Guest Lecture by Rebekah Ahrendt: “Allons en paix, rebatir nos maisons”: Staging the réfugié experience in the early 18th century, 9th of December 2009

Guest Lecture: Rebekah Ahrendt (University of California at Berkeley)

Wednesday, 9th December 2009, 4 p.m.
Department of Musicology, Lecture Hall (Room 101)

Nowadays, the word “refugee” tends to conjure images of tent cities and dire political situations of the Third World. However, the word entered the English language directly as a result of a single European displacement event—the flight of the Huguenots from France in the late 17th century. The Huguenot episode was the culmination of what might be called the age of “religious cleansing” in the European absolutist era, and it proved to be the last mass exodus before the major refugee flows of the late nineteenth century.

The importance of the Huguenots has remained unaccounted for when considering the spread of French music, especially opera, at the turn of the 18th century. Addressing this gap, I will relate the tale of one particular Huguenot refugee, Jean-Jacques Quesnot de la Chenée, who capitalized on his Frenchness in rather unique ways. Variously an impresario, novelist, librettist, and spy, Quesnot’s shifting identities within the Huguenot diaspora highlight the strategies he and his fellow refugees employed after their flight from France. His status as an expatriate calls into question certain conventional notions of the meanings of operatic performance at this time. By detailing the circumstances behind two of Quesnot’s productions based on Allied victories during the War of the Spanish Succession, I demonstrate that the French nation-state is an inadequate framework for understanding “French” opera in the early 18th century. I will show that the conventions, language, and music of French baroque opera were employed to radically different political ends in works written for audiences abroad.

One of the most striking things about Quesnot’s works is their representation of civilians. In La Bataille de Hoogstet, the peoples of Swabia are portrayed as emblems of fear, stylized victims ready for rescue by the benevolent Marlborough, whose advent is heralded by Queen Anne herself. In La Bataille de Ramelie, the inhabitants of the Southern Netherlands are depicted in the pastoral mode as shepherds, rustics, and drunks, yet their houses have been burned and their lands ruined by “forageurs.” Quesnot’s explicit representation of the civilian plight speaks not only to his own refugee experience, but to the importance of communicating it to audiences far removed from the battlefield.