Suzannah Clark

Fétis’ History of First Principles

In his Curiosités historiques de la musique: complément nécessaire de la musique à la portée de tout le monde (1830), François-Joseph Fétis pointed out that, when Jérôme-Joseph de Momigny was attempting to present a new theory of music in his Cours complet d’harmonie et de composition (1803), he spent a considerable portion of his book satirizing his predecessors—a tactic that Fétis considered “almost always time poorly spent”. Yet a few years later, in 1840, Fétis himself completed his Esquisse de l’histoire de l’harmonie, considérée comme art et comme science systématique, an essay entirely devoted to an extended critique—and often satire—of his predecessors and contemporaries. Fétis shared the same motivation in this study that he ascribed to Momigny, namely to assert the novelty of his own theory. As this paper will show, Fétis’ version of the history of theory owes its particular slant to what Fétis thought was his novel contribution, namely his answer to what he saw as music theory’s most burning question: “Quelle est la base certaine de l’harmonie?” (“What is the true foundation of harmony?”). Once the question was answered, Fétis was confident that the true theoretical design of first principles would fall into place. I shall focus this paper on Fétis’ reception of the French theoretical tradition by examining in particular how he characterized and discredited the theories of Momigny, Ballière, Levens, M. Jelensperger, and M. le baron Blein. With the exception of Momigny, who survived Fétis’ onslaught, albeit for his analyses rather than his theory of harmony, the others remain largely unknown. My paper will take a fresh look at the treatises of the five theorists listed above in order to highlight some of the more intriguing features of their first principles that were eclipsed in Fétis’ historical vision for French theory.