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Research Colloquium: Fabio Morabito

February 13, 2018 @ 5:15 pm - 7:00 pm


Speaker: Dr Fabio Morabito (Lincoln College, University of Oxford)

Gossiping the “Avant-Garde”: Etienne-Nicholas Méhul, Napoleon and the Writing of History


Etienne-Nicholas Méhul is remembered today as Napoleon’s protégé and the composer of a patriotic song soon nicknamed the “brother of the Marseillaise”. Yet during the nineteenth century Méhul was hailed as an innovator and the father of French musical romanticism. Musicologists have typically explored Méhul’s historic status by chasing in his scores innovations later imitated by others. Carl Dahlhaus (1985) credited Méhul for integrating symphonic techniques into operas staging the revolution’s élan terrible; while according to Rhys Jones (2014), Beethoven absorbed this vocabulary into the new instrumental sound of works such as his Fifth Symphony.

In this paper, I re-examine Méhul’s image as a shift maker against common historiographical tropes of the time. A fascination with society’s modernization saw music history being written as a continuous unfolding of “musical revolutions”. In this light, Méhul’s “revolutionary” traits in early nineteenth-century biographies can be read as an emerging rhetoric to engage with a broader public: one that would have not grasped the musical details of such innovations, and yet would have understood the language of rupture increasingly associated with modern musical celebrities. By juxtaposing narratives of Méhul’s artistic career with Napoleon’s spectacular rise to the ruler who changed the fate of his century, I propose an archaeology of the notion of “musical avant-garde” in the decades after the French Revolution; for what it reveals about a new marketable value of musicians’ contribution to history; and the promise of social mobility for artists speaking the language of progress in the early nineteenth century.



Dr Morabito is the Lord Crewe Junior Research Fellow in Music at Lincoln College, University of Oxford. He is a cultural historian of French and German musical life in the age of European Revolutions (1789-1848). His major interests include canon formation and celebrity culture, music historiography, performance studies, and the intellectual history of musical authorship. Before coming to Oxford, Fabio was Teaching Fellow in Musicology at Durham University and taught courses at Royal Holloway University of London and King’s College London, where he completed his doctorate. His dissertation ‘Authorship, Performance, and Musical Identity in Restoration Paris’ won the Ralph Gibson Award of the Society for the Study of French History (UK). His research has appeared in Acta musicologicaEighteenth-Century Music and Music Theory Online.

Conveners: Rosie McMahon and Edward Spencer.




February 13, 2018
5:15 pm - 7:00 pm
Event Category:


Faculty of Music
01865 (2)76133


Denis Arnold Hall, Faculty of Music
St Aldate's
Oxford, OX1 1DB
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01865 276125