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The sources of french musical romanticism

Date of the symposium:
12-17 octobre 2009

The sources of french musical romanticism. at the crossroads of italian and german influences. 1780-1830

A conference organised in collaboration with the Versailles Centre de Musique Baroque. 12 and 13 October 2009 in Venice; 17 October 2009 in Versailles.

Musical Romanticism has long been regarded as the expression in sound of the literary experiments of the closing 18th century, directly concomitant with the discoveries of painters like Delacroix and writers like Hugo. Far from being a period characterised by a denial and rejection of the past (people were in fact taking a lively interest in ancient music), Romanticism enriched classical forms with a completely extraneous set of conventions: the composer’s personal expression, breath-taking virtuosity, the violent contrast of opposites, etc. In a musical landscape largely peopled by foreign figures (Beethoven, Bellini, Donizetti, Schumann, Liszt, Chopin, etc.), French Romanticism was the exception. This is because the specific national characteristics championed in opera since Lully and up to Gluck still remained in evidence in the 1800s. The “Romantic aesthetic” only made itself felt—in French music—when it allowed foreign contamination: Meyerbeerian Grand Opera is the best example of this, in so far as it introduced Italian vocality into the solemn framework of ancient lyric tragedy. Cherubini then Spontini (and with them Sacchini, Piccinni and Salieri) were the first composers to challenge the model of classical opera devised by Gluck. It was therefore the Italians who resolutely “invented” a new French style of opera. This new aesthetic was then passed between the various Paris institutions, which imitated each other’s innovations. This can be seen by the new course taken by opéra comique in the 1830s, which became unexpectedly plaintive—even gloomy—in the hands of Onslow or Hérold. Within the context of instrumental music, the notion of Romanticism was affected by the same interplay of influences, this time provided by the Germanic countries. Consequently, the symphony or keyboard music owed a debt to Beethoven’s experiments (Méhul, Steibelt and Onslow come to mind) and, earlier, to the time spent in Paris by foreigners such as Dussek. If French opera “became” Romantic by donning the finery of Italian virtuosity, then instrumental music decked itself in the harmonic riches of German music. However, that notwithstanding, French Romantic music was not just a motley collection of foreign artistic concepts. Although the characteristics of this repertory have yet to be clearly defined—which forms this conference’s main area of investigation—several avenues of thought look promising. The first concerns the formal freedom displayed by French composers, from Gossec to Berlioz. The structure of opera arias and ensembles, as well as the internal organisation of instrumental pieces provide much food for thought. And, rather than regarding the liberties taken with theory as proof of technical inability or an inadequate knowledge of the rules, they should be accepted as concrete evidence of a continuous dynamic experimental approach. Rhythm is the other vital parameter which seems to have been very important to the first French Romantic generation. This is something that Cherubini and Berlioz had in common, and forms a link between Médée and the Symphonie fantastique. Abandoning the calm clarity of the classical structure, many works embraced feelings of rupture and imbalance as masterfully as Carl Philip Emanuel Bach or late Beethoven. Albeit with an originality that made Berlioz immediately identifiable among his contemporaries.


Alban Ramaut – L’idée de « romantisme » avant le romantisme : 1770-1830. 

Julia Lu – Experimentation and Renewal: The Prix de Rome Libretti (1831-1854) in the Age of Romanticism

Jean-Clair Vançon – Les traités de musique en France (1764-1830) : un classicisme italien pour un romantisme français ?

Jean-Pierre Bartoli – Paris et le langage de J. L. Dussek

Guillaume Bordry – Lire Byron en Italie : les voyages de Berlioz

Florence Gétreau – Le compositeur et son image : sensibilité, inspiration, expression du génie

Malou Haine – Romantique : « un mot si dangereux » selon Fétis

Michael Fend – The aftermath of the 'Querelle des Gluckistes et des Piccinnistes': French Opera in the 1780s

Joann Élart – Italianismes dans l’opéra de Boieldieu

Viviane Niaux – George Onslow : le « Beethoven français » ? 

Patrick Taïeb – La veine germanique des opéras-comiques révolutionnaires : Cherubini, Steibelt, Méhul et Le Sueur

Louise Bernard de Raymond – Quels modèles pour les quatuors à cordes d’Antoine Reicha

Corinne Schneider – Beethoven, Schubert et Weber en France

Raphaëlle Legrand – Filiation de la tragédie lyrique de Rameau à Gluck ? 

David Charlton – Recognising Musical Romanticism In France

Laura Naudeix – Les transformations du livret d’opéra : le cas des reprises de Quinault jusqu’en 1803

Marie-Pauline Martin – La place de la musique dans la théorie des beaux-arts au tournant du XIXe siècle : Levesque, Révéroni Saint-Cyr, Barthez et Villoteau. 

François Bernard – Le fantasme des musiques du passé dans l’œuvre de Méhul. 

Stéphane Lelièvre – D’un Don Juan à l’autre (1805-1834) : acclimatation de Mozart en France

Scientific publications

Related persons


Antoine REICHA

(1770 - 1836)


Étienne-Nicolas MÉHUL

(1763 - 1817)



(1784 - 1853)



(1635 - 1688)


Christoph Willibald von GLUCK

(1714 - 1787)

Composer, Journalist

François-Joseph FÉTIS

(1784 - 1871)

Composer, Pianist

Jan Ladislav DUSSEK

(1760 - 1812)

Conductor, Composer, Journalist


(1803 - 1869)


François-Adrien BOIELDIEU

(1775 - 1834)



(1765 - 1823)


Jean-François LE SUEUR

(1760 - 1837)


Antoine REICHA

(1770 - 1836)

Composer, Pianist

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN

(1770 - 1827)

Conductor, Composer, Pianist

Carl Maria von WEBER

(1786 - 1826)


publication date : 13/10/23