The emergence of Listening as a practice in the early 19th century

I have always been very interested in the disciplinary regimes of artistic production (such as the arts) and the hermeneutical control of their explication (such as the readings of arts). I have published an entire book on literary interpretation as a consummate technique of self-policed autonomy and remain fascinated by the corresponding performative control of musical interpretation.

Following the Takács Quartet, during a recent recital, move from Beethoven’s early quartets no. 4 and 5 of op. 18 (1798-1800) to the penultimate quartet, no. 15, op. 132 (1825), made me think of a major cultural development that took place during that period: the emergence of self-sustained Listening. For the first time in history people in Vienna stopped doing anything else (reading, talking, singing, dancing, clapping) to concentrate on a single activity, exclusive Listening. During that period, the dilettante, as adept performer in the bourgeois home, was succeeded by the connoisseur, as diligent Listener in the concert house.

Until the 1800s, the string quartet was the leading genre of Viennese home entertainment. It was played on casual and formal occasions for the edification of its male participants, with everyone present, amateur or professional, taking part in rotating roles by reading competently through parts of several works. The entertainment offered by the quartet as Hausmusik generated the performative and participatory experience of the refined dilettante.

A new institution emerged in the 1810s: The professional string quartet with fixed membership, using full scores of monumentalized complete works to perform a core repertoire of “the greatest masters” in public subscription concerts which required a long-term commitment from friends who, instead of playing at home together, would attend together. The education offered by the quartet as concert music generated the historicist and contemplative experience of the knowledgeable connoisseur, the Listener.

The institution of the quartet concert, a concert that was itself designated as “classical,” produced simultaneously the performers (professional quartet), the pedigreed genre (the leading genre of purely instrumental music), the canon (the core repertoire) and the audience (the connoisseurs). In a brilliant 2010 paper, John M. Gingerich has traced this development in the iconic career of Viennese violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830), Beethoven’s teacher and close collaborator, from establishing the first professional quartet, the Razumovski, in 1808 to launching a quartet concert subscription series in 1823. Thanks to Gingerich’s splendid scholarship, on which I am heavily and gratefully indebted here, we can understand how Beethoven wrote all his quartets not only for his friend but also with him.

The distinct aesthetic comportment of Listening was promoted as the specialized attention to special music played by specialists at a special place and time. This strictly territorialized and financially self-sustaining domain hosted an autotelic situation that produced classical music, music as such which (as work, performance, and shared experience) made the greatest claim on the attention and appreciation on the Listener, providing a supreme occasion of self-understanding. Hearing music as pure and elevated was marked as Listening, that is, as hearing/making music as a self. Listening was by definition a subject’s activity: People could listen only as selves. As an ascesis of the disinterested, contemplative self, Listening became the ultimate theoretical practice. To our day, all philosophical thinking aspires to the condition of music (listening/making).

Here is an example from the Takács Quartet concert that I attended. Commenting on the famous 3rd movement of Beethoven’s 15th string quartet program annotators always remind us to hear its “Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity in the Lydian Mode,” in the composer’s own words. Yet, if we pay attention to what the music is doing, rather than saying, we see that the piece is about developing the Lydian scale as a listening mode: It seeks to affirm a “new strength” not through the patient’s recovery but through the Listener’s recovery (twice) of the chorale of the molto adagio, the opening section.

By producing complex works which demanded systematic rehearsals, concert-long attention, and repeated hearings in a special public environment (rather than works written for a patron – a prince or count and his guests – which were never to be performed in public), and canonizing such works in a standard repertoire, the chamber music concert series operated as a “school of artistic taste” which assembled Vienna’s elite audience into the new cultural aristocracy of a sophisticated public. Thus during the 1810s the declining aristocratic patronage was gradually replaced by the paying Bildungsbürgertum – “an emerging class of less affluent professionals, musicians, shop owners, artisan manufacturers, and lower-echelon civil servants” (Botstein in The Beethoven Quartet Companion, 87) – while the function of music as social entertainment was upgraded to a practice of self-cultivation. (In the 1830s the piano sonata would undergo a cultural upgrade comparable to that of the quartet.)

Every time I attend a chamber music concert in Vienna with my other listening self, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis, I have the distinct sense that, when it comes to hearing any music (“high” or “low,” traditional or radical) to which we attribute deeper meaning, the rules of attention and the norms of retention have changed very little over the last two centuries, namely, since the institutional and discursive construction of Listening as an ascetic concentration on artistic process at a classical music concert in romantic Vienna.

February 1, 2017

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