Sunday, January 6, 2013

Audiences: Noisy, Social, Silent, Uptight

“The box-circle.” Sigismund Ivanowski, 1905. “Cabinet of American Curiosities.” Library of Congress.
Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan highlighted a portion of an interview with musicologist Carolyn Abbate, talking about her new book (co-authored with Roger Parker), A History of Opera. Titling the post "Before Opera was Uptight," Sullivan emphasizes Abbate's suggestion that reverent silence at the opera was instituted by composer Richard Wagner in the 1870s, and that such reverence has led young people ever since to eschew opera performance for more social and boisterous forms of popular music performance.

I'm not so sure. The shift from noisy to silent audiences in the late nineteenth century has been articulated before, most notably by Lawrence Levine in Highbrow/Lowbrow and John Kasson in Rudeness and Civility. It also has been criticized before by music historians like William Weber, Ralph P. Locke, and Joseph Horowitz. Based on my own research on nineteenth-century music lovers, I have to say that I agree more with the critique. I don't dispute that there was a change in expectations for the behavior of audiences for public performance between 1850 and 1910, but I worry that accounts of "imposed religiosity" on late nineteenth-century performance tend to unnecessarily homogenize people's historical experiences of music (audiences are either entirely boisterous or entirely reverent), and underplay how very uneven and complex the change was (audiences are portrayed too simply as loose and fun before the 1870s and then stodgy and uptight after).

As I wrote in Listening and Longing: Music Lovers in the Age of Barnum:
...Interpretations of classical reform as a break with more unruly and vibrant forms of audience participation also tend to gloss over the extent to which the reform movement depended on the already-established existence of devoted music listening, something to which the movement added new utopian ideas about the function of music loving in an increasingly anonymous and commercialized society. 
Both Kasson and Levine, for example, have talked about the “silence” that accompanied classical music appreciation, particularly how the imposition of new rules to keep audiences silent during performances were a means to overcome and control, in the words of Kasson, “boisterous informality and conviviality.”  However, the evidence of audience behavior in the diaries of actual listeners indicates that silent listening is not the most accurate way to capture changing practices and aesthetic debates among post-Civil War music audiences. Antebellum music lovers valued silence as much as postbellum audiences; for the former, silence enabled them to fully experience the skills of virtuosos and was a sign of engagement and astonished appreciation. Instead of introducing the novelty of silence to a noisy environment, postbellum reformers changed the meanings and uses of silence according to new beliefs about the definition and function of music. (173)
At any rate, I look forward to reading Abbate and Parker's book and learning more.


  1. I'd imagine that a similar debate exists among historians of the theater, and I wonder whether this 'break' or 'evolution' (as the case may be) came first to the music halls or to the theaters.

  2. Thanks--I think you're quite right. The sacralization of Shakespeare, one of the main themes of Levine's book, succeeds slightly earlier than the sacralization of, say, Beethoven or Wagner. I think the other complication is that there are different timelines of change in Europe and in the United States, not to mention different rates of change among various regions and social groups.