As previously noted, Zaslaw describes the restrictive grip the monarchy had on music, resulting in minimal musical creativity outside the political sphere of influence (Zaslaw 516). With such regulation, music without the revolution could not have taken a form that was adversarial to the monarchy; the French Revolution lifted the dominating clout of the Old Regime and allowed for political discourse through music. During the revolution, music was used as a political weapon, both to foment and detract from the revolution. Markedly, for the leaders of the revolution aiming to rally the people of the third estate, the political importance of such songs and music served a larger purpose concerning its target audience, most of whom were illiterate. McKinley comments that certain political songs were used to spread ideologies in a manner that was accessible to the third estate (McKinley 1,2). As heavy theological works or written manifestos were rather inaccessible to the illiterate, there was an increased emphasis on lyrical content for songs as a more effective means to diffuse revolutionary ideas challenging or detracting from the Old Regime. Through this lyrical emphasis, the relationship of music and politics is elucidated; the political instability allowed for lyrical diversion from the old regime in order to spread ideologies, yet it was through this change that the dichotomy that brought it about was deepened. Furthermore, political influence on music and the resulting interdependent relationship was continued throughout and after the revolution, albeit changes in political support or backing.

This continuity rationalizes the connection of French music and its culture, as French music continued to have relevance in the political domain. In fact, it was at this time and in the mindset of the French Revolution that the current French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, was born. Written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the song was composed to inspire French troops against international forces from European monarchs, fearful that the French Revolution would inspire revolutions in their own countries (Varma 583-584). Aside from the obvious political and militaristic intent of this song, it is important to note not only the origin but the massive implications that “La Marseillaise” had on society due to its lyrical emphasis. Lisle was raised in the aristocracy, demonstrating the debt French music has to its politicized nature, entrenched in the Old Regime. Accordingly, “La Marseillaise” exhibits a song born from the repercussions of the revolution and linked to the aristocratic, political quality of music. However, Lisle’s noble background highlights the rather ironic implication and public interpretation of “La Marseillaise”, as it was used to augment the division between the old and new. Varma details the lyrical content of the anthem as a call to arms to defend France from the international threat of enslavement, with themes of “patriotism, hope, confidence, love of liberty, and … glory”; its populace appeal amidst nationalistic conditions led such a song to be sung by all of France (Varma 586). The public, composed mostly of the Third Estate, used a song of national support in a direction directly in opposition to its author’s upbringings, adapting the patriotic feelings of nationalism in the song to apply to revolution, to push France towards an egalitarian direction. Thus, “La Marseillaise” shows not only the political importance through a lyrical diversion from glorifying the aristocracy but also the ease of diffusion of revolutionary ideas that resonated with the largely illiterate masses of Paris and France. In this manner, “La Marseillaise”, born in the political tension of the revolution, served to increase the tumult and division that generated it.

If the lyrical change in music had occurred through a different mechanism outside of culture and the revolution, there would be less reason to observe the enduring bureaucratic relevance. Yet that was not the case, and the interlacing strings of culture and music can be seen here, propelling France through its revolution. In addition, the new economic opportunities that were created as a result of the French Revolution helped to shape new styles of music. French music in the pre-revolutionary context was heavily reliant on aristocratic funding, and as such, mostly consisted of musicians and composers being tied down to the noble’s courts (Tschmuck 15). Yet with the onslaught of the French Revolution, the very economic foundations for these musicians were shaken, a result of the direct challenges to the sources of financial backing. However, this climate of revolution, although unstable financially, proved to be ultimately liberating, as the new National Assembly “allowed theaters to operate freely, … permit[ing] new theaters to open [and] choose their repertory (Giroud 93). Undoubtedly, the unprecedented economic freedom was at the root for increased autonomous decisions on behalf of the musicians. This monetary emancipation allowed for a new dynamic of music through new ideologies, venues, and audiences. The instability and change in the political culture emancipated music from the monopolistic oversight of the monarchy, a step towards free enterprise as well as providing better conditions for musical change. Therefore, the political conflict and the cultural disputes weakened the established venues of musical expression, allowing for new and unprecedented outlets for musicians to explore. This expansion allowed for music to encompass a broader range of purposes. It is in this search that music found new sources of financial backing and as a result, a newfound, albeit limited, freedom from censorship; artists could seek or be sought by patrons of similar and even revolutionary views, previously inaccessible by the restraint of the monarch.

