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Position Papers

Seminar 3

Audiences and the music object

We twenty-first century scholars have become so skeptical about the power of ideas that we can sometimes reduce to clichés or even overlook entirely the alluring dynamic force they had in the past. Of course, there have been many attempts to supply momentous nineteenth-century political changes with a musical soundtrack: during 1815-48, Verdi’s reputation as the so-called “Vate del Risorgimento” is only the most long-lasting and tenacious. However, more nuanced responses to the question of how changes in musical culture were tied to, and even precipitated, social and political change have been far less often essayed. How are we to move forward on this question? Is there further, “revisionist” work to be done, or can we now assume acceptance of the fact that more complex models will inevitably need to be put forward?

 There is also a larger point behind this issue. Human beings have always sought to counteract the miseries of their existence through a parallel life of the imagination, and it was in the nineteenth century that music served this function on an unprecedented level, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. How did this process manifest itself? Did it do so in markedly different ways in different parts of Europe? Partly in response to such questions, the last twenty or so years have seen the decisive emergence of new kind of musical study: what we might broadly call a new history of reception, one which understands that the classic texts of reception theory will, at the least, need to be modified when applied to the musical sphere. As with other seminars, it is our belief that one important way forward in this endeavour will be to approach the questions comparatively: to try to understand something historical about the interactions of music and its audiences by looking in more detail at the different configurations those interactions took in various European cities during 1815-48.

 In one important contribution to the debate, sociologists and social and economic historians (Sennett, Weber, Johnson, a recent special issue of JRMA) have opened up new possibilities in the history of “listening”, charting changes in social behaviour that had in the past hardly been thought historical at all. It is in these circumstances small wonder that this work has occasionally been the subject of quite strenuous debate (see, for example, Smart’s review of Johnson). One important point of contention is the extent to which the musical object (what is still, even proudly, called The Music Itself by some brave souls) was a dynamic force in these changing patterns of listening; or whether, on the contrary, music became fashioned in new ways precisely to accommodate new audience demands and behaviours. Of course, this is hardly an Either/Or situation; but the possible continuum along which responses might be ranged is still broad and contentious. At base, scholarly attitudes may depend on the extent to which historians of music are willing to cut themselves loose from contemporary aesthetic questions, a point on which different national traditions of musicology may disagree quite fundamentally. With these issues in mind, we might ask: why did audience behaviour at concerts and operatic events differ so widely between genres, and also between different musical centres, during this period? Can such differences always be mapped neatly on to social and class structures, or were other forces at work?

 In order to move further in this field, musicologists and others will also need to establish clearer connections between developments in audience behaviour and changes in the musical repertoire: in the new balance of genres, of styles, of nations, of old and new, of high and low, of durable and ephemeral; not to mention parallel shifts in aesthetic values. Here again, a comparative view of various European cities will surely help. There seems, for example, little doubt that the emergence of new repertoires and canons during our period also saw the emergence of new listening practices, ones that eventually came to dominate all classical music genres. It is also clear that these new practices had a great deal to do with changing views about the aesthetic worth of music, and about its ability to act as a moral force. Yet again, though, the precise terms in which these battles for the “new” were contested differed widely across Europe; change occurred at markedly different speeds, making much more problematic any blanket interpretation of why they were taking place. Perhaps the goal here might be the gradual emergence of a new complexity—not only between centres, but also within them: in the Paris of the 1830s, for example, Chopin, Bellini, Kalkbrenner, Cherubini, Beethoven, J.S. Bach, Palestrina, Musard and Meyerbeer were all performed and published alongside each other. In 1830s London, Mozart operas vied with those of Donizetti and Bellini, while the new craze for Beethoven did not mean that his music dominated individual concert programmes, which maintained a “mixed” economy, both in terms of new works vs old, and in terms of vocal vs instrumental composition. We need, then, to explore the notion of a variegated public, and especially the mechanisms that enabled untrained audience members to enjoy sophisticated compositions. It may also be that the fixed presence of performers, perhaps particularly singers, across otherwise increasingly polarised repertory (Malibran often sang vernacular ballads, Mozart and Bellini at the same concert) was an important factor, as yet little considered. Such enquiries will, we think, make the history of “listening” and its attendant repertoires a more nuanced and richer field.


Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York, 1977)

James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley, 1995)

William Weber,“Did People Listen in the Eighteenth Century?”, Early Music, 25 (1997), 678-92

Mary Ann Smart, review of James Johnson, Listening in Paris, in 19th-Century Music, 20/3 (1997), 291-7.

Nickolaus Bacht, ed. Listening: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, special issue of JRMA 135/1 (2010

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