The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.
The Mysterious Affair of Queen Marie Antoinette’s Harp: A Case for the Harp Detective
Fanny Guillaume-Castel is a PhD student in Music and Material Culture at the Royal College of Music, London. She is preparing a thesis on the transformations of the pedal harp in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, under the supervision of Gabriele Rossi Rognoni and Thierry Maniguet. She has collaborated with several institutions regarding their musical instrument collections, including the Château de Versailles, the Musée de la Musique in Paris, and the Musée des Instruments de Musique in Brussels.
When talking about the pedal harp in the eighteenth century, it is almost impossible to avoid the figure of Marie Antoinette, queen of France from 1774 to 1791. Historians and musicologists have recognized her long-time practice of the harp, as she is described playing in many historical documents, and was painted playing in at least one of her official portraits. Because of the events resulting from the French Revolution, notably the dispersion of royal furniture, it has been difficult to trace items back to the queen’s ownership, including pedal harps. During her reign, Marie Antoinette appointed two Parisian makers to her service, Jean Henry Naderman and Georges Cousineau, which has often misled harp owners to believe their Naderman or Cousineau harp had once belonged to the queen. This translated into museum collections, particularly in the nineteenth century, with many labeling several pedal harps as “the harp of Marie Antoinette” without further supporting evidence. Through an examination of the last harp in French collections still thought to have belonged to Marie Antoinette, today held at the Musée de Vendôme, this paper will decipher the mystery of the elusive queen’s harp. The investigation will be corroborated with what is actually known of the queen’s practice of the instrument, notably from the accounts of her household. Furniture that has been traced back to the queen by historians and art historians will also be considered, in order to understand if it is possible to tell if this or that harp did indeed belong to the queen. Finally, and as it is better to end on a little hope, this paper will propose the most convincing contestants for the title of “Harpe de la Reine Marie Antoinette.”