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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

So perhaps it is from the operatic masterpieces of the age that we can best learn an important lesson: it is a considerable distortion of the way things were to describe the so-called Enlightenment exclusively as an “age of reason”—especially if we persist in assuming (as the romantics would later insist) that thinking and feeling, “mind” and “heart,” are in some sense opposites. Gluck and Piccinni show us how far from true this commonly accepted dichotomy really is. The impulse that had led them and their artistic contemporaries to question traditional artifice and attempt the direct portrayal of “universal” human nature was equally the product of “free intellect” and sympathy—community in feeling. This last was based on introspection—“looking within.” The community it presupposed and fostered was one that in principle embraced the whole of humanity regardless of race, gender, nationality, or class. The objective of “enlightened” artists became, in Wye J. Allanbrook’s well-turned phrase, “to move an audience through representations of its own humanity.”12 And not only move, but also instruct and inspire goodness: free intellect and introspective sympathy went hand in hand—or in a mutually regulating tandem—as ministers to virtue.

The notion of free intellect—or “Common Sense,” as the American revolutionary Thomas Paine put it in the title of his celebrated tract of 1776—was the one that tended to attract attention by dint of its novelty and its political implications. “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains,” wrote Rousseau at the beginning of his Social Contract (1762), perhaps the most radical political work of the eighteenth century, and the obvious source of Paine’s main ideas. The chains to which he referred were not only the literal chains of enforced bondage, but also intellectual chains that people voluntarily (or so they may think) assume: religious superstition, submission to time-honored authority, acquiescence for the sake of social order or security in unjust or exploitative social hierarchies. The remedy was knowledge, which empowered an individual to act in accord with rational self-interest and with the “general will” (sensus communis) of similarly enlightened individuals.

Dissemination of knowledge—and with it, of freedom and individual empowerment—became the great mission of the times. The most concrete manifestation of that mission was the Encyclopédie, the mammoth encyclopedia edited by Diderot and Jean d’Alembert with help from a staff of self-styled philosophes or “lovers of knowledge” including Rousseau, who wrote the music articles among others. The first volume appeared in 1751, and the final supplements were issued in 1776. By the end, the project had been driven underground, chiefly by the Jesuits, who were enraged at its religious skepticism and persuaded the government of Louis XV to revoke the official “patent” or license to print. Even the clandestine volumes were subjected to unofficial censorship by the printer, who in fear of reprisal deleted the most politically inflammatory passages. These embattled circumstances only enhanced the prestige of the Encyclopédie, giving it a heroic aura as a new forbidden “Tree of Knowledge,” and contributing to its enormous cultural and political influence.

That influence can be gauged by comparison with the famous essay Was ist Aufklärung? (“What Is Enlightenment?”) by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. It was published in 1784, eight years after the Encyclopédie was completed. The answer to the question propounded by the title took the form of a popular Latin motto, originally from Horace: Sapere aude! (“Dare to know!”).13 “Enlightenment,” Kant declared, “is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity,” defined as “the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.”

“Enlightened” ideas quickly spread to England as well, where free public discussion of social and religious issues—both in the press and also orally, in meeting places like coffee houses—was especially far advanced. From England, of course, they spread to the American colonies, as already suggested by comparing Rousseau and Paine. Whether or not (as often claimed in equal measure by its proponents and detractors) the Enlightenment led directly to the French revolution of 1789, with its ensuing periods of mob rule, political terror, and civil instability, there can be no doubt that it provided the intellectual justification for the American revolution of 1776—a revolution carried out on the whole by prosperous, enterprising men of property and education, acting in their own rational and economic self-interest. The Declaration of Independence, and the American Constitution that followed, can both be counted as documents of the Enlightenment. As mediated through two centuries of amendment and interpretation, moreover, the American Constitution, as a legal instrument that is still in force, represents the continuing influence of the Enlightenment in the politics and social philosophy of our own time.

It would be wrong, however, to think of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment within its own time as nothing but a vehicle of civic unrest or rebellion. The philosophes themselves believed in strong state power and saw the best realistic hope of freedom in the education of “enlightened despots” who would rule rationally, with enlightened sympathy for the interests of their subjects. A number of European sovereigns were indeed sympathetic to the aims of the Encyclopedists. Frederick II (“the Great”) of Prussia—C. P. E. Bach’s employer and a great patron of the arts and sciences, many of which (including flute-playing and even musical composition) he practiced himself—corresponded with Voltaire (François Marie Arouet, 1694–1778), the “godfather” of the Enlightenment, and entertained d’Alembert at Sans Souci (“Without-a-Care”), his pleasure palace in Potsdam. Catherine II (“the Great”), the German-born Empress of Russia and a protégée of Frederick’s, corresponded enthusiastically with Diderot himself, whose much-publicized praise of Catherine and her liberality was largely responsible for her flattering sobriquet.

The liberality of an autocrat had its limits, though. Kant was a bit cynical about Frederick’s: “Our ruler,” he wrote, “says, ‘Argue as much as you want and about whatever you want, but obey!’”14 And after the French revolution, which Frederick did not live to see, his protégée Catherine turned quite reactionary and imprisoned many Russian followers of her former correspondents.

The prototype of all the “enlightened despots” of eighteenth-century Europe was the Austrian monarch, Joseph II (reigned 1765–90). Beginning in 1780, when he came to full power on the death of his mother, the co-regent Maria Theresia, Joseph instituted liberal reforms on a scale that seemed to many observers positively revolutionary in their extent and speed. He wielded the powers of absolutism, just as the philosophes had envisaged, with informed sympathy for the populace of his lands. He annulled hereditary privileges, expropriated church properties and extended freedom of worship, and instituted a meritocracy within the empire’s civil service. Above all, he abolished serfdom. (Catherine, by contrast, notoriously extended the latter institution into many formerly nonfeudalized territories of the Russian empire.) Yet few of Joseph’s reforms outlived him, largely because his brother and successor, Leopold II, was impelled, like Catherine, into a reactionary stance by the revolutionary events in France, and Leopold’s successor Francis II (reigned 1792–1835) created what amounted to the first modern police state. This anxious response to the French Revolution on the part of formerly “enlightened” autocrats is one of many reasons for regarding the political legacy of that great historical watershed as ambiguous at best.


(12) Wye J. Allanbrook, Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 16.

(13) Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?, 1784), trans. James Schmidt, in What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth-Century Questions, ed. J. Schmidt (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), p. 58.

(14) Kant, “An Answer,” trans. Schmidt, p. 59.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09004.xml