Rebecca Dowd

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An unknown letter by Grétry & the French Revolution of musicians

Grétry is generally known today more for appearing in Mozart's biographies as one of the music composers, whose scores were, during the Mannheim-Paris Tour 1777-1779, a particular object of study by Mozart himself with the scores of Benda, those of the Mannheim composers and the theory manuals and the scores of Abbé Vogler and with other music works (Mozart used to study a lot!).
       However Grétry was a rather important composer within the system of the French Ancien Régime. Beloved by the Queen Marie Antoinette, a few music works by Grétry became, during French Revolution, one of the most poisonous and lethal symbols of philo-monarchism, to the extent that to quote such compositions by him could be sufficient motive for climbing the stairway to the guillotine, the national razor.

Grétry now works for the French Revolution.
The newly discovered letter (written by Grétry to Sieyes on 16 October 1790) casts new light of the public debate about the intentions behind the necessity of the French Revolutionaries to establish a brand new legislation about Copyright (and also Music Copyright!) and Intellectual Property.
       So now Grétry, an old champion of Ancien Régime, appears here as an activist of the legal rights of the musicians and in particular of the composers, whose works, previously protected only by the possibilities and the boundaries of a privilege system controlled by Monarchy and organized within a social system ruled by money and earnings mainly coming from the aristocratic families, are now, under the French Revolution, regularly exploited by publishers and theatre producers without the possibility, for the composers, of earning a penny from the selling of their scores and, especially, from the theatre performances and the concerts.
       This new letter is important and interesting also in revealing the motives behind this legal evolution towards a modern concept of the Copyright System.
       So, in the intentions of Grétry and Sieyes and the other people involved in this process towards a modern legislation for the protection of the Intellectual Property, we find both intellectualistic and materialistic considerations, that co-existed under the influence of Physiocracy, Adam Smith's Capitalism and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract in a healthy dialectic (as it seems) between music considered as a social public good and music as the intellectual product of composers who must detain natural private and economic interests derived from their products (i.e. their compositions) as a correct expression of a moral, natural right!

The complexity of the ideas behind Grétry's letter and the musicians sign petitions for the Revolution.
Despite brief, Grétry's letter (which has never been discussed by scholar before this paper) has, behind itself, a very complex world of ideas and philosophical, social and legal actions carried on mainly from 1789 to 1793. 
       Geoffroy-Schwinden well treats the matter and the contents of this letter and the complexity of the world behind it and so correctly and exhaustively positions this letter within its social and historical context: the first English legislation on Copyright, the system of privileges, the social action of French musicians in saying their word about the legal and political re-organization of the new Revolutionary nation, the evolution of Paris theatres under Revolution from 3 sanctioned theatres to 35 in a few years, the legal problems of the public exploitation of music (through printing and performances) and the natural legal private rights of the music composers, the battle of music composers to see their job recognized as equal to that of librettists, drama writers and men of letters, the exemplary cases of Paisiello's Nina, ou la Folle par amour (1786) Paris performances (1791-1792) and of Beaumarchais's Figaro, etc.
       This letter by Grétry is a very interesting window on the role played by French musicians in modelling the new legislation on Copyright and Intellectual Property during the years of the French Revolution.
       Not only Grétry, but many French musicians signed public petitions to the government in favour of the recognition of musicians' rights, wrote intense letters to those political representatives who could promote the right series of laws to protect the work of musicians, actively discussed the proposals of new laws and their single parts, rapidly denounced to the Revolutionary police authorities the abuse system of the many Paris theatres, that freely exploited their music and their work without giving a penny to the music composers.
       Many musicians, who actively worked on those days of the Revolution to give the right shape to a new modern legislation on Copyright and Intellectual Property, became professors at the Paris Conservatoire a few years later.
Read the complete article by R. Geoffroy-Schwinden  (

Music, Copyright, and Intellectual Property during the French Revolution:
A Newly Discovered Letter from André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry

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