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Beethoven’s Triumph

Listening in Paris: A Cultural History

by James H. Johnson
University of California Press, 384 pp., $35.00


by William Kinderman
University of California Press, 374 pp., $35.00


Listening in Paris is an original book filled with good things. It takes up the way people listened to music in Paris, starting with the operas of Rameau in the mid-eighteenth century and ending with the chapters “Beethoven Triumphant” and “The Musical Experience of Romanticism.” Johnson traces the development of attentiveness, the change from an audience that chattered sociably during fashionable operas to a public that listened in religious silence. His book is an essay in the history of aesthetic “reception,” that is, it deals with the public response to the revolutionary transformations in the nature of Western art music that took place during the life of Beethoven.

Johnson makes an observation about the concert programs in Paris in the early nineteenth century which reveals the strengths and the limitations of the history of reception:

There was also the dogged presence of Mozart, whose symphonies and operas were roundly denounced in the first decade of the century yet remained just as surely on programs. Already in the 1810s some of the initial bemusement was giving way to interest, and by the 1820s Stendhal could claim that the true dilettante was as enamored with Mozart as with Rossini.

If Mozart was disliked by the public and roundly denounced by critics, how can we explain his “dogged presence” on musical programs? The answer is that the music which is performed is not so much the works that the public wants to hear as those that musicians insist on playing. Public demand counts for something, of course, but a musician’s life is often enough hard, disagreeable, and monotonous, and it would be intolerable unless he could play the music he loved.

This is not a question of elite preference, but of professional ideals, a subject that the history of reception deals with very badly. That is because practitioners of this important discipline generally refuse to admit anything like an intrinsic interest to music. Johnson writes:

Musical meaning does not exist objectively in the work—or even in its composer’s intentions. It resides in the particular moment of reception, one shaped by dominant aesthetic and social expectations that are themselves historically structured.

This may be true on a high epistemological level, but it is a vacuous and uninteresting truth when it comes to explaining something like the eventual triumph of Mozart. No doubt, the admiration of professional musicians for the works of Mozart was shaped by “dominant aesthetic and social expectations,” but the musicians were also reacting to specific qualities and characteristics in Mozart’s music that they found nowhere else. Some works have demonstrably a capacity for generating and sustaining interest, and that is why we can often learn more about the history of reception by looking at the music itself than by studying the specific interpretations it has inspired. Interpretations change, of course, but not nearly as radically as some historians think, if one considers specifically the reactions of professionals, and if one also considers not only the reactions to a first performance but to the second and third ones as well. As long as the history of reception concentrates solely on the attitudes of the general public and on journalistic criticism, it chooses to ignore the central forces for change in the history of music.

Some composers are able to inspire an almost fanatical devotion; it does not necessarily lead to popularity—but it does lead to survival. Schoenberg is not, I think, a composer who will ever be genuinely popular, but there has always been an important body of musicians who insist on playing him, and they eventually find enough of a public to justify it, even economically. Put on a concert of Schoenberg string quartets and you will not make a fortune, but you might break even and have some loose change left over. If, however, you want to lose several hundred thousand dollars for tax purposes, sponsoring a no more than adequate production of a truly popular work like La Bohème could relieve you of at least that amount. This is why a study of public reception is so often an illusory and imperfect way of determining the prestige and even the economics of music.

Johnson’s choice of Paris for his study is both a limitation and a strength. In the late eighteenth century the city that produced the music that would have the greatest influence on the future of music was Vienna. The public concert life of both London and Paris, however, was much more developed than Vienna’s, and we have a rich documentation for these cities available (Viennese scholars have tended to sit on what evidence there is for the concerts in Vienna, releasing it with the kind of prudence reserved for the Dead Sea scrolls). By the early nineteenth century, the center of European musical activity was Paris. That was where Italian composers hoped to be invited in order to achieve international prestige. Johnson was inspired when he chose Paris for a study of audience behavior: it was the true commercial center of European art.

