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Marie-Antoinette and the pedal harp in Vienna

A recent monograph on the musical activities of Marie-Antoinette continues a long tradition of stating—without citing any evidence—that Marie-Antoinette learned the pedal harp during her childhood in Vienna, prior to coming to France in 1770. [1] Perhaps the assumption behind this received wisdom is that the harp was a standard instrument for aristocratic women throughout Europe in the eighteenth century. I challenged this assumption in a 2008 article, in which I argued that the intense feminisation of the pedal harp that endures to this day began in a very specific place and time: in Paris in the years following Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis’s 1759 performances on the instrument. (To download my article in PDF, please click on: “‘For a woman when she is young and beautiful’: The Harp in Eighteenth-Century France,” in History/Herstory. Andere Musikgeschichte(n), eds. Annette Kreutziger-Herr and Katrin Losleben (Köln/Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 2008), pp. 314-335.)

The pedal harp may have been known in Vienna during Marie-Antoinette’s childhood (Simon Hochbrucker had played it there in 1729), but it had probably not yet become feminised there, and as a result it would not have been an obvious instrument for an aristocratic girl to learn. Moreover, there is little evidence from that time of pedal harp makers active in Vienna, nor of any significant importation of French-made pedal harps.

The only known musical portrait of Marie-Antoinette from her youth in Vienna is that by F. X. Wagenschön (1726-1790), painted between 1768 and 1770, which shows her seated not at a harp, but at a spinet, the natural choice of instrument for a girl of the nobility.[2] The inventory of the Obersthofmeisteramt in Vienna contains references to Marie-Antoinette’s keyboard instructors (Wenzel Pürck, later Mathäus Schläger), but no references to a harp instructor have been found.

The first traces of Marie-Antoinette’s harp playing are found in her correspondence from France. In 1770, two months after her arrival at Versailles, she wrote to her mother about her daily routine and specified that she had daily music lessons with either her harpsichord teacher or her voice teacher. Three years later, writing again to her mother, she explained ‘I am still faithful to my beloved harp, and everyone says that I am getting better and better at playing it’, a statement that implies that she had begun learning the instrument in France.[3] It was around this time that Philippe Joseph Hinner (1755-1784) became Marie-Antoinette’s harp teacher, and a contemporaneous account underscores the fact that it was Hinner who taught her to play the instrument: ‘[Hinner] had the honour of showing the Queen how to play the harp.’[4]

In response to this letter, the Empress Marie-Thérèse sent Marie-Antoinette some harp music, adding ‘You will tell me if you were able to play it or not.’[5] Most notably, in 1779, Count Mercy-Argenteau wrote to Marie-Thérèse that ‘Her Majesty seems to have renewed her passion for music since the return of her teacher, the one who had taught her to play the harp; she has regular lessons on this instrument.’[emphasis added][6]

Why is it important to know where Marie-Antoinette first learned the harp? If evidence were to be found that confirms that Marie-Antoinette learned the harp in Vienna, this might suggest a hitherto undocumented continuity of pedal harp playing in Vienna following the 1729 Hochbrucker visit. It might also suggest that the French fashion for the harp among aristocratic women was imitated in foreign courts more rapidly than has previously been assumed. Finally, this question alters the historiography related to Marie-Antoinette and her relation to French culture. Once she embraced the harp, she became its most significant female icon. However, until and unless any evidence for her playing the harp in Vienna is found, we can conclude that she did not set the fashion for the instrument, but rather followed it; learning the harp was an important way for her to become French.

Robert Adelson

Conservatoire de Nice/Université Côte d'Azur

[1] Patrick Barbier, Marie-Antoinette et la musique (Paris: Grasset, 2022), p. 23. The nineteenth-century historian Adolphe Jullien was the first scholar to consider the early musical training of Marie-Antoinette. He assumes that Marie-Antoinette learned the harp in Vienna but presents no evidence to support his assumption. On the contrary, the wealth of letters and other documentary evidence he cites supports the theory that she only learned the harp once she arrived in Paris. See Adolphe Jullien, ‘Marie-Antoinette musicienne’, in: Adolphe Jullien, La Ville et la cour au XVIIIe siècle (Paris 1881), p. 61-101, especially p. 62. [2] This portrait is conserved in the Sammlung Alter Musikinstrumenten, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. For a discussion of this portrait, see Daniel Heartz, ‘A Keyboard Concerto by Marie-Antoinette?’, in: Essays in Musicology: A Tribute to Alvin Johnson, eds. Lewis Lockwood and Edward Roesner (Philadelphia, 1990), p. 201-212. [3] ‘Je suis toujours fidèle à ma chère harpe, et on trouve que j’y fais du progrès’. Letters of 12 July 1770 and 13 January 1773 from Marie-Antoinette to Marie-Thérèse, Correspondance secrète entre Marie-Thérèse et le Cte de Mercy-Argenteau, Vol. 1 (Paris ,1874), p. 19, 396. [4] ‘[Hinner] a eu l’honneur de montrer à jouer de la harpe à la Reine.’ Louis Petit de Bachaumont, Mémoires secrèts pour servir à l'histoire de la république des lettres en France depuis 1762 jusqu'à nos jours, ou journal d'un observateur, London 1777-89, Vol. 22, p. 83 (14 February 1783). For more on HInner, see Youri Carbonnier, ‘Philippe Joseph Hinner: Maître de harpe à Marie-Antoinette (1755-1784)’, in: Recherches sur la musique française classique 29 (1998), p. 223-237. [5] ‘Vous me direz si vous avez pu l’exécuter ou non.’ Letter of 3 March 1773, in Correspondance secrète Vol. 1, p. 427. [6] ‘Sa majesté semble avoir repris un peu de goût pour la musique depuis le retour de celui qui lui enseignait à jouer de la harpe, elle prend assez régulièrement des leçons sur cet instrument.’ Letter of 15 September 1779, in Correspondance secrète Vol. 3 (Paris 1884), p. 352.

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