Without the attempted departure in political culture, musical change would have been hard to come by, especially without a deviation from traditional sponsorship of music to allow for new ideas. Moreover, the changing demographic was seen not only in the financial patronage behind the scenes but also in the consuming patrons themselves who heard the music. These new economic ventures, outside of the court venues, expanded the previously homogenous audience of court nobility to encompass most notably people in the Third Estate, people not of the aristocracy or clergy who previously would have little to no access to professional music. The increased creativity through new venues such as “festival and theatrical music, topical operas, [and] songs [of revolutionary ideas]” attracted many disenfranchised, disgruntled, and dissatisfied people of the Third Estate who could resonate with such ideas in a consumable media form (Mason 44-45). Hence, the change in audience was due to both the physical expansion in places where music could be consumed as well as the diversifying ideology of the music itself as a result of freer monetary backing. Consequently, the musicians who wished to accommodate to this new audience, out of a combination of economic or personal motivations, would have to alter much of the existing musical style, resulting in a deviance in musical composition and theory.

Thus, the mechanism of new economic settings and circumstances illustrates the pattern of musical and cultural interdependence. The new economic ventures brought forth through the political climate of the French Revolution allowed for a diversification of music. The broken economic chains that once bound musicians to the aristocracy now allowed artists to not only explore music outside of the scope of the Old Regime through different patronage but also reach an unprecedented amount of people. This shift of audience and ideology required a simultaneous change in musical composition and theory to accommodate the shifting cultural view in light of the ideological predispositions of the growing Third Estate audience, which additionally fomented the revolutionary cause many of the populace were aligning themselves to. Therefore, the very instability that brought about economic ventures to change music would be strengthened by such changes, indicating again the integral and inseparable role of music and culture to each other. Finally, the socially egalitarian ideologies of the French Revolution opened the door for women to musically express themselves; women experienced an expanding accessibility to music education and performance to more ranks of society yet existing cultural mindsets further drove the emphasis of social reform.

Mason notes that the revolutionary mentality during the French Revolution was to heed one’s message over gender, and in this sense, there was a rise in women in music (Mason 47). Therefore, the societal confines reminiscent of the Old Regime were shaken and challenged, including gender roles. Women through the revolution were given a voice through musical expression, and this shift can be attributed to the ideologies of liberty and equality emerging, pervasive not only in a political sense but also in a cultural sense. The rise of female composers, partly through education and larger access to music and musical education at the Conservatoire de Paris, can be attributed to such a change in mentality, and thus an alteration in the demographic of musicians and artists. Through a new and changing social climate, especially one born through populace forces, certain women could explore greater opportunities; the revolution that clamored for equality in social class was somewhat paralleled in gender equality and expression in music. However, the mentality of revolution was polarizing, and alongside pre-existing social notions of the female status in society, this cultural linkage only further catalyzed the revolutionary ideas into society through music. Letzer cites the case study of Mademoiselle Montansier, a theatre manager who although was conservative with reform, resorted to displaying works to “foster revolutionary spirit” with great patriotism for troops in order to dispel royalist rumors perpetuated by revolutionaries (Letzer 106-109). Women in opera, both managers of theatres and artists, were subject to misogyny, due to a societal perception of women being inherently unequal, lacking in mental capacity, or even prone sexual promiscuity; these beliefs perpetuating female systematic enslavement lent women to even greater scrutiny under the public eye, especially of the revolutionary leaders.

