"More French Than the French": John Herschel and Musical Standardization in Nineteenth-Century France and Britain

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Abstract Summary
Between 1858 and 1859, Emperor Napoleon III’s government determined a national pitch to which musicians should tune their instruments. The following year, the British Society of Arts attempted to emulate this standard. Amid tense Anglo-French relations, however, British audiences interpreted the French pitch as a measure of the country’s political autocracy. As a result, British mathematicians attempted to mobilise nature itself as a resource in redefining what musical standard Britain should adopt, but this raised profound concerns over the cultural authority of those with scientific credentials. Through the controversy of standardizing musical pitch during the 1850s, this paper explores how these ambiguities over cultural authority shaped disagreements between instrument makers, musicians, and mathematicians. From the late-1850s, discussions over the regulation of musical pitch revealed that while natural philosophy and mathematics might provide acoustic knowledge, they could exert little influence over music itself. For musical practice, standardization, that most essential of Victorian scientific concerns, remained firmly in the hands of musical communities. Pitch was, in effect, the measure of science’s limits. While controversies over standards for electricity, heat, and time were resolved in the laboratory and observatory, a standard for music remained elusive. Despite John Herschel’s campaign for a standard C of 512 vibrations, which he claimed had mathematical credentials, it was Britain’s musical elites who determined how the nation’s music would be ordered.
Abstract ID :
HSS134
Submission Type
Contributed Paper
Abstract Topic
Physical Sciences
Chronological Classification :
19th century
Self-Designated Keywords :
Measurement, standards, sound, music, mathematics, Herschel, instrumentation, politics, Victorian