Marie Antoinette had a great fondness for music, and of all the arts, it was the only one for which she tended to offer patronage. According to the memoirs of Madame Campan, who was close to Marie Antoinette, “music was the accomplishment in which the Queen most delighted. She did not play well on any instrument, but she had become able to read at sight like a first-rate professor.” Her personal library contained many music books, ranging from harpsichord music, which was her favourite instrument to play, from sonatas to operas.
While dancing was said to be the art at which Marie Antoinette most excelled, being noted for her grace, she learned music from a young age. She sang at her father’s birthday while only three years old. As a child, she also met Mozart, then himself a child of six, when he played the harpsichord for the Empress of Austria, Marie Antoinette’s mother. Mozart later went to Paris, possibly hoping for the support of Marie Antoinette, who was queen by then. Unfortunately, she was having a difficult pregnancy and was not able to meet him at the time. Marie Antoinette also supported composers such as Gluck, and enjoyed the works of Haydn.
Marie Antoinette was also acquainted with the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. An extremely talented violinist, composer, and conductor of the symphony orchestra in Paris, he is also remembered today as the first classical composer of African ancestry. The son of a wealthy planter and a slave, Saint-Georges was born in Guadeloupe. As well as being musically talented, he was also a champion fencer, and had a strong military career, leading the first all-black regiment in Europe during the French Revolution.
Saint-Georges’ immense list of talents and titled lineage (his father was a gentleman of the king’s chamber) didn’t prevent him facing some discrimination, unfortunately. Although revolutionary France’s ideals of equality and liberty mostly included people of colour – slavery had been illegal in the metropolitan areas of France since the 1300s, though it was not abolished in the French colonies until 1794 – Saint-Georges found his heritage became an issue when he was suggested as the director of the Paris Opéra. While the leading ladies didn’t mind working with Saint-Georges, they opposed the idea of working for him and wrote a petition to Marie Antoinette to put a halt to the idea.
Hearing of the petition, Saint-Georges immediately withdrew his name from consideration. Marie Antoinette invited Saint-Georges to join the intimate musical evenings she had in the salon of her petit appartement de la reine at Versailles – her private chambers. These evenings were limited to a circle of friends and musicians, and were quite exclusive. Saint-Georges may have regaled the group with his violin sonatas, which he often composed himself, while the Queen likely joined in by playing the harpsichord.
It’s difficult to speculate how Marie Antoinette would have reacted to the petition if Saint-Georges had not withdrawn his name, saving her from making a decision. Since she continued to associate with him at her elite musical evenings, I like to think she would have supported him in spite of the social pressures. However, we shall never know. As part of the aftermath of this incident, her husband, King Louis XVI, also took control of the Paris Opéra, putting its management under his ‘Intendent of Light Entertainments’ (there’s a job title for you). Previously, it had been managed by the city of Paris for nearly a century.
Marie Antoinette ensured that her daughter was also given music lessons. When the royal family was imprisoned in the Tower during the revolution, one of the kindest guards, Commissioner Jacques Lepître, realized that the dilapidated harpsichord in the building was not fit for playing, and managed to have an improved one brought in so the child’s music lessons could continue.
The Wardrobe Mistress, a novel of one of Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe women who casually spies on the queen during the French Revolution and finds herself torn between her loyalty to the queen and her sympathy for the revolution, is available now.