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

Posted in Bildung, Classical Music, General Culture, Listening | Tagged ,

The concerto as ‘Bildungsroman’

Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto (1909) can be interpreted by both soloist and listener as a supreme Bildungsroman. I become fully aware of this approach when I watch the possessed Daniil turning the concerto into a bravura self-formation. He is enacting the tumultuous affective education of a young man, highlighting the Romantic plot of the work. I follow him from his early development through successive crescendos (Allegro ma non tanto) to the variations on an elusive emotion (Adagio) and the reconciliation of his early drives in a self-affirming maturity (Alla breve).


The narrative of the concerto reaches a breathtaking intensity in the famous alternative cadenza of the 1st movement, the grand ossia, where a stumbling march climaxes in a desolate cry before four successive winds sing to the piano and console its arpeggios.

In a multiple review, “Daniil Trifonov’s Sleight of Hand” (New Yorker, Jan.9, 2017), Alex Ross writes enthusiastically about a performance he attended in December 2016: “The heart of the second cadenza is an imperious elaboration of the suave, sauntering theme with which the concerto begins. Although it is marked Allegro molto, it requires a Lisztian barrage of fortissimo chords in various registers. Trifonov could have knocked it off at high speed; instead, he took a deliberate, almost labored approach, slowing to a crawl in the turn to G minor. The sound was immense, seeming to ventriloquize the orchestra sitting silently by. There was a palpable sense of struggle—not technical but emotional, a battle of the heart. The passage assumed a tragic heft that changed the meaning of the concerto around it.”

In an earlier (June 2015) Trifonov performance, the one linked above, I witness a comparable intensity  for 3 staggering minutes (10:55-13:50, though I start at 10:35 just to see his dark eyes as he is getting ready for the cadenza): This is the point of utter despair where Hölderling crossed the threshold of madness.

I believe that there are many more concerti for various instruments that can be interpreted as a Bildungsroman, starting with Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (1895) and Michael Daugherty’s Fire and Blood (2003) violin concerto, based on the life of painter Frida Kahlo. I am going to think more about it, and discuss it with another virtuoso of Bildung, Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self.”

January 10, 2017

Posted in Bildung, Classical Music | Tagged ,

My auto-bibliographical trajectory [in Greek]

“Books by the bedside”/Βιβλία στο προσκέφαλο is a monthly full-page column in the eminent Greek daily Η Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών where writers “leaf through their ‘autobiographical’ bibliography” to present books that have had a major impact on them.  I am grateful to the editor of the series, Michel Fais – himself a major writer, editor, creative writing teacher, and photographer – for inviting me to contribute today’s page, whose title is “I read in order to comment and participate energetically.”

January 4, 201715895652_10211147671263249_2781216011406032575_o

Posted in General Literature, General Philosophy, Hellenism

The friend as teacher

These days many people I respect are arguing that in 2017 we will have an urgent need for old and new friends.  This appeal to a renewed fraternity brings to my mind dear friends, like my “other self.”

I never call Pantelis by his name. I always call him “teacher,” using the demotic Greek vocative daskale. Whether we are alone or with other people, I address him only as daskale.

He is a teacher to me for several reasons. First, being the son of teachers, he is an excellent music teacher himself. Second, as a committed collaborative pianist, he educates his musical partners. Next, he happily shares with people his impressive cultural learning. Above all, his embodied senses of self, his practices of identity formation are a wonderful lesson in the arts of living. Thus I learn from his artistic ethics of conduct.


I started publishing this blog two years ago today as an ascesis in Aristotelian friendship, and I look forward to continuing in 2017 my dialogue with a true daskalos and comrade, Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis.

December 25, 2016

P.S.  On January 3, 2017, the day this post is published, the NY Times has an article on friendship in “Well,” its health section, which stresses:  “With strong evidence that friendship does, indeed, help save lives and promote health, social workers and researchers wish we could pay more attention to its central role.”

Posted in Friends, General

Composers on the operatic stage

Two recent musical premieres drew my attention to a very special operatic figure, the composer. The first premiere was the release on CD of Dellaira’s tragic The Death of Webern, which explores the mysterious circumstances of Webern’s demise in 1945, and the other, the first performance of Scene 2 of Hallett’s comic To Music, which looks at the online distractions of the creative process.