By contrast, Vienna did not develop any extensive public concerts until the 1770s—that is, concerts at which all the tickets were sold and the musicians paid from the proceeds. The musical life of Vienna was dominated by the court; in fact, New York had extensive public concerts before Vienna. (It is true that tickets left over from the court concerts after the invitations were exhausted were sold to the public.) What Vienna had was a more intense semiprivate musical life, performances that were for a small audience and not strictly commercial. During Beethoven’s lifetime only two of his thirty-two piano sonatas were performed at a public concert in Vienna; on the other hand, all of his string quartets were played by virtuosos in public as well as at private, or semiprivate, gatherings. The idea that string quartets were a private form of chamber music for the delectation of the players while piano sonatas were for public consumption is a myth. It ought not to be a paradox that the instrumental style best suited for public exploitation was evolved in Vienna. In fact, the richness of the semiprivate tradition nourished the new music that would finally triumph in Paris, London, and elsewhere. As we learn from Johnson’s book, Haydn was an immediate success in Paris already in the 1780s. It took a longer time for musicians to impose the works of Mozart and then of Beethoven; and Listening in Paris gives a fine account of how Beethoven achieved enormous popularity.

Unfortunately, Johnson writes as if listening in public were the only kind of listening that mattered. In the eighteenth century, even in Paris, the public concert was a recent creation, still something of an anomaly. To talk about listeners’ reactions only to public concerts is to cut oneself off from the main activity of listening, although the documentation of public performances is more abundant than it is for private ones. For this reason, Johnson is obliged to limit himself for the first part of his book largely to opera. This does less harm, perhaps, when dealing with French musical life compared with the tradition in Germany and Austria, but it is still one-sided.

As the book goes on, we seem to witness the victory of German seriousness over French frivolity; essentially this amounted to a victory of instrumental music over vocal. Not that opera did not remain popular, and we might even cite the extraordinary popularity accorded to Schubert’s Lieder in Paris during the 1830s, something that Johnson does not mention. Nevertheless, it is the German instrumental style that gained philosophical prestige as the model of the art of music.

The great success of Johnson’s book lies in its anecdotes. (Never underestimate the power of anecdotes: they can be more profound, more creative, than generalizations.) He gives, for example, a fascinating account of an elephant ballet staged during the Revolution and of the experiments made at the time on the effect of music as an erotic stimulant for the mating of elephants. He is not only entertaining but instructive about the connections that were developing at the time between art, sensuality, and science (he even reproduces an engraving of elephants beginning their foreplay in response to the music).

However, Johnson is less sure-footed about aesthetic theory, although he provides a lot of fascinating quotations from contemporary writers on the expressive or non-expressive nature of music. It is particularly unfortunate that he fails to consider German and English speculation on music and aesthetics, since France was much less isolated from foreign influence than has sometimes been thought. He fails, for example, to convey the complexity of Diderot’s thought and its English influences. And the treatment of Michel de Chabanon is also curious, since this interesting writer does not appear in the index, although his provocative essays on expression in music are listed in the bibliography. He is even mentioned on pages 37 and 75, but not his ideas, which attempt to deal directly with the perverse nature of aesthetic theory. (He remarked, for example, that when sailors are happy they sing sad songs.)

On the music itself, Johnson does not distinguish well between those characteristics that were developed in response to changing public taste and those that were already frequently employed before. For example, he quotes a sextet in Méhul’s opera Euphrosine of 1790 to show the new concern with illustrating distinct sentiments, but in fact the music does not differentiate very much between the six characters, except for the bass singing “My blood freezes in my heart” with his musical line frozen on one note. Not only would the second act’s famous “jealousy” duet, which made Méhul’s reputation, be a more apt example, but the great quartet from Handel’s Jephtha almost forty years before, in 1751, did a considerably better and more effective job of radically expressing four different kinds of emotion.

In trying to relate changes in musical style to social developments we stumble against the problem of musical meaning, and the difficulties of pinning down meaning with any confidence were only recognized with real clarity first in the late eighteenth century. Johnson appreciates the fluid nature of musical meaning, its ability to support multiple interpretations, but his view of how this is done is too lax, no doubt because he wishes to displace the meaning from the music itself into the mind of the spectator, while, as he himself remarks, to do so only opens the music to radical and uncontrollable forms of misreading. Nevertheless, he underestimates certain conventions, and writes, astonishingly:

It is difficult to imagine how a melody might paint such words as triompher, gloire, or victoire, and in fact there is no characteristic movement these melismas [successions of different notes sung on one syllable] take to suggest that composers had any more precise motive in mind than simply to draw attention to the words with a punctuated phrase or flourish.

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