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Position Papers

Seminar 2

Institutions, performers and composers as shapers of repertory

This seminar deals with the social processes within which the composition and performance of musical works took place. In what follows, we will present a series of questions relating to the interaction of productive systems and individuals, both musicians and organizers of musical activities. However, this emphasis on the structure of musical life should not preclude comments on musical works: not only because works modify systems but because we, as participants in the project, cannot share an equal knowledge of the composers and repertories under examination.

 The seminar involves two complementary perspectives: of local systems and of European circulation. Locally, our aim is to investigate musical institutions and professions from a comparative point of view: what are the common constituents that make it possible to evaluate different opera houses, concert societies, career schemes, etc., across Europe? We will also, however, consider the circulation of music and musicians, a process determined not only by individuals but also by the conditions individual cities could offer them.

 The other key word in our title is “repertory”, an all-embracing notion that should include both old and new works. It is a commonplace that in the period 1815-48 the repertory ceases to be based on a majority of new works. However, repertories were permanently shaped and reshaped, whether actively (by conscious decisions) or passively (by practical exigencies). Seen as the embodiment of artistic trends, repertories were in permanent flux. Seen in the framework of institutions’ day-to-day operations, and over several decades, they were affected by so many constraints that idealistic intent proved decisive only at certain moments. Repertories thus provide the historian with a convenient interface between ideas and economic or organizationalimperatives.

Institutions and their degree of openness

“Institutions” here mean not only public enterprises (opera houses, music societies, conservatories) but also wandering troupes, private salons or piano makers’ showrooms, music festivals, circles of amateurs or popular societies. The balance between ‘public’ and ‘private’ varies from place to place. We should avoid simplistic social labels for institutions – aristocratic, middle-class, popular.

 The boom in concerts is now very well-known, although statistical surveys will be forever incomplete. Less often studied is the extent of music publishing, which exploded in every possible domain; today’s second-hand music shops bear witness to the colossal amount of sheet music and vocal scores that was printed during our period, although the second half of the century pushed the phenomenon even further. The names of Schlesinger, Escudier, Lucca and Ricordi have become legendary, but we need to know more about their ramifications across Europe and also about their local rivals: is it possible to assemble a map of publishers’ networks?

 1815-48 was marked, according to William Weber, by the advent of ‘musical idealism’ – a militant taste for serious music. To what extent, though, was this ideal manifest in public and private concerts across the continent, and how did our various musical centres reflect that trend? Did the ‘cosmopolitan’ nature of most programmes build on expectations shared by a majority of concert-goers?

 The place of foreigners is critical when comparing established musical institutions. The Paris opera houses had permanent troupes, with a strict correspondence between individual singers and the parts they could perform. Was this an isolated model? More widely: were rigidly regulated establishments prone to the conservation of standard generic features and, conversely, were opera houses more innovatory when they had a more flexible personnel? Or does the reverse take place: were powerful institutions (though weighed down with their traditions) the only ones that could afford to experiment with new combinations of drama and visual aspects?

 A major element in transnational comparison consists of placing institutions in relation to their local systems of performing arts. Opera houses were particularly subject to such systems, sometimes explicitly bound to a division into theatrical genres. The same question can be asked about conservatories, churches, music societies: some of them were in a hegemonic position, some fighting towards this status, others were striving for excellence in a restricted field. Legal and political aspects come into play, and contribute greatly to the variety from country to country. Theatrical freedom between 1815 and 1848 remained an ideal that was often stated, but seldom (nowhere?) achieved.

 We might also consider the various ways in which theatres, chapels and music societies depended on political authorities. Sovereigns, whether autocratic or liberal, entertained widely different kinds of relationships with their musical establishments, from punctilious involvement to simple indifference. City councils also became major partners in the running of musical institutions, with a Bildungsbürgertum that reached the spheres of local power. However, changes in operatic repertories were not necessarily in phase with political changes, as shown by the new course taken by the Paris Opéra in 1827-28, two years before the July Revolution and three years before the advent of a new type of economic and artistic management.

Composers and performers as shapers of repertory

If one accepts the very loose definition of musical institutions proposed above, benefit concerts should not be considered extra-institutional. Indeed, musicians needed existing structures, if only to find suitable venues. How individual musicians assembled their concert programmes has been widely studied, but general conclusions are hard to draw. The easiest cases are solo ‘recitals’, the advent of which dates from our period: one-man shows (are there solo recitals by women before 1848?) might present musicians’ intentions at their purest; but in most cases the presence of other participants implies shared interests.

 According to Weber, benefit-concerts programmes did not vary greatly whether by local musicians or by visitors. This prompts us to consider the degree of interaction between local figures and outsiders, a vital question for our European perspective. Among other things, it encourages us to reflect on the relative permeability of musical practices across different traditions: genre characteristics, voice types, languages sung, dialogue or recitative in opera, size of orchestras, available instruments.

 A previous ESF project, Le Musicien et ses voyages, mapped the subject of travelling musicians under four headings: motives, representations, destinations and networks. Concerning motives, Leopold Mozart gave an unsurpassed answer: ‘Ruhm und Geld’. Such pursuits only increased in the nineteenth century and deserve further investigation: what does ‘reputation’ amount to? how much money? So does the purpose of ‘learning’, both as a student and as a professional: The early nineteenth century added new elements, most obviously the waning of princely musical establishments. How true is this when applied to 1815-48? Were musicians tempted to have the best of both worlds: a pension from the prince (when one remained) and the possibility of performing Europe-wide? Other motives for travelling were the lure of institutional power or the promotion of artistic beliefs, both of which benefited from an enlarged geographical scope. However, to judge by conservatories, directorships were mostly secured by local figures while outsiders were given secondary roles.

 Among travelling musicians, the category of the reisende Virtuosen may have been exaggerated. Singers are just as important, and raise the question of a gradual standardization of voice types across national styles. A major issue concerns Italian troupes across Europe: has their continued presence been underplayed in music histories, which tend to be both nation-based and dominated by ideas of musical progress? Conversely, if German instrumentalists and conductors acquired a dominant image, how much institutional power did they actually gain outside the German speaking world?

 In conclusion, one basic question informs the discussion of individuals: how true is it that artists in the nineteenth century gained an ascendancy over a system to which they were previously subordinated? One can assume that an increasing number of works were conceived, like the Symphonie fantastique, as ‘episodes from the life of an artist’, therefore sharing a cross-European view of the arts; but were such works afforded to a greater European vogue than their counterparts of half a century before?


Christian Meyer (ed.), Le Musicien et ses voyages (Berlin, 2003)

Michael Fend and Michel Noiray (ed.), Musical Education in Europe (1770-1914), 2 vols. (Berlin, 2005)

Hans Erich Bödecker, Patrice Veit and Michael Werner (ed.), Le Concert et son public (Paris, 2002)

William Weber (ed.), The Musician as Entrepreneur, 1700-1914 (Bloomington, 2004)

Id., The Great Transformation of Musical Taste (Cambridge, 2008

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