Brehm on Reibel (2023)

Reibel, Emmanuel. Du métronome au gramophone: Musique et révolution industrielle. Fayard, 2023, pp. 382, ISBN 978-2-213-72225-2

Who owned musical time in the nineteenth century? Who or what had the power and the authority to dictate its parameters? Today we are so accustomed to the phrase “the music industry,” but what connections developed between music and industry in the nineteenth century, for performers, composers, and listeners alike? These are some of the central questions posed in Emmanuel Reibel’s new and compelling exploration of the nineteenth-century musical world, with a strong focus on France and Paris.

Reibel bookends his study with Maurice Ravel’s Boléro. In the introduction, he offers an evocative account of a video made in the very early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, a performance of Boléro by the Orchestre national de France assembled out of a multitude of separate digital files made by the isolated performers in their homes. This recording, Reibel emphasizes, was only possible thanks to the mechanical, precise click of a metronome. In the book’s epilogue, Ravel’s Boléro returns, this time as a crystallization of the critical threads and chapters of the book. In between these two turns to Ravel's iconic piece, Du métronome au gramophone reveals itself as ambitious in scope. It draws connections among such topics as music, electricity, and steam power all the way to the telephone and the gramophone. At the same time it looks at the prehistory and afterlives of these devices. While the study certainly speaks to musicologists, it also succeeds at appealing more broadly to those interested in the topics of time, memory, technology, performance, and the reception of music together with the processes of music’s democratization and commodification in the nineteenth century. Indeed, it is striking to see all the ways a commodity logic shaped so many aspects of music production and consumption, from machine-powered composing, to steam-powered performance, to obsessions with quantifying the time one might expect to spend listening to or learning a piece of music. Thanks to its lucid prose, clear organization, and illuminating illustrations, Reibel’s study is certainly accessible to and compelling for scholars in disciplines beyond musicology.

Chapter one, for example, is much more than a cultural history of the metronome, fascinating as that history is. Reibel’s humor at the outset of the chapter (devoted to the prehistory and history of the sometimes “tyrannical” machine)—“peut-être le métronome vous rappelle-t-il de mauvais souvenirs d’enfance” (19)—cues us to the effect that what follows will be circumspect about technological determinism, and that the chapter will attend not only to the mechanical history of the device and its immediate impact, but to broader social, political, and cultural questions about time, production, and reproducibility. One of the key innovations of the metronome, invented and popularized circa 1815 by Johann Maelzel, was that users could both see and hear its delineation of time, as opposed to earlier chronometers which functioned via exclusively visual cues. Reibel asserts that the metronome is an overlooked scholarly point of departure for thinking about music and machines in the nineteenth century and uses it to begin his exploration of the marriage of art and mechanical devices in the industrial age.

In chapter two, Reibel reveals the complexities of the century’s fascination with industrial progress and its expanding culture of speed, alongside lament about loss of the human element or soul. We see this paradox exemplified, for example, in the uncanny automaton in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman.” When all sorts of musical practices, including the exercises and tools for music pedagogy, drew from industrial standards (quantification, for example) and ideals (speed, above all—à toute vapeur! as the new tempo of modern life), critical discourses on music constantly articulated a fear that performers were becoming more and more like machines, that these performers were losing and forgetting their art, crushed under the demands of the capitalist marketplace and the forces of industrialization. The comparison with photography and related discourses on the loss of art faced with the profusion of mechanical devices is most welcome in this context. Another of this chapter’s many virtues is its ability to weave together familiar and unfamiliar elements. Here, we encounter Hoffmann’s “Sandman,” Jean-Jacques Grandville’s 1844 “Concert à la vapeur” caricature, and learn of the Calliope, a bizarre steam-powered piano that attracted an enormous crowd of curious Parisians in 1865 only to frighten most of them away with its cacophonous roar.

Beginning with a striking reference to the componium, a machine that appeared able to compose music in 1823, chapter three examines the question of whether an “industrial music” existed in the nineteenth century comparable to the kind of “industrial literature” so condemned by Sainte-Beuve. Hector Berlioz, for one, decried the vast multiplication of composers and the corresponding diminution in quality over quantity. However, Reibel demonstrates how terms such as “mechanical” and “industrial” had unstable meanings and associations. These terms, as used in aesthetic debates about composing and musical production in the nineteenth century (with Wagner’s and Berlioz’s perspectives as telling examples), often pointed to shifting critical attitudes and ideologies where the lines drawn between art and industry became hazy. At the same time, Reibel demonstrates how composers such as Rossini and Chopin, notably with the latter’s Berceuse, took to imitating and elaborating a certain industrial aesthetic.

The book’s final chapter entertains the question of metamorphoses in listening practices in the nineteenth century as electricity came to transform the industrial world. What about the listeners? What about the audiences? This chapter responds to those questions by looking at such developments in music distribution as the théâtrophone, which counted Proust as a subscriber and which helped facilitate, for better or worse, a kind of “zapping sonore” (308), a flitting from one piece or performance to another long before radio dials. Especially captivating is Reibel’s discussion of the fear and wonder attendant to “les voix ensevelies,” audio recordings of the era’s premier singers and performers buried in a time capsule at the Palais Garnier in 1907. The witnesses to this event shared a particular kind of fear, mixed with melancholy, about their burial. Ultimately, Reibel argues to some extent contra Theodor Adorno that the gramophone did not destroy a kind of idealized and unfragmented listening practice from earlier in the century so much as the gramophone “remodeled” (335) existing listening practices.

Reibel’s return to Ravel’s Boléro at the end of the book prompted me to think of a remarkable podcast with the provocative title “Unraveling Boléro” (broadcast on WNYC's Radiolab in May 2018 and inspired by an eponymous article in the journal Brain from January 2008). Listening to the podcast once again brought me to reevaluate Reibel’s closing thoughts about the relation between machines and memory and how machines in the nineteenth century “transformed” and “reconfigured” (339) the musical world. The podcast reveals how Boléro, with its rigid tempo and unchanging melodies, may have been for Ravel “the first symptom of a deadly disease” relating to language and a degenerative brain disorder­. Indeed, Ravel would lose the power of speech a few years after composing the piece.

Reibel, coming from another angle, views Boléro and the demands of its rigid precise repetitions as symptomatic of metronomic musical culture, and, more broadly, a quintessential product of the debates and conflicts played out over the fraught interactions between modern machines, industry, music making and consuming in the nineteenth century. There’s no reason Ravel’s piece can’t be both the product of those interactions and of a mysterious disease of the brain. Mechanical repetitions, musical and industrial, human and machine, find startling points of convergence in a piece that echoes manifold upheavals in the soundscapes of the nineteenth century. Reibel’s book is an altogether marvelous guide through those changes.