Singers have a voice, too

The Western canon is too often reduced to a politicised debate: power and patronage versus individual genius


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Western liberal legacy has reframed “freedom” in an entanglement of misconceptions and skewed viewpoints. In the arts, they tend to be sacralised as an absolute precondition of the artist. Yet for all its lofty intent, art is still a product of human hands and minds. Its object shouldn’t blind us to the unavoidable and less glamorous realities of economic and legal constraints faced by artists.

To acknowledge this is not to reduce intellectual debates to balance sheets. But the limitations matter, since it is precisely within set frameworks that humans thrive, even if it is to transgress or transform them. Creativity involves making the most of what is available to us at a given time. As such, constraints aren’t automatically “negative”, in the sense that they represent a nuisance that needs to be removed at all costs.

The contemporary fixation on extolling “freedom” as a cornerstone of artistic expression stems from a flattened understanding of history. Those for whom this is the jam and butter often reveal a particular obsession with power dynamics.

The interplay of economics and law with the history of arts has long been perceived through two distinct lenses: a Marxist theory on the one hand, and a classical liberal perspective on the other. Each has its own foundational tale to tell about the art market, whether as a battleground for class struggle or as a catalyst for individual liberation. Between the two grand narratives, the nuances of interpersonal relationships and the way they build on, and enhance, individual skills, desires and agencies often get sidelined.

Amongst the discarded images, early modern music occupies an interesting place. Musical creation during the Ancien Régime conjures specific projections of art patronage, sometimes equated with baroque putti wrapped in golden leaves and ornamented coquetry. We imagine a world where the desires of influential sponsors dictate the creative process, relegating artists to mere conduits of their whims. Whilst this narrative holds some truth, the oversimplification it carries with it perpetuates a damaging cliché not only for understanding how past creation worked, but also how future creation may arise.

Before the modern period, the vast majority of musicians did not have an experience comparable to the contemporary notion of being “self-employed”, a status mindlessly linked to the idea of “freedom”. Carlo Gesualdo (1566–1613) and Barbara Strozzi (1619–1677) demonstrate that personal wealth occasionally afforded composers the luxury of pursuing their craft independently, but these were rare exceptions. Later, the Beethovenian ideal, championing the notion of artistic freedom fuelled by “genius”, tried to contrast itself with an interpretation of the past in which composers were not free agents.

In their quest for a conceptual scapegoat, many intellectuals indulge in cultivating a myth

This perspective on the Western musical past has been encouraged by the development of various “cultural studies”, which assume that power relationships are best understood as generally benefiting those with the greatest social status. French history is particularly fruitful ground for this explanation, with magnificent absolute kings fervently attached to the arts and their language, defending the artistic grandeur of their terroir. In their quest for a conceptual scapegoat, many intellectuals indulge in cultivating the myth of the “patron-state” in negative terms, a sentiment echoed as early as the 18th century with incorrigible philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau.

Yet, this vision of “cultural politics” is an epistemological obstacle, as the late Marc Fumaroli, author of The Republic of Letters, wisely noted. It mirrors our contemporary obsession with “soft power”, another flawed and misleading concept founded on a fallacious interpretation of the value of culture and the arts. Such an understanding of patronage and art creation during the 16th to 18th centuries not only lacks accuracy, but also serves as fodder for commentators across the political spectrum to validate their preconceived ideas about the nature and purpose of art.

From a leftist standpoint, it is often wielded to critique tangible or fantastical power structures and systems of authority, perpetuating the belief that the Western world has intentionally silenced or marginalised certain voices, particularly those rooted in gender and racial identities. Conversely, from a right-wing perspective, it feeds into the romanticised concept of “beauty”, which discards or denigrates economic and interpersonal constraints to prioritise transcendental principles. Both bleed into the debate that surrounds the “canon”, which represents what we have commonly elected as pieces of art of extremely valuable worth, and what deserves to be performed and taught.