Together, they got me thinking about other operas where a major, or even the central, role is given to a composer, often a “double” of the composer of the opera. Here is my far from exhaustive chronological list, with the composer’s role [in brackets] when it is not mentioned in the title. I would be grateful for additional examples.*

Wagner:                     Tannhäuser (1845)

Paolo Serrao:             G. B. Pergolesi (1857)

Wagner:                     Die Meistesinger von Nürnberg (1868) [Hans Sachs]

Rimsky-Korsakov:    Mozart and Salieri (1898)

Janáček:                     Osud/Destiny (1907) [Živný]

Strauss:                      Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) [composer]

Pfitzner:                     Palestrina (1917)

Strauss:                      Capriccio (1942) [Flamand]

Corigliano:                The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) [Beaumarchais]

Schnittke:                  Gesualdo (1993)

Franz Hummel:        Gesualdo (1996)

Leonid Desyatnikov:  The Children of Rosenthal (2005) [Mozart, Wagner, Verdi,      Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky]

Michael Dellaira:      The Death of Webern (2013)

Steven Stucky:           The Classical Style (2014) [Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann]

Nick Hallett:              To Music (in progress) [composer]

This is the kind of collaborative musical game Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” and I love to play all the time.

December 26, 2016

*I am grateful to Ms. Litsa Drossos for reminding me of the role of the archetypal composer, Orpheus, in operas like L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, and Orfeo ed Euridice by Christoph Willibald Gluck.

Posted in Classical Music, The Double

The imperial destiny of the Trojans

The goddess of my life, Artemis Leontis, and I made sure last month to catch one of only five performances of Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens (1856-58) in a fittingly grandiose new production at the Lyric Opera.


I have been exploring with special interest this Shakespearean grand opera since its revival in the 1960s but, until we saw it live in Chicago, I had not fully realized how directly it rewrites Virgil’s Aeneid (in Berlioz’s own libretto!) as a prophecy of Napoleon III’s Empire. This five-act, five-hour work of imperial scope and ambition stages imperialism as historical destiny. From beginning to end, every episode and motif points explicitly to “Italie!” as the preordained destination of the Trojans, and the lavish orchestral and choral writing reiterates it in a myriad of extravagant colorations. I cannot think of another opera in the repertoire that is so blatantly imperial in both size and ideology.

So what was Katina Paxinou, one of the greatest tragedians of the 20th century, doing on the cover of the Lyric’s program? It didn’t say, and we couldn’t think of any connection to Berlioz or Virgil. Perhaps she represented the archetypal tragic heroine of classical myth, like Cassandra and Dido in Les Troyens. Indeed the director, Tim Albery, tried to introduce some tragic intimations of the fall that is the ultimate destiny of all empires but I found them unconvincing. As Edward Said stressed in his review of the Met production, Berlioz admired the ongoing expansion of the French Empire in North Africa. Like the Parisian stage of the 1850s, this opera can amply accommodate melodrama but remains impervious to tragic insight.

December 8, 2016

Posted in Classical Music | Tagged , ,

A transatlantic communication between Greek and American poets

My recent post, “Left Melancholy and its Poetry after the American Elections,” has been published under the title “Η Αριστερή Μελαγχολία και η ποίησή της μετά τις Αμερικάνικες εκλογές” in the excellent Greek literary magazine (as well as cutting-edge publishing house) Θράκα/Thraca (2013-), which appears in printed and electronic form. I am grateful to the editors and, especially to the translator, Thanos Gogos, for this publication.


My post concluded with a suggestion: “But why read poets who wrote for another time, place, and occasion (like Auden) and not living ones who have been writing under conditions of intense socio-political crisis about dignity after despair? This is a great moment to read the Greek poetry generation of the 2000s and explore its disillusioned, defiant Left Melancholy.”

In a highly creative response to my suggestion, the magazine Thraca has launched a series, “Γράμμα σε έναν Αμερικάνο φίλο,” where Greek poets who belong to the “Generation of the 2000s” put together a letter, as it were, to an imaginary American friend by making a small selection from their work to send to those who feel “melancholic” (in the sense of the critical term) over the recent American elections. So far contributing poets have included Nikos Erinakis and Yorgos Alisanoglou. The editors plan to incorporate English translations as well. A very promising collaborative initiative!

December 15, 2016

Posted in Collaboration, General Philosophy, Greek Poetry | Tagged