Our earliest record of the American expression “to face the music” is found, according to Bartlett, in the Worcester Spy in the issue of September 22, 1857.
But a later collector of Americanisms, Schele de Vere, makes it earlier by saying that James Fenimore Cooper, about 1851, remarked that the phrase had more picturesqueness and was less unpleasant than “the Rabelais quarter.”
His allusion was to the French expression, quart d’heure de Rabelais. Rabelais, according to the legend, traveling from Tours to Paris, had a bad quarter of an hour at a post inn when he found himself unable to pay his reckoning. He put up a bold front by accusing the innkeeper of a conspiracy against the king, and finished his trip at the expense of the terrified innocent victim.
The source of “to face the music” is generally thought to have been theatrical parlance, referring to an actor who, however nervous, must come boldly on stage before his public; thus literally facing the music, or the orchestra in the pit below the footlights. But other explanations have been offered.
Some ascribe it to military origin. If so, its first meaning may have been simply to take one’s place in the line of assembly, facing the band. Or it may have referred to a cavalry mount which must be trained to show no restiveness when the band starts to play.
Or it may have referred to a cavalryman dishonorably dismissed from the service who, it is said, when drummed out of camp would not only be facing the music of the drums but also would be facing the rear end of his horse.