22 October 2018

Dr. Rachel Gillett in History Today

Reconstructing the sounds of the Napoleonic era

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On 24 September magazine History Today published the article 'The Music of the Napoleonic Era. The power and perils of reconstructing the music of Napoleon's time', written by dr. Rachel Gillett (Cultural History). 

Dr. Rachel Gillett
Dr. Rachel Gillett

The Musée de l’Armée in Paris hosted a cycle of concerts to celebrate Napoleon in his own words and music. Music that has lain in archives for years was transcribed and performed again. "Music was a key part of Napoleon’s representation of himself and the construction of his legend", Gillett writes. "The aim [of the concerts] was to convey the sounds of the Napoleonic era as contemporary audiences might have heard them". 

troubling historical performance

Gillett: "While it is exciting to reproduce music that lay in the archives for 200 years, its abundant and unashamed patriotism makes for a fascinating but slightly troubling historical performance [...] The programmes for this cycle of concerts explained the logic of hearing sounds of Napoleon’s time. They did not explicitly reflect on how the messages they sent to listeners might have been complicit in a myth of France that has done as much harm as good". Gillett argues that these performances are important and valuable for historical recovery. Performances can teach us a lot about history, as long as we don't forget to ask critical questions about its message and historical context.