Saturday 20 January 2018

How the French Revolution brought music on to the streets

Today is Bastille Day, the French national day, commemorating the beginning of the Revolution in 1789, which led to the end of the monarchy in France and the establishment of the First Republic.

Musically, it has two legacies. The most obvious is what is now the national anthem, 'La Marseillaise'. This was the signature song of the Revolution's volunteer militia from Marseille.

The music in pre-Revolution France was mostly foreign. Many of the heavy hitters from Vienna had moved to the French capital. The biggest name on the concert stage was Joseph Haydn, who was commissioned by a local aristocrat to present a set of six symphonies.

Marie Antoinette was a fan, and one of the symphonies, 'No. 85', is nicknamed 'The Queen', because she liked it so much.

When the political landscape changed, music came out of the concert hall and the salon, on to the parade ground and into the streets.

François-Joseph Gossec is the name most associated with what happened next. He'd been prominent in the years leading up to the Revolution. He had his own orchestra which, as well as performing his original material, presented that of Haydn.

Under the new dispensation, Gossec helped provide the required musical backdrop.

Le Triomphe de la République was his signature work in this regard, an opera that celebrated the achievements of the new republic.

Unfortunately for him, subsequent history and the ultimate downfall of Napoleon placed his music on the losing side, otherwise we might be celebrating Gossec's Triomphe in the same way that Beethoven's Ninth is admired today.

But where he did make an impact was in the development of the military band, and this would lead to the other musical legacy of the French Revolution.

Music was needed to inspire the masses, so it had to be played outdoors. And there was no place for a string orchestra, for the requirement was for a big sound. And plenty of players to provide it.

Gossec led the Band of the National Guard, an ensemble more than 50-strong -- brass, woodwind, and percussion -- and not a violin in sight.

This prototype needed players to sustain it, but the funds were lacking. The municipal authorities were prevailed upon, and a school was established to train the band's new members.

The then national government weighed in, the school's scope was extended, and in the autumn of 1796 that second musical legacy of the French Revolution took shape when the first students took their places in in what was now the new Conservatoire of Paris.

RTÉ lyric fm features The Hamilton Scores from 9.30 each Saturday morning, and George Hamilton's Full Score on Sundays at 3pm.

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