Engraving of François-Joseph Fétis
François-Joseph Fétis (1784–1871) ranks among the most versatile and influential musicians of the 19th century. He was a composer, conductor, pianist, and educator (he taught at the Paris Conservatoire, and after returning home to Belgium, he headed the Brussels Conservatoire from 1833 to 1871), but he won greater renown for his writings. Even in that field, Fétis was multi-faceted: he was a famous and sometimes controversial journalist (founding the Revue musicale and writing for its successor, the Revue et gazette musicale), an important theorist (known especially for his Traité de l’harmonie), and a historian who studied the music of many eras and cultures, compiled valuable reference books, and organized historically-themed concerts. From 1826 to 1831 Fétis headed the library of the Paris Conservatoire, but we librarians are reluctant to claim him as one of our own, because of allegations that he stole rare materials from the library at the time of his departure.
This anonymous engraving depicts a bust (1833) by Jean-Pierre Dantan (1800–1869). Dantan was a sculptor who specialized in caricatures of famous people, particularly musicians. Like many of Dantan’s busts, it features a rebus—that is, a puzzle that represents words with images. Unfortunately, the meaning of this rebus is by no means clear. Rémi Castonguay, the Gilmore Library’s resident Francophone, offers one possible interpretation: the note on the staff is “en la” (the French refer to the note A by its solmization syllable la), and the woman with the cane is limping (“boîter”), which yields “boîte,” a slang term for the head. Thus, the entire rebus could be taken to say “Dix-neuf siècle en la boîte,” meaning that Fétis, the eminent historian, has knowledge of nineteen centuries in his head. Readers are welcome to suggest alternative solutions to this puzzle.