Beethoven’s Triumph

Listening in Paris: A Cultural History

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

Beethoven

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 …

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Letters

Getting Back to Life February 1, 1996

Beethoven’s Triumph’ November 16, 1995

Beethoven’s Triumph’ November 16, 1995