These assumptions pushed many women in music to either vehemently support the revolution or risk loss of influence at the hands of the sans-culottes, thus creating very poignantly revolution-curated music. With Montansier, she would have liked to refrain from anything anti-monarchical. However, due to the cultural and political climate at the time of the Jacobins and the Revolution, she was relegated to a parodical and extreme mouthpiece of the revolutionary ideas that allowed her to be in the managerial position in the first place. Letzer says it best when she notes that ‘revolutionary reforms might have extended opportunities to gain equal access to the stage, [but] the institutional obstacles against [women] merely shifted” (Letzer 109). The French Revolution allowed for the expansion of musicianship to women, yet the existing cultural norms filtered and pushed many female composers and musicians to further the political conflict that opened the opportunity to them in the first place, further evidencing the cyclical pattern of influence that culture and music has. Women had to experience a cruel, handicapped attempt to maneuver through new socioeconomic ecosystem, demonstrating the dichotomy of liberty in success and vice.

There is some argument that the metaphysical changes that occurred during the Revolution were the root of the musical changes that occurred, rather than the cultural and ideological changes of the French Revolution. Markedly, there were technological innovations that occurred during the French Revolution, which led some to believe that it spurred the music change more than changes in political or socioeconomic thinking, making the musical revolution a separate entity from the French Revolution. Dumoulin comments on the explosion of musical instrument improvements and patents for music-related patents and how they show quantitative proof for a technological innovation (Dumoulin 77). This innovation in instruments would allow for greater musical liberty and creativity, and Dumoulin suggests that it is the root of the musical change, with the French Revolution flowing an alternate, unrelated, though synchronous course. However, these technological innovations were not independent of the social movements of the French Revolution. For example, wind instruments saw much improvement, pushed by leaders of the revolution who wanted an instrument that would be able to easily project sound outside and to many people, a feature lacking in the classical orchestral instrumental setup. Additionally, Hughes notes that the innovation of muted drums served to not only compliment and not detract from artillery and marching but also to allow for the projection of voice (Hughes 206).

In these two cases, improvements or changes in musical technology occurred with the revolution in its peripheral vision. Therefore, many of these innovations, including improvements for instruments, were made either with intentions of using them to spread ideas because of the French Revolution or as a result of the economic barriers and restrictions breaking down. The changing political landscape provided a climate that encouraged a divergent media, and the new economic opportunities and ventures that followed thus stimulated changing musical innovation, both in theory and in technology, such as with wind instruments. Yet these changes all were stimulated by the French Revolution and its impact on society and politics; to say that the technological innovation, albeit important, was completely autonomous to the concurrent French Revolution would be dismissing the political and societal influences behind technological advancement. As necessity encourages innovation, it is evident that the sequential influences of music and societal culture created a situation in which the technological advancements of the day could not only exist but intensify the French Revolution and its implications on society.

The music of and after the French Revolution was undoubtedly different both in expression and outlets of expression from its pre-revolutionary existence, and analysis of the underlying political, economic, and social mechanisms highlight the persistent interwovenness of music and culture as influencing and being influenced by the other. The French Revolution brought about great musical change, as a political and ideological battle brought forth a broader range and greater emphasis on lyricism, economic shackles were liberated to encourage different media and venues of expression, and social ideological changes widened the range of people involved in that music. Yet each of these changes, in turn, revitalized and augmented the French Revolution, either willingly or not, to form a cyclical interdependence of society and music. Being a mirror of each other, music and society increased the duality and divide between the Old Regime and revolutionary forces. Music, even during the 18th century, was and still is very much ingrained in the culture of society, heavily influenced by the circumstances of its creation. Music is part of a culture, as is politics, economics, and social class, and therefore is as much of a reflection of developments in culture as much as it is an influence on culture itself. To see music as separate from culture would be to dismiss the beautiful and yet powerful relationship the arts and culture has.

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The Emerging Egalitarian Ideas Of The French Revolution. (2022, Jun 05). Retrieved from

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