The reality of this intellectual dispute is more complex than a simple dichotomy suggests. The focus on pure aesthetics, for example, pervasive across much of the existing scholarship, transcends the political spectrum and reveals conceptual fixations on all sides. In the domain of opera, the fervour of some academics for aesthetics has sometimes debased the study of music production from factual groundings. This scholarly stance becomes easily prescriptive and keen on fabricating narratives, whether “progressive” or “conservative”, especially when coupled with anachronistic psychoanalytical theories and the like.

Catherine Clément illustrates the epitome of this problem in Opera, or the Undoing of Women (1979), which enjoys worldwide renown. In this enquiry into female characters in French opera, Clément’s focus on a handful of artistic parameters crafts a ready-made mould for a specific narrative, that of the eternal weaker sex placed in a situation of submission and punishment, detached from a careful study of primary sources.

Not only does Clément miss the whole Christian depth of the literary material (in which humility, sacrifice and redemption matter to the highest degree), she also overlooks singers’ own agency and how they could use their power and influence on the creative process of music production.

The pre-19th century music scene answered to specific needs set up by existing structures for specific places, such as the divine liturgy in churches and court entertainment for wealthy patrons. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that individual artists, authors and performers didn’t possess a voice of their own.


The advent of opera houses relied heavily on a question of administrative and economic inventiveness, which acknowledged the importance of most individuals entangled with opera business as a potential co-creative force. Across Northern Italy, with public theatres such as the Venetian San Cassiano (inaugurated in 1637), and the rest of Europe, competition amongst singers animated a new market, unafraid to aim for economic profitability. Whilst secular musical institutions toyed with the implementation of working conventions, performers necessarily learned to negotiate their own rights.

The most prominent singers could have a deep influence over troupes’ structures, share managerial responsibilities and intrude on artistic matters. Italian opera is full of cases of castrati and female divas that illustrate this. For example, Francesco Bernardi (a popular castrato known as “Senesino” who moved to London in 1720) negotiated with the Royal Academy of Music not only for primo uomo roles, but also for a position of artistic influence in his Londra amatissima. Italian soloists could own the scores they were given during specific cast productions and travel across Europe with “suitcase arias” (aria di balle) performed without fear of copyright protocols.

The straitjacket conventions of French opera, in addition to the centralised political model of the “Sun King”, have made it harder to project the same principles to music creation there. Yet even in the context of the Paris Opera, which set up the modern system of a fixed troupe with a set repertoire, the relationship between directors and singers wasn’t trapped in a hermetic top-down approach. Performers were chosen for their skill and reputation, which enhanced the fame of the composers working with them. This is evidently true insofar as singers’ competencies were taken into consideration by the authors in order to make their work successful. But singers were not passive agents: their choices and preferences impacted decision-making.

Even under Lully, reputed for his tight control over his performers, some singers demonstrated that they could have an active role. Marie Le Rochois (c. 1658–1728), hired by Pascal Collasse, one of Lully’s close collaborators, animated violent romantic aspirations amongst the audience. Her rare voice of bas-dessus (loose equivalent of female alto) and the perfection of her singing and acting consecrated her as an arbiter of good taste. Besides an alleged dispute between the singer and Lully, their dynamic was one of the most fruitful within the troupe, reaching its apex with Armide (1686). According to the commentator Titon du Tillet, Lully regularly consulted Le Rochois — as did André Campra and André-Cardinal Destouches — and he often attributed his successes to her.

Reconsidering the importance of singers’ “voices” in fashioning and playing the repertoire is crucial for a better appreciation of the Western musical canon. Indeed, it is not simply a set repertoire gathering beautiful works. It is fundamentally a pedagogical tool embodied through performance. Its revival can leave room for the creative minds of today’s artists, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of erasing the individuals who preceded them, not only authors but also performers who had their say and fought hard to be heard.

Thus those who aspire to become patrons of the arts today should take note that philanthropy isn’t a passive hobby, but necessarily relies on entertaining close relationships with those who embody and live art.

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