Anne-Emmanuelle Ceulemans

Fétis and the Idea of Progress in Music

In various writings dotting his musicological career, François-Joseph Fétis affirms that art does not progress but is transformed. Music, in particular, has as its goal “to express those sentiments whose inexhaustible modifications escape analysis.” From a philosophical point of view, this objective is irreconcilable with the idea of progress. Nonetheless, a detailed reading of Fétis’ texts shows that despite the convictions just enunciated, the theorist and professor in him could not help experiencing a certain progress in the evolution of musical language. For instance, parallel organum constituted, in his view, a “barbarous system,” in whose harmony he could recognize only “faulty progressions”. With respect to polyphonic writing, Fétis certainly sees progress in the abilities of composers across the Middle Ages and up to Palestrina. At the beginning of the 17th century, the appearance of tonal music enriched, according to him, the art of music by introducing an expressivity it was devoid of up till then. This last example suggests that Fétis considered tonal music to be musical language’s culminating point and that he struggled to grasp other musics in their full richness. The present paper undertakes to analyze the contradictions that surround the idea of progress in Fétis’ writings and to explain them in terms of the philosophical and musical ideas of his time.